By: Martha Pointer
One hundred years ago yesterday, the Russian Revolution ended with the success of Bolshevik Party leader, Vladimir Lenin’s, nearly bloodless coup d’état against the Russian Duma’s provisional government. The Bolsheviks and their allies occupied government buildings and other strategic locations in Petrograd, and soon formed a new government with Lenin as its head. Lenin became the dictator of the world’s first communist state (though soon after, a civil war broke out that would last nearly six years until 1923, when Lenin’s Red Army claimed victory and established the Soviet Union).
The Russian Revolution was a critical event in the twentieth century because it led to the birth of state-sponsored communism, which in turn had an impact on the subsequent world war and the Cold War that dominated the latter half of the century. In honor of this historic event, I’ve pulled some information from Jessica E. Piper’s The Story of the Russian Revolution 100 Years Later (with my own tidbits added in––I am a history major, after all) to help familiarize anyone interested.
The system of government that brought Nicholas into power was already outdated when the new tsar was crowned. The Russian empire was a hereditary monarchy, meaning that power was passed from one member of the royal family to the next. Additionally, the Russian tsar was an autocrat, meaning he had absolute power. While most European countries had a parliament or a representative body, Nicholas got to make all of the decisions himself. Although Nicholas was generally regarded as intelligent and well-educated, he wasn’t particularly interested in politics.
Tsar Nicholas II and his family spent most of their time in the royal palace in St. Petersburg, a port city along the Baltic Sea. But most Russian citizens were not royalty like Nicholas. In fact, most people didn’t even live in cities. In the early 1900s, 80 percent of Russians were peasants, living and working on small farms. For Russian peasants, the cycle of hunger and poverty seemed like it would never end.
BEGINNINGS OF REBELLION
Outrage over the events of Bloody Sunday (when the military massacred protestors in St. Petersburg) soon turned into a sense of rebellion that spread far beyond St. Petersburg. Students at Moscow University burned a picture of the tsar. In the countryside, peasants began organizing strikes to force their landowners to increase wages. When that summer brought a bad harvest, some peasants attacked landowners’ estates, seizing property and setting fire to the manors. Most of the peasant violence occurred in Russia’s central agricultural zone, where poverty was the worst. The government wasn’t going to stand for peasant rebellion. Between January and October of 1905, the tsar’s administration authorized over 2,700 uses of military troops against peasant uprisings.
The October Manifesto
On October 17, Nicholas released the Manifesto on the Improvement of the State Order, more commonly known as the October Manifesto, which was a victory for protestors. It granted fundamental civil freedoms, including freedom of speech and assembly. And it established the Duma, a democratically elected body whose approval would be required for new laws.
WORLD WAR I
Russia supported Serbia in World War I and thus was in opposition to Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, they were militarily unprepared and public opinion of the war declined quickly. The war seriously disrupted nearly all aspects of Russia’s economy. High casualty numbers led Russia to draft more soldiers into the army. Many of these soldiers had previously been peasant farmers; after they left, their farms went untended, hurting production. As the war continued, Russia not only lost workers, but also lost valuable farmland due to German advances. Nicholas assumed the position of military commander thinking that he could turn around Russia’s string of defeats. However, he was not particularly equipped for the position: he lacked military experience himself, played favorites, and valued perceived loyalty of his generals over skill. Since Nicholas was in charge, Russian citizens could now blame him for the empire’s military losses.
Vladimir Lenin was born in 1870 under the name Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. A devout Marxist, he was arrested in 1895 due to his political activities and was sentenced to exile in Siberia. Following his release in 1900, he traveled around Europe, meeting with various Marxist leaders, and he did a bit of writing. Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters lead the strikes, protests, and ultimately, the revolution of 1917. In March of that year, the Roman’s abdicated the throne. Over 300 years of Romanov rule in Russia had come to an end.
It’s important to remember that the original Russian Revolution happened only in the capital city, not the whole country. The Bolsheviks, however, felt empowered by the growth of peasant rebellions in rural Russia, and they proceeded to take over the Duma and Winter Palace. This occurred in early November of 1917 and concluded the second part of the Russian Revolution. Although much still needed to be resolved after November 7 one hundred years ago, a critical shift in power had taken place and the growth of communism had begun.