Why Were There Two Revolutions in Russia in 1917?

“I am nothing and should be everything” – Karl Marx

1917 was a time of political turmoil and violent conflict in Russia. The events that led to two successful revolutions in one year are well documented, but the causes of these events are numerous, inter-related and often argued over. I believe that in order to answer our question, we must first lay down the situation in Russia before the revolution, and the causes and events that led to the first revolution.

Nicholas II and Alexandra

Nicholas II was thrust onto the throne of Russia after the death of his father in 1894. He readily admitted that he was not prepared to become tsar, and his rule soon proved his claim. Nicholas was a weak and indecisive leader, and rapidly became very unpopular. Under his rule Russia industrialised, but peasants became poorer and unsettled. He refused to give up any of his power, or take any action that would make the political system in Russia more open to the social changes the country was going through. He managed to stop one revolution in 1905 with the help of the Russian army, but his tactics, including the Bloody Sunday massacre, made him even less popular among the working class. His decision to join the 1st World War in 1914, and the food shortages, enormous casualties and constant defeats that came with it, decreased his popularity further, and also lost him the support of his army.

Alexandra, the tsarina, was possibly less popular than her husband. She was an influential woman who used her power to take Russia in unpopular and often misguided political directions. She associated with extremely unpopular people (such as Rasputin, the ‘mad monk’) and there were many rumours circulated that she was controlling the Tsar, or that they were both puppets of Rasputin. The 1st World War started another, possibly inevitable rumour. Alexandra was German, and the strong anti-German sentiment during the war, coupled with Russia’s constant defeats and heavy casualties, led to many people forming the belief that Alexandra was working for the Germans, and was sabotaging Russia from within.

The 1st World War

Russia’s involvement in WWI was a disaster. They were outclassed and outmanoeuvred by the German army at every turn, and endured constant defeats and terrible casualties. The War also had a bad affect on the population at home. There was a food shortage, and many people below the poverty line began to starve. The war aggravated common discord among the working class towards their rulers, and led a great number of people to think that their only hope was in revolution. This type of thinking was encouraged by many revolutionary and Marxist groups at the time, who used the war to their advantage. They claimed that the war was the result of a family spat of the tsars, and that the war was for the sake of money. They argued that the working class of Russia had no interest or place in the war, and that even victory would offer the common people nothing.

Industrialisation and Class

Russia’s industrial revolution came at the end of the 1800s, and therefore the beginning of the 20th Century marked a huge break in tradition for common people. Peasants all over the country flocked to cities in search of new, better jobs in industry. However, often all they found were poor jobs and exploitation by their employers. The population became more polarized between the working class and the rich employers, and many poorer people were attracted to the teaching of Karl Marx, which stated that the working class would eventually rise up and overthrow their capitalist oppressors in favour of a communist government. Marxist political parties, such as the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, began to spring up; and class tensions were heightened by a number of events. The Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 was taken by many as a sign that the ruling class would not listen to any peaceful protests, and caused feeling of hate towards the tsar and tsarina. WWI also strengthened these feelings, and the majority of people began to believe that only through overthrowing the rulers of their country could they make their interests known.

On 22 February 1917, factory workers at the Putilev works in Petrograd (the Russian capital at the time) went on strike. Strikes and riots soon spread across the city. Nicholas refused to listen to the demands of the workers, and instead sent the army to stem the riots and strikes. However, on 27 February, the soldiers too began to protest and joined the workers. On the same day, the tsar closed his government and the Duma (state parliament), but a group of the Duma continued to meet illegally. The Petrograd Soviet (workers’ council) was also called on the same day. The Soviet and the remnants of the Duma began to work as a form of government. The next day, the tsar attempted to return to Petrograd but his train was stopped, and he was told the only way to stop the uprising would be to step down as tsar. Reluctantly, he abdicated on 2nd March, and the Provisional Government was formed by the remnants of the Duma, backed by the Petrograd Soviet.

Within just over a week, the first revolution in Russia in 1917 had succeeded. No individual or political party led the revolution; in fact it was completely without central leadership (although the Bolsheviks later claimed to have organised and led it). It was instead a simultaneous collection of riots, protests and strikes by different groups of people who had been pushed to breaking point by a combination of the factors listed above. What’s more, it was a collective and almost universally popular movement amongst all different classes and political groups. The vast majority of people saw it as the only way to turn their country around.

The October Revolution

“When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories” – Lenin

The revolution in February and March 1917 was a resounding success, so why within 7 months was there another revolution underway? Once again, it was a combination of factors, each entwined with one another, that together set the wheels of revolution in motion once again. But it was a very different revolution to the first…

The Petrograd Soviet

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies was formed on the 1st March, and was a collection of representatives of factory workers and military troops. The organisation was made up of a plenary assembly made up of delegates from individual factories and soldiers’ companies, who could change their delegates at will. This assembly also elected an executive committee. This form of representation meant that the plenary assembly was made up of ordinary workers and was often changed, reflecting popular opinion. This later meant that the assembly became more and more radically left-wing, as the desperation of the workers intensified, and would eventually allow the Bolsheviks to gain a great deal of influence within the assembly. Almost oppositely, the assembly elected moderate socialists and intellectuals into the executive committee. This meant the committee was less sensitive to change in the workers attitudes, and their moderate socialist stance was easily discredited by the Bolsheviks, who favoured radicalism.

