Russian Revolution of 1917

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The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a political movement in Russia which reached its peak in 1917 with the overthrow of the Provisional Government that had replaced the Russian Tsar system, and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted until its collapse in 1991.

The Revolution can be viewed in two distinct phases:

  • The first was that of the February Revolution of 1917, which displaced the autocracy of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the last effective Tsar of Russia, and sought to establish in its place a liberal republic.
  • The second phase was the October Revolution, in which the Soviets, inspired and increasingly controlled by Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik party, seized power from the Provisional Government. This second revolution was especially widesweeping, and affected both urban areas and the countryside. While many notable historical events occurred in Moscow and St. Petersburg, there was also a broadbased movement in the rural areas as peasants seized and redistributed land.

See also "Russian history, 1892-1920" for the general frame of events.


Causes of the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution was one of the most important events in modern world history. Its impact was evident in both Europe and America. Although the revolution did not directly spread communism, it did give various other struggling third world countries an enticing example to follow. Decades later, the philosophy/governmental model would gain new notoriety as Russia, a full communist state at the time of the Cold War, squared off with the United States.

In any case, the two Revolutions of 1917 were broken down into two main parts: the overthrow of the tsarist regime (February Revolution) and the creation of the world’s first communist state (October Revolution). The causes of these two revolutions encompass Russia’s political, social, and economic situation. Politically, the people of Russia resented the dictatorship of Tsar Nicholas II. The losses that the Russians suffered during World War I further weakened Russia’s view of Nicholas. Socially, the despotic tsarist regime had oppressed the peasant class for centuries. This caused unrest within the lower peasant class causing riots to break out. Economically, widespread inflation and famine in Russia contributed to the revolution.

Ultimately, a combination of these three, coupled with the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, led to the Russian Revolution.


The economic causes of the Russian Revolution were based largely on the Tsar's mis-management, compounded by World War I. Over fifteen million men joined the army, which left an insufficient number of workers in the factories and on the farms. The result was widespread shortages of food and materials. Factory workers had to endure terrible working conditions, including twelve to fourteen hour days and low wages. Many riots and strikes for better conditions and higher wages broke out. Although some factories agreed to the requests for higher wages, wartime inflation nullified the increase. There was one protest to which Nicholas responded with violence (see Causes: Political); in response, industrial workers went on strike and effectively paralyzed the railway and transportation networks. What few supplies were available could not be effectively transported. As goods became more and more scarce, prices skyrocketed. By 1917, famine threatened many of the larger cities. Nicholas's failure to solve his country's economic suffering and communism's promise to do just that comprised the core of the Revolution.


The social causes of the Russian Revolution mainly stemmed from centuries of oppression towards the lower classes by the Tsarist regime and Nicholas's failures in World War I. Roughly 85% of the Russian people were peasants, under harsh oppression from the upper classes and the Czarist regime. Serfdom is most often associated with the Middle Ages, yet it accurately describes the social situation in Russia under Nicholas: A small class of noble landowners controlled a vast number of indentured peasants. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II of Russia emancipated these peasants not for moral reasons, but because it was preventing Russia from advancing socially. This newfound freedom was of limited use, however, since they now had no land to work. As a result, the government drafted new terms that gave the peasants set amounts of land to cultivate. However, the amount of land they were given was insufficient, thus mass riots broke out. World War I only added to the chaos. The vast demand for factory production of war supplies and workers caused many more labor riots and strikes. In addition, because more factory workers were needed, peasants moved out of the country and into the cities, which soon became overpopulated, and living conditions rapidly grew worse. Furthermore, as more food was needed for the soldiers, the food supply behind the front grew scarce. By 1917, famine threatened many of the larger cities. Overall, all of the aforementioned contributed to the vast discontent of the Russian citizens, which further motivated the Revolution.


The political aspect of the Russian Revolution is essentially the combination or result of the social and economic problems created by the dictatorship of Tsar Nicholas II. Since at least 1904, Russia's lower class workers had faced a dire economic situation. Most of them were working 11 hour days. Health and safety provisions were dismal, and wages were falling. There were numerous strikes and protests as time went on. Almost all of these were either ignored by Nicholas or broken up, often in a violent and deadly fashion (see Bloody Sunday). His failed attempt at conquest in and around Manchuria was also very unpopular with the people. Some in the educated classes (many educated in the West) of Russia also resented the autocracy of Nicholas. In 1915, things took a critical turn for the worse when Nicholas decided to take direct command of the army, personally overseeing Russia's main warfront and leaving his incapable wife Alexandra in charge of the government. By the end of October 1916, Russia had lost between 1.6 and 1.8 million soldiers, with an addition two million prisoners of war and one million who had gone missing, which likely did little for the army's morale. Mutinies began to occur, and in 1916 reports of fraternizing with the enemy started to circulate. Soldiers went hungry and lacked shoes, munitions, and even weapons. Rampant discontent lowered morale, only to be further undermined by a series of military defeats. Nicholas was blamed, and what little support he had left began to crumble. As this discontent and utter hate of Nicholas grew, the State Duma (lower class of Russian parliament comprised of landowners, townspeople, industrial workers, and peasants) issued a warning to Nicholas in November 1916 stating that disaster would overtake the country unless a constitutional form of government was put in place. In typical fashion, Nicholas ignored them. As a result, Russia's Tsarist regime collapsed a few months later during the February Revolution of 1917. A year later, the Tsar and his family were executed. Ultimately, Nicholas's inept handling of his country and the War destroyed the Tsarist regime and cost him both his rule and his life.

