The series of events in imperial Russia that occurred in 1917 with the establishment of the Soviet state that became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is known as the Russian Revolution. The two successful revolutions of 1917 are referred to as the Russian Revolution.
The first revolution overthrew the monarchy. It began with a revolt on February 23 to 27, 1917, according to the Julian, or Old Style, calendar then in use in Russia. (On January 31, 1918, the Soviet government adopted the Gregorian, or New Style, calendar, which moved dates by thirteen days; therefore, in the New Style calendar the dates for the first revolution would be March 8 to 12. Events discussed in this article that occurred before January 31, 1918, are given according to the Julian calendar.)
The second revolution, which opened with the armed insurrection of October 24 and 25, organized by the Bolshevik Party against the provisional government, effected a change in all economic, political, and social relationships in Russian society; it is often called the Bolshevik, or October, Revolution.
PICTURE: Lenin addressing the Russian people, 1917
The causes of the Russian Revolution are rooted deep in Russia's history. For centuries, autocratic czarist regimes ruled the country and most of the population lived under severe economic and social conditions. During the 19th century and early 20th century there were several attempts aimed at overthrowing the government which were made by students, workers and peasants. Two of these unsuccessful movements were the 1825 revolt against Nicholas I and the revolution of 1905, both of which were attempts to establish a constitutional monarchy. Russia's badly organized and unsuccessful involvement in World War I (1914-1918) added to popular discontent with the government's corruption. In 1917 these events resulted in the fall of the czarist government and the establishment of the Bolshevik Party, which was first known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, as the ruling party.
The February Revolution
The immediate cause of the February Revolution of 1917 was the collapse of the czarist regime during WWI. The underlying cause was the economic crisis, which made Russia unable to sustain the war effort against powerful, industrialized Germany. Russian manpower was virtually inexhaustible. Russian industry, however, was not able to support the 15 million men. There were a few factories and they were very useful, and the railroad network was awful Repeated mobilizations, moreover, disrupted industrial and agricultural production. The food supply decreased, and the transportation system became disorganized. In the trenches, the soldiers went hungry and frequently lacked clothes or weapons. Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any army in any previous war. Behind the front, goods became scarce, prices increased greatly, and by 1917 famine threatened some cities. Many people were unhappy, and the soldiers weren't determined to fight and they were humiliated by the Germans. Many people blamed the alleged treachery of Empress Alexandra and her supporters, in which the peasant monk Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin was the dominant influence. When the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, protested against the inefficient conduct of the war and the arbitrary policies of the imperial government, the czar—Emperor Nicholas II—and his ministers simply brushed it aside.
PICTURES: Tsar Nicolas II and Rasputin
At first all parties except a small group within the Social Democratic Party supported the war. The government received much aid in the war effort from voluntary committees. The economic crisis was felt especially in the major cities, which were flooded with refugees from the front. Many Duma leaders felt that Russia would soon face a new revolutionary crisis. By 1915 the liberal parties had formed a progressive bloc that gained a majority in the Duma.
As the people became angrier, the Duma warned Nicholas II in November 1916 that disaster would overtake the country unless the “dark” (treasonable) elements were removed from the court and a constitutional form of government was instituted. The emperor ignored the warning. Late in December a group of aristocrats, led by Prince Feliks Yusupov, assassinated Rasputin in the hope that the emperor would then change his course. The emperor responded by showing favor to Rasputin's followers at court. Many people were expecting a revolution.
Strikes and Demonstrations
The Revolution of 1917 grew out of a mounting wave of food and wage strikes in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) during February. On February 23 meetings and demonstrations in which the principal slogan was a demand for bread were held, supported by the 90,000 men and women on strike in Petrograd, which was the capital city of Moscow at that time. There were many encounters with the police, but the workers refused to disperse and continued to occupy the streets. Tension steadily increased but no casualties resulted.
