The Russian Revolution of 1917-21 (Part-1)

The Russian Revolution took place in 1917, during the final phase of World War I. It removed Russia from the war and brought about the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), replacing Russia’s traditional monarchy with the world’s first Communist state. The revolution happened in stages through two separate coups.

In 1917, two revolutions completely changed the fabric of Russia:

  • First, the February Russian Revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar; the older Julian calendar was in use in Russia at the time) toppled the Russian monarchy and established a Provisional Government. This  revolution  overthrew  the  Tsar  and  set  up  a  moderate provisional government.  When this coped no better than the Tsar, it was itself over­ thrown  by a  second uprising called October Russian Revolution.
  • The October Russian Revolution placed the Bolsheviks as the leaders of Russia, resulting in the creation of the world’s first communist country.

Background and Causes of Revolutions of 1917:

(1) Lack of Leadership of Tsar Nicholas II:

By the turn of the twentieth century, Russian society had never been more divided, nor had a Russian tsar (Emperor) ever been so far estranged from his people. Tsar Nicholas II, who had come to power in 1894, had never shown leadership skills or a particular desire to rule, but with the death of his father, Alexander III, the Russian crown was thrust upon him.

In person, Nicholas II was mild-mannered, even meek; lacking the personality of a leader, his rule was clumsy, and he appeared weak before the people. When it came to public opposition or resistance, he avoided direct involvement and simply ordered his security forces to get rid of any problem as they saw fit. This tactic inevitably resulted in heavy-handed measures by the police, which in turn caused greater resentment among the public.

(2) Revolution of 1905:

The Revolution of 1905 was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire. Some of it was directed against the government, while some was undirected. It included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies. It led to the establishment of limited constitutional monarchy, the State Duma of the Russian Empire, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.

The year 1905 brought the most extreme examples of Nicholas II’s perceived indifference, brutality, and weakness. On Sunday, January 9, a crowd of over 100,000 marched peacefully through the center of St. Petersburg. Eventually they assembled in Palace Square in front of the tsar’s Winter Palace and, unaware that the tsar was not in town that day, called for the tsar to appear so that they could present him with a petition.

The police, who had just finished putting down a series of strikes by industrial workers, followed their standing orders to get rid of any problems. Their solution was to open fire on the crowd, which included women and children as well as church leaders. As the crowd scattered, police pursued them on horseback, continuing to fire on them. Many in the crowd were trampled to death in the ensuing panic.(Bloody Sunday)

News of the massacre spread quickly, and many saw it as a sign that the tsar no longer cared about his people. The incident earned Nicholas the title “Nicholas the Bloody” even though he did not in fact know about the violence until it was already over. An unorganized series of demonstrations, riots, strikes, and assorted episodes of violence erupted across Russia in the following months.

The Russian Constitution and Duma:

Any chance for Nicholas II to regain his standing was soon lost, as Russia was rocked by a long series of disasters, scandals, and political failures. During the first half of 1905, Russia suffered a humiliating military defeat against Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. The creation of the Duma (a parliament) and the beginning of the Revolution of 1905 was supported and sprung from Russia’s loss in the Russo-Japanese War. On 17 October 1905, the October Manifesto was signed by Tsar Nicholas II guaranteeing civil liberties to all citizens and the creation of the First Duma. Other concessions included universal suffrage in elections for the Duma; no law could begin to operate without the approval of the Duma.

The October Manifesto served as a precursor to the Constitution of 1906.

The Russian Constitution of 1906 was published on the eve of the convocation of the First Duma. The new Fundamental Law was enacted to institute promises of the October Manifesto as well as add new reforms. The Tsar was confirmed as absolute leader, with complete control of the executive, foreign policy, church, and the armed forces.

The Duma became a constant thorn in Nicholas’s side, as increasingly radical political parties emerged into the open after years of existing underground. Among the political parties formed, or made legal, were the liberal-intelligentsia Constitutional Democratic party (the Kadets), the peasant leaders’ Labour Group (Trudoviks), the less liberal Union of 17 October (Octobrists, who called for the fulfilment of Tsar Nicholas II’s October Manifesto granted at the peak of the Russian Revolution of 1905), and the reactionary Union of Land-Owners.

Nicholas dealt with the problem by repeatedly dissolving the Duma, forcing new elections.

(3) Economic and social factors:

An elementary theory of property, believed by many peasants, was that land should belong to those who work on it. At the same time, peasant life and culture was changing constantly. Change was facilitated by the physical movement of growing numbers of peasant villagers who migrated to and from industrial and urban environments, but also by the introduction of city culture into the village through material goods, the press, and word of mouth.

