The Russian Revolution and Civil War summaries



The Russian Revolution and Civil War summaries


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The Russian Revolution and Civil War summaries


The Russian Revolution and Civil War

The Tsar's regime till 1914
Russia up to 1914
Up until this period, the Russian Empire was a European superpower.
It was the largest country in the world stretching from the Black Sea in the west to the Bering Sea in the extreme east of the Asian continent. It also had a huge population that included, alongside Russians, large numbers of Germans, Poles, Slavs and Asians. Among this diverse population, just about every major religious faith was represented.
Unlike Western Europe, however, the Russian Empire was politically, economically and socially backwards. There was little industry and the vast majority of the population were peasant farmers working in an agricultural system that had changed little since the middle-ages.
Furthermore, most of the population were illiterate and many still existed as serfs - effectively slaves under the control of wealthy landowners.
Autocratic government
This vast, diverse Empire was ruled by a series of Tsars. The Tsars were autocrats. This meant that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, governed Russia. There were no legal or constitutional methods by which Tsarist power could be challenged. The Empire did not have a parliament or elected assembly and there were no elections.
Freedom of speech was strictly censored and the Tsar's will was enforced by a large police system that would report suspicious behaviour and destroy subversive groups.

Threats to the Tsar's regime
From the late 19th century through to the disastrous outbreak of World War I in 1914, a series of threats emerged to the Tsar's authority. At the end of the World War these dark clouds would break in a revolutionary storm that would bring about the end of 300 years of Tsarist rule.
Peasant unrest
During the period until 1916, Russia had no form of income tax. As a result the Tsar raised money to maintain his regime by taxing the produce of the peasant farmers. The burden of taxation was so great that periodic riots broke out. Although these riots were put down, it proved that a large number of the Russian population were unhappy with life under the Tsar's regime.

Revolutionary movements
From the 1880s, Marxist ideas began to spread through Russia. Based on the theories of the German economist Karl Marx, these ideas put forward the idea that the proletariat - the underclass of society - would rise up in rebellion and seize power from the wealthy ruling class and establish a fairer society.
Groups such as the Socialist Revolutionary Party (S.R.) and the Bolsheviks took these ideas to heart and actively sought to undermine the influence and power of the Tsar, winning the support of the peasants by promising reforms that would make them better off.
Military defeat
Russia had fought a short but disastrous war against Japan from 1904 until 1905 for control of strategic territories in China. The humiliation of this defeat brought critical attention to the Tsar's regime.
The 1905 Revolution
On the 9 January 1905 a demonstration of factory workers campaigning for better working conditions was brutally put down by Russian soldiers. Up to 200 people were killed and the aftermath brought about a short-lived revolution in which the Tsar lost control of large areas of Russia. Although the revolution failed, it served as a serious warning of what might happen in the future.
The lessons were not learned and, after World War I, future revolutions would meet with far greater success.


The causes of the February Revolution
The beginnings of the revolution

Nicholas II, Tsar and Romanov family

In the space of a few days in February 1917, Tsarist Russia came to an end. The Romanov family, who had ruled Russia since the seventeenth century, was overthrown and the monarchy was no more.
There are several reasons why this happened:
Military defeats
World War I was a total disaster for Russia. The Russian army suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Germany.
The effort and cost of waging war meant terrible suffering for soldiers and civilians alike. Best estimates state that almost two million soldiers were killed, as were a similar number of civilians, during the course of the war. Morale during this time was at a very low ebb and soldiers and civilians alike were looking for someone to blame.
In 1915, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the army. He left St. Petersburg and moved to army headquarters in Russian Poland.
Nicholas II may have believed that, by taking charge, his army would be inspired and would fight with renewed vigour. Unfortunately, the Tsar knew little about the command and organisation of large military forces, and the series of defeats and humiliations continued.
The organisation of the Russian army deteriorated and there were massive shortages of ammunition, equipment, and medical supplies.
Nicholas II's decision to take charge meant that he was increasingly seen by the Russian people as having personal responsibility for the military disasters inflicted on Russia.
As the war continued, it became increasingly obvious that the quality and effectiveness of the government of the Russian Empire was under serious question.
The departure of Nicholas II to the front meant that the effective government of Russia now came under the control of the Tsarina Alexandra.
The bizarre career of Gregory Rasputin, and his influence over the imperial family is well known.
Rasputin was a very unorthodox monk from Siberia. Myths spread that Rasputin could perform amazing feats and miracles. He came to the attention of the royal family because their only son, the Tsarevitch Alexis, suffered from the blood disease, haemophilia. The Tsarina Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin could control the young boy's illness.
While there is still debate over the nature of his powers over the health of Alexis, it is very clear that his influence over the Tsarina was considerable: He advised the Tsarina on appointments to the government; he interfered in important decisions; he could do no wrong in the Tsarina's eyes - excuses were always made for his excessive, antisocial behaviour.
To the Russian people, Rasputin symbolised everything that was wrong with imperial government. The court and the imperial family became objects of ridicule, to be despised. Rasputin's murder, at the end of 1916, came too late to undo the damage he had caused.