The number of demonstrators grew the following day, February 24, until it involved about half the workers of Petrograd. The slogans now were bolder: “Down with the war!” “Down with autocracy!” On February 25 the strike became general throughout the capital. During these two days violent encounters took place with the police, with casualties on both sides. The dreaded cossack troops, however, which had been called out to support the police, showed little enthusiasm for breaking up the demonstrations. The workers burned several police stations to the ground after stealing their weapons; the police went into hiding. The first elections to the Petrograd Soviet (council) of Workers' Deputies were held in several factories, on the model of the Soviet of 1905, which had been formed during a revolution at the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
PICTURE: Red Guards in Petrograd
Confrontation with Troops
On February 26 the troops of the Petrograd garrison were called out to suppress the uprising. When the workers and soldiers came face to face in the streets, the workers tried to be peaceful with the soldiers. In some of these encounters the troops were hostile and fired on order, killing a number of workers. The workers fled, but did not abandon the streets. As soon as the firing ceased they returned to confront the soldiers. In subsequent encounters the troops wavered when ordered to fire, allowing the workers to pass through their lines. Nicholas dissolved the Duma; the deputies accepted the decree but reassembled privately and elected a provisional committee of the State Duma to act in its place. On February 27 the revolution triumphed. Regiment after regiment of the Petrograd garrison went over to the people. Within 24 hours the entire garrison, approximately 150,000 men, joined the revolution, and the united workers and soldiers took control of the capital. More than 1500 people were killed in the February Revolution.
PICTURE: Kerensky salutes his troops
The Petrograd Soviet
The imperial government was quickly dispersed. Effective political power subsequently was exercised by two new bodies, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and a provisional government formed by the provisional committee of the Duma. The Soviet, a representative body of elected deputies, immediately appointed a commission to cope with the problem of ensuring a food supply for the capital, placed detachments of revolutionary soldiers in the government offices, and ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners. On February 28 the Soviet ordered the arrest of Nicholas's ministers and began publishing an official organ, Izvestia (Russian for “news”). On March 1 it issued its famous Order No. 1. By the terms of this order, the soldiers of the army and the sailors of the fleet were to submit to the authority of the Soviet and its committees in all political matters; they were to obey only those orders that did not conflict with the directives of the Soviet; they were to elect committees that would control all weapons; on duty, they were to observe strict military discipline, but harsh treatment by the officers was forbidden; disputes between soldiers' committees and officers were to be referred to the Soviet for disposition; off-duty soldiers and sailors were to enjoy full civil and political rights; and no one was allowed to salute any officers.
The Petrograd Soviet easily could have assumed complete power in the capital, but it failed to do so. The great majority of its members, believing that Russia must defeat Germany in WWI, did not want to risk disorganizing the war effort. Taken by surprise, as were all the political parties, by the outbreak of the revolution, the working-class parties were unable to give the workers and soldiers in the Soviet strong political leadership. Even the Bolsheviks, who, in a sense, had been preparing for the revolution since at least the early 1900s, had no program to take advantage of the situation. It was not until April 16, with the return from Switzerland of their exiled leader, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, that the Bolsheviks put forward a demand for immediate seizure of land by the peasantry, establishment of workers' control in industry, an end to the war, and transfer of “all power to the Soviets.” In the Petrograd Soviet, however, the Bolsheviks were then a small minority. The majority was composed of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The Mensheviks wanted Russia to be a democratic country and were against communism ; in the main, they supported continuation of the war. Most of the leading Socialist Revolutionaries, also advocated continuation of the war. Under the leadership of the moderate majority, the Petrograd Soviet recognized the newly established provisional government as the legal authority in Russia.
PICTURE: Leon Trotsky, member of the Bolshevik Party
The Provisional Government
On February 27 the provisional committee of the Duma announced that it would restore order, and on February 28 it placed its commissars (representatives) in charge of the ministries. The provisional committee formed a provisional government and demanded the abdication of the czar. Nicholas abdicated March 2 in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich. Aleksandrovich, however, said that he would accept the crown only at the request of a future constituent assembly. The provisional government, except for the addition of the socialist leader Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky, was made up of the same liberal leaders who had organized the progressive bloc in the Duma in 1915. The prime minister, Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov, was a wealthy landowner and a member of the Constitutional Cadet (democratic) Party, which favored an immediate constitutional monarchy and ultimately a republic. Lvov was just a figurehead; the outstanding personality in the provisional government until early May was Pavel Milyukov, minister of foreign affairs and strongest leader of the Cadet Party since its founding in 1905. He played the principal role in formulating policy. Kerensky, the minister of justice, who had been leader of the Trudovik (“laborite”) faction in the Duma, was the only representative of moderate socialist opinion in the provisional government.