Acquiring new skills gave many workers a sense of self-respect and confidence, heightening expectations and desires. Living in cities, workers encountered material goods such as they had never seen while in the village. There were many encouragements to expect more from life Most important, living in cities, they were exposed to new ideas about the social and political order.

Workers also had good reasons for discontent: overcrowded housing with deplorable sanitary conditions, long hours at work, constant risk of injury and death from very poor safety and sanitary conditions, harsh discipline, and inadequate wages (made worse after 1914 by steep world war-time increases in the cost of living). Most of these were the result of rapid industrialisation of Russia.

The rapid industrialization created a new ‘proletariat’ which, due to being crowded together in the cities, was much more likely to protest and go on strike than the peasantry had been in previous times. The poor living conditions aggravated the situation, with the number of strikes and incidents of public disorder rapidly increasing in the years shortly before World War I.

The social causes of the Russian Revolution mainly came from centuries of oppression of the lower classes by the Tsarist regime, and Nicholas’s failures in World War I.

While rural agrarian peasants had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861, they still resented paying redemption payments to the state, and demanded communal tender of the land they worked. Increasing peasant disturbances and sometimes actual revolts occurred, with the goal of securing ownership of the land they worked. Russia consisted mainly of poor farming peasants, with 1.5% of the population owning 25% of the land.

World War I only added to the chaos. Conscription swept up the unwilling in all parts of Russia. The vast demand for factory production of war supplies and workers caused many more labor riots and strikes.Workers abandoned the cities in droves to look for food.

The soldiers themselves, who suffered from a lack of equipment and protection from the elements, began to turn against the Tsar. This was mainly because, as the war progressed, many of the officers who were loyal to the Tsar were killed, and were replaced by discontented conscripts from the major cities, who had little loyalty to the Tsar.

(4) Political issues:

Many sections of the country had reason to be dissatisfied with the existing autocracy. Nicholas II was a deeply conservative ruler and maintained a strict authoritarian system. Individuals and society in general were expected to show self-restraint, devotion to community, deference to the social hierarchy and a sense of duty to the country.

Religious faith helped bind all of these tenets together as a source of comfort and reassurance in the face of difficult conditions and as a means of political authority exercised through the clergy.

With a firm belief that his power to rule was granted by Divine Right, Nicholas assumed that the Russian people were devoted to him with unquestioning loyalty. This iron clad belief rendered Nicholas unwilling to allow the progressive reforms that might have alleviated the suffering of the Russian people.

Even after the 1905 revolution spurred the Tsar to decree limited civil rights and democratic representation, he worked to limit even these liberties in order to preserve the ultimate authority of the crown.

Despite constant oppression, the desire of the people for democratic participation in government decisions was strong. Since the Age of Enlightenment, Russian intellectuals had promoted Enlightenment ideals such as the dignity of the individual and the rectitude of democratic representation. These ideals were championed most vociferously by Russia’s liberals, although populists, Marxists, and anarchists also claimed to support democratic reforms.

Dissatisfaction with Russian autocracy culminated in the huge national upheaval that followed the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1905, in which hundreds of unarmed protesters were shot by the Tsar’s troops. Workers responded to the massacre with a crippling general strike, forcing Nicholas to put forth the October Manifesto, which established a democratically elected parliament (the State Duma). The Tsar undermined this promise of reform and subsequently dismissed the first two Dumas when they proved uncooperative. Unfulfilled hopes of democracy fuelled revolutionary ideas and violent outbursts targeted at the monarchy.

One of the Tsar’s principal rationales for risking war in 1914 was his desire to restore the prestige that Russia had lost amid the debacles of the Russo-Japanese war. Nicholas also sought to foster a greater sense of national unity with a war against a common and ancient enemy.

The Russian Empire was an agglomeration of diverse ethnicities that had shown significant signs of disunity in the years before the First World War. Nicholas believed that the shared peril  of a foreign war would mitigate the social unrest over the persistent issues of poverty, inequality, and inhuman working conditions.

Instead of restoring Russia’s political and military standing, World War I led to military defeats that undermined both the monarchy and society in general to the point of collapse.

