The Russian Revolution

Causes of the Russian Revolution


This is an extract from a GCSE textbook written in 1984 by Chris Culpin, who was a teacher and Chief Examiner for GCSE History.   His book is, in my personal opinion, just about the clearest of all the texts, so it is very kind of him to allow me to reproduce it here for you.







Peasants     Workers     The Tsar     OppositionBolsheviks Duma


Rasputin          Inflation and Unrest





Russia is a huge land of flat plains, pine forests and long, wide rivers… In 1917 after a series of revolutions, it became the first country in the world to form a Communist government.


The revolutions of 1917 had many causes.   Some were short-term and had arisen quite recently, whereas others were long-term and had been brewing up for many years.




Where other authors simply present the causes in no particular order, notice how Chris Culpin sorts them by date - into the LONG-TERM (those which had been in operation for many years) and SHORT-TERM (those which immediately preceded the revolution).


How else might you organise the causes?






Before the revolution, 75% of Russians lived in villages…   The people who lived in the villages were poor peasants.   Until 1861 they had belonged to their masters, who could buy and sell them like cattle.

The peasants were freed in 1861 and given small amounts of land for which they had to pay back the government.   They therefore had small farms and heavy debts, with the result that they were very poor.   Most of the peasants could not read or write, so they knew very little about how to improve the land.   They still used the old farming methods, working by hand on their plots.   They envied the nobles with their huge estates.

In Russia, a small number of upper-class people held most of the wealth and power.   These were the nobles, army officers and government officials.   They had large town houses and country estates.   The Russian Orthodox Church was also rich and powerful.




During the 1890s, industry began to develop in Russia.   Huge iron foundries, textile factories and engineering works were set up.   Many were run by the government.   Most were in the big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg.   Peasants moved to the cities to get jobs in the factories.   Some just came in the winter when it was impossible to work the land.   Some came to stay.   By 1900, 20% of the Russian people were workers living in cities.

Factories in Russia were very large, half of them employing more than 1,000 people.   The factory workers soon had problems of their own.



The Tsar

The ruler of Russia was called the Tsar.   He made all decisions himself.   He could ask for advice, but did not have to take it.   There was a secret police force which spied on everyone.   Anyone who spoke up against the government could be shot, or sent to Siberia.   Books and newspapers were censored.   Sometimes the Tsar's secret police stirred people up to blame all their troubles on Jews, who were then attacked.   The position of the Tsar was also supported by the Church.   The priests in every town and village taught that he was the ‘Little Father’ of all the Russian people and must be obeyed.

Nicholas II became Tsar of Russia in 1895…   Nicholas, in fact, was weak-willed and hated making decisions.   He was, however, devoted to his wife and family.   His son and heir had a terrible disease called haemophilia, which means that his blood would not clot.   Any bump caused agonizing internal bleeding, and a bruise or cut could cause death.   Alexandra was naturally always worried about her son, and Nicholas tried to comfort her.   In this situation, how difficult do you think it would be for Nicholas to be a successful tsar?


The long-term causes of the Revolution were therefore:

1.   An undemocratic government which was neither fair nor very good.

2.    The bad working and living conditions for the workers in towns.

3.    The extreme poverty of the peasants and their need for more land.


The Tsar

The Opposition

Some people, of course, were against this system.   They were split between the reformers and a smaller group of revolutionaries.   The reformers, or Liberals, wanted to modernize Russia gradually.   They admired the parliamentary systems of Britain, France and the USA.   They wanted free elections, more education for the people and no censorship.   The revolutionaries, on the other hand, wanted to throw out the whole tsarist system and build a different one.   One group of revolutionaries were Marxists - that is, they believed in the ideas of Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century German writer who had once lived in London.   Marx said:

1.   All history is about struggles between different classes: for example, the middle class against the nobles, or the workers against the bosses.

2.   The system in Europe is unfair because the factory owner (capitalist) makes a profit out of the workers (proletariat) who actually do the work.

3.    In the end, there will be a violent revolution when the workers throw out the bosses and take over the country.   The workers will then run the country for the benefit of all.




The Marxist revolutionaries could not say these things in Russia, of course.   The Tsar's secret police would arrest them and send them to Siberia.   Therefore the revolutionaries lived in exile in Western Europe.   They quarrelled among themselves, but the most dedicated of the Marxist revolutionaries were the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin.   Although there were not many of them, Lenin made the Bolsheviks into a well-organized group.   Their newspaper Iskra (‘The Spark’) was smuggled into Russia.   Lenin planned for the day when his chance would come to spark off a real revolution.




No one took much notice of a few hundred Bolsheviks, however.   The Liberals were much more popular, especially among educated Russians.   They had even made a tiny gain: there was, from 1906, a Russian parliament called the Duma.   This had been granted by the Tsar in the following way.   From 1904 to 1905, Russia had fought a war against Japan.   The Russians expected to win easily but in fact lost heavily.   This defeat caused strikes and demonstrations in the Russian cities.   For a few days in 1905, the Tsar nearly lost control of his country.   He offered to call a Duma with free elections.   Some of his opponents accepted this, and the protests cooled off.   The Tsar then used his soldiers to crush the rest of his opponents.   When the Duma met, it began to criticize the Tsar and demand more changes.   He was not used to being criticized and did not like it.   The Duma was dismissed, and elections for the next one were controlled by the Tsar.   Soon the Duma faded into the background: if it tried to do anything against the wishes of the Tsar, he dismissed it.

Two facts became clear: first, no revolution would take place as long as the army stayed loyal to the Tsar; and second, the Tsar could not be trusted.   As for the Duma, it hardly counted for anything: it was a gun without bullets.






The First World War brought revolution nearer.   The Tsar's rule was bad enough in peacetime, but a large-scale war showed just how inefficient it was.   The war went badly.




In 1915, the Tsar took over personal command of the Russian army.   This meant that he took the blame for losing the war.   Meanwhile Russia was left in the hands of his wife, Alexandra.   She had put her trust in Gregori Rasputin, a drunken peasant who said he was a holy man.   He had strange hypnotic powers and seemed to be able to help her son's illness.   The war produced more and more problems for Russia, but both Alexandra and Rasputin, who had great influence over her, were against any changes.



Inflation and Unrest

All over Russia, things were going badly wrong by 1917.   The peasants were angry because the army took away the young men and the best horses, making farmwork difficult.   Prices, especially food prices, rose, and hunger was widespread.   Workers in the cities could not afford high food prices, for wages had not risen nearly so fast.   If they tried to strike for better wages, they were accused of being disloyal.   For this they could be sent to Siberia for as long as twenty-five years.   Soldiers coming home from the war told of defeat, bad generals, no guns, no boots and no medical supplies.

In the cities, soldiers were ordered to stop strikes and demonstrations.   This was bitterly resented.   Many soldiers had been peasants and workers themselves before the war started.   Why should they fire at fellow-Russians when they had joined up to fight Germany?



Inflation and Unrest



In March 1917 a revolution took place in Russia which put an end to the Tsar's rule in Russia for good.   It was the first of the two revolutions in Russia that year.   Demonstrations and bread riots broke out in Petrograd (formerly called St Peters­burg) and other cities and reached a peak in March.  

In Petrograd, the rioters were joined by factory workers on strike.   When the soldiers were asked to fire on the rioters, they refused, and joined in the strike.

It was clear that the Tsar could no longer rely on the obedience of his troops.   Then several of the Tsar's critics in the Duma called on him to abdicate.   He saw that he had no choice, and abdicated on 17 March.   This left Russia without an effective ruler.   The Duma members who had criticized the Tsar now formed a provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky.


© Chris Culpin.   By kind permission.