Spread of the revolution
After the success in Petrograd the Revolution spread throughout the country. Following the same basic course as it had in the capital, it resulted also in the creation of two parallel systems of government, in which soviets functioned side by side with authorities who were related to the provisional government.
Recognized by the Petrograd Soviet and by the command of the army and navy, the provisional government enjoyed widespread popularity at first. It abolished the czarist police, repealed all limitations on freedom of opinion, press, and association, and ended all laws which affected any race or religion.The provisional government also recognized the right of Poland to be a free and independent state. The Duma, from which it derived, could give no support, for that body was not genuinely representative of the masses. Unable to command, the government could not appeal to a war-weary, impatient people. Aleksandr Guchkov said, “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post, and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the provisional government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it.”
PICTURE: Women's Battalion in Petrograd
Postponement of Decisions
With respect to crucial social problems, the provisional government claimed that, being provisional, it could not make fundamental changes such as distributing land to the peasants. All basic changes had to be postponed for decision by a constituent assembly, but the election of such an assembly was put off on the grounds that a large part of the country was under enemy occupation. Actually, the liberals of the provisional government realized that power in the constituent assembly would pass from their hands to the various socialist parties, and that their only hope of retaining it was to wait for an Allied victory in the war.
War or Peace
The provisional government split with the Petrograd Soviet. On March 6 the provisional government pledged itself to continue the war until victory was won and to “unswervingly carry out the agreements made with our allies.” Milyukov previously had informed the provisional government that these agreements included secret treaties providing for the acquisition of Constantinople (now called Istanbul) by Russia and the annexation of other territory. The Petrograd Soviet disclaimed all demands for annexations and reparations and called upon the peoples of the countries in WWI to force their governments to negotiate peace. The Soviet refused Milyukov's suggestion, and although the two bodies found a vague compromise, the conflict was not resolved during the existence of the provisional government. Not even the Soviet was fully aware then of the widespread unwillingness of the Russian people to continue the war.
The eight months following the formation of the provisional government were marked by the conflict between the government and the Petrograd Soviet. Essential in this development was the political transformation of the soviets, from democracy to communism. There were 2 reasons for the transformation. The first was the government's policy of postponing for future determination by a constituent assembly the solution of such pressing problems as economic disorganization, the continued food crisis, industrial reforms, redistribution of land to peasants, and the growth of counterrevolutionary forces. The government, instead, devoted most of its energy to a continuation of the war. The second cause was that many workers and peasants began to believe that their problems could be solved only by the soviets, a conviction that was decisively molded by Bolshevik propaganda following the April arrival in Petrograd of Lenin.
Before Lenin's return from exile in April, Bolshevik policy had been formulated by such leaders as Lev Kamenev and Joseph Stalin, who favored conditional support of the provisional government and were in the process of making a political bloc with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. At the All-Russian Conference of Bolshevik Party Workers in Petrograd on March 29, the only speaker who supported the Bolsheviks and establishment of dictatorship was ruled out of order. The conference did consider the question of unification with the Mensheviks, a process already taking place in the provinces after ithe moderate political program of the Bolshevik leaders.
PICTURE: Stalin, who later became Russia's leader from 1929 till 1953
Growth of Bolshevik Influence
Returning to Russia on April 3, Lenin arrived in Petrograd during the All-Russian Conference of Bolshevik Party Workers. In his first address to the delegates, he opposed the war, the provisional government and all supporters of both; he proposed that the party struggle for the establishment of a dictatorship. At the same time he declared that the Bolsheviks, who were a small minority, confronted a task, not of the immediate seizure of power, but of patient propaganda to convince a majority of the workers of the Bolsheviks. Although he was opposed by most of the Bolsheviks at the beginning, Lenin quickly succeeded in converting the party to his course. Bolsheviks began to ask for complete power, putting an end to the war, seizure of the land by the peasants, and control by the workers of industrial production. There were many slogans such as “Peace, Land, Bread” and “All Power to the Soviets.” The exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who arrived in Petrograd in May from America, agreed with Lenin's policy and joined the Bolshevik Party.
