Russian Revolution

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Meeting at the Blagovescenskaya Square, 1917

The Russian Revolution was a period of political and social revolution that took place in the former Russian Empire and began during the First World War. Commencing in 1917 with the fall of the House of Romanov and concluding in 1923 with the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union (at the end of the Russian Civil War), the Russian Revolution was a series of two revolutions: the first of which overthrew the imperial government of Czar Nicholas II and the second placed the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin in power.


  • The 1917 October Revolution was the first ever won by revolutionaries advocating a socialist society. By the beginning of 1917 the majority of the Russian people were extremely discontented with the czar’s regime. Various revolutionary groups sought to mobilize this popular frustration to transform Russian society. When the coercive power of the czarist state collapsed in early 1917, revolutionary leaders had an opportunity to seize control of their nation’s destiny. Soldiers and sailors refused orders to repress rebellious street demonstrations and instead went over to the revolutionaries. As the institutions of the czarist government deteriorated, workers, military personnel, and peasants elected revolutionary administrative councils, or soviets, from among their own numbers, to exercise power. In fall 1917 soldiers, sailors, and workers loyal to the Bolshevik-led citywide soviet of the capital, Petrograd (later Leningrad and after 1991, St. Petersburg), established a new national revolutionary government.
  • In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the monarchy was steadily undermined by government efforts to spur industrialization and modernization. Many young Russians schooled in the technology of more advanced societies learned of the relatively democratic political systems in Western Europe. As increasing numbers of educated Russians rejected autocracy in favor of a freer and more participatory government, the pre-revolutionary state was progressively weakened. Russia’s military defeat in World War I and the accompanying social unrest finally forced the czar’s abdication. Soldiers ordered to put down the protests of their fellow workers refused or openly joined the demonstrators. Faced with massive popular opposition and mutinies in the army and navy, and deserted by middle- and upperclass elites, the czarist state collapsed, providing a historic opportunity for revolutionaries to establish new political, social, and economic institutions. A number of groups cooperated to overthrow the monarchy. Although the contending revolutionary movements and most members of the major social classes were temporarily united in the effort to oust the czar, they were divided over other issues. Various political movements favored divergent programs, ranging from instituting moderate social reforms to abolishing private ownership of major industries. The Bolsheviks demanded the changes most people yearned for, including a quick end to the war, an immediate redistribution of land to the peasants, and workers’ control of industry. When the provisional government continued the war and delayed land redistribution, popular support swung to the Bolsheviks in the large urban areas, permitting them to seize control of the national government in fall 1917.
    • James DeFronzo, Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (2018), pp. 69-70
  • Each local Cheka had its own speciality. In Kharkov they went in for the ‘glove trick’ — burning the victim’s hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with ‘human gloves’. The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed its victims’ bones in half. In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels. In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head. In Kyiv they affixed a cage with rats to the victim’s torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim’s guts in an effort to escape. In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water. A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues. Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture. One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank was fired at them. Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse.
    • Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, p. 646
  • The starting point for our study of the Cold War is the year 1917, when the Bolshevik leadership established a communist regime in Russia and defied the international order by preaching world revolution and challenging conventional diplomatic practices. The Western powers (Britain, France, and the United States) responded with military intervention and ostracism. During the next twenty-four years the estrangement between Russia and the West was overshadowed by the challenges of Italy, Japan, and Germany, but the capitalist world continued to regard the Soviet Union with fear, mistrust, and repugnance—sentiments that Moscow duly reciprocated.
    • Carole C. Fink, The Cold War: An International History (2017), p. 5
  • Each communist party was the child of the marriage of two ill-assorted partners, a national left and the October revolution. That marriage was based both on love and convenience. For anyone whose political memories go back no farther than Khruschev's denunciation of Stalin, or the Sino-Soviet split, it is almost impossible to conceive what the October revolution meant to those who are now middle-aged and old. It was the first proletarian revolution, the first regime in history to set about the construction of the socialist order, the proof both of the profundity of the contradictions of capitalism, which produced wars and slumps, and of the possibility - the certainty - that socialist revolution would succeed. It was the beginning of world revolution. It was the beginning of the new world. Only the naive believed that Russia was the workers' paradise, but even among the sophisticated it enjoyed the general indulgence which the left of the 1960s now gives only to revolutionary regimes in some small countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam.
    • Eric Hobsbawm, "Problems of Communist History" (1969), published in Revolutionaries: Contemporary Essays (1973)
  • At Odessa, the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water; in Kharkiv, scalpings and hand-flayings were commonplace: the skin was peeled off victims’ hands to produce ‘gloves’; the Voronezh Cheka rolled naked people around in barrels studded internally with nails; victims were crucified or stoned to death at Dnipropetrovsk; the Cheka at Kremenchuk impaled members of the clergy and buried alive rebelling peasants; in Orel, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues; in Kyiv, Chinese Cheka detachments placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim’s body in an effort to escape.
    • George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police, pp 197-198
  • THE Russian Revolution is one of the great heroic events of the world s history. It is natural to compare it to the French Revolution, but it is in fact something of even more importance. It does more to change daily life and the structure of society : it also does more to change men s beliefs. The difference is exemplified by the difference between Marx and Rousseau : the latter sentimental and soft, appealing to emotion, obliterating sharp out lines ; the former systematic like Hegel, full of hard intellectual content, appealing to historic necessity and the technical development of industry, suggesting a view of human beings as puppets in the grip of omnipotent material forces. Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam ; and the result is something radically new, which can only be understood by a patient and passionate effort of imagination.
  • By disrupting the capitalist order and weakening the great empires, the First World War brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries. Most Marxists, however, had by then grown accustomed to working within national political systems, and chose to support their governments in time of war. Not so Vladimir Lenin, a subject of the Russian Empire and a leader of the Bolsheviks. His voluntarist understanding of Marxism, the belief that history could be pushed onto the proper track, led him to see the war as a great chance. For a voluntarist such as Lenin, assenting to the verdict of history gave Marxists a license to issue it themselves. Marx did not see history as fixed in advance but as the work of individuals aware of its principles. Lenin hailed from largely peasant country, which lacked, from a Marxist perspective, the economic conditions for revolution. Once again, he had a revolutionary theory to justify his revolutionary impulse. He believed that colonial empires had granted the capitalist system an extended lease on life, but that a war among empires could bring general revolution. The Russian Empire rumbled first, and Lenin made his move. The suffering soldiers and impovershed peasants of the Russian Empire were in revolt in early 1917. After a popular uprising brought down the Russian monarchy that February, a new liberal regime sought to win the war by one more military offensive against its enemies, the German Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy. At this point Lenin became the secret weapon of Germany. The Germans dispatched Lenin from Swiss exile to the Russian capital Petrograd that April, to make a revolution that would take Russia from the war. With the help of his charismatic ally Leon Trotsky and his disciplined Bolsheviks, Lenin achieved a coup d'état with some popular support in November. In early 1918, Lenin's new government signed a peace treaty with Germany that left Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland under German control. Thanks in part to Lenin, Germany won the war on the eastern front, and had a brief taste of eastern empire.
    • Timothy D. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 20104
  • More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
  • In 1917 European history, in the old sense, came to an end. World history began. It was the year of Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom repudiated the traditional standards of political behaviour. Both preached Utopia, Heaven on Earth. It was the moment of birth for our contemporary world.

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