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The Russian Revolution, 1917

March and October revolutions that saw the abdication of the Czar and the Bolshevik take-over

From: 8 March 1917

To: 6 November 1917

The Russian Revolution was the culmination of long term social and economic discontent in Russia. Russia was an autocratic monarchy ruled by Tsar Nicholas II. Despite having established a parliament after an earlier revolution in 1905, the Tsar’s rule remained corrupt and he frequently dissolved parliament whenever it opposed his will. Russia entered the war in 1914 on the side of the Allies and fought Germany and Austro-Hungary on the Eastern front, however because of its under-developed economy its army was poorly equipped to fight against an industrialised Germany. In addition to the huge disruption of the economy, Russia suffered the highest casualty rates of the war. Nearly two million soldiers and one and a half million civilians died.

Driven by these grievances, the first revolution (‘the February Revolution’) took place in March 1917 in Petrograd (modern Saint Petersburg). It happened spontaneously; bread rioters, industrial strikers and took to the streets protesting and were soon joined by soldiers who deserted the army in great numbers. Having lost control, the Tsar was forced to abdicate on 15 March. The significance of this event was recognised by contemporaries, although what would happen next was unknown. The Durham Chronicle wrote, ‘We are living too near the date of the Russian Revolution to realise even faintly all that this mighty event portends in the life of our planet’.

Although parliament formed the ‘Russian Provisional Government’, the ‘Petrograd Soviet’, which represented the workers’ committees and the army had the support of much of the population because it advocated ending the war. On 14 March, the Soviet issued ‘Order Number 1’ to the soldiers telling them to only obey the Soviet, not the Provisional Government. Because the government was too weak to counter this, a power-sharing agreement was created between the two governments which lasted for most of 1917.

By November, the Soviet’s program of ‘peace, land and bread’ had won them even greater support from urban workers and soldiers. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks staged a bloodless coup on 6 November (‘The October Revolution’) by occupying government buildings and strategic points. The Provisional Government was unable to organise effective resistance. Consequently, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets approved the formation of a new government composed of mostly Bolsheviks. For the first time, the government was made up of the intellectual and working classes and not the aristocracy. Fulfilling their promises to the public, the government made peace with Germany with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, nationalised industries and distributed land.

Socialism was feared by many Western governments, who saw it as a threat to their own interests. In 1918, Britain, the United States, France, Italy and other Allied countries launched an intervention in Russia, partially to prevent the resources they had sent over from getting into German hands, and partially to assist the ‘White Army’ reverse the October Revolution. They were defeated in 1920.

Contributed by Jessica, Durham at War Intern