The Revolutions in Russia
The Marxist émigré Alexeev expressed his view on the manner in which the change in the Russian political regime would occur, thus: "In Russia," said Alexeev, "the change will not come about gradually, but rather violently, precisely as a result of the rigidity1 of autocracy."2
The Revolution of 1905
As 1904 came to an end, rumblings of discontent in Russia had been gathering since summer and were now reaching crisis point. The costly imperialist war with Japan had brought a series of crushing defeats ending with the Russian navy under siege at Port Arthur. This exacerbated the economic crisis in Russia that had been gathering since 1900. With prices rising in the shops, calls were mounting to improve factory conditions and wages and regulate the long working day. Students were turning out regularly for mass rallies protesting the abuses of the czarist government... With provincial governments in Russia calling up troops to control unrest, and clashes between police and workers in the
major cities of St. Petersburg, Odessa, and Moscow, the Okhrana had reported that "universal attention was utterly transfixed by the unusual growth of the anti-governmental, oppositionist and social-revolutionary movement." The reactionary minister of the interior and chief of gendarmes... had been assassinated on 28th July, 1904, warning of things to come. On the streets of St. Petersburg, with calls mounting for civil liberties and constitutional reforms, there was the whiff of revolution.
Even the reticent Nicholas II had noticed the dramatic air of change: "It is as if the dam has been broken: in the space of two or three months Russia has been seized with a thirst for change... Revolution is banging on the door."
In Geneva too Lenin sensed an approaching storm. But with the RSDLP hamstrung by dissent, what would he or the party have to offer when the moment came?1
The year 1905 saw the existing political discontent erupt into a full scale revolution. On Sunday, 9th January, the workers of St. Petersburg organized a peaceful demonstration to demand political and constitutional reform. A crowd of over 100,000 men, women and children including whole families marched peacefully through the centre of St. Petersburg, to present to the Tsar, Nicholas II, a humble petition, a heartfelt statement of their grievances:
We working men of St. Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless, aged men and women, have come to you, 0 Tsar, in quest of justice and protection. We have been beggared, oppressed, over-burdened with excessive toil, treated with contumely. We are not
1. Helen Rappoport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, p. 116.
recognized as normal human beings, but are dealt with as slaves who have to bear their bitter lot in silence. Patiently we endured this; but now we are being thrust deeper into the slough of rightlessness and ignorance, are being suffocated by despotism and arbitrary whims, and now, 0 Tsar, we have no strength left. The awful moment has come when death is better than the prolongation of our unendurable tortures. Therefore, we have left work, and informed our employers that we shall not resume it until they have fulfilled our demands. What we have asked is little, consisting solely of that without which our life is not life, but hell and eternal torture...1
Carrying religious banners and portraits of the Tsar, some singing hymns, led by the Orthodox priest Father Gapon who was carrying a large cross, the demonstrators eventually assembled near the Tsar's Winter Palace and, asked for the Tsar to appear so that they could present him with a petition. The demonstrators were not anti-tsarist; in fact they genuinely felt that the Tsar whom they called affectionately "little father" had their best interests at heart, and once he knew of their sufferings and discontent, he would put in place remedial measures. Written by Father Gapon, the petition was signed by three hundred thousand people calling for his intercession in granting them a reduction in working hours, the right to vote and an end to the disastrous war with Japan.
The demonstrators did not know that the Tsar, who had perhaps been forewarned of the demonstration, had left the Winter Palace for his summer residence. They found their way to the Winter Palace barred by armed troops and mounted Cossack cavalry. The police, who had just finished putting down a series of strikes by industrial workers, had standing orders to get rid of any problems, besides
1. The Story of My Life, by Father Gapon, London: Chapman & Hall, 1906.
Soldiers blocking Narva Gate on Bloody Sunday
there had been a further deployment of troops to bolster the existing gar-rison. They fired a few warning shots and then they opened fire onto the crowd, which included women and children as well as church leaders. As the crowd scattered, Cossacks pursued them on horseback with drawn swords, troops continuing to fire on them. Many in the crowd were trampled to death in the ensuing panic. Soon there were "pools of blood on the white snow". Panic, horror and then indignation spread among the public. Estimates of the total death toll range from a few hundred to sev-eral thousand. This was a defining moment as news of the massacre spread quickly, and many saw it as a sign that the Tsar had com-plete disregard for the ordinary people. This event became known as "Bloody Sunday", and is usually considered the start of the active phase of the revolution.
