Russian Revolution

1917–23 transition from monarchy to USSR
(Redirected from October Revolution)

The Russian Revolution was a period of political and social revolution that took place in the former Russian Empire and began during the First World War. Commencing in 1917 with the fall of the House of Romanov and concluding in 1923 with the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union (at the end of the Russian Civil War), the Russian Revolution was a series of two revolutions: the first of which overthrew the imperial government of Czar Nicholas II and the second placed the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in power.

Meeting at the Blagovescenskaya Square, 1917


  • The Russian revolution was nominally based on Communist dogma; but its significant struggle was to find some instrument by which a vast backward country could be mauled into industrialization. The capitalist revolution in which the United States was the leader found apter, more efficient and more flexible means through collectivizing capital in corporations.
  • The Cold War stemmed from war, from the violence, fear and paranoia that conflict fostered, and from defeat and victory in two successive struggles, World War One and the Russian Civil War. Defeat at the hands of Germany and, even more, the social and political strain of conflict on an unprecedented scale in World War One (1914–18) led, in March 1917, to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in Russia and its replacement by a provisional, republican government. The dynasty had responded more successfully to the challenge of the Thirteen Years’ War with Poland in 1654–67, to the Great Northern War with Sweden in 1700–21, to wars with the Turks, Sweden and France between 1806 and 1815, and even to the brief French occupation of Moscow in 1812, than it was to do to war of a very different type with Germany.
  • The same problems, of defeat at the hands of Germany, political division and social strain, weakened the Romanovs’ republican Social Democratic replacement, and this weakness provided the opportunity for a Bolshevik (Soviet Communist) coup in Russia later in 1917. The victory of the Bolsheviks over domestic foes and foreign intervention in the subsequent Russian Civil War (1918–21) ensured that their regime would not be short-lived, as for example was Communist rule in Hungary in 1919. The victory also furthered the identification of the Soviet regime with struggle, as well as giving such struggle a specific character. The war provided the regime with a strong rationale for opposition to Western states, notably the leading European empires, Britain and France, as well as the USA and, indeed, Japan.
  • The 1917 October Revolution was the first ever won by revolutionaries advocating a socialist society. By the beginning of 1917 the majority of the Russian people were extremely discontented with the czar’s regime. Various revolutionary groups sought to mobilize this popular frustration to transform Russian society. When the coercive power of the czarist state collapsed in early 1917, revolutionary leaders had an opportunity to seize control of their nation’s destiny. Soldiers and sailors refused orders to repress rebellious street demonstrations and instead went over to the revolutionaries. As the institutions of the czarist government deteriorated, workers, military personnel, and peasants elected revolutionary administrative councils, or soviets, from among their own numbers, to exercise power. In fall 1917 soldiers, sailors, and workers loyal to the Bolshevik-led citywide soviet of the capital, Petrograd (later Leningrad and after 1991, St. Petersburg), established a new national revolutionary government.
  • In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the monarchy was steadily undermined by government efforts to spur industrialization and modernization. Many young Russians schooled in the technology of more advanced societies learned of the relatively democratic political systems in Western Europe. As increasing numbers of educated Russians rejected autocracy in favor of a freer and more participatory government, the pre-revolutionary state was progressively weakened. Russia’s military defeat in World War I and the accompanying social unrest finally forced the czar’s abdication. Soldiers ordered to put down the protests of their fellow workers refused or openly joined the demonstrators. Faced with massive popular opposition and mutinies in the army and navy, and deserted by middle- and upperclass elites, the czarist state collapsed, providing a historic opportunity for revolutionaries to establish new political, social, and economic institutions. A number of groups cooperated to overthrow the monarchy. Although the contending revolutionary movements and most members of the major social classes were temporarily united in the effort to oust the czar, they were divided over other issues. Various political movements favored divergent programs, ranging from instituting moderate social reforms to abolishing private ownership of major industries. The Bolsheviks demanded the changes most people yearned for, including a quick end to the war, an immediate redistribution of land to the peasants, and workers’ control of industry. When the provisional government continued the war and delayed land redistribution, popular support swung to the Bolsheviks in the large urban areas, permitting them to seize control of the national government in fall 1917.