On April 18 Milyukov sent a note to the Allied governments, promising to continue the war to a policy of occupying foreign territory and imposing sanctions on defeated nations. This note angered many people and there were many demosntrations. Opposing General Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov's decision to stop the demonstrations by force, the Petrograd Soviet, which assumed command of the soldiers of the capital, ordered all troops to remain in their places. As a result of the political crisis, Milyukov and Guchkov resigned, and the government was reorganized on May 5 to include representatives of the socialist parties, and Kerensky became minister of war.
First Congress of Soviets
The crisis made the Bolshevik Party more popular, but it still held only a minority of the delegates to the first all-Russian Congress of Soviets, which convened in Petrograd on June 3. This congress was dominated by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. The coalition government, meanwhile, had taken office in the middle of a deepening economic and social crisis. Failure to provide the cities with grain increased the danger of famine, and inflation and suffering rapidly increased. In industry, the growing power of the workers induced economic defeatism and lockouts on the part of employers. The more conservative groups demanded that the government adopt a strong policy and call a halt to the revolution. The workers responded with economic and political strikes and with demands that the government institute measures to cope with the crisis. The Congress of Soviets, which supported the government, declared in favour of state monopolies of bread and other necessary items. The government, however, like its predecessor, subordinated all problems to the prosecution of the war. On June 16 Kerensky ordered an offensive that ended in a complete defeat and the virtual disorganization of the army—all of which added credibility to Bolshevik propaganda. Discipline broke down, and millions of soldiers streamed home from the front to escape further fighting and to take part in the division of the land.
The July Uprising
During the ill-fated offensive, the opposition by workers and soldiers in Petrograd to a renewal of military hostilities forced the Congress of Soviets to adopt a resolution calling for the abolition of the Duma—that is, the political base of the provisional government—and setting September 30 as the date for the convocation of a constituent assembly. A demonstration of about 400,000 Petrograd workers, organized by the Congress of Soviets during the offensive, unexpectedly revealed that the Bolshevik influence was very strong in the working class of the capital; the prevailing slogans in the demonstrations were “Down with the Offensive” and again “All Power to the Soviets.” On July 3, 4, and 5, this mounting impatience, perhaps quickened by the resignation of the Cadet ministers over the issue of Ukrainian autonomy, was expressed in an armed demonstration of 500,000 workers, soldiers of the city's soldiers and policemen, and sailors of the nearby naval fortress of Kronstadt. The demonstrators denounced the government and converged on the Tauride Palace, where the Congress of Soviets was in session, to force it to assume sole power.
Caught by surprise, the Bolshevik leadership at first attempted to restrain the masses, but when that proved impossible, the party openly placed itself at the head of the movement, with the declared intention of keeping the demonstration peaceful. In this the Bolsheviks were largely successful. Their policy was motivated by the consideration that they could have seized power easily in the capital but could not have held it in the rest of the country without support by a majority of the soldiers at the front and of the peasants in the provinces. The executive committee of the Congress of Soviets denounced the demonstration as a counterrevolutionary Bolshevik insurrection and asked for troops from the front to disperse the demonstrators. The troops, arriving on July 5, when the demonstration had run its course, placed themselves at the disposition solely of the Congress of Soviets, in effect recognizing it as the supreme governing authority in the country. On July 10 Kerensky succeeded Lvov as prime minister, and on July 23 a second coalition government, including the Socialist and Cadet wings, was formed, with Kerensky and his political friends holding the decisive posts.
The Kerensky Government
The July demonstration produced a wave of political reaction. Some land committees were dissolved by the government; the death penalty, abolished during the first days of the revolution, was restored in the fighting zones. Forceful methods were employed against the Bolsheviks. Lenin was denounced as a paid agent of German imperialism and went into hiding in Finland; Trotsky and others were arrested. Nonetheless, the Sixth Congress of the Bolshevik Party opened in Petrograd on July 26, despite the absence of some of its leaders.
Because the Kerensky government took no effective steps to solve the economic crisis, unrest continued in the cities and countryside, and Bolshevik influence again began to increase. Convinced that Kerensky could not cope with the situation, some Cadet elements and the general staff, led by Kornilov, decided to bring loyal troops to Petrograd and establish a military dictatorship. For a time Kerensky was a party to the conspiracy, but when he learned that Kornilov proposed to remove him from the government, he appealed to the Petrograd Soviet for support.
