Like most events in history, there were several long-term causes of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The Russian people revolted partially because of the cruel, oppressive and incompetent rule of the czars—the absolute monarchs that controlled Russia—since the 1800’s. Social inequalities and ruthless treatment of the Russian peasants, which were most of the population, had existed for some time. Riots, revolts, and demonstrations against the czar happened throughout the 19th Century. Consequently, many secret revolutionary groups plotted to overthrow the Russian czars throughout the 18- and early 1900’s. Czar Alexander II (Nicholas II’s grandfather) was even assassinated.
With all of these problems building, events pushed the tension to revolution. These short-term causes began when Nicholas II became czar in 1894. Unable to see the building anger of the people, Nicholas refused to surrender any power, ruling like this predecessors. As Russia industrialized under Nicholas II, discontent grew among the Russian people. The Russian people were suffering from the problems of early industrialization (child labor, unsafe working condition, etc.). The people were unhappy with their low standard of living and lack of political power. A huge gap between the rich and poor also helped to fuel discontent. More revolutionary groups began to form to plot the overthrow of the czar.
Then three crises both in Russia and abroad weakened people’s already poor image of the Czar. The first was the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Russia and Japan were fighting over control of Korea. Russia wanted control of Port Arthur, so it had a warm-water port in the Pacific Ocean (the only good Russian port on the Pacific could only be used in the summer, being frozen the other half of the year). The Russians suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the “backwards”—a far as most Europeans were concerned—Japanese in 1905. The Japanese—would had rapidly industrialized and modernized their military during the Meiji Restoration—sunk the entire Russian fleet in a sneak attack, eliminating the Russians from competition and taking control of Korea.
Then Bloody Sunday (St. Petersburg, Russia; 1905) happened. Workers in St. Petersburg organized a demonstration against the unfair conditions created by industrialization and marched to deliver a petition asking Czar Nicholas II to do something about it. The guards at the Winter Palace ordered the crowds dispersed. When the crowd didn’t leave, they fired upon the unarmed workers, killing 500-1000. This event created a backlash against the czar and his government. It eventually forced him to agree to share his power with a legislative body called the Duma. But Nicholas never really allowed the Duma any real power.
The third crisis was World War I. Russia was unprepared to enter World War I. The Russian Army was facing defeat at the hands of the Germans. The costs of total war made life unbearable for many of the Russian people at home. The incompetent leadership of Czarina Alexandra and her adviser Rasputin, who were placed in charge when Nicholas II took over command of the war himself, left people even more disillusioned.
This sequence of events led to the February Revolution (March 1917). Striking workers, bread riots and demoralized troops from World War I in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, pushed the tension in Russia to a head in March 1917 (Russia used the Julian calendar at the time, so it is also called the February Revolution, depending which perspective it’s viewed from). Fed up with the economic and social problems, the people forced Czar Nicholas II to abdicate, ending the Russia history of absolute monarchy. A new, provisional (temporary) government was formed, making Russia a republic.
The provisional government was, unfortunately, was riddled with incompetence from the start and was unable to improve the conditions that caused the people to finally overthrow the czar. People quickly became equally upset with the new government. The new government made a key mistake that prevented them from being able to improve the economic and social problems of the country. This mistake was remaining committed fighting World War I. This opened the door for other groups who wanted to overthrow the new government, such as a small group of communists called the Bolsheviks and their leader, Vladimir Lenin.
So Russia had a second revolution, called the October or Bolshevik Revolution (November 1917). It was motivated by Russian followers of the idea of Karl Marx. During the Industrial Revolution, German economists Karl Marx and Frederick Engels observed the social and economic struggles endured by working classes in England. From these observations, they developed a world view that would have a marked impact on history, starting in Russia in 1917. To Marx and Engels, all of human history is based on a class struggle between the social classes that had wealth and power and those who didn’t, but wanted both. The empowered class sought to oppress the other classes to keep their wealth and power.
Marx and Engels severely criticized capitalism. At the time, the gap between the wealthy and everyone else was significant. While the working class struggled to survive in early industrial society, the wealthy amassed fortunes. Marx and Engels predicted that the working classes would eventually rise up against the capitalist class and overthrow them, the same way the French peasants overthrew Louis XVI for taking advantage of them. This violent revolution was inevitable, according to the two. Marx and Engels believed that after the uprising against the capitalists—whom they called the bourgeoisie—that the workers—whom they referred to as the proletariat—would create a new socialist government, where the government ran businesses to the benefit of all, instead of a privileged few.
