This year we will see the centenary of possibly one of the most important revolutions in modern history: the communist October Revolution in Russia. However, there was another revolution which preceded the famous communist revolution. This revolution, the February Revolution, took place between March 8 and March 16 1917 (Russia still used the Julian calendar then), and caused the end of the Russian Empire. To understand the later October Revolution we first have to understand the February Revolution.
Long Term Origins
|Tsar Nicholas II|
Since the mid-nineteenth century Russia had been slowly industrializing and liberalizing. The industrialization effort went slowly but the liberalization efforts were more rocky. Tsar Alexander II has been seen as the one who started this process but after his assassination by members of a socialist organization called Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) the liberal reforms were setback. By the time that Nicholas II became Tsar (1894) Russian society was rapidly changing. Industrialization had brought people from the countryside to cities like Moscow; university educated intelligentsia started agitating for more democratic institutions like in France and Britain; and socialists and anarchists started agitating for more radical changes to Russian society. Russia was caught between a growing industrial power, and the old feudal, aristocratic order. The intelligentsia, anarchists and socialists began educating the lower classes about new politics and societal orders which could change their lives. Then in 1904 war with Japan broke out. Russia had regarded the growing Japanese Empire as a 'backward Asian island' so had not taken Japan seriously over the claims to the Liaodong peninsula in China. Russia had been using a port there, Port Arthur, as a warm-water port and had the Trans-Siberian Railway ending in the region. Meanwhile, Japan wanted to expand into China and did not want Russian influence in the area. The Russo-Japanese War was an utter failure for Russia. In 1904 at the Battle of Liaoyung 125,000 Japanese troops with 485 guns defeated 160,000 Russians with 592 guns, and at the Battle of Tsushima in April 1905 the Japanese navy decimated the Russian navy which had been making its way from the Baltic.
Thanks to military setbacks during the war grievances over poverty, nationality, and various other reasons flared up into revolution in January 1905. Orthodox priest Gregory Gapon had led a march to the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to Tsar Nicholas II. The Imperial Guard opened fire where the government claimed 96 died while the anti-government media claimed 4000 died. Socialists and nationalists organized strikes as a result. In Warsaw the Polish Socialist Party and Social Democratic Party triggered a strike which ended violently while there were major strikes and demonstrations in Riga. On October 30 1907 the October Manifesto was created which set out a constitution and Duma (parliament) which Nicholas II only accepted when Grand Duke Nicholas threatened to shoot himself. In July 1906 P.A. Stolypin became prime minister thanks to his suppression of rebellion in Saratov Province. Unlike Congress in the United States or Britain's Parliament the tsar still held huge amounts of power. Only Nicholas could change the Fundamental Laws; the Duma's budget did not include court, naval and military expenditures; the Duma could be dissolved by the tsar; and Article 87 allowed the tsar to issue emergency decrees when the legislature was not in session. Meanwhile, the press boomed with the Gazeta kopeika (The Kpock Newspaper) reached a circulation of 250,000 in only the second year of publication. These papers told the literate the many affairs and criticisms of the ruling elite, who would then inform the masses. One such example are the rumors and innuendos about Grigori Rasputin's religious and sexual activities. Among these rumors was that Rasputin was sleeping with the tsarina and helping influence Russian politics through this. Before 1914 the Dumas were constantly being dissolved and Stolypin himself was assassinated in 1911 by a leftist called Dmitry Bogrov, although Nicholas' canceling the judicial investigation made many believe that the conservative monarchists were truly behind the assassination. As domestically the tsar was losing control in Sarajevo heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated sparking the First World War.
World War One
|Russia in the War|
On July 28 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, an ally of Russia, causing Nicholas II to order Russia's mobilization. Germany declared war on Russia and thus Russia entered the First World War. Just like with the war with Japan the First World War went disastrously for Russia. Initially the war had caused a surge of nationalism and loyalty towards the Tsar with the only group opposing the war being the Bolshevik Party and Vladimir Lenin. Lenin (who would lead the October Revolution) opposed the war seeing it as an imperialist war. This unity soon dissipated as the Russian army faced defeat after defeat. Despite several victories, such as under the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, the military saw many catastrophic defeats, like at Tannenburg. Germany quickly pushed into Poland and horrific tragedies occurred. People in Poland and the Baltics first had to endure shelling from the German forces, and then had to face forced removals by the Russian military as they were seen as 'enemy aliens'. This 'Great Retreat' of 1915 by the Russian military led to burning of buildings and farms, mass raping women, and mass deportations. It is estimated that a million were driven out of their homes, and a further 5-10 million 'voluntarily' left their homes. One Russian said:
Polish peasants who had fled from their villages sat or lay on the ground near their covered wagons. Babies howled, turned blue in the arms of their exhausted and disheveled mothers.