February Revolution

Main article: February Revolution.

The February Revolution came about almost spontaneously when people of Petrograd protested against the tsarist regime because of food shortages in the city.

There was also great dissatisfaction with Russia's continued involvement in the First World War. As the protests grew, various political reformists (both liberal and radical left) started to coordinate some activity. In early February the protests turned violent as large numbers of city residents rioted and clashed with police and soldiers. When the bulk of the soldiers garrisoned in the Russian capital Petrograd joined the protests, they turned into a revolution ultimately leading to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in a nearly bloodless transition of power.

A new Provisional Government was formed, also called the Duma, while elections were being planned. Between February and October revolutionists attempted to foment further change, working through the Petrograd Soviet or more directly. In July, the Petrograd Bolsheviks, in combination with the Petrograd anarchists, fomented a civil revolt. This revolt failed.

October Revolution

Main article: October Revolution.

The October Revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin and was based upon the ideas of Karl Marx. It marked the beginning of the spread of communism in the twentieth century. It was far less sporadic than the revolution of February and came about as the result of deliberate planning and coordinated activity to that end. The financial and logistical assistance of German intelligence via their key agent, Alexander Parvus was a key component as well.

On November 7, 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin led his leftist revolutionaries in a nearly bloodless revolt against the ineffective Provisional Government (Russia was still using the Julian Calendar at the time, so period references show an October 25 date). The October Revolution ended the phase of the revolution instigated in February, replacing Russia's short-lived provisional government with a Soviet one. Although many bolsheviks (such as Leon Trotsky) supported a soviet democracy, the 'reform from above' model gained definitive power when Lenin died and Stalin gained control of the USSR. Trotsky and his supporters, as well as a number of other democratically-minded communists, were persecuted and eventually imprisoned or killed.

After October 1917, many SR's (members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party) and Russian Anarchists opposed the Bolsheviks through the soviets. When this failed, they revolted in a series of events calling for "a third revolution." The most notable instances were the Tambov rebellion, 1919 - 1921, and the Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921. These movements, which made a wide range of demands and lacked effective coordination, were eventually crushed during the Civil War.

Civil war

Main article: Russian Civil War.

The Russian Civil War, which broke out in 1918 shortly after the revolution, brought death and suffering to millions of people regardless of their political orientation. The war was fought mainly between the "Reds", the communists and revolutionaries, and the "Whites" - the monarchists, conservatives, liberals and moderate socialists who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution. The Whites had backing from nations such as the UK,France,USA and Japan.

Also during the Civil War, Nestor Makhno led a Ukrainian anarchist movement which generally cooperated with the Bolsheviks. However, a Bolshevik force under Mikhail Frunze destroyed the Makhnovist movement, when the Makhnovists refused to merge into the Red Army. In addition, the so-called "Green Army" (nationalists and anarchists) played a secondary role in the war, mainly in Ukraine.

The Russian revolution and the world

There are some who say that the Russian revolution was intended to spread across the world. Lenin and Trotsky said that the goal of socialism in Russia would not be realized without the success of the world proletariat in other countries, e.g. without German Revolution. However, till this day, this issue is subject to conflicting views on the communist history by various Marxist groups and parties.

Some state that it was Stalin who was the first to later reject this idea, stating that socialism was possible in one country.

Others counter that this was simply an excuse for Stalin and his followers to push back democratic gains won during the revolution and consolidate his bureaucratic dictatorship.

The confusion regarding Stalin's position on the issue stems from the fact that he, after Lenin's death in 1924, successfully used Lenin's argument - the argument that socialism's success needs the workers of other countries in order to happen - to defeat his competitors within the party by accussing them of betraying Lenin and, therefore, the ideals of the October Revolution. He also had many of them executed during the great purge.