The indifference, weakness and oppressiveness that had been faced by the Russians for a long time, had been blamed by them on the shortcomings of Nicholas' advisers and the regime. However, this extreme incident immediately transformed the situation, elec-trifying the nation and leading to the loss of their age-old faith in the Tsar as the guardian of the people. The following months witnessed the eruption of violence across the country — strikes, riots, dem-onstrations, mutinies in the navy and army, became the order of the day. Gorky is said to have cabled Hearst's New York Journal "The Russian Revolution has begun."
The primary result of the Revolution of 1905 was that the Tsar now forced to make concessions, offered some reforms in an attempt to keep his regime from being toppled — the 'October Manifesto' a precursor to the Constitution of 1906 which authorised the
Matsuhenko, the leader of the uprising in the famous mutiny of the Potemkin warship in June 1905
establishment of a parliament the Duma. This was enough to stem the tide of revolution as the Russian liberals were satisfied by the October Manifesto and made preparations for the upcoming Duma's elections. Even though the Government retained its authority and the Tsar his autocratic power, the Russian people now reviled the Tsar and distrusted him. Radical socialists and revolutionaries denounced the elections, however, and called for an armed uprising to destroy the Empire.
In the months following, terrorism and assassinations continued and for the first time revolutionary parties attracted a large following. According to most historians the events of "Bloody Sunday" led to the Revolution of 1917.
The Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the most significant events in the 20th century. It completely changed the government of Russia and Russia's outlook on life. The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of events and two revolutions in Russia in 1917, which brought down the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic).
The First World War, more than any other event, brought revolution to Russia; the Tsarist government, still recovering from the damage of the 1905 Revolution, could not bear the stresses and strain that the war imposed. By 1915, Russian casualties in the war had reached a total of almost four million with large areas of Russia under German occupation. The stress of the war strained further the failing economy; food shortages were a major problem and inflation had pushed up the prices alarmingly. Strikes were frequent and the crime graph rose and the Russian people endured and suffered. Okhrana, the Russian secret police, in a report warned of "the possibility in the near future of riots by the lower classes of the empire enraged by the burdens of daily existence." By the end of 1916, the morale of the soldiers had sunk very low and there was "despair that the slaughter would ever end."
The discontent and resentment of the people of Russia against the autocracy and the weak and inefficient government of Nicholas II grew, and it was strongly felt that he was unfit to rule. He was advised by Sir George Buchanan, the British Ambassador in Russia, to "break down the barrier that separates you from your people to regain their confidence." However, there was little response from the Tsar.
Ultimately, these factors, along with the growth of political consciousness, the impact of revolutionary ideas and their development and the revolutionary movements (particularly since the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre) led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the year saw two very distinct ones: the first, known as the February Revolution and the second the October Revolution.
By the end of February 1917, the political eruption that Lenin had long predicted took place. On February 23, 1917, a large gathering of working-class women convened in the centre of Petrograd to mark International Women's Day. The gathering took the form of a protest demonstration calling for "bread and peace." While the demonstration began peacefully, it turned violent by the next morning as thousands and thousands of other striking workers calling for the end of monarchist rule and the war, joined the demonstration. Troops were called out and they fired on the rioters; however, several soldiers abstained as they empathized with the people and not the government. The following day many soldiers mutinied and the crowds swelled. They immediately began to call for full-scale revolution and an end to the monarchy altogether.