(5) Factors Related to World War I:

War as a tool to quiet protests:

  • The outbreak of war in August 1914 initially served to quiet the prevalent social and political protests, focusing hostilities against a common external enemy, but this patriotic unity did not last long. As the war dragged on inconclusively, war-weariness gradually took its toll. More important, though, was a deeper fragility: although many ordinary Russians joined anti-German demonstrations in the first few weeks of the war, the most widespread reaction appears to have been scepticism and fatalism.
  • Hostility toward the Germany and the desire to defend their land and their lives did not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for the Tsar or the government.
  • Russia’s first major battle of the war was a disaster: in the 1914 Battle of Tannenberg.

Entry of Ottoman Empire distrusts trade route:

  • After the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914, Russia was deprived of a major trade route through Ottoman Empire, which followed with a minor economic crisis, in which Russia became incapable of providing munitions to their army in the years leading to 1917.

Rasputin and Alexandra:

  • In the autumn of 1915, Nicholas had taken direct command of the army, personally overseeing Russia’s main theatre of war and leaving his ambitious but incapable wife Alexandra in charge of the government. Reports of corruption and incompetence in the Imperial government began to emerge, and the growing influence of Rasputin (a mystical adviser in the court of Nicholas II) in the Imperial family was widely resented. Rasputin was a “fatal disease” to the Tsarist regime. In December, a small group of nobles assassinated Rasputin.

Staggering losses to Russian Forces:

  • In 1915, when Germany shifted its focus of attack to the Eastern front, the superior German army – better led, better trained and better supplied – was terrifyingly effective against the ill-equipped Russian forces, driving the Russians out of Galicia, as well as Russian Poland.
  • Staggering losses of solders and territory played a definite role in the mutinies and revolts that began to occur. In 1916, reports of fraternizing with the enemy started to circulate. Soldiers went hungry, and lacked shoes, munitions, and even weapons. Rampant discontent lowered morale.
  • Only five months into the war, around 390,000 Russian men had lost their lives and nearly 1,000,000 were injured. Far sooner than expected, barely trained recruits had to be called up for active duty, a process repeated throughout the war as staggering losses continued to mount. The officer class also saw remarkable changes, especially within the lower echelons, which were quickly filled with soldiers rising up through the ranks. These men, usually of peasant or working-class backgrounds, were to play a large role in the politicization of the troops in 1917.
  • The huge losses on the battlefields were not limited to men. The army quickly ran short of rifles and ammunition (as well as uniforms and food), and by mid-1915, men were being sent to the front bearing no arms. The soldiers did not feel that they were being treated as human beings, or even as valuable soldiers.

Economic crisis, Food crisis, Supply shortages, Strikes, Crimes etc: 

  • The war devastated not only soldiers. By the end of 1915, there were manifold signs that the economy was breaking down under the heightened strain of wartime demand. The main problems were food shortages and rising prices. These shortages were a problem especially in the capital, St. Petersburg, where distance from supplies and poor transportation networks made matters particularly bad. It became increasingly difficult both to afford and actually buy food.
  • The war developed a weariness in the city, owing to a lack of food in response to the disruption of agriculture. Food scarcity had become a considerable problem in Russia, but the cause of this did not lie in any failure of the harvests.The indirect reason was that the government, in order to finance the war, had been printing off millions of rouble notes, and by 1917 inflation had made prices increase up to four times what they had been in 1914. The peasantry were consequently faced with the higher cost of purchases, but made no corresponding gain in the sale of their own produce, since this was largely taken by the middlemen on whom they depended. As a result they tended to hoard their grain and to revert to subsistence farming. Thus the cities were constantly short of food. At the same time rising prices led to demands for higher wages in the factories.
  • Strikes increased steadily from the middle of 1915, and so did crime; but for the most part, people suffered and endured, scouring the city, prostitution for food.
  • The outcome of all this, however, was a growing criticism of the government rather than any war-weariness. The original fever of patriotic excitement, which had caused the name of St. Petersburg to be changed to the less German sounding “Petrograd,” may have subsided a little in the subsequent years, but it had not turned to defeatism and during the initial risings in Petrograd in February 1917, the crowds in the streets clearly objected to the banners proclaiming “down with the war.”
  • A report by the branch of the security police, the Okhrana, in October 1916, warned bluntly of “the possibility in the near future of riots by the lower classes of the empire enraged by the burdens of daily existence.”
  • Nicholas was blamed for all of these crises, and what little support he had left began to crumble. As discontent grew, the State Duma issued a warning to Nicholas in November 1916. It stated that, inevitably, a terrible disaster would grip the country unless a constitutional form of government was put in place. In typical fashion, however, Nicholas ignored them, and Russia’s Tsarist regime collapsed a few months later during the February Revolution of 1917. One year later, the Tsar and his entire family were executed.