The Soviet had no traditional or hierarchical authority, other than popular support. However this support give it more power than any other post-revolution organisation. The Soviet could effectively control the country through its workers, as factories only became operational once the Soviet ordered strikes to cease. This gave rise to the quote by Georgii Lvov (Prime Minister in the Provisional Government) that ‘the Workman’s Soviet is a power without authority’. The organisation with the authority that the Soviet lacked was the Provisional Government.

The Provisional Government

On 2nd March, the remnants of the State Duma formed the Provisional Government. It was so named because its members, with the Soviet, shared the belief that their existence was only temporary, and that an elected Constituent Assembly would soon be called to determine the fate of Russia from then on. The Provisional Government inherited authority from the State Duma, but itself was not elected. As a result, it lacked popular backing and its members believed that they had little power to make large decisions until the election of the Constituent Assembly took place. The Government, as former members of the Duma, was made up largely of middle-class men, with a vast majority from right-wing political parties, such as the Kadets and the Octoberists. This naturally resulted in a right-wing conservative stance. Such a stance was, obviously, alienated from that of the workers who were undergoing increasingly oppressive situations, and the Provisional Government was easily discredited.

The Provisional Government, as an ‘Authority without Power’, quickly realised that although its interests might often conflict with those of the Soviet, both organisations were useless without the other, and that the two must work together in order to accomplish anything. This reliance upon one another was known as dual power.

However, despite its alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, the Provisional Government did not take the right steps in order to convince the common people of it’s dedication to their demands. The Government never called the election of a Constituent Assembly, but neither did it fully take control and make the hard decisions it needed to. As a result, the Government’s inaction became a cause of both decreasing living conditions for the Russian people, and a great decline in popularity as a result.

The War and Conditions In Russia

Probably the biggest mistake the Provisional Government made was to continue Russia’s participation in World War 1. The Russian army was in no better condition to fight the Germans than before the revolution, and the results of the war on the people of Russia were the same as before. What’s more, by keeping their soldiers out fighting in Europe, the Provisional Government vastly limited their military support.

Meanwhile, the food shortage caused by the war was hitting the Russian people more than ever before. It was also starting to have disastrous effects on the Russian economy. Prices were rising beyond the reach of most Russians, and to make things worse, inflation was causing wages to fall. The Russian people were starving and living in poverty, despite their efforts in the revolution. Many believed that they were no better off under the Provisional Government than they had been under the tsar, and began to believe that only through more radical means could they get what they wanted. The political support of the common people became more and more skewed to the left, as people flocked to radical, revolutionary socialist parties. Foremost among these, and the most attractive for the majority, was the Bolsheviks.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

At the time of the first revolution, the Bolsheviks had been a tiny, radical Marxist party, with most of their leaders in exile or in prison. However, after the revolution, the Provisional Government released all political prisoners, including many Bolshevik leaders. Many of these, including Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, began to build up their party once again. The Bolsheviks based most of their politics on the sociological ideas of Karl Marx, and believed that, before the revolution, Russia had been in Marxism’s ‘feudal’ period. This meant that the February revolution had been a capitalist revolution by the bourgeoisie (middle-class). This was supported by the fact that the Provisional Government was made up mainly of middle-class land owners. The Bolsheviks’ Marxist theories told them that Russia would have to go through a long period of capitalism before their desired socialist revolution by the proletariat (working-class). As a result, the Bolsheviks did not preach for another revolution at first, but instead focused on putting pressure on the Provisional Government to meet their demands, including an end to Russia’s involvement in the war.

However, on April 3rd, Lenin (the most radical, charismatic and respected of the Bolsheviks’ leaders) returned to Petrograd from exile. While he was away, Lenin had been adapting Marx’s ideas to work specifically on Russia. He now believed that the February revolution had been an incomplete capitalist revolution, and that the weakness and isolation of the Russian bourgeoisie meant they would be unable to carry the country fully into a democracy and its capitalist period (represented by the Provisional Government’s refusal to call for an election of the Constituent Assembly). Lenin argued that this weakness could be exploited by the proletariat completing the revolution, and making it a socialist revolution. This, he claimed, would bypass the need for a capitalist era, and take Russia one giant step closer towards the Bolsheviks’ goal of a communist society. He also claimed that a socialist revolution in Russia would have a knock-on effect throughout all the capitalist societies in Europe.

