Leadup to the Russian Revolution of 1917
“The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.” 1
The years 1881 to 1905 were ones of severe repression of the people of Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II, a moderate reformer. His son, Alexander III, felt that this was proof of the failure of reform, and he set about persecuting minority groups and dissidents. It was an offence to criticise the Czar, there were no political parties, and censorship of literature and the press was severe. Jews and Nationalist groups were portrayed as enemies of the Russian people and widely attacked.
Russia was at that time a nation well behind Western Europe in almost every respect. Lacking any representative body, the nation was ruled over by an autocratic Czar, and the functioning of the law at the local level was in the hands of police, appointed officials, and local landowners. The individual lives of ordinary people were controlled by the bureaucracy, an inefficient and unenlightened class of office workers. The Czar’s authority was reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church, which was independent of outside interference, opposed to political change and committed to the preservation of the Czarist system, which guaranteed the comfortable living standards of its top priests. These ruling clergy encouraged the belief in a divinely-appointed Czar and promised divine retribution if this assertion were challenged.
Russia’s economy was behind the times and poor. An industrial revolution had failed to take place until the “great spurt” of the 1890s, and therefore an estimated 82% of the population were still peasants, most of them landless due to the high cost of property, others burdened with huge mortgages. Farming techniques were outdated and had been surpassed decades ago in Western Europe, and therefore not enough food was being produced to keep pace with an ever-burgeoning population. To combat this and the various other problems facing the economy, Ministers such as Sergei Witte and Peter Stolypin attempted to drag Russia “kicking and screaming” into the twentieth century, or at least the nineteenth. Witte was especially interested in industrial reform, including the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which he believed would help modernise the economy. The economic “great spurt” of the 1890s is mostly attributable to his work as Minister of Finance. Stolypin was an agricultural reformer, intent upon ending the former inefficient farming practices and reorganising agriculture on more modern, Western lines, whilst at the same time “de-revolutionizing” the peasantry.
Although the policies of these men met with some success, they were hampered by the Czar and other members of government, who suspected that the reforms were designed to undermine them. The Czars had always feared their Ministers’ desire for power, and therefore generally appointed incompetents to lead their government. Had the government and bureaucracy been willing to support Witte and Stolypin, who in fact were deeply loyal, they might have prevented the build-up of social tensions which culminated in the 1917 Revolution.2
The inefficiency of the Russian Army was reflective of the condition of the Russian nation as a whole. The great majority of its soldiers were forcefully recruited from the peasant classes, or they were condemned criminals, and the officers came solely from the aristocracy. As one might expect, the soldiers were poorly trained and the officers clueless. Conditions were so harsh that in the period 1825-55, one million soldiers died in peacetime. The officers were not necessarily professional soldiers, and they bought and sold their commissions as they pleased. 45% of the Government’s revenue was spent on the army.
A variety of political groups were formed late in the nineteenth century following the emergence of the intelligentsia, who were for the most part political reformers, and the capitalists following the aforementioned “great spurt”. As there was so much repression of thought and discussion by the secret police, political parties were driven underground. These organisations were split into right and left wing extremists, most following a program of violence. Moderates, who might have saved the Czarist regime in a modified form, gained little following as their message seemed to pale in comparison with the more extreme factions. The major groups included the Social Democrats - revolutionaries from which sprung the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions - and the liberals, who advocated reform to varying degrees, and who gained most from the October Revolution. Other groups favoured moderate reform, and some (the minority) were deeply rightist, supporting the status-quo and even more repressive government.
