The Russian Revolution of 1917 did not begin as a struggle for socialism, but was born out of deep-seated discontent against the Tsarist regime and war.
Nicholas II was the last monarch from the 304-year old Romanov dynasty, which ruled a deeply unequal and repressive society. Anger at the regime had broken out 12 years earlier in a revolution in 1905.
Russia had joined the First World War in 1914 expecting swift victories—but the imperialist bloodbath plunged the regime into crisis.
The toll on Russian soldiers, mainly peasant conscripts, was immense with 2,500,000 dead and 5,000,000 wounded by the end of the war. They were sent onto the front line without guns, ammunition or even shoes—and suffered defeat after defeat.
This made the army a hotbed of discontent. An agent from the Okhranka, the Tsarist secret police, noted that it was “full of elements of which some are capable of becoming active forces of insurrection”.
Wounded troops brought back stories of slaughter to their peasant families, who froze and starved in the countryside.
A year into the war the crisis spiralled. Hunger now gripped Russia’s industrial towns as well as the countryside. Foreign imports dried up while industrial production shrank by a third.
Two years later this anger boiled over.
The February Revolution brought down the Tsarist dictatorship and replaced it with the Provisional Government.Alexander Kerensky and other reformist socialists and liberals headed this new Russian Republic.
But this was only the beginning. It unleased a revolutionary process that would lead to the October Revolution, when the working class seized power for itself.
The initial spark for the February Revolution was a strike against rising bread prices by women textile workers in the capital Petrograd. The women went round factories encouraging other workers to join them.
Within days the Tsar abdicated and the Duma (parliament) declared itself the Provisional Government. Many workers initially supported the likes of Kerensky because they were better than the brutal rule of the Tsars.
But the Provisional Government was determined not to upset Europe’s powers or Russia’s capitalists. This meant that they refused to meet the aspiration to end the war.
During the February Revolution workers set up workers’ councils, called soviets, which became organs of political power. They increasingly came into conflict with the Provisional Government and overthrew it in October.
Tsarist Russia was riddled with bigotry and state-sponsored persecution. Before 1917 the reactionary Orthodox Church had ruled sexual morality in the Empire.
The revolution ended that. Just weeks after the October revolution abortion was free on demand. Russia became the first country to legalise homosexuality.
Oppressed groups played an active and leading role in the revolution—and a new world of liberation opened up.
Before the revolution domestic violence was common. One Russian proverb said, “Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.”
After the revolution divorce was legalised—and peasant women sang songs about how they would divorce their husband if he beat them.
The revolution began to uproot the material basis for oppression.
Communal kitchens and child care centres freed women from domestic labour.
For leading Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai the “separation of kitchen from marriage” was as important as the separation of church from state.
The Bolsheviks were also committed to ending the oppression of national groups. Before the revolution, the Russian empire was known was known as “the prison house of nations”.
But in November 1917 the Soviet government decreed the right of people to national self-determination. It encouraged each nation to hold a Soviet congress to decide how to participate in the wider democracy of the new Russia.
The Tsarist regime was rife with antisemitism and religious persecution. Far right gangs led murderous pogroms against Jews—with the collusion of the authorities.
The process of revolution transformed this and saw Jews play a leading role in the struggle. So Leon Trotsky, a Jew, was elected chair of the Petrograd soviet.
And the new Soviet government legislated for freedom of religion. Church and state were separated—the new state gave no favour to any one religion, yet freedom of worship was guaranteed.
Just weeks after taking power the Soviet government said, “Muslims of Russia, know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution.”
Muslims made up 10 percent of the population—and in some areas Sharia law was recognised as part of Soviet law. The Bolsheviks said they were non-religious, not anti-religious. Practicing Muslims were welcomed into the Bolshevik party.
After the revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church—which was closely linked to Tsarism—lost the right to its property. But its churches weren’t destroyed or burnt down like synagogues had been under the Tsar. They were transformed into public buildings.
At the same time the revolution gave people a sense of their own power and so weakened the hold of religious ideas for many people.