While Kornilov's forces advanced on the capital, the workers' and soldiers' militia prepared to defend it. Military organizations were established throughout the city, and the boldness and initiative of the Bolsheviks in these bodies made them the leaders of the defense. The railroad workers refused to transport Kornilov's force. As the troops advanced on foot, they encountered the soldiers and workers of the capital, who came out of the city to meet them with appeals to fraternize. Kornilov's army was dissolved before it reached the capital; he himself was arrested. These events left the workers of Petrograd organized and armed. And now, for the first time, the Bolsheviks secured a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. The word bolshevik is actually the Russian word for majority while the word menshevik was the Russian word for minority.
After Kornilov's defeat the provisional government was virtually powerless. Under growing Bolshevik pressure the All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee decided on the election of a new Congress of Soviets to convene on October 25. A Bolshevik majority in the new congress was assured by the rising tide of support for Lenin's party among the soldiers and workers. Fears that the new political alignment would result in the creation of a Bolshevik government spurred Kerensky to make a half-hearted attempt to send some troops from the Petrograd garrison to the front. On October 16 the Petrograd Soviet created the Military Revolutionary Committee for the defense of the capital against the counterrevolution; on this committee the Bolsheviks obtained a commanding majority, and the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries thereupon refused to participate.
The October Revolution
Foreseeing the course of events, Lenin, from about the end of September, pressed the central committee of the Bolshevik Party to seize power. After some resistance, the committee on October 10 agreed to Lenin. It is generally believed that the insurrection was planned by the military organization of the party to coincide with the opening of the second Congress of Soviets. It was carried out during the night of October 24 to 25 and the following day by the Military Revolutionary Committee under the direction of Trotsky. Armed workers, soldiers, and sailors stormed the Winter Palace, headquarters of the provisional government. Although the seizure of power involved tens of thousands of men and women, it was virtually bloodless. On the afternoon of October 25 Trotsky announced the end of the provisional government. Several of its ministers were arrested later that day; Kerensky escaped and subsequently went into exile.
On October 25, while the insurrection was in progress, the second Congress of Soviets began its deliberation. Of the 650 delegates, 390 (60%) were Bolsheviks. The opening session was the scene of a stormy debate over the legality of the congress and the character of the insurrection. Most of the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates withdrew from the congress, which continuously received declarations of support from workers' organizations and military groups; the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries remained in the congress and formed a short-lived coalition government with the Bolsheviks.
Second Congress of Soviets
Making his first appearance at the Congress of Soviets on November 8, Lenin said, “We shall now proceed to the construction of the socialist order.” The congress then took up the three crucial issues of peace, land, and the constitution of a new government. It unanimously adopted a manifesto appealing to “all warring peoples and their governments to open immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.” To that end the manifesto proposed an immediate armistice for a minimum of three months.
Ratification of Principles
No one was allowed to own land. All landed estates and the holdings of monasteries and churches were made national property and were placed under the protection of local land committees and soviets of peasants. However, the holdings of poor peasants and of the rank and file of the cossacks were allowed. Hired labor on the land was prohibited, and the right of all citizens to cultivate land by their own labor was affirmed. The Congress of Soviets laid down the principle that “the use of the land must be equalized, that is, the land is to be divided among the toilers according to local conditions on the basis of standards either of labor or consumption.”
The Congress of Soviets had supreme authority. Execution of the decisions of the congress was given to the Soviet of People's Commissars. Each of the people's commissars was the chairman of a commissariat (commission) corresponding to the ministries of other governments. Lenin was elected head of the Council of People's Commissars. Among other leading Bolsheviks elected to this council were Trotsky and Stalin. With the establishment of the new government, the Congress of Soviets adjourned.
The decisions of the Congress of Soviets on peace and land had widespread support for the new government, and they were decisive in assuring victory to the Bolsheviks in other cities and in the provinces. In November the Council of People's Commissars also proclaimed the right of self-determination, including voluntary separation from Russia of the nationalities forcibly included in the czarist empire, but made it clear that it hoped that the “toiling masses” of the various nationalities would decide to remain with Russia. It also nationalized banks and agriculture. The freely elected constituent assembly, which convened in Petrograd in January 1918, and in which the Bolsheviks were only a small minority, was dispersed with armed force by the newly formed government.