Russian Revolution of 1917

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For the series of strikes and uprisings, resulting in the creation of State Duma, see Russian Revolution (1905).

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The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the overthrow of the Russian monarchy and the establishment of socialism in Russia. This marked the first time in world history that a government claiming to operate on socialist principles had come to power. The Revolution occurred in two stages. In the February Revolution, strikes, street demonstrations, and mutiny in the army garrison in the capital, Petrograd, led to the abdication of the Monarch, Tsar Nicholas II. Power was then held by two bodies simultaneously: A Provisional Government drawn from members of the state Duma (parliament) was officially in charge; however the Soviet (council) of Workers Deputies, composed of workers' and Soldiers' representatives had the real power because it could control factory production and had the loyalty of the army.[1] This unstable situation, referred to as the 'dual power', ended with the second stage of the revolution, the October Revolution, in which workers and soldiers loyal to Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party took control of key points in the capital (railway, telegraph) and then arrested those members of the Provisional Government who had not already fled. By the end of 1917, Moscow and other major cities had also come under Bolshevik direction. The Bolsheviks abolished the titles of the nobility, the civil ranks, and other social privileges, and gradually began bringing formerly privately owned businesses under government control (nationalisation). In the countryside, the peasants, mainly on their own initiative and without Bolshevik direction, confiscated the lands and property of the nobles and divided it amongst themselves.

A very important factor leading to the success of the Russian Revolution was the weakening of the monarchy due World War I. The population was hungry; and the death rate in the army was extremely high, so that soldiers had little to lose by rebelling. Thus the Bolshevik's promises to end Russian involvement in the war and to distribute the noble lands to the peasantry - summed up in their slogan "Peace, Bread, Land"   were highly effective in winning support.

The Revolution was accomplished with relatively little bloodshed. However, it was followed by a four year period of foreign intervention and Civil War, during which monarchist, liberal, and other forces ousted in the Revolution attempted to retake power, and armies from fourteen capitalist countries, including France, Britain, USA, invaded Russia in an attempt at what the media nowadays would call "regime change'.

Note on dates: Until 31 January 1918, Russia used the Julian Calendar and thus its dates differed by about two weeks from dates in the West, which used the Gregorian calendar. After January 1918, the Bolsheviks switched Russia to the Gregorian calendar, so that, in Russia, the day after 31 January was 14 February 1918. This article uses the old style dates up to the end of January 1918, unless noted (eg., by the abbreviation n.s., for 'new style').

February Revolution

  • Strikes and demonstrations.
  • Lenin returns to Russia, announces seemingly radical position of opposition to Provisional Government
  • Urban masses increasingly more radical than Provisional Government and even than Petrograd Soviet leaders.

Trotsky returned to Russia on 17 May (n.s.). A strong orator, he immediately began making speeches and quickly became influential in the Petrograd Soviet. Though he had been a Menshevik and had disagreed with Lenin on various matters in the past, he was now fully in agreement with the Bolshevik leader on the desirability of working-class overthrow of the Provisional Government. "All power to the Soviets, no support to the Provisional Government," he proclaimed on 20 May (n.s.)[2]

On 1 June (n.s.), the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet passed a resolution in favour of worker control of enterprises, saying that workers should "create control councils at the enterprises, the control embracing not only the course of work at the enterprise itself, but the entire financial side of the enterprise."[3]

On 13 June (n.s.), the Workers' Section of the Petrograd Soviet passed, by 173 votes to 144, a resolution with the Bolshevik formula that power should be in the hands of the Soviets, not the Provisional Government. The Soldiers' Section was still predominantly SR and Menshevik.[4]

Early Measures

Before its demise, the Provisional Government had, after several delays, set a date of 25 November (n.s.) for elections to a Constituent Assembly. Although the Provisional Government was no longer in existence, the Bolsheviks decided to let the elections take place. They did this reluctantly, fearing that the result might not be in their favour. However, they earlier had criticized the Provisional Government for its delays in calling the election, and now judged that the political cost of postponing it themselves would be too great. [5]

The results of the voting were as follows:

Constituent Assembly election results
Party votes
(thousands) %
Socialist Revolutionaries 20,900 58
Russian 16,500
Ukrainian and other non-Russian 4,400
Bolsheviks 9,024 24
Mensheviks and other nonrevolutionary socialists 1,700 5
Conservative and middle-class groups and parties 4,607 13
Kadets 1,857
Others 2,750

Source: W H Chamberlain, The Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, USA; (1935). P 365.

Constituent Assembly distribution of seats
Party Seats
SR 370
Left SR 40
Source: Tony Cliff, Lenin, Revolution Beseiged, Bookmarks, London, 1987. P 32. And J N Westwood, Endurance and Endeavor: Russian History 1812-2001, Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press. P 249.
(The division of the Socialist Revolutionaries into SRs and Left SRs in the above table is approximate.[6]The Left SRs were at this time supporters of the Bolsheviks.)

The broad picture is that 87 percent of Russian voters had voted for some kind of socialist party. The Bolsheviks, however, were not the most popular, having garnered only about half as many votes as the Socialist Revolutionaries.

