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The Russian Revolution

Russia’s involvement in the First World War was actually predated by the Russian Revolution of 1905. The hangover from the 1905 revolution would come back to haunt Russia in 1917 and force it to withdraw completely from the war.

The Revolution of 1905 resulted from a number of issues. First, the peasants never completely enjoyed the elimination of serfdom (see Chapter 18) because the conditions remained poor. Second, the urban workers developed many of the same complaints that factory workers had earlier in the century in Britain. The poor working and living conditions in the cities prompted the workers to form unions even though unions were illegal. These issues finally came to a head on a cold Sunday in January 1905.

Led by Father George Gapon (1870-1906), founder of the Assembly of Russian Factory and Plant Workers, thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched through St. Petersburg to the Winter Palace. With religious icons in hand and hymns ringing in the air, the crowds hoped to present Czar Nicolas with a petition. Little did they know that Nicholas had left the city two weeks earlier. Troops around the palace opened fire on the protestors and killed as many as 1,000 of them. The incident, known as Bloody Sunday, sparked strikes and revolts throughout the rest of 1905.

The revolts never amounted to much, though, because they were neither organized nor goal-oriented; they were basically spontaneous violence.

Tired of the grumbling, Nicholas issued the October Manifesto in October and granted the Russian people some civil rights and a representative body known as the Duma. The Manifesto satisfied the liberals but the Social Democrats hated the move. In response, they unsuccessfully revolted in Moscow.

The End of the Czars

The Russian people found their Duma very disappointing. The czar maintained the right to veto anything the Duma did, so the people’s voice wasn’t actually heard. When the first Duma deadlocked with Nicholas’s ministers, Nicholas dismissed the Duma. The next Duma, much to the czar’s chagrin, turned out to be more liberal and obstinate than the first. Once again, Nicholas dismissed the Duma, and then rewrote the laws so that more of the propertied class would be elected and be loyal to the czar.

Would You Believe?

Stolypin's policies were what he considered a “wager on the strong" because he hoped that the strong Russians would make his legislation pay off for Russia.

In the meantime, rumblings continued among the peasants and workers. They often acted out violently against the police and government officials. To get a grip on the unruly peasants, Nicholas appointed Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911) prime minister in 1906. Stolypin introduced both industrial and agrarian reform to provide the unruly peasants and workers with ways to get themselves out of poverty, hoping to create a class of not-so-poor people who would be more loyal to the government. He was tough on radicals, though, and executed thousands during his administration. The gallows of Russia earned the nickname “Stolypin’s necktie.”

In 1914, Russia found itself at war with the Central Powers in the eastern theater. Initially things went well for Russia, but by 1915, Russian soldiers were dying at a horrific rate. On the home front, the Russian people were getting fed up with the planned economy, with the war effort, and with Nicholas. They clamored louder than ever for rule by the Duma and not by the czar. The Russian people for generations had been dissatisfied with the czars. They disapproved of the czars’ refusal to grant liberal reforms and they resented the czars’ lack of commitment to the workers. After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War and in light of the current state of affairs in Russia, the Russian people had little or no confidence that Nicholas could successfully guide Russia through the war. In the face of this popular unrest, Nicholas made a very bad decision. He dismissed the Duma yet again, then went to the front lines to rally his demoralized troops, leaving the country in the hands of his wife, Alexandra (1872-1918).

Alexandra had no talent for government at all; she shuffled the country’s top ministers like cards. Alexandra carried the rare blood disease hemophilia and passed it on to her son. Since no doctors could help, Alexandra turned to Grigori Rasputin (c.1869-1916). Associated with a fringe sect and claiming to be a prophet and holy man, Rasputin developed a bizarre relationship with Alexandra; he reportedly could heal her son’s bleeding when no one else could. With Nicholas gone to the front lines and Alexandra making political hirings and firings at Rasputin’s request, three men murdered Rasputin. Alexandra fell into a state of shock because Rasputin prophesied bad things for Alexandra if he died. He was right.