    • James DeFronzo, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (2018), pp. 69-70
  • On December 16, 1916, the royal couple's charismatic and corrupt holy man Rasputin was murdered by the Tsar's own cousin, Grand Duke Dmitry, aided and abetted by the effete Prince Felix Yusupov and a right-wing politician named V. M. Purishkevich, in the belief that the monk was exerting a malign influence on the Tsar and on Russian foreign policy. But things did not improve. Deserted by his own generals in what amounted to a mutiny in early March 1917, Nicholas agreed to abdicate, complaining bitterly of 'treachery, cowardice and deceit'. Neither he nor his wife ever understood the revolution that was now unfolding. Indeed, Alexandra's comment on its outbreak deserves wider celebrity as one of the great mis-diagnoses of history: 'It's a hooligan movement, young boys & girls running about &c screaming that they have no bread, only to excite - . . . if it were cold they wld. probably stay in doors.'
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 142-143
  • The Provisional Government that took the Tsar's place aimed to establish a republic with a liberal constitution and parliamentary institutions. Its prospects were far from bad. However, the determination of its leaders to keep the war going and to postpone decisions on the burning question of land reform until after a Constituent Assembly had been elected created a window of opportunity for more extreme elements. The Bolsheviks had in fact been taken by surprise by the revolution. 'It's staggering!' exclaimed Lenin when he heard the news in Zurich. 'Such a surprise! Just imagine! We must get home, but how?' The German High Command answered that question, providing him not only with a railway ticket to Petrograd but also, through two shady intermediaries named Parvus and Ganetsky, with funds to subvert the new government. Instead of having him and his associates arrested, as they richly deserved to be, the Provisional Government dithered. On August 27, egged on by conservative critics of the new regime, the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, General Lavr Kornilov, launched an abortive military coup. The unintended effect was to boost support for the Bolsheviks within the soviets, which had sprung up as a kind of parallel government not only in Petrograd (as in 1905) but in other cities too. Two months later, on October 24, 1917, the Bolsheviks staged a coup d'état of their own. At the time, it did not seem like a world-shaking event. Indeed, more people were hurt in Sergei Eisenstein's subsequent reenactment for his film October. Hardly anyone expected the new regime to last.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 142-143
  • The Revolution had been made in the name of peace, bread and Soviet power. It turned out to mean civil war, starvation and the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party's Central Committee and its increasingly potent subcommittee, the Politburo. Workers who had supported the Bolsheviks in the expectation of a decentralized soviet regime found themselves being gunned down if they had the temerity to strike at newly nationalized factories. With inflation rampant, their wages in real terms were just a fraction of what they had been before the war. 'War Communism' reduced hungry city dwellers to desperate bartering expeditions to the country and to burning everything from their neighbours' doors to their own books for heat. As the conscription system grew more effective, more and more young men found themselves drafted into the Red Army, which grew in number from less than a million in January 1919 to five million by October 1920, though desertion rates remained high, especially around harvest time. When the previously pro-Bolshevik sailors of Kronstadt mutinied in February 1921 , they denounced the regime for crushing freedom of speech, press and assembly and filling prisons and concentration camps with their political rivals.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), pp. 152-153
  • Each local Cheka had its own speciality. In Kharkov they went in for the ‘glove trick’ — burning the victim’s hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with ‘human gloves’. The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed its victims’ bones in half. In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels. In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head. In Kyiv they affixed a cage with rats to the victim’s torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim’s guts in an effort to escape. In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water. A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues. Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture. One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank was fired at them. Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse.
    • Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, p. 646
  • The starting point for our study of the Cold War is the year 1917, when the Bolshevik leadership established a communist regime in Russia and defied the international order by preaching world revolution and challenging conventional diplomatic practices. The Western powers (Britain, France, and the United States) responded with military intervention and ostracism. During the next twenty-four years the estrangement between Russia and the West was overshadowed by the challenges of Italy, Japan, and Germany, but the capitalist world continued to regard the Soviet Union with fear, mistrust, and repugnance—sentiments that Moscow duly reciprocated.
