This document originally appeared on The Peel
Website at www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/russia.htm.
This site went down in January 2008, so I have
copied it here.
This document was written by and is
therefore copyright Stephen Tonge. Stephen Tonge was is
thirty-seven in 2008 and head of history at Catholic University School in
Dublin. He is a past pupil of the school and has taught there for 14 years.
He attended University College Dublin and received his MA in 1990.
As well as history, he teaches business and economics. He also coaches both
rugby and cricket and is the school's fixtures secretary. He is
a co-author of a GCSE standard textbook Living History, published by
the Educational Company of Ireland.
- The February Revolution –
removal of the Tsar
- The October Revolution –
Communists come to power
- Lenin and the Bolsheviks in
Note - The Russian
calendar was thirteen days behind the one used in the West. The dates given
are from the old (i.e. Russian) calendar that was in use until 1918.
Russia had entered the war with universal popular
enthusiasm among all classes. Support for the Tsarist regime was very
strong. The German name of the capital St. Petersburg was changed to
the more Russian sounding Petrograd.
However a series of events were to undermine this
support until it eventually crumbled.
- Thee Tsar took personal command of the army in the
summer of 1915 and left the government in the hands of his wife, the hated
Tsarina (who also had the misfortune of being German). She was called "the
- The Tsarina was not only unpopular but she was also
under the influence of the strange monk Rasputin, who had hypnotic
powers. These powers he used with some degree of success to cure the
Tsarevich, Alexei (the heir to the throne), of haemophilia. The
absence of the Tsar meant that Rasputin's influence was almost total. He
dismissed ministers at will and brought complete discredit to the whole
Tsarist system of government. The Tsar knew what was going on but refused
to take any action. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916.
- The offensive of 1916 had cost the Russians a million
casualties and discontent was rife in the army. The soldiers lacked proper
military training and the supply of arms and artillery were inadequate.
- The whole war effort had being organised in a most
haphazard way. Manpower was conscripted indiscriminately without any
regard for the needs of industry, agriculture or communications. The
countryside was dispossessed of horses to serve the army's needs, leaving
the peasants with no means of tilling the land. Distribution problems had
led to a breakdown in food supplies to the cities. By 1916 Petrograd and
Moscow were receiving only a third of their fuel and food requirements.
This was made worse by hyper inflation that saw prices increase
fourfold during the war. These factors created serious discontent among
the working classes in the cities. There were a number of strikes that had
to be put down by troops.
By the start of 1917, political parties were totally
dissatisfied with the Tsar and his government. The
main parties at the time were:
- The Kadets who wanted
to give more powers to the Russian parliament or Duma. This
party could be compared to the Liberals in Britain. They greatly
admired the British system of government and wished to imitate it,
i.e. a constitutional monarchy – power of the Tsar would be greatly
reduced and important decisions would be made by parliament. They were
led by the respected Prince Lvov.
- The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) were
a party that wanted peasant ownership of the land in the form of
communes. There was no comparable party in Western Europe. Alexander
Kerensky was a leading figure in this party. Extreme members of
the party used terrorism to achieve their aims.
- The Social Democrats – followers of Karl
Marx. They believed that the industrialisation of Russia would lead to
the collapse of the Land-owning class and that the Tsarist regime
would also collapse with it. The party had split over tactics into the
Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority)
in 1903. The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries and were led by
Lenin. The Mensheviks favoured peaceful methods and were similar to
the SPD in Germany or the Labour party in Britain.
The February (March) revolution 1917
The discontent outlined above led to Revolution and the
overthrow of the Tsar.
In January, 300,000 workers staged a demonstration on the anniversary of the
1905 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Petrograd. Conditions were not helped by a
particularly severe winter. During February, a strike for higher wages
started at the huge Putilov engineering works. The Tsar departed from
Petrograd for his headquarters at Mogilev and was absent from the
capital for the next few crucial days.
Petrograd was soon paralysed with 240,000 on strike. From
his headquarters the Tsar ordered that the strikes were to be crushed by
troops. Forty people were killed as troops fired on rioters. The same
evening the Petrograd garrison began to mutiny.
Feb 27-28: The key dates as all military command within
the city collapsed as troops joined the strikers. Crucially the Tsar had
lost effective control in the city.