Lenin persuaded the rest of the Bolsheviks to take on his proposals, and published his April Thesis the day after he returned. His thesis insisted on a ‘no-support’ policy for the Provisional Government, the persuading of workers and key individuals in order to build support for the party. The Bolsheviks played off the desperation of the common people, offering an alternative to the Provisional Government. They used the Government’s inaction and policies (especially regarding the war) to discredit them, incite rebellion in the people, and gain support. They had the advantage of not being part of the Provisional Government (having no members within it), and they succeeded in gainin influence within working-class communities and organisations. Lenin’s thesis also called for the eventual take over of all factories, public services and political power for the Soviets, ‘when the time was right’.

However, on 3-4 July, against Lenin’s wishes, the Bolshevik Central Committee bowed to the pressure from its lower ranks, and ordered an armed public demonstration. In what has come to be known as the July Days, the Provisional Government accused the Bolsheviks of planning a coup, branded them ‘enemies of the state’ and sent the army to crush the demonstration. In a disaster for the Bolsheviks, the army killed many demonstrators, arrested many leaders and forced Lenin to flee the country and go into hiding in Finland on the 6th July.

The July Days were a major setback for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Although the party continued to work away to local working-class organisations, gain the support of increasing members of the public and some key individuals who were disillusioned with the Provisional Government’s actions (including former Menshevik, Leon Trotsky), they might never have recovered from the July Days were it not for the events in the Provisional Government soon after. On the 8th July, only 2 days after Lenin’s fleeing the country, the former prime minister of the Provisional Government and conservative land-owner, Prince Georgii Lvov, was replaced by Socialist Revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky (the Socialist Revolutionaries were a political party representing the rural peasants, and were completely against the kind of Socialist Revolution the Bolsheviks proposed). Kerensky was an able politician, but was seriously afraid of a military coup.

10 Days later General Lavr Kornilov was made commander-in-chief of Russia’s army. A severe anti-Bolshevik, and politically ambitious man, Kornilov made an already paranoid Kerensky very suspicious. On 26th August, Kornilov and his troops began a march towards Petrograd. Sources differ on why this was so, with some saying that he was attempting a military coup, and others that he was on a mission agreed by Kerensky to crush Bolshevik activity. Either way, Kerensky accused Kornilov of attempting a coup, sacked him and called upon everyone in the city to protect the Provisional Government. Kerensky released many Bolshevik prisoners, relying on them to aid him against Kornilov, and armed the workers of the city. Again, sources differ on the details of how Kornilov’s attack failed, but it seems there was no actual fighting, and that his troops may have disintegrated before reaching the capital.

However, in his desperation, Kerensky had unwittingly given the Bolsheviks everything they needed. With their leaders back, the Bolsheviks began to use the whole Kornilov Affair to discredit the Government and the moderate committee of the Soviets. They convinced more and more people to fight against the government; and the people, tired of their ongoing desperate struggle, and the bumbling of the Government, happily accepted the offer. Meanwhile, the Kornilov Affair had cost Kerensky the support of the army, and unlike in the July Days, he was unable to do anything about the Bolsheviks gaining power.

On the 25th September, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, followed a couple of days later by a similar win in the Moscow Soviet. Leon Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. By the 7th October, Lenin returned to Petrograd for the second time, although he remained in hiding. Lenin persuaded the Bolshevik Central Committee that the time was now, and on the 10th they decided to begin planning an armed uprising. On the 12th October, a ‘Military Revolutionary Committee’ was formed as part of the Petrograd Soviet, and was run by Leon Trotsky. This Committee organised how the Bolsheviks would take power, and took control of the Russian troops left in the city, ordering them not to fight against a Bolshevik revolution.

On the 23rd October, Kerensky learned of the Bolsheviks’ plan, and ordered the closing of the Bolshevik newspaper offices within Petrograd. By the next day, Lenin had ordered the Bolshevik take-over of the city. The Bolsheviks encountered next to no resistance, and by the 25th they controlled the whole city of Petrograd, and had taken over the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace. Most of the Government were arrested, but Kerensky managed to escape to exile.

On the 26th November, the overwhelmingly Bolshevik Congress endorsed the Sovarkom, an all-Bolshevik government, with Lenin as the chairman. This announcement quickly led to revolutionary take-overs by the Bolsheviks in other cities, including Moscow. By the 2nd December, The Bolsheviks had control of the major cities in Russia, and had achieved almost all their objectives, including the signing of an Armistace to take Russia out of WWI.

In less than a year, Russia had gone through two almost revolutions, which were sparked not by one thing, but by an intricate combination of factors that depended on each other to bring the Russian people to revolt. As a result, both revolutions were almost instantaneous, with almost no fighting or blood loss. However, the periods leading up to each revolution were lengthy, as significant pressure needed to build from a number of sides before either revolution could be carried off. 1917 is remembered as the year of the two Russian Revolutions, but victory could not be claimed, as the real battle over Russia had not yet begun. Soon after, Russia was plunged into a Civil War between the Bolshevik Reds and the opposition Whites, a war in which more blood was spilled than in countless revolutions.