Thousands of Jews, Polish, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Ukrainians faced the cold, hunger, disease, and mistreatment. In Kazakhstan Russian homesteaders clashed with Kazakhs and Kirgiz causing thousands of deaths. The Tsarist army had relied on the Allies to supply arms but the German fleet blockaded the Baltic, and the Turkish blockaded the Black Sea straits cutting off this supply. It took until 1916 for Russian industry to produce enough shells. As major grain producing regions of Poland and Ukraine were lost grain prices skyrocketed so people printed more money to counteract this which in turn caused mass inflation. The Tsar still mistrusted the Duma seeing it as trying to usurp his power. Angry over Rasputin's influence over government appointments several nobles assassinated the monk in 1916. By 1917 the situation was at breaking point.
|Students firing at police|
On March 8 (February 23 in Russia) Petrograd Social Democrats on International Women's Day issued leaflets. Food production problems, rising inflation rates, and war setbacks had caused mass dissatisfaction with the regime, and the Social Democrats handed leaflets to women waiting in food lines. Their leaflets read:
The government is guilty; it started the war and cannot end it. It is destroying the country and your starving is their fault. The capitalists are guilty; for their profit the war goes on. It's about time to tell them loud: Enough! Down with the criminal government and all its gang of thieves and murderers. Long live peace!
Women started bread protests which inspired factory workers in the Vyborg District and the Putilov Factory. Activists joined the protests and protesters crossed the frozen Neva River where they clashed with the police beginning the revolution. Two days later Tsar Nicholas II ordered the garrison to put down the revolt but many units joined the crowd with a few killing their officers. Ships anchored in Helsinki and Kronstadt had sailors throwing their officers overboard, or into furnaces. The Duma urged Nicholas to implement immediate political measures but in response he dismissed the Duma. On March 12 the tsar's crack units, the Volynian Regiment, mutinied and joined the revolt. The same day two shadow governments were formed: the Provisional Government made of senior Duma members at the Tauride Palace, and the Petrograd soviet in another wing of the palace. The Provisional Government soon arrested some of the tsar's ministers although this was done to protect them from revolutionaries. With the monarchy losing all control on March 15 Nicholas II made this statement:
In agreement with the State Duna, we have thought it best to abdicate the throne of the Russian state and to lay down the supreme power. Not wishing to part with our beloved son, we hand down our inheritance to our brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich.
Michael reigned for just a day ending Russian monarchy which had ruled for a thousand years, four hundred years of Tsardom, and three hundred years of Romanov rule. Incidentally this decade saw the end of many monarchies across the world: in 1910 Japan annexed Korea ending the monarchy there, 1910 the Portuguese monarchy was overthrown, 1911 Qing emperor Puyi abdicated ending monarchy in China (although in 1916 Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor briefly before becoming president again), 1914 Portugal ended the Kongolese monarchy, defeat in the war ended monarchies in Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, newly independent Finland and Lithuania became republics when Germany surrendered, and Montenegro lost its monarchy when it merged into Yugoslavia.
|Lenin in the October Revolution|
The Provisional Government was set up to replace the tsar under Prince Georgy Lvov. This government was made of the moderate conservative Octobrists, the liberal Kadets, the Marxist Social Democrats (SDs), with two branches (the moderate Mensheviks and radical Bolsheviks), and the peasant-oriented Socialist Revolutionaries. However, the Provisional Government was extremely weak thanks to the economic woes from tsarist rule, and it chose to continue fighting the war. Many viewed the war negatively and saw no need to continue an imperialist war. Vladimir Lenin arrived in April from his exile in Switzerland and started criticizing the Provisional Government. By November with the war still waging, mass mutinies, and rising unpopularity a second revolution took place. A hundred years ago the tsardom fell, and later this year a hundred years would have passed since the first successful communist revolution.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-A History of Russia since 1800 by Catherine Evtuhov and Richard Stites
-Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 by Geoffrey Hosking