The Russian Revolutions of 1917 Kevin James Patrick McKay

1. The revolutions of 1917 were brought about by a number of long and short term factors.

Long term factors

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Over 80% of all Russians were agricultural workers. They were living in what we would know today as a “third world” lifestyle. Low life expectancy, constant manual labour and a very isolated state of being. They were allowed to own land from 1861 however they paid vast sums back to the land owners or to the crown. Little was left for their own needs.

The town workers (Proletariat) were a small but crucial group making up 10% of the population. They would work on average a 14-16 hour day and worked in appalling conditions.

Ethnic minorities were targeted by a policy of nationalisation known as “Russification” they were forced to learn Russian and to convert to the Russian Orthodox church. The Russian Orthodox Church fully supported the devine right of the Tsars rule.

Russians believed Tsar had been chosen by god. The Tsar ruled absolutely through heredity bloodline. It was an outdated and corrupt regime. He chose his Imperial Council and his Cabinet of ministers had been chosen by his Imperial Council. The Ministers basically ran the country while the Tsar (Nicholas II) had a life greatly contrasting to that of his people. He was a weak leader however stongly conservative.

The revolutionaries inspired the workers to rise. These groups of men gave the workers hope and encouraged them to join in the revolution. Around 57% of the proletariat were literate. (1897 Census-Communism under Lenin + Stalin, London 2002). This meant they were more lucid and more keen on new ideas. Meaning they were more easily influenced than the peasants.

Socially the regime was unstable with over 50% of the population not even being Russian. The ruling class made up only 0.5% of the population and ruled while the majority of people were peasants a massive 82% of population (long term causes handout 9b) who had no control whatsoever, this in itself created a social and political imbalance.

The educated intellectuals saw Russia as being part of the “old order” politically it was far behind its European neighbours democratic Germany, Britain and France. They wanted representation in government. They also wanted a free-press to publish their views.

Short Term Factors

Short term factors included the vast amounts of food shortages and Russian casualties in the frontline. Tsar had gone off to lead his troops (linking the monarchy to the Russian military) and left his German born wife to rule. Accusations of treason poured in at the very heart of Government . Nicholas II was defeated and this was to be seen as the collapse in belief of his “god given” rights to overall rule. For revolutionaries, a war was welcomed. Lenin believed a war to be a “useful thing”. Political deficiencies were unveiled greatly when Tsars appointed army commanders who were appointed not on merit, but by the sheer fact they were upper class were humiliated by experienced Germans.

Economic chaos drove the Russians to revolt, the working class contempt of the regime had now swept into the middle-class, Russia was starting to unite under the disillusionment of the regime . Food shortages meant that in January 1917 food shipments fell by 60%, leaving the population starving. Soldiers (mostly conscripted peasants) were returning home in their thousands to take part in the Revolution. Armed forces brought in to reinforce the Tsars power were disappearing into the crowds and joining with the soviets.

In conclusion I believe that long term factors were the most important in overthrowing the Tsar. Short term factors such as the war only sparked the revolution, change was inevitable. The growing disarray of the monarchy among all classes, there were so many revolutionary parties, the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and the reformist parties long before the first shots of WWI were fired. The Tsars continued oppression, the economic desperation, the obscene nature of Russian society ; half of the people living in Russia were not even Russian. Also the growing support of the revolutionaries and the mass amount of Soviets would (I believe) have ensured an overthrow of the regime would have taken place eventually.

2. The Fall Of The Provisional Government

The Provisional Government was formed on the day Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917. A time of war was certainly not the most convenient to create a new democratic Russia. The Provisional Government was made up mainly of the old Duma, however most of the people in Russia supported the Soviets who promoted the needs of the rising workers and peasants. A power struggle was inevitable between the two main bodies in power. The Provisional Government wanted to continue the war effort in support of its allies France and Britain. General Kornilov believed he could “save” Russia and attempt to crush the Provisional Government and reinstate the Tsar. The provisional government asked for soviet support and armed them with 40,000 guns (extension sheet 1), this meant the soviets now had a mass of weapons at there disposal. The germans aided the Bolsheviks and printed leaflets directed towards front-line troops urging them to desert (Shukman handout). The Provisional Government tried to arrest Lenin on charges of fraternising with the Germans . Lenin escaped to Finland and returned in April aided by the Germans in a sealed train car (Communism On-line : Lenin Biography). Lenin denounced the Provisional Governement and called all socialists in support of the Bolsheviks. Also he urged peasants to take the land from the landlords and industrial workers to seize control of the factories. (April Theses Schoolnet). Also in march the Petrograd Soviet ordered all soldiers to obey the Soviet.