Brief chronology leading to Revolution of 1917

Dates are correct for the Julian calendar, which was used in Russia until 1918. It was twelve days behind the Gregorian calendar during the 19th century and thirteen days behind it during the 20th century.

January - Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg.
June - Battleship Potemkin uprising at Odessa on the Black Sea (see movie The Battleship Potemkin)
October - general strike, St. Petersburg Soviet formed
- October Manifesto - Imperial agreement on elections to the State Duma
  • 1906 - First State Duma. Prime Minister - Petr Stolypin. Agrarian reforms begin
  • 1907 - Second State Duma, February - June
  • 1907 - Third State Duma, until 1912
  • 1911 - Stolypin assassinated
  • 1912 - Fourth State Duma, until 1917. Bolshevik - Menshevik split final
  • 1914 - Germany declares war on Russia
  • 1915 - Serious defeats, Nicholas II declares himself Commander in Chief. Progressive Bloc formed.
  • 1916 - Food and fuel shortages and high prices
  • 1917 - Strikes and riots; troops summoned to Petrograd

Expanded chronology of Revolution of 1917

Vladimir Lenin, leader of the October Bolshevik Revolution
Vladimir Lenin, leader of the October Bolshevik Revolution


Strikes and unrest in Petrograd


February Revolution
26th – 50 demonstrators killed in Znamenskaya Square
27th – Troops refuse to fire on demonstrators, desertions. Prison, courts, and police stations attacked and looted by angry crowds.
Okhranka buildings set on fire. Garrison joins revolutionaries.
Petrograd Soviet formed.


1st – Order No.1 of the Petrograd Soviet
2nd – Nicholas II abdicates. Provisional Government formed under Prime Minister Prince Lvov


3rd – Return of Lenin to Russia. He publishes his April Theses.
20th – Miliukov's note published. Provisional Government falls.


5th – New Provisional Government formed. Kerensky made minister of war and navy


3rd – First All-Russian Congress of Soviets in Petrograd. Closed on 24th.
16th – Kerensky orders offensive against Austro-Hungarian forces. Initial success.


2nd – Russian offensive ends. Trotsky joins Bolsheviks.
4th-7th – The "July Days"; anti-government demonstrations in Petrograd.
6th – German and Austro-Hungarian counter-attack. Russians retreat in panic, sacking the town of Tarnopol. Arrest of Bolshevik leaders ordered.
7th – Lvov resigns. Kerensky is new PM
22nd – Trotsky and Lunacharskii arrested


26th – Second coalition government ends
27th – Right-wing General Lavr Kornilov is alleged by Kerensky to have attempted a coup. Kornilov arrested and imprisoned.


1st – Russia declared a republic
4th – Trotsky and others freed. Trotsky becomes head of Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.
25th – Third coalition government formed


10th – Bolshevik Central Committee meeting approves armed uprising
11th – Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region, until 13th
20th – First meeting of the Military Revolutionary Committee (Revolutionary Soviet Committee) of the Petrograd Soviet
25th – October Revolution is launched as MRC directs armed workers and soldiers to capture key buildings in Petrograd. Winter Palace attacked at 9.40pm and captured at 2am. Kerensky flees Petrograd. Opening of the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets.
26th – Second Congress of Soviets: Mensheviks and right SR delegates walk out in protest against the previous day's events. Decree on Peace and Decree on Land. Soviet government declared - the Council of People's Commissars (Bolshevik dominated with Lenin as chairman).


Participants' accounts


  • Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, : ISBN 014024364X (trade paperback) ISBN 0670859168 (hardcover)
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. 199 pages. Oxford University Press; 2nd Reissu edition. December 1, 2001. ISBN 0192802046.
  • Lincoln, W. Bruce. " Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War 1918 to 1921. ISBN 0-306-80909-5 New York, Simon and Schuster, 1989. Chapter 5


External links

In Cinema

  • Arsenal aka Арсенал aka January Uprising in Kiev in 1918 (IMDB profile). Written and Directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko. Runtime: USA:70 min. Soviet Union / Ukraine. Language: Russian / Ukrainian. Black and White. Silent. 1928.
  • Konets Sankt-Peterburga aka The End of St. Petersburg (IMDB profile). Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Mikhail Doller (co-director). Written by Nathan Zarkhi. 80 min. Soviet Union. Black and White. Silent. 1927. Russian. Rural youth caught up in 1917 revolution.
  • Lenin v 1918 godu aka Lenin in 1918 (IMDB profile). Directed by Mikhail Romm and E. Aron (co-director). Runtime: USA:130 min. 1939.
  • Anastasia (IMDB profile). Directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Based on Anastasia. Runtime: 94 min. Country: USA. Language: English / Russian / French. Color (Technicolor). Stereo. 1997.

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