    • Carole C. Fink, The Cold War: An International History (2017), p. 5
  • Each communist party was the child of the marriage of two ill-assorted partners, a national left and the October revolution. That marriage was based both on love and convenience. For anyone whose political memories go back no farther than Khruschev's denunciation of Stalin, or the Sino-Soviet split, it is almost impossible to conceive what the October revolution meant to those who are now middle-aged and old. It was the first proletarian revolution, the first regime in history to set about the construction of the socialist order, the proof both of the profundity of the contradictions of capitalism, which produced wars and slumps, and of the possibility - the certainty - that socialist revolution would succeed. It was the beginning of world revolution. It was the beginning of the new world. Only the naive believed that Russia was the workers' paradise, but even among the sophisticated it enjoyed the general indulgence which the left of the 1960s now gives only to revolutionary regimes in some small countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam.
    • Eric Hobsbawm, "Problems of Communist History" (1969), published in Revolutionaries: Contemporary Essays (1973)
  • At Odessa, the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water; in Kharkiv, scalpings and hand-flayings were commonplace: the skin was peeled off victims’ hands to produce ‘gloves’; the Voronezh Cheka rolled naked people around in barrels studded internally with nails; victims were crucified or stoned to death at Dnipropetrovsk; the Cheka at Kremenchuk impaled members of the clergy and buried alive rebelling peasants; in Orel, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues; in Kyiv, Chinese Cheka detachments placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim’s body in an effort to escape.
    • George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police, pp 197-198
  • The Russian Revolution of 1917 may be said to have begun in November of the preceding year, when the government came under intense assault from liberal and conservative Duma deputies for its conduct of the war. The leader of the liberals, Paul Miliukov, virtually accused the government of treason. These attacks emanating from the highest political circles made the country ungovernable; the conviction spread that drastic change had to come. The tsar, a fatalist by nature, did nothing to reassert his authority. The spark that set off the revolution was a mutiny, in early March 1917, of the Petrograd garrison. It consisted of older peasant draftees who felt they should have been exempt from military duty and rioted when ordered to fire at unruly civilian crowds. The generals, afraid of the mutiny spreading to the front, persuaded Nicholas to abdicate in order to save Russia from defeat. An ardent patriot, he followed their advice and on March 15 stepped down.
  • In sum, the advance of education and industrialization necessary to meet Russia’s global ambitions weakened tsarism’s hold on the country. Such factors help explain why the Communist revolution that, according to Marx, was bound to break out in the industrialized West in fact broke out in the agrarian East. Russia lacked the deterrents to social revolution present in the West: respect for law and property, along with a sense of allegiance to a state that protected liberty and provided social services. The Russian radical intelligentsia, permeated with utopian idealism, on the one hand, and a peasantry bent on seizing private land, on the other, created a state of permanent tension liable to explode any time the central government found itself in trouble. None of the economic imperatives posited by Marx and Engels played here any role.
  • In the elections to the soviets held the next month, the Bolsheviks scored impressive gains, which signaled to Lenin that the time had come for another and decisive blow. The resolution to seize power was taken at a clandestine meeting of the Bolshevik leaders held on the night of October 23–24, 1917. Lenin had to overcome a great deal of reluctance from his lieutenants, who feared a repetition of the July fiasco. The coup took place on November 7 when pro-Bolshevik units took over all the strategic points in the capital without firing a shot. There was some fighting in Moscow, but in the rest of the country the transition proceeded quite smoothly. Lenin later said that taking power in Russia was as easy as “lifting a feather.” The reason was that he had cleverly camouflaged the seizure of power by himself and his party as the transfer of “all power to the soviets,” which slogan promised grassroots democracy rather than dictatorship. Even Lenin’s socialist rivals, who suspected his intentions, were not terribly upset, convinced that a Bolshevik one-party dictatorship could not possibly last and would soon yield to a socialist coalition. They preferred to let him exercise power for a while rather than unleash a civil war that would only benefit the “counterrevolution.” As it turned out, the Bolsheviks would stay in power for seventy-four years. Communism thus did not come to Russia as the result of a popular uprising: it was imposed on her from above by a small minority hiding behind democratic slogans. This salient fact was to determine its course.
