Russia and the Revolutions (1900-24)
In the yearly years of the twentieth century, Russia was in a troubled state. Nicholas II, who was Tsar(emperor) from 1894 until 1917, insisted on ruling as an autocrat, but he failed adequately to deal with the country’s problems. Unrest and criticism of the government reached the climax in 1905 with the Russian defeats against Japan (1904-05); there was a general strike and the attempted revolution which forced Nicholas to make concessions (the October Manifesto). These included the granting of an elected parliament (the Duma). When it became clear that the duma was ineffective, unrest increased and culminated, after disastrous Russian defeats in the First World War, in two revolutions, both in 1917.
- The first revolution (February/March) overthrew Tsar and set up a moderate provisional government. When this coped no better than the Tsar, it was itself overthrown by a second uprising;
- The Bolshevik revolution (October/November)
The new Bolshevik government was shaky at first and its opponents (known as the whites) tried to destroy it, causing a bitter civil war (1918-20). Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks (Reds) won the civil war and now calling themselves communists, were able to consolidate their power. Lenin began the task of leading Russia to recovery, but he died prematurely in January 1924.
Nicholas II tries to stabilize his regime
Nicholas survived the 1905 revolution because:
- His opponents were not united;
- There was no central leadership;
- Most of the army remained loyal;
- He had been willing to compromise at the critical moment by issuing the October Manifesto, promising concessions. These included the elected parliament (Duma); granting basic civil liberties to the population-freedom of conscience, of speech, of assembly and of association; universal suffrage in elections for the Duma; no law could begin to operate without the approval of the Duma.
The Manifesto appeared to grant many of the demands of the moderate liberal reformers, so that now had a breathing space in which Nicholas had an excellent opportunity to make constitutional monarchy work, and to throw himself on the side of the moderate reformers. However, there were other demands not addressed in the Manifesto, for example:
- Improvements in the industrial working conditions and pay;
- An amnesty for political prisoners;
- Cancellation of redemption payments- these are the annual payments to the government by the peasants in return for their freedom and some land, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861: although peasants had received their legal freedom, these compulsory payments had reduced over half the rural population to dire poverty.
Unfortunately, Nicholas seems to have had very little intention of keeping to the spirit of the October Manifesto, having agreed to it only he had no other choice.
- The First Duma (1906) was not democratically elected, for although all classes were allowed to vote, the system was rigged so that landowners and the middle classes would be in the majority.
- The Second Duma (1907) suffered the same fate, after which Nicholas changed the voting system, depriving peasants and urban workers of the vote.
- The Third Duma (1907-12) and the Fourth Duma (1912-17) were much more conservative and therefore lasted longer. Though on occasion they criticized the government, they had no power, because the Tsar controlled the ministers and the secret police. Weakness of the regime
- Failure of the land reforms
- Industrial unrest
There was a wave of industrial strikes set off by shooting of 270 gold miners in the Lena goldfields in Siberia (April 1912). In all there were over 200 separate strikes in that year, 2400 in 1913 and over 4000 in the first seven months of 1914, before war broke out. Whatever improvements had taken place, they were not enough to remove all the pre-1905 grievances.
- Government repression
There was little relaxation of the government’s repressive policy, as the secret police rooted out revolutionaries among university students and lecturers and deported masses of Jews, thereby ensuring that both groups were firmly anti-tsarist. The situation was particularly dangerous because the government had made the mistake of alienating three of the most important sections in the society- peasants, industrial workers and the intelligentsia (educated classes).
- Revival of the revolutionary parties
As 1912 progressed, the fortunes of the various revolutionary parties, especially the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, revived. Both groups have developed from an earlier movement, the Social Democrat Labor Party, which was Marxist in outlook. Karl Marx (1818-83) was a German Jew whose political ideas were set out in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (Capital) (1867). He believed that economic factors were the real cause of historical change, and that workers (proletariat) were everywhere exploited by capitalists; this means that when a society became fully industrialized, the workers would inevitably rise up against their exploiters and take control themselves, running the country in their own interests. Marx called this ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.
One of the Social Democratic leaders was Vladimir Lenin, who helped to edit the revolutionary newspapers Iskar (The Spark). It was over an election to the editorial board of Iskar in 1903 that the party had split into Lenin’s supporters, the Bolsheviks (the Russian word for ‘majority’) and the Mensheviks (minority).
- Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted a small, disciplined party of professional revolutionaries who would work full-time to bring about revolution; because the industrial workers were in a minority, Lenin believed they must work with the peasants as well and get them involved in revolutionary activity.
- The Mensheviks, on the other hand, were happy to have part membership open to anybody; they believed that a revolution could not take place in Russia until the country was fully industrialized and industrial workers were in a big majority over peasants; they had very little faith in co-operation from peasants, who were actually one of the most conservative groups in the society. The Mensheviks were the strict Marxists, believing in a proletarian revolution, whereas Lenin was the one moving away from Marxism. In 1912 appeared the new Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (Truth), which was extremely important for publicizing Bolshevik ideas and giving political direction to the already developing strike wave.
- The Social Revolutionaries were another revolutionary party; they were not Marxists- they did not approve of increasing industrialization and did not think in terms of proletarian revolution. After the overthrow of the tsarist regime, they wanted a mainly agrarian society based on peasant communities operating collectively.
