The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an event of enormous significance in twentieth-century world history. It marked the end of the distinctive society of czarist Russia, the world’s largest country at the time, and the beginning of the first large-scale effort to construct a modern socialist society.
To many oppressed people in the world the Russian Revolution of 1917 represented a beacon of hope, promising that capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination need not be permanent. To most Western capitalist societies, however, the revolution was a threat of epic proportions—challenging private property, existing social structures, parliamentary democracy, and established religion. Its triumph in Russia initiated a deep rift in the global community between Communist countries and the capitalist democracies of the West.
The first phase of the Russian Revolution occurred in February 1917, when the last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated the throne, marking the end of the Romanov dynasty that had governed Russia for almost three centuries. What had brought czarist Russia to this revolutionary turning point? Factors surely included the ancient inequalities, conflicts, and divisions of Russian society—the great gulf between a small land-owning nobility and a vast peasant class; the dominance of Russians over the empire’s many other peoples; the absolute authority of the czar over all other groups in society.
Perhaps more important were the reforms that Russia’s nineteenth-century czars made as they attempted to modernize their country and catch up with the industrializing West. They ended serfdom in 1861, but the lives of most peasants did not improve dramatically. They promoted rapid industrial growth but did not anticipate the political demands of a growing middle class or the rising wave of protests by exploited urban workers. Despite modest political reforms and elections to a national parliament (the Duma), the czar’s government was exceedingly reluctant to share political power with other groups in society. As a result, various groups of revolutionaries emerged—many of them committed to socialism. Their activities only worsened the growing tensions of Russian society. But the pressures of World War I—massive casualties and economic breakdown—prompted mass demonstrations in the capital, St. Petersburg. Women, workers, students, and soldiers took to the streets in February 1917. Even the czar’s most loyal supporters deserted him. These circumstances caused Nicholas II to vacate the Russian throne.
When the Russian monarchy collapsed, power was assumed by a provisional government, a coalition of leading middle-class liberals from the Duma and representatives of several mainstream socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Although this new Russian government dismantled much of the old czarist state and promised a democratic constitution, its failure to end the economic chaos, to distribute land to the peasants, and to remove Russia from World War I opened the gates to a massive social upheaval during the summer and early autumn of 1917. Soldiers deserted in growing numbers; peasants began to seize the estates of their landlords; urban workers created highly popular grass-roots organizations called “soviets” to manage local affairs and to challenge official state authorities; minority ethnic groups demanded autonomy or independence. Russia was coming unglued and the provisional government increasingly discredited.
These circumstances created an opening for a small radical socialist party known as the “Bolsheviks,” led by the highly disciplined and ferociously revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924). As the only major socialist party that had not affiliated with the provisional government, it alone was untainted by the failures of that government. Thus, the Bolsheviks grew rapidly in popularity and in numbers of party members, especially in the large cities and among workers and soldiers. Their program, drawn up by Lenin, was far closer to the mood of the masses than that of the provisional government. It called for immediate peace, confiscation of land-owners’ estates, workers’ control in the factories, self-determination for non-Russian nationalities, and “all power to the soviets,” which meant the overthrow of the provisional government. Lenin insisted that the Bolsheviks seize formal state power from the increasingly unpopular provisional government. On the night of 24–25 October, Bolshevik-led armed forces took control of major centers in St. Petersburg, but they did so in the name of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which was then assembling in the city. Thus, the Bolsheviks presented their takeover as a defense of the revolution and as a way of bringing a government of the soviets to power. So unpopular had the provisional government become that people put up little initial resistance to what the Bolsheviks called the “October Revolution.” During the next several months Bolshevik-led soviets in many other cities also seized power and joined the revolution, at some times peacefully and at other times violently.
Few people thought that the radical Bolsheviks could maintain power. Within six months the Bolsheviks found themselves in a bitter civil war against a variety of enemies—supporters of the czarist regime, middle-class liberals who favored the provisional government, and even a number of socialists who were offended at the Bolsheviks’ unilateral seizure of power. Three years of bitter fighting ensued before the Bolsheviks staggered to victory in 1921, their hold on Russia, soon to be renamed the “Soviet Union,” finally secure. Their opponents were divided, and some of them—known generally as the “Whites”—wanted to restore lost properties to the landlords. The Bolsheviks’ identification with the popular soviets and their willingness to endorse peasant seizure of land gave them an edge in competing for mass support. Their ability to integrate a number of lower-class men into the newly formed Red Army and into new institutions of local government provided a measure of social mobility for many. Because a number of capitalist powers, including Britain, France, the United States, and Japan, briefly entered the conflict on the side of the Whites, the Communists could present themselves as patriotic defenders against foreign intervention. The Russian Revolution had brought to power a Communist party—the Bolsheviks—which now proceeded to construct the world’s first socialist society.
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