The Russian Revolution consisted of two violent revolutions that resulted in the collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of a brand new political entity, i.e. the Soviet Union. The first of the two revolutions was the result of various political, social and economic issues, including Tsar Nicholas II’s perceived incompetence, considerable military losses, social inequality, widespread corruption and economic stagnation, whereas the second one was made by possible by socialists’ impressive popularity among workers and farmers.
The first revolution took place in Petrograd in February 1917 (O.S.), when a wave of mass demonstrations, mutinies and clashes between frustrated citizens and the Russian Army left Nicholas II with no choice but to abdicate as Tsar, thus putting an end to centuries of imperial rule (Imperial War Museum). For approximately eight months, the country was ruled by a Provisional Government controlled by members of the former imperial Parliament, while farmers and industrial workers began organizing into “soviets”, i.e. left-leaning councils whose main goal was to transform Russia into a democratic nation.
It is important to keep in mind that although soviets were ideologically opposed to the bourgeoisie – whom they regarded as exploiters – they never intended to oppress them in any way. As Vladimir Lenin himself pointed out in 1918, it was the capitalists who refused to cooperate with the soviets, boycotting them and plotting against them (Lenin). Following the Provisional Government’s decision to keep fighting alongside Germany in World War II, the Bolsheviks – a revolutionary group that had been campaigning for Russia’s withdrawal from the war, workers’ rights and more land to the peasants – used their influence over the soviets to assemble a great army to overthrow the government. Unlike the first revolution, which lacked any kind of formal planning, the second revolution was the result of lengthy and elaborate preparations. To maximize their chances of success, the Bolsheviks set up a revolutionary military committee which developed a plan to seize Petrograd. In October 1917 (O.S.), the Red Army overthrew the Provisional Government, and the Congress of Soviets issued a decree which officially transferred all power to the Soviets. The decree was met with considerable resistance by multiple factions within the socialist movement, the most vocal one being the Mensheviks, who did not appreciate Lenin’s dictatorial tendencies. Like the Mensheviks, the Makhnovists – a Ukrainian anarchist group led by Nestor Makhno – did not want the revolution to be led by a totalitarian government. As can be inferred from their Manifesto of 1918, the Makhnovists managed their communes in a liberal manner, encouraging all members to handle critical matters as they thought best, provided that they informed the council in advance (Makhno).
According to Rabinowitch, the second revolution was not a particularly bloody one, as the Bolsheviks were so popular among Russian workers and soldiers that they didn’t have to resort to extreme violence to take control of the capital. However, it would be historically incorrect to portray the interwar period as a peaceful one. As Ryan (808) reports in a fascinating article on the Red Terror, the early Soviet state sought to create a conflict-free society by isolating or even eliminating anyone who did not embrace its political vision. As part of its efforts to educate and terrorize the population, the government carried out mass murders, confined potentially harmful individuals to concentration camps and published the names of executed criminals in daily newspapers, along with persuasive justifications for its actions (Ryan 809).
The Russian Revolution was, without a doubt, a series of explosive political events that completely reshaped Russian politics and society, enabling the Bolsheviks to capitalize on the frustration of Russia’s lower classes. This controversial phase ended with the establishment of a new socialist government which transformed Russia from a capitalist, agrarian society into an industrialized superpower with a highly centralized economy.
- Imperial War Museum. What Was the February Revolution? 2018, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-february-revolution 1 July 2019.
- Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/soviet_constitution.htm 1 July 2019.
- Makhno, Nestor. The Manifesto of The Makhnovists. 1918, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/nestor-makhno-the-manifesto-of-the-makhnovists 1 July 2019.
- Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Chicago Illinois, Haymarket Books. 2004.
- Ryan, James. “The Sacralization of Violence: Bolshevik Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War.” Slavic Review, vol. 74, no. 4, 2015, pp. 808–831. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5612/slavicreview.74.4.808.