Russian Revolutions of 1917

Russian Revolutions
of 1917
The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II
in March 1917, in conjunction with the establishment of a provisional government
based on Western principles of constitutional liberalism, and the seizure
of power by the Bolsheviks in November, are the political focal points
of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. The events of that momentous year must
also be viewed more broadly, however: as an explosion of social tensions
associated with rapid industrialization; as a crisis of political modernization,
in terms of the strains placed on traditional institutions by the demands
of Westernization and of World War I; and as a social upheaval in the broadest
sense, involving a massive, spontaneous expropriation of gentry land by
angry peasants, the destruction of traditional social patterns and values,
and the struggle for a new, egalitarian society. Looking at the revolutionary
process broadly, one must also include the Bolsheviks’ fight to keep the
world’s first “proletarian dictatorship” in power after November, first
against the Germans, and then in the civil war against dissident socialists,
anti-Bolshevik “White Guards,” foreign intervention, and anarchist peasant
bands. Finally, one must see the psychological aspects of revolutionary
change: elation and hope, fear and discouragement, and ultimately the prolonged
agony of bloodshed and privation, both from war and repression, and the”bony hand of Tsar Hunger,” who strangled tens of thousands and, in the
end, brought the revolutionary period to a close after the civil war by
forcing the Bolsheviks to abandon the radical measures of War Communism
in favor of a New Economic Policy (NEP).


Throughout, the events in Russia were
of worldwide importance. Western nations saw “immutable” values and institutions
successfully challenged, COMMUNISM emerged as a viable social and political
system, and Third World peoples saw the power of organized workers’ and
peasants’ movements as a means of “liberating” themselves from “bourgeois”
exploitation. As such, the Revolutions of 1917 ushered in the great social,
political, and ideological divisions of the contemporary world.

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Historical Background
Historians differ over whether the Revolutions
of 1917 were inevitable, but all agree on the importance of three related
causal factors: massive discontent, the revolutionary movement, and World
War I, each operating in the context of the ineptitude of a rigid, absolutist
state. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 left the countryside
in deep poverty. The newly freed peasants received inadequate land allotments,
particularly in areas of fertile soil, and even these had to be purchased
with “redemption payments.” Class antagonisms sharpened, particularly since
government-promoted industrialization sent impoverished peasants flocking
to jobs in urban areas for low wages under oppressive conditions. Government
efforts to industrialize also required huge tax revenues, which intensified
pressures on workers and peasants alike. Meanwhile, the rising business
and professional classes expressed unhappiness with tsarist rule and yearned
for a Western-style parliamentary system. By 1905 discontent among
the bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat had spurred Russian intellectuals
to create the major political organizations of 1917. Populist groups, organized
in the countryside by the 1890s, joined radical socialist workers’ groups
in the founding of the Socialist Revolutionary party in 1901. The Marxist
SocialDemocratic Labor party was established in 1898. Five years later
it divided into two factions: the Mensheviks, who favored a decentralized,
mass party; and the Bolsheviks of Vladimir Ilich LENIN, who wanted a tightly
organized, hierarchical party (see BOLSHEVIKS AND MENSHEVIKS). Middle-class
liberals formed the Constitutional Democratic party (Cadets) in 1905.


Russian losses in the RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR precipitated the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
OF 1905. The massive urban strikes, rural rioting, and almost total liberal
disaffection from the tsarist regime in 1905 have been called a “dress
rehearsal” for 1917. Reluctantly, Nicholas II granted a range of civil
liberties, established limited parliamentary government through a DUMA,
abolished peasant redemption payments, and under Pyotr STOLYPIN began an
agrarian reform program to promote the growth of a rural middle class.


These measures momentarily quieted the populace, but they also raised new
expectations; many concessions were later withdrawn, thus exacerbating
tensions. Furthermore, the social stability that some thought the tsar’s
promises offered required time to develop, and this Russia did not have.


The March Revolution
In 1914, Russia was again at war. Land
reform was suspended, and new political restrictions were imposed. Disastrous
military defeats sapped public morale, and ineffective organization on
the home front made the government’s incompetence obvious to all. The emperor,
assuming command of the army in 1915, became identified with its weakness.


The sinister influence of Empress ALEXANDRA’s favorite, Grigory RASPUTIN,
increased. By the winter of 1916-17, disaffection again rent all sectors
of society, including liberals, peasants, and industrial workers.