The February Revolution was largely a spontaneous event. It began in much the same way as had dozens of other mass demonstrations in Russia in previous years. It was not a planned uprising and none of the revolutionary leaders were involved. They were caught quite by surprise at the outcome. Robert Service in his biography of Lenin gives this account of the February Revolution:
... Industrial strikes had been occurring for some days, starting with action by women textile workers. The trouble had quickly spread to the labour-force of the
Clash between Bolshevik and government troops (1917)
backing of only ten of them he went ahead with the planning.
Once the Winter Palace was taken on the 26th, with barely a shot fired, with Kerensky having fled earlier, the takeover was complete and Lenin's October Revolution had been achieved with the bare minimum of drama or bloodshed. The October Russian Revolution succeeded in establishing the Bolsheviks as the leaders of Russia and the creation of the first communist country.
For Marxists, the October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest single event in human history. It was the first time in history that the toiling classes could successfully throw off the yoke of the oppressors. Despite the ravages of war, these three years leading up to the victory of the soviets, had endorsed Lenin's version of Marxist doctrine, whereby the proletariat and peasantry together had been able to complete the revolution. According to some, the October Revolution has been completely justified by history. For Russia the revolution opened the door to fully enter the industrial age. Russia was a mostly agrarian nation prior to 1917, with very limited industrial development. Russia had yet to achieve the level of development of its European neighbors who had been industrialized for
more than fifty years and were technologically more advanced. After October 1917, the country's development took a new turn as industrial regions started to come up taking the country's development forward. Education was introduced on a large scale and illiteracy was soon a thing of the past. The nationalized planned economy succeeded in transforming one of the most backward economies into a powerful nation second only to the United States of America thereby demonstrating, as Trotsky has pointed out, the viability of socialism.
The October Revolution of 1917 was a radical turning point in the history of Russia, affecting the social structure, economics, industrial development, international relations and Russian culture. The rulers of Russia were no longer from the aristocracy but from the intellectual and working classes, marking a great change in the country's direction.
John Reed, an American journalist who was in Russia participating in the famous October Revolution, has made the following close observations from his vantage position, in his famous book, Ten Days that Shook the World:
... No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the great events of human history, and the rise of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of world-wide importance.
... Instead of being a destructive force, it seems to me that the Bolsheviki were the only party in Russia with a constructive program and the power to impose it on the country. If they had not succeeded to the Government when they did, there is little doubt in my mind that the armies of Imperial Germany would have been in Petrograd and Moscow in December, and Russia would again be ridden by a Tsar...1
1. John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, Preface. Transcribed from a 1919, 1st Edition, published by BONI & Liveright, Inc. Transcribed and marked up for the John Reed Internet Archive.
World War I
On 1st August, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. World War I (or the Great War as this war was called before World War II began) lasted for four years starting on 28th July, 1914. All the great powers of the world were involved in a gruesome conflict by two opposing alliances: the Allies and the Central Powers. The Allies or the Triple Entente1 and the Central Powers consisting of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. This war was centred in Europe and was one of the largest wars in history involving more than 70 million military personnel.
It was a time in Europe when there was a resurgence of imperialism reflecting in the foreign policies of its major powers. Serbia had been delivered an ultimatum by Austria-Hungary on the killing of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian. The ultimatum was intentionally so worded that it would be impossible for the Serbians to meet the demands and thus Austria-Hungary could provoke a war. Thus war was declared by them on 28th July 1914 and Serbia was invaded. Due to Russia's close ties with Serbia, the Tsarist government stood by Serbia in its confrontation with Germany, so when Austria declared war on Serbia, war was declared by Germany on Russia. Alliances that had been previously formed to maintain the balance of power were invoked and soon the major countries were at war. On 28th October 1914, Turkey bombed the Russian Black Sea ports and entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914.