In terms simply of power, though, the Bolshevik's position was stronger than the above figures suggest, because their support was concentrated in the Western and urban part of the country. In Moscow and Petersburg, the Bolsheviks received four times as many votes as did the Socialist Revolutionaries. In the army also, the Bolsheviks received more votes in units in the North and West of the country than did the SRs, whereas on the Rumanian front, the situation was the reverse.[7] Radky, historian of the Socialist Revolutionary Party wrote:

The Bolsheviks had the center of the country - the big cities, the industrial towns, and the garrisons of the rear; they controlled those sections of the navy most strategically located with reference to Moscow and Petrograd; they even commanded a strong following among the peasants of the central, White Russian, and Northwestern regions. The Socialist Revolutionaries had the black earth zone, the valley of the Volga, and Siberia; in general they were still the peasants' party, though serious defections had taken place. Particularist or separatist movements had strength in the Ukraine, along the Baltic, between the Volga and the Urals, and in the Transcaucasus; of these movements by all odds the most robust was Ukrainian nationalism. Menshevism was a spent force everywhere save in the Transcaucasus, where it was entwined with Georgian nationalism. [8]

The question was, should the Soviet government bow to the will of the SR plurality [9] in the newly elected Constituent Assembly? Tony Cliff describes what happened:

The Constituent Assembly met on 5 (18) January 1918. Sverdlov, in the name of VTsIK read a 'Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People' written by Lenin. It summed up the main decrees of the Soviet Government: all power to the Soviets, the decree on land, the decree on peace, workers' control over production. Sverdlov's proposal that the the Assembly should endorse the declaration was rejected by 237 votes to 136. This sealed the fate of the Assembly. After one day of existence it was dissolved. [10]

Upon arriving at the building the next day, the Assembly delegates found the doors locked and Bolsheviks on guard.

The Bolsheviks immediately withdrew from World War I and began talks with Germany, resulting in the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (March 1918) under which Russia agreed to give up the Baltic states, Finland, Poland and the Ukraine. The fledgling regime was almost immediately caught up in a civil war, as anti-communists, known as the Whites, fought them. The Whites were a mix of anti-Bolshevik socialists, liberals, aristocrats, nationalists-seperatists and wealthy peasants. They were supported by Britain, France, Japan and the USA. However, the White forces were poorly organized and lacked coherent leadership and by the Bolsheviks' Red Army recaptured the Ukraine, Georgia, and eastern Armenia and suppressed nationalist-speratist movements in Byelorussia (modern Belarus) and Central Asia. In 1921, the Red Army was defeated by a Franco-Polish force and ceded the Western parts of Byelorussia and Ukraine to Poland.

When the Bolsheviks took power, much of Russia was in turmoil. Peasants had seized farmland from Russian nobles, workers had taken control of many factories. At first Lenin supported these seizures, but after the civil war broke out, the goverment tightened its grip, taking over factories and forcing peasants to hand over most of their produce to feed the army and the urban poluation, in a policy know as 'war communism'. This provoked widedspread revolts in 1920-1922 and led to famine in the Volga region that killed five million. Lenin was forced to compromise his socialist principles temporarily with the New economic policy (NEP), introduced in 1921, which permitted small businesses and farms to engage in free trade while the goverment retained control of banking and heavy industry. During the 1920's, the economy steadily grew. However, it took until about for it to recover to levels. In the Bolsheviks, now renamed the Communist Party, established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, Byelorussia, Transcaucasia and Ukraine joined Russia to form the union's first four republics. Eventually 15 republics made up the Soviet Union.


When Lenin died in 1924, a power struggle developed among members of the Politburo. One leading figure, Joseph Stalin, used his position as General Secretary to create a power base within the Party, and defeated his rivals one by one. By Stalin had achieved absolute control. Determined to make the Soviet Union a global power on a par with the West, he launched a programme of rapid industrialization. The first Five Year Plan was adopted in 1928. The plans overoptimistic targets led to tremendous inefficiency and waste, yet remarkable progress was made.[11] Vast new mineral extraction plants, factories, and power stations were established in the Urals, the Volga area and Siberia, and railways were built to link the new industrial hubs. The population of the big cities nearly doubled between and 1933.


To feed the expanding population of urban workers, Stalin had to radically reorganize the countryside. In 1929, he ordered the collectivization of agriculture. Private holdings were abolished and peasants were then working on collective farms. Wealthy peasant farmers, known as kulaks, responded to this forcible requistion by slaughtering their livestock and only planting enough for themselves. This resulted in famine.

See also

Further information


See #Sources section, below, for bibliographical details.

  1. "Though the Provisional Government would have formal power and be recognised as the government of Russia by its allies, the Petrograd Soviet had the real power. It alone could issue orders, bring out the troops, and order the factories to operate." Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment, Oxford, Oxford University Press. P 52.
  2. Chamberlain (1987), p 157.
  3. Quoted in Chamberlain (1987), p 154. He cites P N Milyukov, History of the Second Russian Revolution, Vol I, p 157.
  4. Chamberlain (1987), p155.
  5. William Henry Chamberlain, The Russian Revolution, Vol. 1, Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, USA; (1935). Pp 364-5.
  6. The numbers forty and 370 are given by both Tony Cliff and J N Westwood. Westwood says this is a "plausible tally" (p 249).
  7. Vote proportions in cities and army are from Cliff (1987), pp 32, 33.
  8. O H Radkey, The Elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917, Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA; 1950; p 38. Reproduced in Cliff (1987), pp 33-34.
  9. "The SRs did not rreally have a working majority since some of their ostensible members came from non-Russian branches of the party; in any case, with Bolsheviks holding majorities in key urban soviets, an SR government would have faced crippling resistance." -- J N Westwood p 249.
  10. Cliff (1987), p 35.
  11. Five-year plans. Event view


William Henry Chamberlain, The Russian Revolution 1917-1921. Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, USA; (1935).

Tony Cliff, Lenin, Revolution Beseiged. Bookmarks; London, England; 1987.

Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States. Oxford University Press; Oxford, England;.

J N Westwood, Endurance and Endeavour: Russian History 1812-2001, Fifth ed. Oxford University Prress,.