When food shortages provoked street demonstrations in Petrograd on March
8 (N.S.; Feb. 23, O.S.), 1917, and garrison soldiers refused to suppress
them, Duma leaders demanded that Nicholas transfer power to a parliamentary
government. With the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies,
a special Duma committee on March 15 (N.S.; March 2, O.S.) established
a provisional government headed by Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal. On the
same day, the emperor abdicated. He attempted to give the crown to his
brother Michael, but Michael refused to accept it. The 300-year-old Romanov
dynasty came to an end.


The new provisional government was
almost universally welcomed. Civil liberties were proclaimed, new wage
agreements and an 8-hour day were negotiated in Petrograd, discipline was
relaxed in the army, and elections were promised for a Constituent Assembly
that would organize a permanent democratic order. The existence of two
seats of power, however–the provisional government and the Petrograd
Soviet–not only represented a potential political rivalry but alsoreflected
the different aspirations of different sectors of Russian society.


For most Russians of privilege–members
of the bourgeoisie, the gentry, and many professionals–the March Revolution
meant clearing the decks for victory over Germany and for the establishment
of Russia as a leading European liberal democracy. They regarded the provisional
government as the sole legitimate authority. For most workers and peasants,
however, revolution meant an end to an imperialist war, major economic
reforms, and the development of an egalitarian social order. They looked
to the Petrograd Soviet and other soviets springing up around the country
to represent their interests, and they supported the government only insofar
as it met their needs.


Political Polarization
Differing conceptions of the revolution
quickly led to a series of crises. Widespread popular opposition to the
war caused the Petrograd Soviet on April 9 (N.S.; March 27, O.S.) to repudiate
annexationist ambitions and to establish in May a coalition government
including several moderate socialists in addition to Aleksandr KERENSKY,
who had been in the cabinet from the beginning. The participation of such
socialists in a government that continued to prosecute the war and that
failed to implement basic reforms, however, only served to identify their
parties–the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others–with government
failures. On July 16-17 (N.S.; July 3-4, O.S.), following a disastrous
military offensive, Petrograd soldiers, instigated by local Bolshevik agitators,
demonstrated against the government in what became known as the “July Days.”
The demonstrations soon subsided, and on July 20 (N.S.; July 7, O.S.),
Kerensky replaced Lvov as premier. Soon, however, the provisional government
was threatened by the right, which had lost confidence in the regime’s
ability to maintain order. In early September (N.S.; late August, O.S.),
General Lavr KORNILOV was thwarted in an apparent effort to establish a
right-wing military dictatorship. Ominously, his effort was backed by the
Cadets, traditionally the party of liberal constitutionalism. The crises
faced by the provisional government reflected a growing polarization of
Russian politics toward the extreme left and extreme right.


Meanwhile, another revolution was taking
place that, in the view of many, was more profound and ultimately more
consequential than were the political events in Petrograd. All over Russia,
peasants were expropriating land from the gentry. Peasant-soldiers fled
the trenches so as not to be left out, and the government could not
stem the tide. New shortages consequently appeared in urban areas, causing
scores of factories to close. Angry workers formed their own factory committees,
sequestering plants to keep them running and to gain new material benefits.


By the summer of 1917 a social upheaval of vast proportions was sweeping
over Russia.


The November Revolution
Sensing that the time was ripe, Lenin
and the Bolsheviks rapidly mobilized for power. From the moment he returned
from exile on Apr. 16 (N.S.; Apr. 3, O.S.), 1917, Lenin, pressing for a
Bolshevik-led seizure of power by the soviets, categorically disassociated
his party from both the government and the “accommodationist” socialists.


“Liberals support the war and the interests of the bourgeoisie!” he insisted,
adding that “socialist lackeys” aided the liberals by agreeing to postpone
reforms and continue fighting. With appealing slogans such as “Peace, Land,
and Bread!” the Bolsheviks identified themselves with Russia’s broad social
revolution rather than with political liberty or the political revolution
of March. Better organized than their rivals, the Bolsheviks worked tirelessly
in local election campaigns. In factories they quickly came to dominate
major committees; they also secured growing support in local soviets. A
Bolshevik-inspired military uprising was suppressed in July. The next month,
however, after Kornilov’s attempted coup, Bolshevik popularity soared,
and Lenin’s supporters secured majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscow
soviets, winning 51 percent of the vote in Moscow city government elections.


