Russian Revolution Research Paper

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The revolutionary crises of 1917 had their origins in the deep social and political polarization in Russian society that intensified in the first decades of the twentieth century.  Peasants  suffered from  land  shortages, periodic hunger, high incidence of disease and early mortality, the burdens of taxation and rents, and military recruitment. Factory workers and artisans lived in squalid tenements or hovels and worked long hours in dangerous conditions. The better-off middle and upper classes  were not  only more literate, educated, and socially mobile than the peasants, but lived under a different code of law and enjoyed privileges that the ordinary villagers did not. Through the nineteenth century politically-engaged Russian intellectuals gravitated from liberalism and moderation toward revolutionary socialism, at first oriented toward the peasants (populism or  narodnichestvo)  and  later, by the  1890s, increasingly focused on  the  urban  workers (Marxism, Social Democracy).

Marxism  provided  a  sociological and  economic framework for Russian activists, a view of the way the world worked under capitalism and the European future toward which Russia was headed. Unlike the pro-peasant socialists or populists, who eventually formed the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Marxists believed that Russia could not avoid industrialization and capitalism and had to pass through  two successive  revolutions, a bourgeois-democratic revolution followed by a proletarian-socialist revolution in which the working people would come to power to build socialism. In 1903 the principal Marxist organization, the  Russian Social Democratic  Workers’  Party, split into two rival factions, the moderate Mensheviks, who were usually more willing to work with other democratic parties, like the populists and liberals, and the more radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), who  generally favored a  more  rapid  transition  to  the socialist revolution.

However wide the social divide between the state and society in the decades before World War I (1914–1918), the war expanded the gulf and radicalized the workers and peasants. Millions of peasants were turned into soldiers, given guns, and shown that a wider world existed beyond the edges of the village. The February Revolution began on February 23 [Julian calendar] (March 8 on the Gregorian  calendar, International  Women’s  Day)  with working-class women demanding bread in the cold, dark streets of Petrograd. Within days, hundreds of thousands of  Petrograd  workers were in  the  streets,  and  when Cossacks and  ordinary  soldiers refused to  fire on  the crowds, the  strike turned  into  a revolution. The  tsar, Nicholas II (1894–1917),  abdicated, as did his brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, and the monarchy came to an end.

On March 1 (14), middle-class members of the duma formed  a  provisional government,  headed  by  Prince Georgii Lvov and including leaders of the major liberal and conservative parties. At the same time, workers and soldiers formed their own representative bodies, the soviets (councils) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, for though their leaders were unwilling to take power on their own, they were suspicious of the intentions of the “bourgeois” members of the  provisional government. Russia now had  not  one unchallenged government but  “dual power,” two competing authorities. In April, the leaders of the  Soviet confronted Foreign Minister Paul Miliukov, who insisted on  Russia’s imperial claims to  Constantinople and the Dardanelles. Workers and soldiers poured into the streets, and forced Miliukov to resign. Moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet reluctantly joined the “bourgeois” government, but in the next six months the various coalition governments were unable either to end the world war or to alleviate the social divisions in Russian society. While  the  government  wavered, the  Bolsheviks won majorities in the factory committees and successfully agitated  against the  war at  the  fronts.  Lenin,  who  had returned  to  Russia from exile in  Switzerland in  April, staked out a radical program for transferring all power to the soviets, ending the war, and moving the revolution rapidly into  a socialist phase. The  Bolsheviks were the only major party that provided a clear alternative to the government and their moderate socialist allies.

To please the Western Allies and contribute to the war effort against the Central Powers, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky launched  a  disastrous  offensive against the enemy in June, but as news of Russian defeats reached the capital, workers, sailors, and soldiers demonstrated against the war and the government, even calling on the Soviet to take power in its own name. The moderate socialists refused, while militant elements supporting the Bolsheviks pushed to seize power. When order was restored by troops loyal to the government and soviets, Lenin was forced to  go into  hiding  in  Finland.  Lvov resigned, and Kerensky formed a new coalition government. Liberal and conservative forces became more wary of the lower classes and called for an authoritarian government to restore order. The clumsy attempt  by General Lavr Kornilov to  establish a  new  authority,  however, ended with the lower classes moving swiftly toward the Bolsheviks and electing them the majority party in both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets by early September.

In the second half of October, the MilitaryRevolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, led by Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), began establishing its authority over the  garrisons of the  city. On  the  morning  of October 24 (November 6), Kerensky moved to suppress the Bolsheviks and prevent the insurrection that everyone knew was coming. In  the  crucial hours,  however, the prime minister found his support weak or non-existent. Though workers did not actively participate in the insurrection, the Bolsheviks found the military muscle to take power. By dawn on October 25 (November 7) the city was in the hands of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, and Lenin went before the Second Congress of Soviets and declared that power had passed to the soviets. When the  moderate  socialists, the  Mensheviks and  Right Socialist Revolutionaries, protested the Bolshevik seizure of power and walked out of the Congress, they essentially left the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries to form a new government. Though Lenin preferred a oneparty government, within a month he conceded seats to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, and until March 1918 Soviet Russia had a Left Socialist coalition government.

In November 1917 elections were held to a Constituent Assembly, a kind of founding congress for the new republic. The Bolsheviks failed to win a majority, while the Right Socialist Revolutionaries emerged with the largest plurality. After allowing a single day’s meeting (January 5 [18], 1918), however, the Soviet government dispersed the Constituent  Assembly, Russia’s most freely elected parliamentary body until the early 1990s. In the ensuing civil war the communists did not hesitate to use violence and terror, and as atrocities occurred on both sides, much of the democratic promise of the revolution of 1917 was lost.


  1. Acton, Edward, Vladimir Iu Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds. 1997. Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  2. Figes, Orlando. 1998. A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Galili, Ziva. 1989. The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. 1981. The February Revolution: Petrograd 1917. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  5. Rabinowitch, Alexander. 1976. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. New York: W. W. Norton.
  6. Rosenberg, William G. 1974. The Liberals in the Russian Revolution; the Constitutional Democratic Party, 1917–1921. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  7. Smith, S. A. 1983. Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917–18. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Steinberg, Mark D., and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv. 1995. The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  9. Suny, Ronald, and Arthur Adams, eds. 1990. The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik Victory: Visions and Revisions. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.
  10. Wildman, Allan K. 1980–1987. The End of the Russian Imperial Army. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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