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Week 10: The Russian Revolution

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The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was said to be a major factor to the February Revolutions of 1917. The events of Bloody Sunday triggered a line of protests. A council of workers called the St. Petersburg Soviet was created in all this chaos, and the beginning of a communist political protest had begun. (Wood, 1979. p. 18)

World War I prompted a Russian outcry directed at Tsar Nicholas II. It was another major factor contributing to the retaliation of the Russian Communists against their royal opponents.After the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914, Russia was deprived of a major trade route through Ottoman Empire, which followed with a minor economic crisis, in which Russia became incapable of providing munitions to their army in the years leading to 1917. However, the problems were merely administrative, and not industrial as Germany was producing great amounts of munitions whilst constantly fighting on two major battlefronts. (Wood, 1979. p. 24)

The war also developed a weariness in the city, owing to a lack of food in response to the disruption of agriculture. Food scarcity had become a considerable problem in Russia, but the cause of this did not lie in any failure of the harvests, which had not been significantly altered during wartime. The indirect reason was that the government, in order to finance the war, had been printing millions of ruble notes, and by 1917 inflation had made prices increase up to four times what they had been in 1914. The peasantry were consequently faced with the higher cost of purchases, but made no corresponding gain in the sale of their own produce, since this was largely taken by the middlemen on whom they depended. As a result, they tended to hoard their grain and to revert to subsistence farming. Thus the cities were constantly short of food. At the same time rising prices led to demands for higher wages in the factories, and in January and February 1916 revolutionary propaganda, aided by German funds, led to widespread strikes. The outcome of all this, however, was a growing criticism of the government rather than any war-weariness. The original fever of patriotic excitement, which had caused the name of St. Petersburg to be changed to the less German sounding “Petrograd,” may have subsided a little in the subsequent years, but it had not turned to defeatism and during the initial risings in Petrograd in February 1917, the crowds in the streets clearly objected to the banners proclaiming “down with the war.” Heavy losses during the war also strengthened thoughts that Tsar Nicholas II was unfit to rule. (Wood, 1979. p. 24)

The Liberals were now better placed to voice their complaints, since they were participating more fully through a variety of voluntary organizations. Local industrial committees proliferated. In July 1915, a Central War Industries Committee was established under the chairmanship of a prominent Octobrist, Guchkov, and including ten workers’ representatives.The Petrograd Mensheviks agreed to join despite the objections of their leaders abroad. All this activity gave renewed encouragement to political ambitions, and, in September 1915, a combination of Octobrists and Kadets in the Duma demanded the forming of a responsible government. The Tsar rejected these proposals. He had now taken over the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, during his absence from Petrograd while at his military headquarters at Mogilev, he left most of the day-to-day government in the hands of the Empress. She was intensely unpopular, owing, in part, to her German origin and to the influence that Rasputin, an unsavoury “monk”, exercised over her. (Wood, 1979. p. 25)

All these factors had given rise to a sharp loss of confidence in the regime by 1916. Early in that year, Guchkov had been taking soundings among senior army officers and members of the Central War Industries Committee about a possible coup to force the abdication of the Tsar. In November, Pavel Milyukov in the Duma openly accused the government of contemplating peace negotiations with Germany. In December, a small group of nobles assassinated Rasputin, and in January 1917 the Tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, was asked indirectly by Prince Lvov whether he would be prepared to take over the throne from his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II. None of these incidents were in themselves the immediate cause of the February Revolution, but they do help to explain why the monarchy survived only a few days after it had broken out. (Wood, 1979. p. 25)

Russian soldiers marching in Petrograd in February 1917

Meanwhile, the Social Democrat leaders in exile, now mostly in Switzerland, had been the glum spectators of the collapse of international socialist solidarity. French and German Social Democrats had voted in favour of their respective governments. Georgi Plekhanov in Paris had adopted a violently anti-German stand, while Parvus supported the German war effort as the best means of ensuring a revolution in Russia. The Mensheviks largely maintained that Russia had the right to defend herself against Germany, although Martov (a prominent Menshevik), now on the left of his group, demanded an end to the war and a settlement on the basis of national self-determination, with no annexations or indemnities. (Wood, 1979. p.25)

It was these views of Martov that predominated in a manifesto drawn up by Leon Trotsky (at the time a Menshevik) at a conference in Zimmerwald, attended by 35 Socialist leaders in September 1915. Inevitably Vladimir Lenin, supported by Zinoviev and Radek, strongly contested them. Their attitudes became known as the Zimmerwald Left. Lenin rejected both the defence of Russia and the cry for peace. Since the autumn of 1914, he had insisted that “from the standpoint of the working class and of the labouring masses from the lesser evil would be the defeat of the Tsarist Monarchy”; the war must be turned into a civil war of the proletarian soldiers against their own governments, and if a proletarian victory should emerge from this in Russia, then their duty would be to wage a revolutionary war for the liberation of the masses throughout Europe. Thus, Lenin remained the enfant terrible of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, although at this point in the war his following in Russia was as few as 10,000 and he must have seemed no more than the leader of an extremist wing of a bankrupt organization. Lenin then executed the protests of Petrograd which set off the 1917 Russian Revolution. (Wood, 1979. p. 26)