(6) Spread of Liberalism and Socialism:

The Liberals were now better placed to voice their complaints, since they were participating more fully through a variety of voluntary organizations. In July 1915, a Central War Industries Committee was established under the chairmanship of a prominent Octobrist, Guchkov, and including ten workers’ representatives. The Petrograd Mensheviks agreed to join.

(The Petrograd Mensheviks was a faction of the Russian socialist movement that emerged in 1904 after a dispute in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party between Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov, leading to the party splitting into two factions, one being the Mensheviks and the other being the Bolsheviks)

All this activity gave renewed encouragement to political ambitions, and, in September 1915, a combination of Octobrists and Kadets (a liberal political party) in the Duma demanded the forming of a responsible government. The Tsar rejected these proposals.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrat leaders in exile, now mostly in Switzerland, had been the glum spectators of the collapse of international socialist solidarity. French and German Social Democrats had voted in favour of their respective governments. Georgi Plekhanov (a Bolshevik) in Paris had adopted a violently anti-German stand, while Parvus (a Bolshevik) supported the German war effort to use foreign war to provoke internal revolt.

The Mensheviks largely maintained that Russia had the right to defend herself against Germany, although Martov (a prominent Menshevik) demanded an end to the war and a settlement on the basis of national self-determination, with no annexations or indemnities.

It was these views of Martov that predominated in a manifesto drawn up by Leon Trotsky (a major Bolshevik revolutionary) at a conference in Zimmerwald in Switzerland, attended by thirty-five Socialist leaders in September 1915. Inevitably Vladimir Lenin, supported by Zinoviev and Radek, strongly contested them. Their attitudes became known as the Zimmerwald Left. Lenin rejected both the defence of Russia and the cry for peace. He insisted that “from the standpoint of the working class and of the labouring masses”; the war must be turned into a civil war of the proletarian soldiers against their own governments, and if a proletarian victory should emerge from this in Russia, then their duty would be to wage a revolutionary war for the liberation of the masses throughout Europe. At this point in the war his following in Russia was few and he seemed no more than the leader of an extremist wing of a bankrupt organization.

(7) Demand for liberal reforms by new middle class:

  • (As we have seen in Revolution of 1905)

(7) Influence of Western Ideas:

In spite of the attempts of Czars to seal Russia hermetically against the liberal and radical ideas of the West, the influence of Western ideas filtered into the country and produced movements.

One result of ferment of thoughts was the growth of Nihilism which aimed at destroying everything in the existing order of Russia. Nihilism indeed was stamped but Socialism came to stay.

(8) Czar’s policy of Russification:

  • (as Jews, Poles, Uzbeks etc were among many ethnic groups in Russian Empire and they opposed Russification)



(a) Nicholas II tries to stabilize his regime Nicholas survived the 1905 revolution because:

  • his opponents were not united;
  • there was no central leadership (the whole thing having flared up spontaneously);
  • most of the army remained loyal;
  • he had been willing to compromise at the critical moment by issuing the October Manifesto, promising concessions.

The Manifesto appeared to grant many of the demands of the moderate liberal reformers, so that tsarism now had a breathing space in which Nicholas had an excellent opportunity to make a constitutional monarchy work, and to throw himself on the side of the moderate reformers. However, there were other demands not addressed in the Manifesto, for example:

  • improvements in industrial working conditions and pay;
  • cancellation of redemption payments – these were annual payments to the government by peasants in return for their freedom and some land, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861: although peasants had received their legal freedom, these compulsory payments had reduced over half the rural population to dire poverty;
  • an amnesty for political prisoners.

Unfortunately Nicholas seems to have had very little intention of keeping to the spirit of the October Manifesto, having agreed to it only because he had no choice.

  1. The First Duma (1906) was not democratically elected, for although all classes were allowed to vote, the system was rigged so that landowners and the middle classes would be in the majority. Even so, it put forward far-reaching demands such as confiscation of large estates; a genuinely democratic electoral system, and the right of the Duma to approve the Tsar’s ministers; the right to strike and the abolition of the death penalty. This was far too drastic for Nicholas, who had the Duma dispersed by troops after only ten weeks. He was apparently heard to remark that if things continued to go on like this, ‘we should find ourselves close to being a democratic republic. That would be senseless and criminal.’
  2. The Second Duma (1907) suffered the same fate, after which Nicholas changed the voting system, depriving peasants and urban workers of the vote.
  3. The Third Duma (1907-12) and the Fourth Duma (1912-17) were much more conservative and therefore lasted longer. Though on occasion they criticized the government, they had no power, because the Tsar controlled the ministers and the secret police.

