Russian Revolutionsof 1917The abdication of Emperor Nicholas IIin March 1917, in conjunction with the establishment of a provisional governmentbased on Western principles of constitutional liberalism, and the seizureof power by the Bolsheviks in November, are the political focal pointsof the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The events of that momentous year mustalso be viewed more broadly, however: as an explosion of social tensionsassociated with rapid industrialization; as a crisis of political modernization,in terms of the strains placed on traditional institutions by the demandsof Westernization and of World War I; and as a social upheaval in the broadestsense, involving a massive, spontaneous expropriation of gentry land byangry peasants, the destruction of traditional social patterns and values,and the struggle for a new, egalitarian society. Looking at the revolutionaryprocess broadly, one must also include the Bolsheviks’ fight to keep theworld’s first “proletarian dictatorship” in power after November, firstagainst the Germans, and then in the civil war against dissident socialists,anti-Bolshevik “White Guards,” foreign intervention, and anarchist peasantbands. Finally, one must see the psychological aspects of revolutionarychange: elation and hope, fear and discouragement, and ultimately the prolongedagony of bloodshed and privation, both from war and repression, and the”bony hand of Tsar Hunger,” who strangled tens of thousands and, in theend, brought the revolutionary period to a close after the civil war byforcing the Bolsheviks to abandon the radical measures of War Communismin favor of a New Economic Policy (NEP).Throughout, the events in Russia wereof worldwide importance. Western nations saw “immutable” values and institutionssuccessfully challenged, COMMUNISM emerged as a viable social and politicalsystem, and Third World peoples saw the power of organized workers’ andpeasants’ movements as a means of “liberating” themselves from “bourgeois”exploitation. As such, the Revolutions of 1917 ushered in the great social,political, and ideological divisions of the contemporary world.
Historical BackgroundHistorians differ over whether the Revolutionsof 1917 were inevitable, but all agree on the importance of three relatedcausal factors: massive discontent, the revolutionary movement, and WorldWar I, each operating in the context of the ineptitude of a rigid, absolutiststate. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 left the countrysidein deep poverty. The newly freed peasants received inadequate land allotments,particularly in areas of fertile soil, and even these had to be purchasedwith “redemption payments.” Class antagonisms sharpened, particularly sincegovernment-promoted industrialization sent impoverished peasants flockingto jobs in urban areas for low wages under oppressive conditions. Governmentefforts to industrialize also required huge tax revenues, which intensifiedpressures on workers and peasants alike. Meanwhile, the rising businessand professional classes expressed unhappiness with tsarist rule and yearnedfor a Western-style parliamentary system. By 1905 discontent amongthe bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat had spurred Russian intellectualsto create the major political organizations of 1917. Populist groups, organizedin the countryside by the 1890s, joined radical socialist workers’ groupsin the founding of the Socialist Revolutionary party in 1901.
The MarxistSocialDemocratic Labor party was established in 1898. Five years laterit divided into two factions: the Mensheviks, who favored a decentralized,mass party; and the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Ilich LENIN, who wanted a tightlyorganized, hierarchical party (see BOLSHEVIKS AND MENSHEVIKS). Middle-classliberals formed the Constitutional Democratic party (Cadets) in 1905.Russian losses in the RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR precipitated the RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONOF 1905.
The massive urban strikes, rural rioting, and almost total liberaldisaffection from the tsarist regime in 1905 have been called a “dressrehearsal” for 1917. Reluctantly, Nicholas II granted a range of civilliberties, established limited parliamentary government through a DUMA,abolished peasant redemption payments, and under Pyotr STOLYPIN began anagrarian reform program to promote the growth of a rural middle class.These measures momentarily quieted the populace, but they also raised newexpectations; many concessions were later withdrawn, thus exacerbatingtensions. Furthermore, the social stability that some thought the tsar’spromises offered required time to develop, and this Russia did not have.
The March RevolutionIn 1914, Russia was again at war. Landreform was suspended, and new political restrictions were imposed. Disastrousmilitary defeats sapped public morale, and ineffective organization onthe home front made the government’s incompetence obvious to all. The emperor,assuming command of the army in 1915, became identified with its weakness.The sinister influence of Empress ALEXANDRA’s favorite, Grigory RASPUTIN,increased. By the winter of 1916-17, disaffection again rent all sectorsof society, including liberals, peasants, and industrial workers.When food shortages provoked street demonstrations in Petrograd on March8 (N.S.
