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How revolution spread across Russia’s empire

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Issue 2559
Armed workers march in Moscow
Armed workers march in Moscow

By 1917 Russia possessed one of the world’s three great empires. Unlike its rivals Britain and France, its territories were geographically linked in one great bloc.

It stretched from Finland in the west to Sakhalin in the Far East. In 1914 the population was estimated to number more than 170 million—fewer than half of them were Russian.

The February Revolution, which replaced the Tsar with a Provisional Government, broke out in the capital Petrograd. But it convulsed the whole empire.

The countryside teemed with the fights of the peasant majority against their landlords. In the colonies the fight for socialism was intertwined with the fight for national liberation.

But the working class that made up the revolution’s backbone didn’t stop at Petrograd’s suburbs.

Moscow too was a mighty industrial city, and throughout Russia were towns with working class districts. They were linked together by the railway and telegraph networks.

The army was another centralising influence.

Soldiers posted in or recruited from towns far across the empire resisted being sent to the front.

The soviets—or workers’ councils—created by workers and soldiers in Petrograd quickly found their echo.

There were 700 soviets across Russia by April 1917. By October there were 1,429, representing about a third of the empire’s population.

Almost half of these, 706, were soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives.

The first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held 100 years ago this week, showed some of the contradictions brought by this vast scope.

Workers in much of the empire weren’t actively involved in February. And the revolutionary Bolshevik party initially had little presence in smaller towns.

As radicalisation continued, it sometimes met with fewer obstacles in the provinces

So in the early stages of 1917 the Russian provinces were the most backward parts of the movement.

But the reformist socialists, who tried to hold the revolution back, were also centred in the capital and big cities.

So as radicalisation continued, it sometimes met with fewer obstacles in the provinces.

Revolutionary Leon Trotsky described a “political revival of the soviets” in summer 1917. It “began from the bottom”—in the Petrograd districts and in the provinces.

The soviet of Moscow province, “considerably in advance” of the Moscow city soviet, called for the soviets to take power.

In Krasnoyask, more than 2,000 miles from Petrograd, soldiers led a demonstration of up to 10,000 people.

New elections to the soviets saw the two most revolutionary factions, the Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries, take majorities all over Russia.

By 18 August at a regional congress of soviets of the Ural mountains well over half of the delegates were Bolsheviks.

Tsaitzyn, in the south, today’s Volgograd, had not only a Bolshevik-led soviet but also an elected Bolshevik mayor.

In July, the soviet in the textile city of Ivonovo-Voznesensk “branded with contempt” a state-led witchhunt of the Bolsheviks.

Opponents of the revolution exaggerate Petrograd’s isolation to claim that the October revolution was just a coup.

When the Bolsheviks led the overthrow of the Provisional Government, they were acting in a mass movement across most of a continent.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at

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