- The Royal family discredited
The royal family was discredited by a number of scandals. It was widely suspected that Nicholas himself was a party to the murder of Stolypin, who was shot by a member of the secret police in the Tsar presence during a gala performance at the Kiev Opera.
War failures made revolution certain
Historians agree that Russian failures in the war made revolution certain, causing troops and police to mutiny, so that there was nobody to defend the autocracy. The war revealed the incompetent and corrupt organization and the shortage of equipment. Poor transport organization and distribution meant that arms and ammunition were slow to reach. Though there was plenty of food, it did not reach in sufficient quantities, because most of the trains are monopolized by the military.
By January 1917, most groups in society were disillusioned with the incompetent way the Tsar was running the war. The aristocracy, the Duma, many industrialists and the army were beginning to turn against Nicholas, feeling that it would be better to sacrifice him to avoid a much worse revolution. General Kirov told a secret meeting of Duma members at the end of 1916.
The Bolshevik leaders
The November revolution was led by a group of intellectuals, most of whom had never seen a worker’s bench or used. Many of them—notably Lenin and Trotsky—had lived in exile abroad because their views had brought them into conflict with the czarist government. The guiding spirit of the revolution was Lenin, who came from the intelligentsia and had spent his life not in manual work but in writing and speaking.
Factory workers played an important role in destroying the old government and in defending the new Soviet regime as it proceeded to socialize production (first of all in industry and trade, then in agriculture). But measured by the size of the forces engaged, the revolution of 1917 was chiefly an agrarian revolt. The slogan of the Bolshevik leaders in 1917 was “Peace, Land, and Bread.”
Bread was desired by everyone, since the war had disrupted transportation and created shortages of food in the cities Peace, too, was desired by many, especially by the soldiers at the front, who lacked munitions. But land, above all, desired by the peasants, who for 50 years had suffered from acute “land hunger.”
In 1917 many peasants thought they were going to oust all the big landowners and become individual owners of land themselves. This did not happen, in the long run, because the Soviet government had no intention of transforming peasants into individual property owners. The Soviet leader feared that ownership of land by the peasants would restore capitalism in another form. The Soviet authorities were determined to destroy all possible roots of capitalism in Russia. Their plan was to create the same status for workers in factories—who do not own the plant and merely receive wages for operating machinery—and for workers on farms where the peasants would also become wage earners. The land, like the factories, banks, and natural resources of the country was to become the property not of individual peasants but of the state, which was to reward the peasants for their work.
Government vs. peasants
The plans of the Soviet leaders met with bitter and stubborn opposition on the part of the peasants. They fought the government tooth and nail for many years—sometimes actively, most often passively. They sometimes refused to sow or else to gather the harvest, and sometimes they damaged stores of grain and other foodstuffs. The government retaliated by various measures of repression. Sending offenders to remote areas of the country where they were forced to work on roads, railways, and other tasks was a favourite penalty.
Now practically all land in Russia is the property of the state. There are a few large-scale state farms which are run like factories, the workers being paid regular wages. Most of the land, however, is cultivated by collective farms whose members receive a share of the farm’s net profits. The most crucial struggle of the Soviet leaders was not a struggle waged by industrial workers against bankers, factory owners, and land lords. It was a struggle between the Bolsheviks and the peas-ants. To the extent that the Soviet government claimed to represent factory workers it was also a struggle between workers and peasants, between the town and the country.
Catching up with the outside world
This struggle was waged side by side with the other great struggle of the Bolshevik Revolution—the effort to transform backward Russia into a modern industrial state that could be independent of the outside world. The Soviet leaders not only wanted to liberate Russia from a dependence on the outside world which, in their opinion, threatened to make Russia a colony of advanced industrial powers. They also wanted to make the country safe from attack by one or more “capitalist” states.
Today the state owns all the country’s resources—factories, mines, and agricultural and mineral products of all kinds. Russia has thus jumped from the stage of primitive agriculture, with barely the beginnings of industrialization, to large-scale development of all resources by the state, either directly or through state cooperatives. In the main, it has skipped over the period of large individual enterprise, financed by private capital at private risk for private gain, which characterized the transition of Europe and the New World from primarily agricultural to primarily industrial economy.
Within the span of 25 years Russia has telescoped many of the revolutions which in other countries were spread over several centuries. In that brief period, it has seen the downfall of monarchy and aristocracy, the breaking up of large landed estates, the advanced stages Historical Significance
The events of the Russian Revolution that brought the Soviet Union about had a deep impact on the entire world. It generated a new way of thinking about economy, society and the government. The Bolsheviks set out to cure Russia of all its injustices that arouse from social class differences. They succeeded in some ways. Even still, the revolution marked the end of a dynasty that had lasted 300 years and concluded with the seizure of power by a small revolutionary group. The tsar was replaced with a Council of People’s Commissars and private ownership was abolished. The Communist movement began to grow worldwide, which frightened the capitalist world. Although the strength of Communism did not last, because it existed at all is proof that the Russian Revolution was a major event of the twentieth century.
of the Industrial Revolution, and a wholesale development of state ownership and operation. This breath-taking pace in a country whose leaders, rightly or wrongly, considered it to be constantly menaced by a hostile “capitalist encirclement,” explains much that has seemed chaotic in Russia.