The February Revolution
From the start of the war, Russia's economic problems grew steadily worse. By the beginning of 1917, the country was facing virtual economic collapse.
Russian industry moved into crisis during the war. Vital raw materials from overseas could no longer reach Russia. The shortages of both raw materials and finished goods grew worse. The army faced major shortages of supplies and weapons.
Millions of peasant farmers were conscripted into the army. This led to a serious shortage of manpower on the farms and a corresponding fall in production. By 1916, there were serious shortages of food in the city shops and the price of even the most basic foods was rising steeply.
The underdeveloped Russian railway system now had to cope with the pressures of moving large quantities of troops and supplies to the battlefronts. This made it more difficult to keep the cities supplied with food.
By 1916, the value of the rouble had fallen substantially, leading to soaring prices. This made life increasingly difficult, particularly for poorer people.
A "hooligan movement"
In February 1917, rioting began in the capital city of Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg, as crowds attacked bakeries in the desperate search for bread. In the following days, strikes and demonstrations took place and even soldiers began to join in the protests.
When informed of these events, Nicholas II dismissed it as a "hooligan movement" which would soon be over. Even as his regime met total collapse, the Tsar still showed his inability to face reality.
In his own capital city an independent Soviet of workers and soldiers was formed that rebelliously refused to acknowledge the authority of the Tsar.
Nicholas made an attempt to return from the war front to the capital and reclaim his authority but this met with total failure. Isolated and powerless without the support of his army, his reign as Tsar was over - the only option now was abdication.
Nicholas named his brother, the Grand Duke Michael, as his successor. Lacking the support of the people or the military, Michael refused the position. With that, the Romanov dynasty surrendered control of Russia. 


The causes of the October Revolution
Events leading to the October Revolution
The Bolsheviks
The Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party, committed to the ideas of Karl Marx. They believed that the working classes would, at some point, liberate themselves from the economic and political control of the ruling classes. Once they had achieved this, a genuine socialist society based on equality could be established. In their view, this process was bound to take place, sooner or later.
The Bolsheviks were formed and led by the Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov - known simply as Lenin. Ruthless and single-minded, Lenin decided that the conditions in Russia in 1917 were ripe for revolution.
At the beginning of 1917, however, the Bolsheviks were still a minority organisation within Russia. Most of their leaders, including Lenin, were in exile in Switzerland and the chances of the Bolsheviks ever attaining power in Russia seemed pretty remote.
At the time of the February Revolution, which overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks were still relatively weak. Yet, by the end of the year, the Bolsheviks were the government of Russia. Clearly, important developments had taken place in the intervening months.
The Bolsheviks were given a strong boost by a number of factors:
The Provisional Government
As the name implied, the Provisional Government was meant to be a temporary affair. Following the fall of the Tsar, Russia needed a government to run things until proper elections could be held. These elections were delayed.
At the same time, the Provisional Government took major decisions, such as remaining in World War I and postponing land reforms, which greatly affected the Russian people. This made the Provisional Government increasingly unpopular and allowed Lenin to attack it for these reasons, and for the fact that it had never been elected to power.
The Soviets
After the February Revolution, the first Soviet appeared in Petrograd. Soon, other Soviets had been elected, in Moscow and other cities. The Soviets were basically councils, elected by workers, soldiers and sailors.
They were usually chaotic, rowdy, and disorganised but they were elected - unlike the Provisional Government. Lenin fastened on to this, and declared that the Soviets should actually rule Russia - "All Power to the Soviets!" became an extremely effective Bolshevik rallying cry. Of course, what Lenin actually meant was that the Soviets should rule Russia, with the Bolsheviks controlling them.
Economic problems
Economic difficulties had played a major role in Nicholas II's fall from power. The Provisional Government had very limited success in dealing with these problems. Prices went on rising, food was in short supply and the peasants' desire for control of more land was not met. Inevitably, the continuing economic crisis discredited the Provisional Government, and strengthened the appeal of the Bolsheviks.
The War
The Russian people wanted the war to come to an end. The country was exhausted and the people had had enough. Incredibly, the Provisional Government could not see this. They persisted in trying to continue with the military campaigns. A final, unsuccessful offensive against the Germans was attempted in June 1917 with the remaining loyal troops. The collapse of the army's morale continued, with desertion being encouraged by the Bolsheviks.
Bolshevik policies
The first step was to increase Bolshevik support within the Soviets. Lenin developed Bolshevik policies in line with this aim in mind. The slogan "peace, bread and land" summarised Bolshevik policies at this time.
Lenin could see that the Russian people wanted an end to the war. The Bolsheviks were offering what they wanted.
Lenin claimed that the Bolsheviks could solve the food shortages - the Provisional Government had made them worse.