  • The factors that made Russia prone to erupt in revolution also determined the shape of its Communist regime. As it turned out, socialism introduced into a country lacking the traditions that would make for the ideally self-fulfilling life that Marx had envisioned in no time and quite spontaneously assumed the worst features of the defunct tsarist regime. Socialist slogans, which in the West would be steadily watered down until they became indistinguishable from liberal ones, in Russia and other non-Western countries were reinterpreted in accustomed terms to mean the unlimited power of the state over citizens and their assets. Soviet totalitarianism thus grew out of Marxist seeds planted on the soil of tsarist patrimonialism.
  • The Russian Revolution of 1917 was patently a continuation of the French Revolution of 1789 in its eastern advance. It smashed autocracy, gave land to the peasants, liberated oppressed nationalities, and in addition promised to rid the industrial system of the blemishes of exploitation. In its heroic age, Soviet socialism was given selfless support by the writers and artists of the West. They steeled their muscles in an epic defence of freedom, democracy, and socialism against the pagan upsurge of Teutonic fascism. Hitler’s persecution of Bolsheviks and Jews was in the last resort directed against Christian universalism and its derivatives in the industrial present. His onslaught on traditional values, root and branch, created the modern West.
  • THE Russian Revolution is one of the great heroic events of the world s history. It is natural to compare it to the French Revolution, but it is in fact something of even more importance. It does more to change daily life and the structure of society : it also does more to change men s beliefs. The difference is exemplified by the difference between Marx and Rousseau : the latter sentimental and soft, appealing to emotion, obliterating sharp out lines ; the former systematic like Hegel, full of hard intellectual content, appealing to historic necessity and the technical development of industry, suggesting a view of human beings as puppets in the grip of omnipotent material forces. Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam ; and the result is something radically new, which can only be understood by a patient and passionate effort of imagination.
  • By disrupting the capitalist order and weakening the great empires, the First World War brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries. Most Marxists, however, had by then grown accustomed to working within national political systems, and chose to support their governments in time of war. Not so Vladimir Lenin, a subject of the Russian Empire and a leader of the Bolsheviks. His voluntarist understanding of Marxism, the belief that history could be pushed onto the proper track, led him to see the war as a great chance. For a voluntarist such as Lenin, assenting to the verdict of history gave Marxists a license to issue it themselves. Marx did not see history as fixed in advance but as the work of individuals aware of its principles. Lenin hailed from largely peasant country, which lacked, from a Marxist perspective, the economic conditions for revolution. Once again, he had a revolutionary theory to justify his revolutionary impulse. He believed that colonial empires had granted the capitalist system an extended lease on life, but that a war among empires could bring general revolution. The Russian Empire rumbled first, and Lenin made his move. The suffering soldiers and impovershed peasants of the Russian Empire were in revolt in early 1917. After a popular uprising brought down the Russian monarchy that February, a new liberal regime sought to win the war by one more military offensive against its enemies, the German Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy. At this point Lenin became the secret weapon of Germany. The Germans dispatched Lenin from Swiss exile to the Russian capital Petrograd that April, to make a revolution that would take Russia from the war. With the help of his charismatic ally Leon Trotsky and his disciplined Bolsheviks, Lenin achieved a coup d'état with some popular support in November. In early 1918, Lenin's new government signed a peace treaty with Germany that left Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland under German control. Thanks in part to Lenin, Germany won the war on the eastern front, and had a brief taste of eastern empire.
    • Timothy D. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 20104
  • More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
  • In 1917 European history, in the old sense, came to an end. World history began. It was the year of Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom repudiated the traditional standards of political behaviour. Both preached Utopia, Heaven on Earth. It was the moment of birth for our contemporary world.
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