Marx then hypothesized that this would give way to a new type of society based on cooperation, instead of competition. Everyone would be equal and would share in society’s combined wealth. Marx called this communism. These ideas appealed to oppressed people. Communism promised a redistribution of wealth and power, giving the powerless and poor both. Some revolutionaries actively sought to force the revolution Marx and Engels predicted to happen.
This included revolutionaries in Russia. Since Marx and Engels began publishing their ideas, some people believed that the worker’s revolution would happen there. In fact, two different groups of communists developed in Russia, with slightly different views about how the revolution would come about. The Mensheviks were the larger of the two groups of Russian communists. They believed that the revolution had to come from the people. So they sought to educate the people to Marx’s ideas to inspire a revolution.
The Bolsheviks—the smaller group, although their name led people to believe they were the larger—believed that the people needed to be pushed to revolution by a small group of “professional” revolutionaries. Even though they essentially wanted the same thing for Russia, the difference in philosophy made the two groups of communists bitter enemies. This very much fit the way they viewed society. They believed that the people needed to be led and controlled because they didn’t know what to do for themselves. This worldview explains why they ruled the way they did when they took over.
The Bolshevik’s leader is known as Vladimir Lenin (it is an assumed name, from his years of running from the Czar’s police). Lenin promised the Russian people “Peace, Bread, and Land” if they allowed the Bolsheviks to take over. After years of suffering because of the war, the Russian people took Lenin up on his offer.
In November 1917 (October by the Russian calendar), the Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government in a matter of hours with little resistance. The former leaders of the provisional government were jailed, forced to flee, or executed. The czar and his family were also put to death during this second Russian Revolution.
Once the Bolsheviks took over, Russia became the first communist state in world history. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, seeing the mistake of the provisional government that took over after the czar, set to make good on their promise to the Russian people. Land was taken away from the wealthy and given to the Russian peasants. Control of the factories was taken from the industrialists and turned over to the workers. A treaty was negotiated with Germany to pull Russia out of World War I (at a very high cost to the Russians).
The Bolsheviks, because they faced many opponents with different ideas about how the government should work, had to consolidate their control of the new country. From 1918-1920 Russia fought a bitter civil war between the Bolsheviks (the Reds) and their opponents (together called the Whites, though they were several different groups who didn’t really work together). Many Western nations supported the Whites in this civil war (including the United States), further damaging already poor relations with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks faced opposition from the other group of Russian communists, people who wanted democracy and people who wanted to return to rule by the czar. Ultimately, the Reds crushed all opposition to Bolshevik rule in 1920, outlawing all political parties except their newly named Communist Party. 15 million people died in the Russian Civil War, which was followed by a famine—a severe food shortage that results in mass starvation.
Aware of the new government’s vulnerability, Lenin sought to rebuild the ruined Russian economy. His goal was to set up a state controlled command economy (an economy in which the government makes ALL economic decisions). But to improve economic conditions to secure the Communist Party’s power, he put this on hold. Instead, Lenin came up with a “five year plan” called the New Economic Policy, or NEP for short. The government retained control of the major industries, but allowed grass-roots capitalism, which was a major departure from the Party’s goal of an economy completely controlled by the government. The NEP was able to restore the Russian economy to where it had been before World War I. Communist command economies loved “five year plans.” The Soviet Union and China would have several such economic policies instituted over the years, often falling far short of the plan’s goals.
Politically, Russia was organized into a new government under strict rule of the Communist Party. The new country was named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. The capital was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Because of Russian abrupt withdrawal in World War I and because of the Communist Party’s political philosophy, other countries refused to recognize the new government. Foreign relations were, therefore tense. A constitution was written in 1924, based on socialist and democratic principles. But with only one legal political party, the Soviet Union was never really a democracy at all. It was a single-party dictatorship.
The Communist Party used violence and terror—including secret police—to control the Soviet Union. Like Maximillian Robespierre during the French Revolution, they believed they were creating a new society and that they needed to control the people in order to do so. Opponents were jailed or executed.
Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922 that left him debilitated. This led to a power struggle within the Communist Party. Two leaders battled for control, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Lenin thought Stalin was dangerous. By 1928, Stalin emerged the victor and would become one of history’s most ruthless dictators.