This was a shrewd move by Lenin. The Bolsheviks were a party of the cities and the industrial areas and they had very little support among the peasants. However, with the peasants being the vast majority of the population, Lenin could not risk them turning against the Bolsheviks. By offering them land, Lenin ensured that the peasants stayed neutral when the Bolsheviks made their bid for power.

Lenin was actively supported by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had superb skills of organisation and improvisation. He created the Red Guards, a Bolshevik militia formed from armed factory workers, soldiers and sailors. Trotsky took charge of the detailed planning of the actual Bolshevik takeover at the end of October, to make sure that all the vital areas of Petrograd were effectively in Bolshevik hands.
Lenin's return
In April 1917, Lenin returned to Russia, with the assistance of the Germans. He at once took control and direction over the Bolsheviks and began to make preparations for seizing power.
The June offensive
This was the last gasp of the Russian Army in World War I. Enough troops were scraped together for an offensive but, almost inevitably, the result was a disastrous failure. The morale of the army declined further and there were huge increases in the level of desertions. The soldiers became more receptive to Bolshevik propaganda and the loyalty of a number of units to the Provisional Government was now uncertain.
The July days
Following the failure of the offensive in June, the Bolsheviks made an attempt to seize power in Petrograd in July. Here, Lenin made a serious misjudgement which could have led to disaster for the Bolsheviks. Only small numbers of soldiers and sailors actively supported the Bolsheviks and the uprising was suppressed by loyal troops. A number of Bolshevik leaders were arrested and Lenin fled to Finland.
The Kornilov revolt
In August 1917, a Russian General, Lavr Kornilov, made an attempt to seize power for himself. His army advanced on Petrograd, with the Provisional Government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, seemingly powerless to stop him. This gave an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to take the lead in the saving Petrograd from Kornilov.
The Red Guards, under Trotsky's direction, organised the defence of the city. Bolshevik agents infiltrated Kornilov's troops and encouraged them to desert. The Bolsheviks also organised strikes by railway workers which caused chaos to Kornilov's supplies and communications. Within a few days, Kornilov's attempt at seizing power was over.
Increased support for the Bolsheviks
An important result of the Kornilov Revolt was a big increase in support for the Bolsheviks. Their popularity increased as a direct result of their actions in defeating Kornilov and saving Petrograd from his troops. By September, the Bolsheviks had gained control of the Petrograd Soviet.
The October Revolution
Lenin was now convinced that the time was ripe for the Bolsheviks to seize power in the name of the Soviets:
The Provisional Government had been seriously weakened by its inaction during the Kornilov Revolt and it had little control over the army.
The Bolsheviks were now in control of the Petrograd Soviet and in a much stronger position to realise their goal of bringing about the revolution they desired.
In November 1917, a Russian Congress of Soviets was due to meet in Petrograd. By seizing power before then, the Bolsheviks could claim to be acting in the name of the Soviets. Delay would be dangerous.
In December, the Constituent Assembly would be elected - the first real and official Russian Parliament. Once it met, it could challenge the authority of the Soviets - and the power of the Bolsheviks. Also, Lenin was genuinely worried about another attempt at a military takeover, this time by a general who was more intelligent and better organised than Kornilov had been.
The seizure of power
The actual takeover of Petrograd was organised by Trotsky. On 24 October, units of the Red Guards took control of the city. Key buildings, power stations, railway and tram stations, important bridges were in Bolshevik hands. A large warship that was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, the "Aurora", steamed up the river Neva and trained its guns on the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government was located.
On the night of the 25th/26th October, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government.
Lenin now proclaimed a new government of Russia, by the Soviets. The Congress of Soviets met and endorsed the action of the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik Revolution was now a fact.


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