Reacting to the momentum of events, Lenin, from hiding, ordered preparations
for an armed insurrection. Fully aware of what was about to transpire,
the provisional regime proved helpless.


On the night of November 6-7 (N.S.; October
24-25, O.S.) the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in the name of the
soviets, meeting little armed resistance. An All-Russian Congress of Soviets
of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, meeting in Petrograd at the time, ratified
the Bolsheviks’ actions on November 8. The congress also declared the establishment
of a soviet government headed by a Council of People’s Commissars chaired
by Lenin, with Leon TROTSKY in charge of foreign affairs.


The Civil War and Its Aftermath
Few, however, expected Lenin’s “proletarian
dictatorship” to survive. Bolsheviks now faced thesame range of economic,
social, and political problems as did the governments they had replaced.


In addition, anti-Bolsheviks began almost at once to organize armed resistance.


Some placed hope in the Constituent Assembly, elected November 25 (N.S.;
November 12, O.S.); others hoped for foreign intervention. Few appreciated
Lenin’s political boldness, his audacity, and his commitment to shaping
a Communist Russia.


These traits soon became apparent. The
November Constituent Assembly elections returned an absolute majority
for the Socialist Revolutionaries, but Lenin simply dispersed the Assembly
when it met in January 1918. He also issued a decree on land in November
1917, sanctifying the peasants’ land seizures, proclaiming the Bolsheviks
to be a party of poor peasants as well as workers and broadening his own
base of support. He sued the Germans for peace, but under terms of the
Treaty of BREST-LITOVSK (March 1918) he was forced to surrender huge portions
of traditionally Russian territory. Shortly afterward, implementing policies
called War Communism, Lenin ordered the requisition of grain from the countryside
to feed the cities and pressed a program to nationalize virtually all Russian
industry. Centralized planning began, and private trade was strictly forbidden.


These measures, together with class-oriented rationing policies, prompted
tens of thousands to flee abroad.


Not surprisingly, Lenin’s policies provoked
anti-Bolshevik resistance, and civil war erupted in 1918. Constituent Assembly
delegates fled to western Siberia and formed their own “All-Russian” government,
which was soon suppressed by a reactionary “White” dictatorship under Admiral
Aleksandr Kolchak. Army officers in southern Russia organized a “Volunteer
Army” under Generals Lavr Kornilov and Anton Denikin and gained support
from Britain and France; both in the Volga region and the eastern Ukraine,
peasants began to organize against Bolshevik requisitioning and mobilization.


Soon anarchist “Greens” were fighting the “Reds” (Bolsheviks) and Whites
alike in guerrilla-type warfare. Even in Moscow and Petrograd, leftist
Socialist Revolutionaries took up arms against the Bolsheviks, whom they
accused of betraying revolutionary ideals. In response, the Bolsheviks
unleashed their own Red Terror under the Cheka (political police force)
and mobilized a Red Army commanded by Trotsky. The Bolsheviks defeated
Admiral Kolchak’s troops in late 1919, and in 1920 they suppressed the
armies of Baron Pyotr N. WRANGEL and General Denikin in the south. Foreign
troops withdrew, and after briefly marching into Poland the Red Army concentrated
on subduing peasant uprisings. Some Western historians attribute
ultimate Bolshevik victory in this war to White disorganization, half-hearted
support from war-weary Allies, Cheka ruthlessness, and the inability of
Greens to establish a viable alternative government. Most important, however,
was the fact that even while Bolshevik popularity declined, Lenin and his
followers were still identified with what the majority of workers and peasants
wanted most: radical social change rather than political freedom, which
had never been deeply rooted in Russian tradition. In contrast, the Whites
represented the old, oppressive order.


Nevertheless, with the counterrevolution
defeated, leftist anti-Bolshevik sentiment erupted. The naval garrison
at Kronshtadt, long a Bolshevik stronghold, rebelled in March 1921 along
with Petrograd workers in favor of “Soviet Communism without the Bolsheviks!”
This protest was brutally suppressed. The Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary
parties, harassed but not abolished during the civil war, gained support
as the conflict ended. The Bolsheviks outlawed these parties, signaling
their intention to rule alone. Lenin, however, was astute enough to realize
that a strategic retreat was required. At the Tenth Party Congress, in
1921, the NEW ECONOMIC POLICY was introduced, restoring some private property,
ending restrictions on private trade, and terminating forced grain requisitions.


The foundations had been laid for building Bolshevik socialism, but the
revolutionary period proper had come to an end.

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