Discontent over the problems facing society came to a climax in 1905, during and following Russia’s humiliation in the Russo-Japanese war. A series of protests and strikes known as the 1905 Revolution forced the Czar, Nicholas II, to compromise with the dissatisfied masses in order to ensure his own survival. In order to appease the bourgeois liberals, he agreed to the formation of a representative body, the Duma, as well as the lifting of several repressive laws. The peasants were easily bought off with a reduction and eventual cancellation of all outstanding mortgages on property. Only the demands of the industrial workers were ignored, as without the support of the other two major factions they were easy for the army to silence. That factory workers represented only 4% of Russia’s population not only shows how little power they had, but also clearly evinces the backwards nature of the Russian economy.3
It soon became clear that these reforms were designed to do nothing more but quell dissent until the Czar, ensuring that he still had the support of the army, could recover from the shock and crippling damage of the Russo-Japanese war and crush opposition to regain absolute power. Having seen the manner in which dissatisfaction could so easily paralyze the Empire, the Czar would have been wise to swallow his pride and allow the rather moderate reforms to which he had agreed to stand. Instead, between 1907 and 1914, the powers of the Duma were slowly eroded. The first Duma, elected with a system designed to represent each social class, was dominated by liberals and reformists and a vocal critic of government policy, especially regarding the limits upon its own power. It responded angrily to the Czar’s proclamation of the Fundamental Laws, which deprived it of any genuine legislative control4, and after being broken up by the czar, several hundred members urged the populace to undertake a campaign of civil disobedience. The government responded with arrests and executions. The second Duma was similarly disbanded following its criticisms of the armed forces, and the Czar modified the electoral system for the third and fourth Dumas, ensuring that although these bodies might criticise some areas of government policy, they were not especially harsh nor vocal. Despite this, the fourth Duma predicted towards the end of 1913 that the civil disturbances taking place in Russia and Europe could transform into war and Revolution.
The advent of World War I further augmented the problems facing Russia and served as a springboard to revolution. Both the military and the government were completely unprepared for the war, which exposed the inadequacies and incompetence of the regime. Troops were starving, freezing, and severely lacking in ammunition. The bad management of the army produced mass discontent, leading to desertion and mutiny on a far greater scale than was seen during the course of the Russo-Japanese war. Although the Russian Army was far greater in size than its opposition, it suffered huge defeats due to the poor organisation of supplies and training. The problems on the front were compounded by the strife at home. Workers and other urban inhabitants were starving, and a general wave of discontent was sweeping the nation, manifesting itself in riots. Remarkably, rather than concentrating on improving conditions and winning the war, the royal family devoted its attentions to a man called Gregory Rasputin, whose “…constant ignorant meddling in affairs of state…embittered all sections of the population not only against him but also against the Imperial family”5. The Czarina especially believed him to have mystical powers. This was a minor factor in the growing discontent with the current system, but combined with the war it played a part in convincing the populace that the Czar was out of touch not only with the people but with reality.
The problems on the front and at home provided ample ammunition for Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups. They distributed their propaganda on the front, encouraging soldiers to desert and to return home to join the revolutionary cause, which many willingly did. Lenin himself was shipped from Germany to lead the Revolution by Kaiser Wilhelm I’s government, who knew that the anti-war Bolsheviks would eliminate Russia as a threat.
The underlying reasons for the breakout of revolution date back to the beginnings of Czarism. Czars did not trust their ministers, and therefore, with a few exceptions, appointed small-minded and incompetent fools to run the country, ensuring the corrupt and inefficient management of the government. The more immediate causes of the revolution date back to 1881, to the beginning of an autocratic repression which would eventually fall back onto itself. This reactionary crushing of opposition, as well as the illogical repression when unity was needed (for example, towards the Jews and Nationalistic groups) is a prime example of the seemingly thoughtless autocracy of the Czars, demonstrating their ineptitude in successfully managing a changing nation. The Czar could have avoided revolution with a series of gradual political and economic reforms, but his shortsighted and selfish policies as well as the mediocrity of those he chose to serve him prevented this. The wishes of the people were ignored, with inevitable consequences.
1. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1932, Gollancz, p. 16
2. Michael Lynch, Reactions and Revolutions: Russia 1881-1924, 1992, Hodder & Stoughton, p. 27
3. Linca points out that the great majority of the uprisings and revolts that were to follow took place in St Petersburg, "which was industrialised in the same way as the rest of Europe".
4. Michael Lynch, Reactions and Revolutions: Russia 1881-1924, 1992, Hodder & Stoughton, p. 51
5. George Shavel’skii, Head Chaplian of the Russian Army and Navy. From G. Vernadsky and RT Fisher, A Source Book for Russian History From Early Times to 1917, pp. 856-7
1. Margot Morcombe & Mark Fielding, The Spirit of Change, 1998, McGraw-Hill Book Co.
2. Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, 1994, Oxford University Press
3. Michael Lynch, Reactions and Revolutions: Russia 1881-1924, 1992, Hodder & Stoughton
4. Michael Bucklow & Glenn Russell, Russia: Why Revolution?, 1981, Longman
5. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1932, Gollancz
I wrote this essay for my History of Revolutions class in Year 11. Node Your Homework
The information given in Famous drug addicts might go some way to explaining the Czar's incompetence.