As a Matter of Fact

The Mad Monk Rasputin actually was not a monk at all but rather a religious pilgrim of sorts. One of the more interesting beliefs of Rasputin was that God granted grace to those who corrected or repented of sins so sinning was important for finding God's grace. Considering the large number of women he reportedly slept with over the years, it should be no wonder that he preached this message to many of those ladies with whom he was acquainted.

The state of things in Russia declined quickly after Rasputin’s murder. Within a few months bread shortages resulted in riots in St. Petersburg and the entire city fell into chaos. Nicholas, still foolishly at the battlefront, sent orders for the military to deal with the problem. The soldiers joined the riotous crowds instead. The Duma knew the end was at hand and declared a provisional government to rule in place of the doomed czar. The czar’s family, and the czar when he returned, remained under house arrest until they were later moved to Siberia; they were executed after the subsequent revolution. Their remains weren’t discovered and exhumed until the 1990s.

As a Matter of Fact

The Russian royal family died at the hands of executioners in 1918 but one of the bodies never surfaced—that of one of the daughters, Anastasia. Rumors of Anastasia's survival abounded for decades following the execution and prompted a sort of cult of fascination with the notion of her survival. The idea that Anastasia survived the execution led to several impersonation attempts, the most famous of which were by two women, an American named Eugenia Smith and Anna Anderson. In the 1960s, anthropologists and handwriting experts denounced Smith as a fraud; Smith also declined DNA tests. Despite Anderson's failed DNA tests, she acquired a rather large contingent in the 1970s of those who believed her to be the Grand Duchess.

The Provisional Government

From the very beginning the provisional government faced competition from the Petrograd Soviet, a council of a few thousand workers, soldiers, and intellectuals. The Petrograd Soviet formed when the czar abdicated, to act as the representative body for the workers of Petrograd (the Russian name for St. Petersburg). In May, the Petrograd Soviet issued Army Order Number One, which voided authority of military officers and put the authority in the hands of the regular soldiers. The Soviet intended this order to strengthen the military, but chaos ensued.

Define Your Terms

Soviet is a Russian government council.

In the meantime, the new provisional government focused its attention on the war effort. The government, heavily influenced by Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970), wanted to launch one more major offensive against Germany before the peasant soldiers completely fell apart. Kerensky faced a huge challenge, though. Russians were demanding peace, the peasant soldiers were deserting left and right to return to their families, and a new threat to the provisional government emerged in Russia. During the summer of 1917, the peasants went crazy and stole land wherever they could. Russia stood on the verge of collapse at home and on the verge of defeat in the First World War.

The Bolshevik Revolution

Waiting out the war in Switzerland until early 1917 was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin had been exiled from Russia earlier in the century for his socialist ideas and he used his time away to study Marx and fraternize with other socialists.

He believed in the revolutionary message of Marxist communism and believed there could and should be no peaceful transition to socialism. However, whereas Marx believed a violent revolution would occur naturally, Lenin believed it would be necessary to instigate a revolution with professional soldiers. Lenin and his followers were known as Bolsheviks and the less radical Russian socialists were known as Mensheviks. When war broke out in 1914, Lenin believed the time was drawing near for a socialist uprising in Russia.

In 1917, after Nicholas abdicated, Germany happily arranged for Lenin to make his way back into Russia, putting him in a sealed railway car and forbidding him to get off the train before he crossed the German border. From the moment he arrived in Petrograd, he denounced the provisional government. He encouraged the Bolsheviks in Petrograd to not cooperate with it. By July, after the rough days of June, the Bolsheviks attempted a takeover of the provisional government. The coup failed, though, and Lenin fled. In September the provisional government faced another takeover attempt, this time from General Lavr Kornilov (1870-1918). During the Kornilov Coup, Kerensky distributed thousands and thousands of rifles to the Petrograd workers to defend the government. Kornilov’s troops bailed on him and his coup failed. After the coup attempt, many of the armed Petrograd workers switched to the side of the Bolsheviks. Lenin, waiting for the right moment to return, saw his opportunity.