Capitalist rulers paint revolutions as violent, bloody events—while presiding over their violent, bloody system. Yet October 1917 saw very little violence.
This is because there was mass support for the seizure of power, or insurrection. And groups that might have blocked it—such as the army—had been won over too.
The revolution was almost bloodless in Petrograd because the Bolsheviks had won the authority and trust of the masses. This is because the Bolsheviks had played an important role throughout 1917.
The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC)—formed to defend the revolution from an earlier coup attempt led by General Kornilov—was resurrected to plan the insurrection.
The Bolsheviks had to convince the Petrograd soviet to take swift action to defend the revolution. So on 13 October the soviet voted for the MRC to make plans for the seizure of power.
Decisions about the insurrection were made with the support of the governing democratic body—and the workers.
Even Kerensky said that during the insurrection “the Bolsheviks deported themselves at that time with great energy and no less skill”.
Where there was violence, it was where the revolution was weaker and existing rulers had an opportunity to fight back. The violence came from them.
Russia was going through an intense process of industrialisation and the working class was growing quickly. But it made up a small minority of Russia at the end of the 19th century—just 4.4 percent. Most of the population were peasants.
Many socialists thought this made a socialist revolution impossible. But workers were concentrated in some of the biggest factories in the world. So although the working class was numerically very small, it still had important power.
A peasant toiling in a field did not have equal power as workers who could bring the economy grinding to a halt.
The working class needed the vast number of peasants to carry the revolution. But its social power and position meant it could lead other classes.
Before the revolution Russian society was deeply reactionary.
Many ordinary Russians accepted the ruling ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”. Revolutionary socialists were a minority, who gained a small hearing among some groups of workers.
In February 1913 mass demonstrations of workers and peasants celebrated 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. Some 60 people died in a crush trying to touch the Tsar’s “holy shroud”.
Just four years later in February 1917 those same women and men toppled the Tsar and opened the door to another sort of society altogether. Their ideas had begun to change through struggle.
Toppling the Tsar had pulled society leftward, but many ordinary people still accepted some of the old ideas. And the majority weren’t looking to revolutionary socialist solutions.
But the Provisional Government’s inability to meet simple demands for bread and peace radicalised workers.
This process wasn’t even. Workers in Petrograd protested against the Provisional Government during a crisis known as the “July Days”. Some wanted to overthrow the government—but the majority did not.
Only in October 1917 did masses of workers across Russia support socialist revolution.
US journalist John Reed was a socialist who reported from the Russian Revolution. His book, Ten Days that Shook the World, tells the story of the October insurrection and the fight to defend it.
Here is a short excerpt from Reed’s account of one soviet meeting shortly before the insurrection, and another of soldiers at the front
“If the Bolsheviki start anything, that will be the end of the Revolution—” (Cries, “That’s a lie!)”
Immense continued uproar, in which his voice could be heard screaming, “Those who are urging this are committing a crime!” Voice: “You committed a crime long ago, when you captured the power and turned it over to the bourgeoisie!”
Gotz, ringing the chairman’s bell: “Silence, or I’ll have you put out!” Voice: “Try it!” (Cheers and whistling.)’
‘We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?”’
Leeds-born liberal war correspondent Arthur Ransome was in Russia for the revolution. He was shaken by events
“I felt I would willingly give the rest of my life if it could be divided into minutes and given to men in England and France so that those of little faith who say that the Russian Revolution is discredited could share for a minute each that experience.”
Radical U.s. journalist who was in Russia in 1917
“In the great white hall, once the ballroom with its graceful column and silver candelabra, delegates from the soviets all over Russia met in late night sessions.
“Men came straight from the front line trenches, straight from the fields and the factories.
“Every race in Russia met there as brothers. Men poured out their souls at these meetings and they said beautiful and terrible things.”
The bolshevik organiser of the insurrection announcing the victory of the revolution to the All Russian Soviet
“We the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants Deputies are going to try an experiment unique in history.
“We are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers and peasants.”
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