At the same time the Petrograd soviet (council) was
revived and quickly established itself as the real power in the city. It had
full control over the railways and had the loyalty of the troops. The Tsar,
against advice, sent General Ivanov to the city to restore order.
However his troops deserted to the revolutionaries.
At the beginning of March, the Tsar left Mogilev to
personally deal with the crisis but after taking advice from his leading
generals, he decided to abdicate at Pskov. A Provisional
government was set up under the leadership of Prince Lvov. This
government was to rule until a constituent assembly was elected to
draw up a new constitution. Nicholas and his family were placed under house
Quotes on the February Revolution
||“Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain
of war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos."
||“The Russian government’s failings in the war and its
weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave
The Provisional government continued the war and
postponed land reform. These decisions were two
serious mistakes and were to be exploited by Lenin and his followers, the
||The Tsar's abdication had left confusion as to who
exercised the real power with the Provisional government and the
Petrograd Soviet existing side by side. The Soviet had control over
communications and the loyalty of troops in Petrograd.
||Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland with German
help. The Germans hoped that he would disrupt the Russian war effort and
they helped to finance his activities. He published his "April Theses"
in Pravda in which he argued for an immediate communist takeover.
He advocated a policy of non co-operation with the Provisional
government. Lenin policies were summed up in two slogans "Peace,
Bread, Land" and "All power to the Soviets".
Lenin set about reorganising the Bolshevik party and it
grew from 26,000 members to 200,000 members. At the same time, Alexander
Kerensky (Minister for War) launched an offensive against Germany
and Austria. This was defeated; morale collapsed and mutinies in the
||Soldiers in Petrograd and the sailors at the
Kronstadt naval base led demonstrations against the Provisional
government. This event became known as the "July Days.”
The government feared a Bolshevik revolution and crushed
the revolt. Many leading Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and
Kamenev, were arrested. Lenin escaped to Finland.
|During July and
||the situation worsened for the Provisional government
and there were mass desertions from the army. This was coupled with
economic problems such as massive inflation Kerensky (Prime
Minister since July 23) dismissed General Kornilov as
commander-in-chief of the Russian army. Kornilov attempted to
overthrow the provisional government. The Red Guards (under Bolshevik
control) helped to defeat Kornilov, who was arrested on the 2
|September - October
||Trotsky was elected
chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd and Moscow Soviets were
now under Bolshevik control. This gave the Bolsheviks effective control
over Russia’s two largest cities. Lenin returned secretly from exile and
a meeting of the Bolshevik central committee decided to stage a
revolution by a 10 to 2 majority. Zinoviev and Kamenev
opposed the decision.
A Military Revolutionary Committee was set up
by the Bolshevik dominated Petrograd Soviet apparently to defend the
city against the Germans. But in reality this was a cover to organise a
revolution and to gain control of the military in the capital. Trotsky
persuaded the garrison of the Peter and Paul fortress to change
sides and 100,000 rifles fell into Bolshevik hands
||Kerensky now tried to act against the Bolsheviks. The
cruiser "Aurora" suspected of supporting the Bolsheviks was
ordered to put to sea and Bolshevik newspapers were closed down. Trotsky
was able to have these orders countermanded.
That evening Trotsky issued orders for a coup.
At 9.00pm the firing of the "Aurora's" guns signalled the start of the
revolution. Most of the main buildings in Petrograd were seized e.g.
Winter Palace, railway stations, telephone exchanges etc. The next day
the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened with a large Bolshevik
majority Trotsky informed the congress that the Bolsheviks had seized
power. The Bolsheviks were in full control of the capital. Kerensky's
attempts to regain control failed. By early November Petrograd, Moscow
and most of the larger cities had recognised the new government.
The new government
The new government's first acts were to agree an armistice
with Germany. They abolished private ownership of land and distributed it
among the peasants. Banks were nationalized and workers' control over
factory production was introduced. The government or the Council of Peoples'
Commissars (Sovnarkom) was set up. Lenin was the president and there were 15
ministers. Trotsky was Commissar for Foreign Affairs.
