March 8, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Russian Revolution. An event that created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its seven-decade experiment in Marxist government. How this landmark event will be celebrated in post-Soviet Russia isn’t quite clear. For some, the revolution spawned a superpower, respected (some would say feared) for its economic efficiency, military prowess, and advancements in science and culture. For others, the Soviet Union was a brutal political dictatorship, notorious for its oppression and economic anemia. As Russia continues to redefine itself, it might be useful to remember the events of the Russian Revolution.
Before 1917, Russia’s revolutionary spirit was several decades in the making beginning in the 1860s with the Narodniks, a loose organization of intellectuals and members of the Russian middle class. The name comes from the Russian term “narod” or “the people” or “folk” also sometimes translated as “populism.” Though influenced by Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in its support of communal property ownership, the Narodniks rejected the idea that communism would evolve after the collapse of industrial capitalism. They believed regime change in agrarian Russia would skip capitalism and move from communal consolidation to a socialist society.
A slogan often used by Narodniks was to “go to the people” or take the message directly to the people, in this case, dissatisfaction with the rule of Tsar Alexander II. Though the monarchy had freed the serfs with the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, hard economic times ensued over the next several decades. Land distribution was slow and expensive with most of the burden laid on the peasants. Though the conditions were ripe for revolution, the task of organizing a population thinly spread across thousands of square miles was difficult and the Narodniks exhausted themselves trying to roust the peasantry. Frustrated, a splinter group known as Narodnaya Volya formed with the strategy of attacking the monarchy and hopefully igniting a vast peasant uprising. In 1881, the group assassinated Alexander II in a bomb attack. No populist revolt emerged, as the peasants were horrified by the brutality on someone they generally looked upon as a benefactor who had freed them from slavery.
The Russian Empire continued to falter both in domestic and foreign affairs as economic conditions worsened. The 1904-05 war with Japan proved devastating to Russia’s economy and its pride. Several revolutionary groups emerged and publicly protested with demonstrations, strikes, riots and acts of terrorism, among them, the Social Democratic Labor Party. On January 22, 1905, a wave of labor strikes broke out in St. Petersburg demanding Tsar Nicholas II institute reforms. Though a peaceful demonstration in the beginning, the city’s chief of security and Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, ordered his police to fire on the demonstrators. More than 100 were killed and several hundred were wounded in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
More strikes, uprisings and mutinies emerged in several cities threatening the regime. During this time the several workers’ council, or soviets, formed to coordinate protest activities and continue pressure on the tsarist regime. Seeing the potential for a complete political meltdown Nicholas reluctantly promised several reforms including a constitution and an elected legislature, known as the Duma. Though not all were satisfied, the majority of workers and protest leaders were and the coalition of revolutionaries collapsed.
The 20th century brought much change and turmoil to Russia. A latent industrial growth emerged in the cities, the urban population grew. Living conditions were hard with poor sanitation, long working hours, and insufficient wages to make a living. Yet, workers experienced a greater social status than peasants and enjoyed a greater sense of self-respect. Families encountered material goods they never had in the villages. Expectations were raised that life would, or should, get better. The concentration of workers in the cities made communication and organizing much easier for reform leaders than across vast stretches of farm land.
Politically, the government of Nicholas II was rampant in corruption and inefficiency. The tsar maintained a strict, authoritarian system. He expected subjects to revere him as an infallible father-figure. Any resistance to his will was considered treasonous and met with swift reprisal. If the Duma disagreed with his rule, he would just dissolve it. Thus, he was blind to the reality that the Russian people were changing, demanding modern reforms that would make their lives better.
In 1914, Russia entered the First World War and the results were disastrous with its army suffering catastrophic losses in battle after battle against the more modernized German army. Casualties mounted and the economy faltered as young skilled workers were drafted into the military only to be annihilated. Unskilled peasants were recruited to take their place in the factories and food became scarce. All the while strikes and riots continued to build in number.
On March 8, 1917, food riots broke out once again in Petrograd (St. Petersburg was renamed in 1914). Tsar Nicholas turned to his army for support only to find many had mutinied. With no recourse, he abdicated the throne on March 15 and the 300-year old Romanov dynasty came to an end. A committee of the Duma formed a Provisional Government but faced opposition with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
In April, Vladimir Lenin returned from exile and took the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Over the next several months, Lenin’s and the Bolshevik’s popularity increased among workers, peasants, and soldiers. Instability continued as leaders in the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government jockeyed for power. Leon Trotsky, also a Bolshevik, was elected chair of the Petrograd Soviet. Within a few months, the Bolsheviks gained control of the government.
In November, 1917, the provisional government was overthrown and the Soviet Council of People’s Commissars was formed to lead the country, with Vladimir Lenin elected chairman. Leon Trotsky, as commissar of foreign affairs, made peace with Germany. But the struggle for political control of Russia continued with supporters of liberal policies and the monarchy (the White Army) joining forces against the Bolsheviks (the Red Army) in a series of battles known as the Russian Civil War. In 1918, the Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Two years later, the Red Army was victorious and in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established.
So how will Russia celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution? Will it look upon the event as one of ending an antiquated and ineffective monarchy that had existed for over 300 years? Or will it focus on the establishment of a brutal, communist dictatorship what eventually failed and collapsed under its own weight? Or will it follow its current leader, Vladimir Putin’s quest to bring the old glory of the Soviet Union back to Russia? The world will be watching.