; Feb. 23, O.S.), 1917, and garrison soldiers refused to suppressthem, Duma leaders demanded that Nicholas transfer power to a parliamentarygovernment. With the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies,a special Duma committee on March 15 (N.
S.; March 2, O.S.) establisheda provisional government headed by Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal. On thesame day, the emperor abdicated. He attempted to give the crown to hisbrother Michael, but Michael refused to accept it.
The 300-year-old Romanovdynasty came to an end.The new provisional government wasalmost universally welcomed. Civil liberties were proclaimed, new wageagreements and an 8-hour day were negotiated in Petrograd, discipline wasrelaxed in the army, and elections were promised for a Constituent Assemblythat would organize a permanent democratic order. The existence of twoseats of power, however–the provisional government and the PetrogradSoviet–not only represented a potential political rivalry but alsoreflectedthe different aspirations of different sectors of Russian society.
For most Russians of privilege–membersof the bourgeoisie, the gentry, and many professionals–the March Revolutionmeant clearing the decks for victory over Germany and for the establishmentof Russia as a leading European liberal democracy. They regarded the provisionalgovernment as the sole legitimate authority. For most workers and peasants,however, revolution meant an end to an imperialist war, major economicreforms, and the development of an egalitarian social order. They lookedto the Petrograd Soviet and other soviets springing up around the countryto represent their interests, and they supported the government only insofaras it met their needs.Political PolarizationDiffering conceptions of the revolutionquickly led to a series of crises.
Widespread popular opposition to thewar caused the Petrograd Soviet on April 9 (N.S.; March 27, O.S.) to repudiateannexationist ambitions and to establish in May a coalition governmentincluding several moderate socialists in addition to Aleksandr KERENSKY,who had been in the cabinet from the beginning. The participation of suchsocialists in a government that continued to prosecute the war and thatfailed to implement basic reforms, however, only served to identify theirparties–the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others–with governmentfailures.
On July 16-17 (N.S.; July 3-4, O.S.), following a disastrousmilitary offensive, Petrograd soldiers, instigated by local Bolshevik agitators,demonstrated against the government in what became known as the “July Days.
“The demonstrations soon subsided, and on July 20 (N.S.; July 7, O.S.),Kerensky replaced Lvov as premier.
Soon, however, the provisional governmentwas threatened by the right, which had lost confidence in the regime’sability to maintain order. In early September (N.S.; late August, O.S.),General Lavr KORNILOV was thwarted in an apparent effort to establish aright-wing military dictatorship.
Ominously, his effort was backed by theCadets, traditionally the party of liberal constitutionalism. The crisesfaced by the provisional government reflected a growing polarization ofRussian politics toward the extreme left and extreme right.Meanwhile, another revolution was takingplace that, in the view of many, was more profound and ultimately moreconsequential than were the political events in Petrograd. All over Russia,peasants were expropriating land from the gentry. Peasant-soldiers fledthe trenches so as not to be left out, and the government could notstem the tide. New shortages consequently appeared in urban areas, causingscores of factories to close. Angry workers formed their own factory committees,sequestering plants to keep them running and to gain new material benefits.
By the summer of 1917 a social upheaval of vast proportions was sweepingover Russia.The November RevolutionSensing that the time was ripe, Leninand the Bolsheviks rapidly mobilized for power. From the moment he returnedfrom exile on Apr. 16 (N.S.; Apr. 3, O.
S.), 1917, Lenin, pressing for aBolshevik-led seizure of power by the soviets, categorically disassociatedhis party from both the government and the “accommodationist” socialists.”Liberals support the war and the interests of the bourgeoisie!” he insisted,adding that “socialist lackeys” aided the liberals by agreeing to postponereforms and continue fighting.
With appealing slogans such as “Peace, Land,and Bread!” the Bolsheviks identified themselves with Russia’s broad socialrevolution rather than with political liberty or the political revolutionof March. Better organized than their rivals, the Bolsheviks worked tirelesslyin local election campaigns. In factories they quickly came to dominatemajor committees; they also secured growing support in local soviets. ABolshevik-inspired military uprising was suppressed in July. The next month,however, after Kornilov’s attempted coup, Bolshevik popularity soared,and Lenin’s supporters secured majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscowsoviets, winning 51 percent of the vote in Moscow city government elections.Reacting to the momentum of events, Lenin, from hiding, ordered preparationsfor an armed insurrection.
