Russian Revolutions of 1917 Russian Revolutions of 1917 The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II in March 1917, in conjunction with the establishment of a provisional government based on Western principles of constitutional liberalism, and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November, are the political focal points of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The events of that momentous year must also be viewed more broadly, however: as an explosion of social tensions associated with rapid industrialization; as a crisis of political modernization, in terms of the strains placed on traditional institutions by the demands of Westernization and of World War I; and as a social upheaval in the broadest sense, involving a massive, spontaneous expropriation of gentry land by angry peasants, the destruction of traditional social patterns and values, and the struggle for a new, egalitarian society. Looking at the revolutionary process broadly, one must also include the Bolsheviks’ fight to keep the world’s first “proletarian dictatorship” in power after November, first against the Germans, and then in the civil war against dissident socialists, anti-Bolshevik “White Guards,” foreign intervention, and anarchist peasant bands. Finally, one must see the psychological aspects of revolutionary change: elation and hope, fear and discouragement, and ultimately the prolonged agony of bloodshed and privation, both from war and repression, and the”bony hand of Tsar Hunger,” who strangled tens of thousands and, in the end, brought the revolutionary period to a close after the civil war by forcing the Bolsheviks to abandon the radical measures of War Communism in favor of a New Economic Policy (NEP). Throughout, the events in Russia were of worldwide importance. Western nations saw “immutable” values and institutions successfully challenged, COMMUNISM emerged as a viable social and political system, and Third World peoples saw the power of organized workers’ and peasants’ 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 Background Historians differ over whether the Revolutions of 1917 were inevitable, but all agree on the importance of three related causal factors: massive discontent, the revolutionary movement, and World War I, each operating in the context of the ineptitude of a rigid, absolutist state.
The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 left the countryside in deep poverty. The newly freed peasants received inadequate land allotments, particularly in areas of fertile soil, and even these had to be purchased with “redemption payments.” Class antagonisms sharpened, particularly since government-promoted industrialization sent impoverished peasants flocking to jobs in urban areas for low wages under oppressive conditions. Government efforts to industrialize also required huge tax revenues, which intensified pressures on workers and peasants alike. Meanwhile, the rising business and professional classes expressed unhappiness with tsarist rule and yearned for a Western-style parliamentary system. By 1905 discontent among the bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat had spurred Russian intellectuals to create the major political organizations of 1917. Populist groups, organized in the countryside by the 1890s, joined radical socialist workers’ groups in the founding of the Socialist Revolutionary party in 1901. The Marxist SocialDemocratic Labor party was established in 1898.
Five years later it divided into two factions: the Mensheviks, who favored a decentralized, mass party; and the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Ilich LENIN, who wanted a tightly organized, hierarchical party (see BOLSHEVIKS AND MENSHEVIKS). Middle-class liberals formed the Constitutional Democratic party (Cadets) in 1905. Russian losses in the RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR precipitated the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1905. The massive urban strikes, rural rioting, and almost total liberal disaffection from the tsarist regime in 1905 have been called a “dress rehearsal” for 1917. Reluctantly, Nicholas II granted a range of civil liberties, established limited parliamentary government through a DUMA, abolished peasant redemption payments, and under Pyotr STOLYPIN began an agrarian reform program to promote the growth of a rural middle class. These measures momentarily quieted the populace, but they also raised new expectations; many concessions were later withdrawn, thus exacerbating tensions. Furthermore, the social stability that some thought the tsar’s promises offered required time to develop, and this Russia did not have.
The March Revolution In 1914, Russia was again at war. Land reform was suspended, and new political restrictions were imposed. Disastrous military defeats sapped public morale, and ineffective organization on the 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 sectors of society, including liberals, peasants, and industrial workers.
When food shortages provoked street demonstrations in Petrograd on March 8 (N.S.; Feb. 23, O.S.), 1917, and garrison soldiers refused to suppress them, Duma leaders demanded that Nicholas transfer power to a parliamentary government. With the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, a special Duma committee on March 15 (N.S.; March 2, O.S.) established a provisional government headed by Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal. On the same day, the emperor abdicated. He attempted to give the crown to his brother Michael, but Michael refused to accept it. The 300-year-old Romanov dynasty came to an end. The new provisional government was almost universally welcomed.
Civil liberties were proclaimed, new wage agreements and an 8-hour day were negotiated in Petrograd, discipline was relaxed in the army, and elections were promised for a Constituent Assembly that would organize a permanent democratic order. The existence of two seats of power, however–the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet–not only represented a potential political rivalry but alsoreflected the different aspirations of different sectors of Russian society. For most Russians of privilege–members of the bourgeoisie, the gentry, and many professionals–the March Revolution meant clearing the decks for victory over Germany and for the establishment of Russia as a leading European liberal democracy. They regarded the provisional government as the sole legitimate authority. For most workers and peasants, however, revolution meant an end to an imperialist war, major economic reforms, and the development of an egalitarian social order.
They looked to the Petrograd Soviet and other soviets springing up around the country to represent their interests, and they supported the government only insofar as it met their needs. Political Polarization Differing conceptions of the revolution quickly led to a series of crises. Widespread popular opposition to the war caused the Petrograd Soviet on April 9 (N.S.; March 27, O.S.) to repudiate annexationist ambitions and to establish in May a coalition government including several moderate socialists in addition to Aleksandr KERENSKY, who had been in the cabinet from the beginning. The participation of such socialists in a government that continued to prosecute the war and that failed to implement basic reforms, however, only served to identify their parties–the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others–with government failure …