Revisiting the Russian Revolution 100 years ago

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On Oct. 24, 1917, Bolshevik leaders of the Petrograd Soviet - the council representing workers, soldiers and sailors in Russia's capital city - seized control of the Winter Palace and the Provisional Government in a bloodless coup. The following day, they presented their achievement to the 670 delegates attending the Second Congress of Soviets - a meeting between leaders of worker, soldier, sailor and peasant councils from all across the nation. Delegates to the Congress represented a variety of groups and political parties. They had come to Petrograd with orders to take power from the Provisional Government via legal means and to give power to the people: "All Power to the Soviets!" On Oct. 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks announced that all local governments in Russia would be taken over by local Soviets and that a Council of People's Commissars, comprised of only Bolshevik Communist Party members, would take over the functions of the central government. Thus, the revolution against Tsarist autocracy that began in February of 1917 ended with the Bolshevik seizure of power in October.

Following World War II, the birth of the Cold War and the expansion of communism throughout other areas of the world, Westerners tended to view the Russian Revolution as a series of unfortunate events that culminated in a tiny group of totalitarian communists forcing their way into power. Moreover, they maintained that Russia had been evolving into a liberal political state, an evolution that was subsequently halted by the Bolshevik takeover. Their dislike of communism, both its ideology and its tactics, caused them to sympathize with Tsar Nicholas II and the Provisional Government. Western abhorrence for what came after the revolution, namely Stalinism and all of its atrocities, distorted interpretations of the political, social and economic factors that led to revolution in 1917. Though it is tempting to examine history backwards - to start with Stalin and the Cold War and end with the October Revolution - it is inappropriate. Such an approach ignores historical realities, overlooks important changes and developments along the way, and is, in short, bad history.

Rather than focusing on the long-term results of the revolution, it is important to concentrate on the revolution itself. Tsar Nicholas II faced two revolutions during his reign. In 1905, revolution occurred in Russia due to a number of factors: peasants faced with high redemption fees were suffering from lower grain prices and began rioting across the country; industrial workers faced with long hours, low wages and bad living conditions began going on strike; illegal political parties were formed across the country and began demanding a constitution, voting rights and democracy; the military suffered defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and soldiers began joining the peasants, workers and politicians in demanding reform and change. In the face of this revolution, Nicholas was forced to give up some of his total power by granting the October Manifesto. This document created a Duma (or Parliament), ended redemption fees for peasants, legalized political parties and unions and offered some civil liberties. However, over the following years, much of what was granted in the Manifesto was taken away or restricted by the Tsar.

Prior to World War I, a similar situation emerged within Russia. The war itself served to exacerbate the deteriorating socio-economic conditions within the country. Russian industry, developmentally far behind its Western counterparts, struggled to provide the necessities of war causing 25 percent of Russian soldiers to enter the battlefield unarmed in 1915. Inflation skyrocketed, and wages could not keep up with the rising cost of living. Grain requisitions were forced upon a poor and unhappy peasant population. The Russian military suffered numerous defeats at the hands of the Germans. Over time, the population turned against the Tsar, and people across the nation formed Soviets - councils dedicated to advancing the causes of the common man. On Feb. 23, 1917, female workers marched in Petrograd in recognition of International Women's Day. They were soon joined by male workers across the city, and a mass demonstration began. Nicholas ordered the military to stop this demonstration, but, by this time, several thousand troops opted to join with the protestors. The situation escalated and repeated itself in major cities and towns across Russia, eventually causing Nicholas to abdicate his throne on March 2, 1917. A Provisional Government, comprised of former Duma and Tsarist officials, declared itself the new government of Russia and made plans for elections in the future. However, a dual power system emerged between the Provisional Government and the Soviets: No law or military order could be enforced without the approval of the Soviets. Over time, the people became disillusioned with the Provisional Government, namely its refusal to adhere to the will of the people and its decision to continue the war against Germany. Accordingly, leaders of Soviets became determined to force the Provisional Government to transfer power to them - the representatives of the people. Before they could meet to do so, the Bolsheviks took matters into their own hands by disbanding the government and forcing its representatives to leave (all without firing a shot).

In 1917, it was impossible to know what changes and developments would occur in Russia over the following decades; it was only possible to know what was important to the Russian people at that time. Faced with both an autocratic regime that had steadfastly refused to acknowledge or work toward ameliorating the issues facing the common man and a devastating war with Germany, the people demanded change.

Rowlett is an assistant professor of history at USC Sumter. She has a PhD from the University of Arkansas, where she studied American, European, Russian and Cold War diplomatic history. She also has an MA degree in History from the University of Arkansas and a BS Degree in Biology from Arkansas Tech University.