Fully aware of what was about to transpire,the provisional regime proved helpless.On the night of November 6-7 (N.S.; October24-25, O.S.
) the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in the name of thesoviets, meeting little armed resistance. An All-Russian Congress of Sovietsof Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, meeting in Petrograd at the time, ratifiedthe Bolsheviks’ actions on November 8. The congress also declared the establishmentof a soviet government headed by a Council of People’s Commissars chairedby Lenin, with Leon TROTSKY in charge of foreign affairs.The Civil War and Its AftermathFew, however, expected Lenin’s “proletariandictatorship” to survive. Bolsheviks now faced thesame range of economic,social, and political problems as did the governments they had replaced.In addition, anti-Bolsheviks began almost at once to organize armed resistance.Some placed hope in the Constituent Assembly, elected November 25 (N.S.
;November 12, O.S.); others hoped for foreign intervention. Few appreciatedLenin’s political boldness, his audacity, and his commitment to shapinga Communist Russia.These traits soon became apparent. TheNovember Constituent Assembly elections returned an absolute majorityfor the Socialist Revolutionaries, but Lenin simply dispersed the Assemblywhen it met in January 1918. He also issued a decree on land in November1917, sanctifying the peasants’ land seizures, proclaiming the Bolsheviksto be a party of poor peasants as well as workers and broadening his ownbase of support. He sued the Germans for peace, but under terms of theTreaty of BREST-LITOVSK (March 1918) he was forced to surrender huge portionsof traditionally Russian territory.
Shortly afterward, implementing policiescalled War Communism, Lenin ordered the requisition of grain from the countrysideto feed the cities and pressed a program to nationalize virtually all Russianindustry. Centralized planning began, and private trade was strictly forbidden.These measures, together with class-oriented rationing policies, promptedtens of thousands to flee abroad.Not surprisingly, Lenin’s policies provokedanti-Bolshevik resistance, and civil war erupted in 1918. Constituent Assemblydelegates fled to western Siberia and formed their own “All-Russian” government,which was soon suppressed by a reactionary “White” dictatorship under AdmiralAleksandr Kolchak. Army officers in southern Russia organized a “VolunteerArmy” under Generals Lavr Kornilov and Anton Denikin and gained supportfrom Britain and France; both in the Volga region and the eastern Ukraine,peasants began to organize against Bolshevik requisitioning and mobilization.Soon anarchist “Greens” were fighting the “Reds” (Bolsheviks) and Whitesalike in guerrilla-type warfare. Even in Moscow and Petrograd, leftistSocialist Revolutionaries took up arms against the Bolsheviks, whom theyaccused of betraying revolutionary ideals.
In response, the Bolsheviksunleashed their own Red Terror under the Cheka (political police force)and mobilized a Red Army commanded by Trotsky. The Bolsheviks defeatedAdmiral Kolchak’s troops in late 1919, and in 1920 they suppressed thearmies of Baron Pyotr N. WRANGEL and General Denikin in the south. Foreigntroops withdrew, and after briefly marching into Poland the Red Army concentratedon subduing peasant uprisings. Some Western historians attributeultimate Bolshevik victory in this war to White disorganization, half-heartedsupport from war-weary Allies, Cheka ruthlessness, and the inability ofGreens to establish a viable alternative government.
Most important, however,was the fact that even while Bolshevik popularity declined, Lenin and hisfollowers were still identified with what the majority of workers and peasantswanted most: radical social change rather than political freedom, whichhad never been deeply rooted in Russian tradition. In contrast, the Whitesrepresented the old, oppressive order.Nevertheless, with the counterrevolutiondefeated, leftist anti-Bolshevik sentiment erupted. The naval garrisonat Kronshtadt, long a Bolshevik stronghold, rebelled in March 1921 alongwith Petrograd workers in favor of “Soviet Communism without the Bolsheviks!”This protest was brutally suppressed. The Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionaryparties, harassed but not abolished during the civil war, gained supportas the conflict ended. The Bolsheviks outlawed these parties, signalingtheir intention to rule alone.
Lenin, however, was astute enough to realizethat a strategic retreat was required. At the Tenth Party Congress, in1921, the NEW ECONOMIC POLICY was introduced, restoring some private property,ending restrictions on private trade, and terminating forced grain requisitions.The foundations had been laid for building Bolshevik socialism, but therevolutionary period proper had come to an end.