Lenin was no democrat. The Bolsheviks were determined not
to share power. Elections were held for a Constituent Assembly. The
Bolsheviks only received one-third of the popular vote. The Constituent
Assembly dissolved at gunpoint by the Bolsheviks. This was the last
democratic election in Russia for the next seventy years. All opposition was
ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka, or political police. The Red Army
was also formed at this time.
In March, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed with
the Germans. Russia lost the Ukraine, its Polish and Baltic territories, and
Finland. The treaty was hugely unpopular in Russia but necessary if the
Bolsheviks were to establish control of Russia. Lenin believed that the
revolution would soon spread to Germany and this would reduce the effect of
The Russian Civil War
In June 1918 the Russian civil war broke out. The
supporters of the government were called the Reds and their opponents
Japan, Britain, France and the US intervened on the side
of the Whites. However the aid was half-hearted and morale among many of the
foreign troops were low. During July 1918 as White armies advanced the Tsar
and his family were shot at Yekaterinburg.
Bolshevik forces defeated the different White generals who
never fought together and were separated from each other. The main White
armies under the Generals Kolchak Denikin, Yudenich, and
Wrangel were each in turn crushed. The war ended in 1921. It is
estimated that 9 million people died as a result of the war.
Factors contributing to the victory of the Reds:
|Control of industry |
|Bolshevik unity, White disunity. Bolsheviks outnumbered
the reds by about three to one. |
|Terror and the leadership of Trotsky |
|Most of the industry and railways remained under
Bolshevik control |
|Reds promised land to the peasants while the Whites
would have restored the lad to its original owner. |
War Communism was an
emergency programme established by Lenin during the civil war. War
Communism included forced seizure of grain, nationalization of all trade and
industry and strict control of labour. As a result of this program and of
the ravages of the war, industrial and agricultural production declined
sharply, and the population suffered severe hardship. It caused a famine
that led to the death of an estimated 5 million people.
The following figures show the total collapse of the
||80 million tons
||37.6 million tons
||29 million tons
||9 million tons
||4.2 million tons
||1 million tons
||9.2 million tons
||3.8 million tons
By 1921 opposition to the communists had grown. General
unrest erupted in a rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base. Shaken by
this revolt, Lenin introduced the NEP in order to revive the economy. The
new programme signalled a return to a limited capitalist system. Peasants
could retain excess produce and sell it for a profit. Smaller businesses
were permitted to operate as private enterprises. Large industries remained
under state control. By 1928, the NEP had raised the Soviet national income
above its pre war level. However, the NEP policies were reversed (1928) by
Death of Lenin
In May 1922 Lenin suffered his first stroke. In all Lenin
was to have four strokes. He was greatly weakened and was an isolated
figure, as a power struggle began to succeed him. After a stroke in 1923 he
could not speak. He died in January 1924 in the village of Gorky, near
Moscow. His body was preserved and St Petersburg renamed Leningrad in his
Lenin – an evaluation
Lenin’s ability to seize an opportunity when it arose was
one of his major political skills. He was convinced that the Provisional
Government was doomed by October 1917. Against the advice of many of his
supporters, he led a successful revolution.
He pulled Russia out of the war with Germany which helped to consolidate his
regime. Victory in the Civil War ensured the effective establishment of the
Communist state. His ability to recognise when his policies had failed led
him to abandon War Communism and replace it with the New Economic Policy.
However Lenin instituted a very brutal totalitarian
regime. Democracy was banned and a one-party police state was established
where political opponents were shot out of hand. The murder of the royal
family cast a shadow across the new government. War Communism resulted in a
famine in which an estimated 5 million people died.
Perhaps two of the biggest criticisms of Lenin were his
failure to stop the rise of Stalin even though he realised his failings and
his use of terror as state policy. This policy was directed against
different groups in society who were seen as enemies of the people.
He devalued human life and Stalin was to take this policy to its logical
bloody climax in the 1930s.
Quotes on Lenin:
||"The movement for a just and classless society in
Russia began with unbridled violence, denying millions of people all
rights except the right to support Bolshevik policy."
"It is surely indisputable that no single leader in the
twentieth century exerted as great an influence on the course of world
history as Lenin."
||“Lenin bequeathed to his successors a fully
functioning police state.”
||“Lenin’s greatest achievement as a revolutionary was
to reshape Marxist theory to make it fit Russian conditions.”