Some foreign observers were surprised at the ease with which Nicholas ignored his promises and was able to dismiss the first two Dumas without provoking another general strike. The fact was that the revolutionary impetus had subsided for the time being, and many leaders were either in prison or in exile.

This, together with the improvement in the economy beginning after 1906, has given rise to some controversy about whether or not the 1917 revolutions were inevitable. The traditional liberal view was that although the regime had obvious weaknesses, there were signs that shortly before the First World War broke out, living standards were improving, and that given time, the chances of revolution would have diminished. The strengths were beginning to outweigh the weaknesses, and so the monarchy would probably have survived if Russia had kept out of the war. The Soviet view was that, given the Tsar’s deliberate flouting of his 1905 promises, there was bound to be a revolution sooner or later. The situation was deteriorating again before Russia’s involvement in the First World War; therefore the inevitable completion of the ‘unfinished’ revolution of 1905-6 could not be long delayed.

(b) Strengths of the regime

  1. The government seemed to recover remarkably quickly, with most of its powers intact. Peter Stolypin, prime minister from 1906 to 1911, introduced strict repressive measures, with some 4000 people being executed over the next three years. But he also brought in some reforms and made determined efforts to win over the peasants, believing that, given 20 years of peace, there would be no question of revolution. Redemption payments were abolished and peasants were encouraged to buy their own land; about 2 million had done so by 1916 and another 3.5 million had emigrated to Siberia where they had their own farms. As a result, there emerged a class of comfortably-off peasants (kulaks) on whom the government could rely for support against revolution, or so Stolypin hoped.
  2. As more factories came under the control of inspectors, there were signs of improving working conditions; as industrial profits increased, the first signs of a more prosperous workforce could be detected. In 1912 a workers’ sickness and accident insurance scheme was introduced.
  3. In 1908 a programme was announced to bring about universal education within ten years; by 1914 an extra 50 000 primary schools had been opened.
  4. At the same time the revolutionary parties seemed to have lost heart; they were short of money, torn by disagreements, and their leaders were still in exile.

(c) Weaknesses of the regime

1. Failure of the land reforms

By 1911 it was becoming clear that Stolypin’s land reforms would not have the desired effect, partly because the peasant population was growing too rapidly for his schemes to cope with, and because farming methods were too inefficient to support the growing population adequately. The assassination of Stolypin in 1911 removed one of the few really able tsarist ministers and perhaps the only man who could have saved the monarchy.

2. Industrial unrest

There was a wave of industrial strikes set off by the shooting of 270 striking gold miners in the Lena goldfields in Siberia (April 1912). In all there were over 2000 separate strikes in that year, 2400 in 1913, and over 4000 in the first seven months of 1914, before war broke out. Whatever improvements had taken place, they were obviously not enough to remove all the pre-1905 grievances.

3. Government repression

There was little relaxation of the government’s repressive policy, as the secret police rooted out revolutionaries among university students and lecturers and deported masses of Jews, thereby ensuring that both groups were firmly anti-tsarist. The situation was particularly dangerous because the government had made the mistake of alienating three of the most important sections in society – peasants, industrial workers and the intelligentsia (educated classes).

4. Revival of the revolutionary parties

As 1912 progressed, the fortunes of the various revolutionary parties, especially the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, revived. Both groups had developed from an earlier movement, the Social Democrat Labour Party, which was Marxist in outlook. Karl Marx (1818-83) was a German Jew whose political ideas were set out in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (Capital) (1867). He believed that economic factors were the real cause of historical change, and that workers (proletariat) were everywhere exploited by capitalists (middle-class bourgeoisie); this means that when a society became fully industrialized, the workers would inevitably rise up against their exploiters and take control themselves, running the country in their own interests. Marx called this ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. When this point was reached there would be no further need for the ‘state’, which would consequently ‘wither away’.

One of the Social Democrat leaders was Vladimir Lenin, who helped to edit the revolutionary newspaper Iskra (The Spark). It was over an election to the editorial board of Iskra in 1903 that the party had split into Lenin’s supporters, the Bolsheviks (the Russian word for ‘majority’), and the rest, the Mensheviks (minority).

  • Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted a small, disciplined party of professional revolutionaries who would work full-time to bring about revolution; because the industrial workers were in a minority, Lenin believed they must work with the peasants as well, and get them involved in revolutionary activity.
  • The Mensheviks, on the other hand, were happy to have party membership open to anybody who cared to join; they believed that a revolution could not take place in Russia until the country was fully industrialized and industrial workers were in a big majority over peasants; they had very little faith in co-operation from peasants, who were actually one of the most conservative groups in society. The Mensheviks were the strict Marxists, believing in a proletarian revolution, whereas Lenin was the one moving away from Marxism. In 1912 appeared the new Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (Truth), which was extremely important for publicizing Bolshevik ideas and giving political direction to the already developing strike wave.
  • The Social Revolutionaries were another revolutionary party; they were not Marxists – they did not approve of increasing industrialization and did not think in terms of a proletarian revolution. After the overthrow of the tsarist regime, they wanted a mainly agrarian society based on peasant communities operating collectively.

5. The royal family discredited

The royal family was discredited by a number of scandals. It was widely suspected that Nicholas himself was a party to the murder of Stolypin, who was shot by a member of the secret police in the Tsar’s presence during a gala performance at the Kiev opera. Nothing was ever proved, but Nicholas and his right-wing supporters were probably not sorry to see the back of Stolypin, who was becoming too liberal for their comfort.

More serious was the royal family’s association with Rasputin, a self-professed ‘holy man’, who made himself indispensable to the Empress Alexandra by his ability to help the ailing heir to the throne, Alexei. This unfortunate child had inherited haemophilia from his mother’s family, and Rasputin was able, on occasion, apparently through hypnosis and prayer, to stop the bleeding when Alexei suffered a haemorrhage. Eventually Rasputin became a real power behind the throne, but attracted public criticism by his drunkenness and his numerous affairs with court ladies. Alexandra preferred to ignore the scandals and the Duma’s request that Rasputin be sent away from the court (1912).

(d) The verdict?

The weight of evidence seems to suggest therefore that events were moving towards some sort of upheaval before the First World War broke out. There was a general strike organized by the Bolsheviks in St Petersburg (the capital) in July 1914 with street demonstrations, shootings and barricades. The strike ended on 15 July, a few days before the war began; the government still controlled the army and the police at this point and might well have been able to hold on to power, but writers such as George Kennan and Leopold Haimson believed that the tsarist regime would have collapsed sooner or later even without the First World War to finish it off. More recently, Sheila Fitzpatrick takes a similar view: ‘The regime was so vulnerable to any kind of jolt or setback that it is hard to imagine that it could have survived long, even without the war.’

On the other hand, some recent historians are more cautious. Christopher Read thinks the overthrow of the monarchy was by no means inevitable, and that the situation in the years immediately before 1914 could have continued indefinitely, provided there was no war. Robert Service agrees: he argues that although Russia was in a condition of ‘general brittleness’, although it was a ‘vulnerable plant, it was not doomed to suffer the root-and branch revolution of 1917. What made that kind of revolution possible was the protracted, exhausting conflict of the First World War.’

Soviet historians of course continued to argue to the end that revolution was historically inevitable: in their view, the ‘revolutionary upsurge’ was reaching a climax in 1914, and the outbreak of war actually delayed the revolution.

(e) War failures made revolution certain

Historians agree that Russian failures in the war made revolution certain, causing troops and police to mutiny, so that there was nobody left to defend the autocracy. The war revealed the incompetent and corrupt organization and the shortage of equipment. Poor transport organization and distribution meant that arms and ammunition were slow to reach the front; although there was plenty of food in the country, it did not get to the big cities in sufficient quantities, because most of the trains were being monopolized by the military. Bread was scarce and very expensive.

Earlier the Russian army acquitted itself reasonably well, and Brusilov’s 1916 offensive was an impressive success. However, Nicholas made the fatal mistake of appointing himself supreme commander (August 1915); his tactical blunders threw away all the advantages won by Brusilov’s offensive, and drew on himself the blame for later defeats, and for the high death rate.

By January 1917, most groups in society were disillusioned with the incompetent way the Tsar was running the war. The aristocracy, the Duma, many industrialists and the army were beginning to turn against Nicholas, feeling that it would be better to sacrifice him to avoid a much worse revolution that might sweep away the whole social structure. General Krimov told a secret meeting of Duma members at the end of 1916: ‘We would welcome the news of a coup d’etat. A revolution is imminent and we at the front feel it to be so. If you decide on such an extreme step, we will support you. Clearly there is no other way.


2 thoughts on “The Russian Revolution of 1917-21 (Part-1)”

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