Would You Believe?

Lenin's brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, died at the hands of an executioner in 1887 for conspiring to take the life of Czar Alexander III.

Central to the Bolshevik Revolution was the leadership of Lenin’s right-hand man Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Trotsky was a dynamic speaker who could electrify a room full of people. He used his oratory skills to convince the Petrograd Soviet, where the Bolsheviks gained a slim majority in October, to pass all military power to him. He then convinced the Soviet to stage a coup not for the Bolsheviks but for the other soviets throughout Russia, who happened to be holding a congress in Petrograd.

On November 6, Trotsky’s men, along with the Bolsheviks, staged their coup. They took government buildings, then went to the congress of soviets to win its approval. The Bolshevik majority there declared Lenin the head of a new government where the power lay with the soviets. The power vacuum needed filling and the dynamic leaders Lenin and Trotsky filled the void. The desperate times facing Russia put the Russian workers in a position such that they simply needed a leader with a message. Lenin’s message was simple: the political power would pass to the soviets, the land would go to the peasants, and Russia would get out of the war with Germany at all costs.

Lenin approached the issue of the war realistically. He knew that Russia was done even though some around him still wanted to fight, out of a sense of Romantic duty and obligation to the Allies. In December 1917, Russia signed an armistice with the Central Powers and began peace negotiations. The Germans drove a hard bargain during negotiations. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk required that Russia give up claims to a ridiculous amount of territory. Included in the lands that Russia had to cede were Finland, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic region, where the future states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania would be. The Central Powers decided in 1918 to add high war reparations for Russia, too. Many of the Bolsheviks in the government initially refused to accept such harsh conditions for peace. However, the Germans began a march into Russia in early 1918 that, combined with Lenin’s persuasiveness, changed their minds. Russia was officially out of the Great War in 1918, and not a moment too soon. Staying in the war would have resulted in a national disaster for Russia.

The Bolsheviks Win

When Lenin and Trotsky took control, they explained that theirs would be a provisional, temporary government until elections could be held and an assembly put together. The elections didn’t go as planned, though. The Russians elected a majority of Socialist Revolutionary party members and a minority of Bolsheviks to the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, Lenin ordered the Bolshevik army to disband the Assembly. The Russian people were in disbelief that their elected representatives had been stripped of their power and the people were once again subjects of a dictatorship.

Would You Believe?

The Bolsheviks called their enemies Whites for two reasons. First, white stood in stark contrast to the red of the Bolsheviks. Second, the color white often was associated with the czar.

The Whites, or the Russian political and military forces who opposed the Bolsheviks, organized to fight for the soviets and launched a civil war to unseat the hated Bolsheviks from power. Additionally, regional governments popped up across Russia, further undermining the Bolshevik authority. Finally organized into a legitimate army by the end of 1918, the Whites marched on the Bolsheviks in Moscow, the new home of Lenin’s government since March. Lenin’s Red Army, though, withstood the attacks across Russia and had the Whites on the run. By 1921, the Reds had completely defeated the Whites and had won the civil war.

Lenin and Trotsky receive much of the credit for the victory over the Whites. Lenin’s unwavering confidence inspired the Bolsheviks. The reinstated military draft and Trotsky’s stern discipline helped shape up the Red Army. Any infractions resulted in harsh penalties, including execution. The Bolsheviks maintained control of central Russia while the Whites had to move in from the frontier regions of Russia. The Bolsheviks also used an intimidating secret police force known as the Cheka to hunt down those who opposed the Bolshevik cause. After an assassination attempt on Lenin, the Chekists turned up the heat and began the Red Terror. Perhaps hundreds of thousands were executed as enemies of the Bolsheviks during this period, which finally ended with the end of the civil war.

Would You Believe?

By the end of the civil war in Russia, the Cheka had become so ruthless and hated by the Russians that Lenin dissolved the organization and replaced it with a new secret police.

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