Just nine years earlier Russia had been defeated in a war with Japan, and thus Russia was hardly prepared for another war. Also the Revolution of 1905, had further stressed the empire. Russia was not financially at the same level as its European neighbours; its industry was still developing and could in no way contend with the powerful opposing nations such as Germany.
1. Britain, France and Russia.
Russia's first major battle of the war was a disaster: in the 1914 Battle of Tannenberg where Russia invaded German East Prussia, and the first battle of the Masurian Lakes, as many as over 200,000 Russian lives were lost, forcing the Russians to retreat from German territory. Though Russia had complete success with its invasion of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, the first two years of the war inflicted heavy defeats on Russia and mainly saw the army in steady retreat. These defeats were on account of Russia being critically short of all material essentials — equipment such as weapons, ammunition and clothing. Poor organization and above all incompetent leadership from its generals and officers brought about disaster. Poor roads and railways made difficult the job of deployment of troops.
By mid 1915 the Russian army had failed to make any significant territorial gains but had lost around 80,000 soldiers. Desertions, infighting and general disorder in the Russian army grew, as discontent rose on the home front. The war had caused huge food shortages and the militarization of industry which along with the enormous death toll and continuing loss of territory, brought home to the Russians the fact that they had everything to lose and little to gain from the war as the country's economic and political problems worsened. The Tsar, Nicholas II, took direct command of the army in September, personally overseeing the Russian theatre of war and leaving his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, in charge of the government. This was an ill-conceived move as the inexperience of Nicholas as a military commander proved to be calamitous, and his incompetent wife who had been left in charge of domestic affairs, was unpopular in Russia. The ill-equipped Russian forces were at a total disadvantage against the vastly superior German army, which was better led, trained and supplied. Conscription had brought into the war unwilling and untrained soldiers, who were then pressed into action without weapons, ammunition and even shoes.
By the end of October 1916, Russia's losses were enormous; between 1,600,000 and 1,800,000 military lives lost, 2,000,000 prisoners of war, and 1,000,000 men missing adding up to a total of over 5,000,000 men. The war was devastating not just for the soldiers but
also for the economy which was breaking down under the strain of the war. The regime seemed unaffected by these appalling losses; there was widespread discontent — demoralization and war weariness were setting in.
The war continued to go badly; food was scarce and large numbers of peasants — mostly women — poured into stet towns looking for work, where they had to live and work in the most dreadful conditions of squalor. With a devastated economy, staggering outstanding war debts and soaring inflation, chaos prevailed and civil unrest increased — Russia was on the verge of complete collapse.
By the end of February 1917 the storm of revolution broke and soon the Russian monarchy was toppled. The Provisional Government promised solidarity with the Allied powers. The weakness of the Provisional Government and the rising discontent among the Russians led to the increase in popularity of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin which demanded that Russia pull out of the war immediately.
On 26th October 1917, when Lenin's government secured power, its first action was to pass the Decree of Peace. Lenin then sent to all the participants in the war, diplomatic messages calling for peace; hostilities to cease without annexations. His peace appeal was ignored and so a Soviet delegation led by Trotsky (Commissar for Foreign Affairs) in December began negotiations for a separate peace with Germany. The Russian army had practically disintegrated and the Germans' price for ending hostilities was high. The Bolshevik leaders were divided on this issue and the debates continued. Soon the German troops were marching into Russia resuming the invasion and Russia was forced to sign an armistice with Germany and Austria on 3rd December, 1917. The formal peace treaty — the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed only on 3rd March, 1918, bringing an end to four years of war between Russia and Germany.
The peace treaty proved very costly; by its terms Russia had to give up huge tracts of its territories which included Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus region. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk caused a lot of resentment in
many quarters in the country, against Lenin who was desperate to bring Russia out of the war in order to safeguard the Revolution. The Soviets would regain these lost territories only after World War II.
By the end of World War I four major imperial powers ceased to exist — the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. The map of Europe was redrawn into smaller states as these empires broke up and some of them dismantled entirely
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