The Provisional Government had a great weakness due to the existence of the Ispolkom, this was a large committee of Soviets. This contained elected representatives from the proletariat, the peasants and soldiers. This meant that Russia had “two governments”. The soldiers would only follow the governments orders if it did not contradict those of the Ispolkom (extension sheet 1).

Bolshevik Success

The Bolsheviks gained support automatically for their reluctance to continue the war effort. Lenin was a determined leader who could enforce policies to which most of the population were wanting to hear. “Peace, bread and land!” This in itself was popular, the soldiers badly wanted peace, fighting a war they could not win. People living in urban areas were starving and the peasants wanted land redistribution. The slogan of all power to the soviets was also what the people wanted to hear. The Bolsheviks demands increased their support within the Soviets. Lenin maintained the Bolsheviks should be the “vanguard of the proletariat”. On the 23rd of October a decision was taken to get ready for an armed revolt and Trotsky executed a coup that all power was in the hand of the Petrograd Soviet. The red guards occupied key areas and buildings in the capital and the main railway station. On the 25th of October the Bolsheviks seized control of the Winter palace and arrested the members of the Provisional Government. Lenin’s “Dictatorship of the proletariat was the new regime in place. The Bolsheviks gained control through good tactics and also other factors such as the economic and military collapse in the months leading up to the revolution drove thousands of radical workers to the cause.

3. The Consequences Of The Bolshevik Revolution

After the overthrow of the Provisional Government Lenin and the Bolsheviks were met with an immediate task of securing the revolution. First and foremost to end the war, Trotsky was sent to negotiate and singed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The terms of surrender were humiliating, the land lost was the richest in the country. This meant that Russia had lost 27% of the farm land, 26% of the Railways and 74% of Iron and Coal. However the Bolsheviks were prepared to do anything to secure the new Communist state and Trotsky had waited in vain for a proletariat rising in Germany . Once the external threat of the country was removed internal chaos was growing. The Bolsheviks were in power however they lacked a majority in the Constituent Assembly. The governing body of the Bolsheviks (Sovna kom) ordered the assembly to stop meeting, this was followed by a mass protest and hundreds of demonstrators were wounded and killed. This enforced Lenin’s total control over the state. However this state was not to “wither away” as Marxist theory predicted.

There were various threats to the Bolsheviks within Russia. There were still some elements of Russian society supporting the Tsar, there were the external international threats from the allies intervening , the Socialist Revolutionaries were the biggest party in the assembly ; having more seats than all of the others put together. There was also a more complicated split, between Marxists themselves. Also there were the middle-class liberals and democrats. These groups founed themselves disillusioned with the new state. The Bolsheviks had not allowed free-press, they had a new “secret police”, Lenin was in total command of the one party state. This new regime was an analogy of the old. Inevitably these difficulties and divisions led to another large war fought on Russian soil in which millions lost their lives. Czech prisoners of war found themselves fighting with the Soviet in a small town and soon enough they had taken over all of the major towns in the area. By the end of 1918 most of Russia’s railway line were under control of the Czechs. The White armies were the coalition of forces representing varies political ideologies. Strategically the Bolsheviks had the upper hand controlling all of the industrial capacity, which could produce weapons and ammunition readily. It would be wrong to say the Red Army won simply as they where a superior fighting force. However they were harshly disciplined and Trotsky ordered the execution of every twelth man that had ran from the battlefield. (G Wath – Russian Civil War 2000) Also Bolshevik success was due to their highly motivated ideology. All of the Bolsheviks knew exactly what they were fighting for, conversely the Whites were a compromised force of politically contrary beliefs.

The famine of 1921 killed around 5 million people in Russia. This was caused by two factors a major drought and the Bolshevik requisitioning programme which controlled how much the peasants could plant and “war communism” removed their surplus crops. The fact the Red Army were successfully supplied with food meant shortages in major cities and rationing.

The Kronstadt rising summarized the animosity of the people towards the Bolsheviks. These sailors were previously seen as Bolshevik legends and heros. Trotsky had described them as the “pride and glory of the revolution”. These sailors were demanding exactly what the Bolsheviks had asked for only a short time earlier; political freedom, chose and change occupations, elect their own representatives etc. They did not want to abolish the Soviet State however they insisted they did not want a one-party state. Trotsky gave the order and the rising was crushed, the revolting sailors were shot in cold-blood.

A New Economic Policy (NEP) was announced and this allowed peasants to sell surplus foods for profit and factories with less than 20 workers would be back under the owners control. This was a swift response and it worked. Food production increased and industrial output soared.

The “economic carrot” ensured peasants and factory workers were content and the “political stick” ensuring the destruction of all opposition through censorship and a secret police secured the Revolution.