The Russian Revolution was one of the most cataclysmic events in the 20th century. Rather than being a single event, however, it generally refers to two revolutions: the February Revolution, in which the Russian monarchy was toppled, and the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks, a group of Communists, seized power. In between February and October, Russia had four provisional governments and tried to continue the disastrous war with Germany. This reading will introduce you to imperial Russia, propose some long- and short-term causes of the revolution, and examine the events of the revolution itself.

Russian Society

The Russian Empire was ruled by an autocrat called the Tsar, who ruled by divine right. Russia had neither a parliament nor (legal) political parties until 1905. The aristocracy, which made up 1.5% of the population, ran the country. As prominent landowners they were also important members of government and society. Roughly half of the Russian aristocracy served in the army, usually as senior officers or as civil servants.


A photograph of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II (Source: Wikimedia)

Russia was mainly a country of peasants, who formed 80% of the Russian populace in the 19th century. The peasantry was generally administered through “peasant communes,” which were a peculiar Russian institution. The communes were a type of self-administering body based largely upon custom. The commune rented the land from the landlord and distributed it equally among the people. The land was distributed according to the size of each family; each year it was redistributed to reflect changes in population. The peasants were thus roughly equal in economic terms, though of course those who worked harder were a little better off.

Because Russian industry was small, factory workers composed only a small portion of the total population until the end of the 19th century. In the late 19th century, massive government sponsorships attracted a number of (mostly French) foreign investors. Under their guidance, Russia began to industrialize. Productivity grew exponentially, as did the size of the working class, as the peasants sold off their land. Russia started to build its railway network, including the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is still the longest railway line in the world.

Russia’s growth began later than its European peers, and thus took place very quickly in an effort to catch up. Russia’s rapid industrialization rested on the achievements of urban workers who toiled for long hours in terrible conditions. Unlike in other European countries, however, trade unions and strikes were completely prohibited, so the workers had no means of improving their situation. Elites in most European countries had accepted the existence and basic demands of some trade unions; this is generally understood to have staved off revolution. Though Russia had been industrializing for years when the Great War began, most Europeans still considered its social and economic structures to be backward. While all European societies had a high degree of income inequality in the early 1900s, most Russians were particularly poor; in 1913 the average American was eight times richer than the average Russian. Most Russian peasants, moreover, still did not own their land. Because most Russians lived in fairly oppressive conditions, then, a revolution began to appear to many as the best way to improve their lives.

Marxism and Russia

Karl Marx was a German-Jewish philosopher and economist and the father of scientific communism. Fredrick Engels, who is often mentioned alongside Marx – and funded Marx’s writings – was the son of a rich German factory owner. The major Marxist work is Das Capital, but it was too complicated for most people to understand. Marx then wrote the Communist Manifesto to reach out to a more popular audience. The general theme of both works is that private ownership of the means of production – i.e., lands, factories, etc. – is the major evil of capitalism.

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According to Marx, capitalism is the fourth stage of historical development, and will eventually be replaced by socialism, a lesser form of communism in which all the classes work together for the betterment of society. According to Marxist theory, class divisions will disappear over time once socialism is introduced. The state, which is a tool of coercion that the upper classes use, will “wither away”; there will be no need for the army, police, jails, or borders. Once all the classes are erased, a society will have reached the communist ideal; this was the standard that Marx created. In a communist society, private ownership of the means of production is replaced by common ownership. The means of production are owned communally, and the profits are distributed to people according to their needs. The theory states that workers will work harder when it is for the benefit of their community, rather than for the benefit of a rich industrialist.

The main socialist party in Russia was the Social Democratic Labor Party, which was established in 1898. The party split at its second Party Congress in 1903, with the most popular group forming the Bolshevik (Majority) Party, and the second most popular group forming the Mensheviks (Minority). In reality, the two factions were almost equal in membership.

Marx claimed to only represent workers because they were the true revolutionary class. According to Marx, revolution could only occur when a country had a well-developed capitalist society with a large working class, and when the proletariat had developed a revolutionary consciousness within its own ranks. True social change would only come, said Marx, after capitalism had revealed itself to be morally bankrupt. Therefore, Russia, according to Marxist theory, was not a likely candidate for a socialist or communist revolution. Russian capitalism was in an embryonic state, and the working class was still very small.


Karl Marx explained his understanding of human history in the first part of his Communist Manifesto. His use of the term “bourgeoisie” refers to the rich elite who owned factories and businesses. The “proletariat” refers to the workers who were forced to work in the factories.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes…

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: It has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other-bourgeoisie and proletariat…

You can read the complete Manifesto here.

The Bolsheviks, however, did not want to wait for the revolution to develop on its own. They recognized that the Russian working class was still small and that it had not developed a revolutionary consciousness. But they believed that they could “speed history up.” The Bolsheviks, under the intellectual leadership of Vladimir Lenin, introduced a new idea into classic Marxist theory. They believed that someone (preferably a relatively small group led by intellectuals or professional revolutionaries – in other words, themselves) could push workers towards revolution. The term they used was the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The First World War

France and Britain fought on a narrow front in the war, and the two powers were pitted against only one Central Power, Germany. The Russians, however, engaged their three enemies – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire – on a vast front that extended from Poland to the Caucasus. Russia is generally accused of acquitting itself poorly in the Great War, but such accusations are not quite accurate. The Russians broke the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1916 and advanced 50 miles. They crushed the Turks and advanced 125 miles into Ottoman territory, while the Allies took years to make any significant territorial gains. By 1917, the Russians had more prisoners of war than Britain and France combined.

The Germans, however, had a superior fighting force and inflicted incredible casualties on the Russians. Morale was bad on the front, but it was worse at home. The Russian economy was not yet strong enough to deal with a modern war. The trains were in disarray, which delayed the delivery of grain to the front and to the cities. The food shortage created tensions in urban areas, and riots were common. Workers struck often to demand increases to their food rations. The monarchy lost a great deal of prestige during the First World War. Nicholas II did not understand the seriousness of the situation and was unable to cope with it. During a crisis, he tended to retire to the countryside instead of dealing with it. His government was grossly inefficient, largely because he valued loyalty more than skill.

The Russian Revolutions

By 1917, virtually all the political parties had united in opposition to the monarchy. The revolution that followed was not a direct outcome of their opposition, though. Rather, the revolution was sparked by the collapse of the Russian economy. The opposition was able to use the popular discontent to overthrow the monarchy. Much as in France nearly 130 years before, the revolution was sparked by women protesting the food shortage. Many workers joined the protests, and the military garrisons refused to fight them. Nicholas II abdicated, and Russia became a democratic republic.

On the eve of the Revolution, the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party was the strongest opposition party. They had more elected members than any other political party in the Duma and had been relentlessly attacking the monarchy for months. Their members generally played the most important role in the February Revolution. However, when Nicholas abdicated, they felt that they had attained their goals. They invited the Socialists to form a provisional government with them and hoped to get on with the business of the nation.

The Socialists, however, were not finished. They believed that the revolution would only be complete once private land ownership had been abolished. With a solid middle-class base, the liberals could not support this agenda. They also believed that Russia should delay implementing an eight-hour workday because it was important to get goods to the front; the Socialists opposed this measure also. The liberals wanted to redistribute land from the rich landlords to the peasants, but again they wished to delay this measure. Unlike the Socialists, they planned to reimburse the landlords, which they could not do with a bare wartime treasury. With many areas of disagreement, the Socialists refused to form a provisional government with the liberals and organized a soviet (workers’ council) instead. The competing governments issued parallel orders, which created chaos at the front and at home.

The liberals and Socialists eventually made an uneasy compromise, but it was too late to stop the increasing chaos. The government’s decision to continue the war, along with deteriorating economic conditions, further undermined the government’s prestige. The workers, who initially supported the liberals, soon became more radical than the party had hoped. They asked for full control of the factories.

The February Revolution took the Bolsheviks by surprise, and they did not participate. The leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, had spent the war in Switzerland with some of his cohorts, but he smelled opportunity for his party after the February Revolution. He asked the German authorities to help him get back to Russia, and they happily obliged. The Germans hoped that Lenin would undermine the Russian war effort; they also provided significant financial help and safe transport to the returning Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were genuinely aligned with German interests, at least at first. They reasoned that if Russia lost the war, the provisional government’s prestige would slip further. As the only party to oppose the war, the Bolsheviks stood to gain from Russia’s defeat.


A photograph of Vladimir Lenin in 1916 (Source: Wikimedia)

The official Russian war aims were to capture the Bosporus, which is the only passage from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. The Bolsheviks asked the soldiers if they thought it was necessary to capture so much territory and told them that a Bolshevik regime would just let them go home. The Bolsheviks told the workers that they could set their own wages if they took over the factories. The peasants, meanwhile, could have the land they coveted if they rose up and took it.

These policies made the Bolsheviks very popular and helped them secure support from crucial groups. The soldiers wanted to go home, and the Bolsheviks were the only party promising an end to the war. The party was also popular with unskilled workers (though not skilled workers, who presumably had more to lose from the imposition of communism). Unskilled workers usually toiled in large factories in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, so their support gave the Bolsheviks a major foothold there.

By October 1917, the Bolsheviks felt they had enough support to take power. In a nearly bloodless coup, they overthrew the provisional government in St. Petersburg. Unlike the February Revolution, this was carefully planned, but it helped that the provisional government was so weak and disorganized that it was able to offer only token resistance. The Bolsheviks quickly assumed control over Moscow and St. Petersburg and assumed the reins of government. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks did not have effective control of any of Russia outside these two cities, and enemies quickly lined up against them. For the next three years, the Bolsheviks fought to consolidate their power.


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