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.

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,