In 1914 the outbreak of WWI may have seemed, to Tsar Nicholas II, like a blessing from above. The wave of nationalism that followed Russia entering the fray on the side of its allies France and Serbia must have been a welcome relief in the wake of increasing political and social unrest that had been brewing since the 1890’s (as the Tsar pushed his Empire into increasing industrialisation to the detriment of the middle and working classes). However the relief was short lived and, in declaring war the Tsar had in fact signed his own death warrant.
The war swiftly turned against the Russian Army on all fronts and conditions in the army and across the Empire deteriorated significantly, not helped by the loss of the trade route across the Dardanelles when the Ottoman Empire joined the fight on the side of the Central Powers. The Tsar foolishly, and against all advice, attempted to fix the problem by taking personal control of the army – a role for which he was supremely unfit. Not only was he now completely responsible for the continued defeats of his army in the eyes of his subjects, he had left the Tsarina in charge of the government of Russia. Alexandra was immediately treated with suspicion as she was German by birth and her loyalties were further questioned as her strange relationship with Rasputin appeared to result in a revolving door for Government ministers and increasing corruption. By March 1917 (Gregorian calendar) the people of Russia had reached breaking point and the first stage of revolution began.
The “February” Revolution.
So called because Russia was still using the Julian calendar during WWI and so happened in February for them, the uprising started on 8thMarch (Gregorian) as it swelled the initial strike that had begun on 3rdMarch just outside Petrograd (now St Petersburg) into mass protests against food rationing. These protests developed into violent clashes between the protestors and the police and the last of the forces loyal to the Tsar and continued for around eight days.
On the 12 March mutinous Russian Army forces sided with the protestors and this was the, as it were, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Three days later the Tsar abdicated and the rule of the Romanov dynasty was over. It was replaced by a power share between the Russian Provisional Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviets.
This was not an organised revolution. There were no obvious leaders and no obvious planning had taken place. It was, rather the boiling over of years of desperation and destitution created by poor governance.
The intervening months, however, created the conditions for a “proper” organised revolution.
For starters, the power share was heavily weighted in favour of the Petrograd Soviets. They had, in fact, asserted de facto supremacy on 14thMarch 1917 (Gregorian) – before the Provisional Committee was even formed – with point four of their Order No 1 document:
The orders of the Military Commission of the State Duma shall be executed only in such cases as do not conflict with the orders and resolution of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.
The Provisional Committee was not elected and was made up of aristocracy, bourgeoise and business leaders. They were committed to continuing to pursue the war and seemed to want everything to carry on as before. The Petrograd Soviets, however, and the majority of the working class, wanted the war stopped and the focus to be on improving the lot of the workers. The Revolution had not resolved the discontent.
The Central Powers, who would also like nothing better than Russia to step out of the theatre of war, allowed Vladimir Lenin (who had been exiled for sedition in 1897) safe passage from Switzerland to Petrograd. He arrived on 29 April and had stirred up enough trouble with his Bolshevik comrades that after the July Days armed uprising which happened at his instigation, his arrest was again ordered and he was forced to flee to a safehouse outside Petrograd and then to Finland.
He did not stop working for Russia to turn to Communism whilst in hiding and as soon as Trotsky, a Marxist Bolshevik, was voted in as leader of the Petrograd Soviet he returned to Petrograd. As the Bolsheviks now held the majority in the Petrograd Soviet he was able to return to his plan for an armed insurrection to topple the Provisional Committee and this time he gained the full support of the party; his plan was approved by 10 votes to 2 and became …
The “October” Revolution
Planned and organised efficiently and coming after months of continued unrest the armed revolution began on 7 November 1917 (Gregorian) and was over by 8 November. On 6 November the Provisional Government sent soldiers into the printing premises of the Bolshevik newspaper Rabochy put and destroy printing equipment and thousands of copies of the paper. Bolshevik aligned soldiers retook the building later that day and the Government responded by attempting to raise all the bridges in Petrograd. After a series of clashes between Government and Soviet troops the Military Revolution Committee seized the Central Telegraph, giving them effective control of all communications in the city.
The armed uprising officially began on 7 November, with the Bolsheviks leading their forces into the City in the morning, their entrance coinciding with the arrival in the harbour of a flotilla of destroyers all loyal to the Bolshevik cause. Systematically the Bolshevik troops, known as the Red Guard, captured all the major Government buildings, key communication posts and vantage points with very little opposition and their final action was the bloodless taking of the Winter Palace (the later reconstructions were far more dramatic and showed fierce fighting were nothing more than propaganda for the Communist cause).
On the 8 November the success of the revolution was announced, as was the creation of a new Federal Government (to turn the Empire into a Soviet Republic) and the moving of the capital of Russia to Moscow. Lenin took leadership of the newly formed Republic and, despite the start of a Civil War that lasted until 1922 when the Bolsheviks finally triumphed and the USSR was formed, made good on the promise that Russia would pull out of WWI. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed by Russia and the Central Powers in March 1918.
This was the outcome the Central Powers had hoped for when they allowed Lenin, his wife, and 30 other Russians free passage back to Russia in April 1917 but it did not, in the end, turn the war in their favour. In fact the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, whose terms were incredibly harsh for Russia, ended up being used against the Central powers when it came to negotiating the Treaty of Versailles – the defeated countries being told by some that they should count themselves lucky that the Versailles terms were nowhere near as putative as those they’d sought to impose on Russia.
The above is, obviously, an incredibly short summary of the 1917 revolution so I can only fulsomely recommend you check out the following books which provide all the depth you could hope for on the subject:
- A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes
- (I recommend the updated centenary edition)
- The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
- The Russian Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick