Russian Revolution

Russian Revolution
   1) (1905)
   The year-long agitation by peasants, industrial workers and sections of the armed forces against Tsarist rule that occurred in 1905 stood as a precursor to the successful 1917 Russian Revolution, and established a constitutional monarchy in Russia. The peasantry, suffering abject poverty, had become increasingly aggrieved by harsh repression from their landlords and the willingness of the reactionary Tsar Nicholas II to prop up a system that maintained feudal relations. With no legal outlet for their objections, the peasants were forced into the arms of socialist revolutionaries, and driven to direct action. Discontent over the losses of the disastrous Russo–Japanese War and harsh tax rises added to disillusionment, and brought urban dwellers in on the struggle. Industrial workers were hit hard by a recession that began in 1899 following a period of rapid growth and industrialization, and the resultant mass unemployment had bred a desire for wholesale change. Opposition to the Tsarist regime was led by an intelligentsia busily founding illegal, underground political movements and parties, for example the Union of Liberation, which came about in 1903 in Switzerland and united a number of liberal and Marxist figures in the name of demanding political reform in Russia.
   The catalyst for direct action occurred on 9 January 1905 (22 January in the Gregorian calendar), a day subsequently referred to in Russia as “Bloody Sunday.”
   The day began with a peaceful procession of Russian workers, headed by Father Georges Gapone and brandishing little more than hymn sheets and models of religious icons, to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Here they presented a petition calling for economic and social reform, and then began to protest outside the palace gates. Having refused to disperse, the peaceful crowd was fired on by guards, and a day of violent clashes between the army and citizens of the city ensued, with up to 800 dead by nightfall. The events of Bloody Sunday had a cataclysmic effect on Russian society, as widespread demonstrations and strikes occurred all over the country, and an atmosphere of revolution was galvanized by the brutal repression of the Tsar’s troops. The peasants’ militancy increased and in July they formed the Peasants Union to organize rural protest, the October rail strike turned into a general strike, and sailors on the Potemkin battleship undertook a famous mutiny. Striking urban workers established committees to debate the course of action and other social matters affecting their class. The influence of revolutionary political parties, in particular the Mensheviks, escalated in the wake of such events, and Leon Trotsky was able to found his seminal St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, while the rise in trade unionism led to the formation of the Union of Unions. The overall aim of both the agitation and the reformist, negotiation-based tactics of the Union of Liberation was to attain a democratic, representative constitution and government, something that they attained, to an extent, in October 1905.
   The “October Manifesto” consisted of a pledge from the tsar to create a representative “Duma” (Russian parliament) that would consider governmental legislation, and proclaimed the cessation of press censorship, the right to associate freely with any organization (including trade unions), and a widening of the franchise. The constitution, drafted and offered in the final two weeks of October by the government of Count Sergius Witte, was anathema for Tsar Nicholas II who desired a military dictatorship to facilitate a return to order, but was forced into political reform when a suitable candidate for dictator failed to materialize. However, even the concessions in the manifesto were not enough to bring an end to the violence and turmoil across the country, as revolutionaries and others on the left rallied against the fact that they were still bereft of a constituent assembly. In addition, strong nationalist elements came to the fore across the Russian empire, and, encouraged by reactionary groups such as the Russian Monarchist Party, instigated a series of violent attacks on intellectuals, revolutionaries, and the Jews, against whom the worst pogrom for 150 years was carried out. Following the announcement of the manifesto, the movement for constitutional reform fragmented into the conservative Octobrist and liberal Kadet factions, and the left imploded into those moderate liberals content with the reforms offered, and those, chiefly the soviets, unhappy at anything short of a full overthrow of the Tsarist regime.
   The revolutionary movement of 1905, save for a brief Bolshevik uprising in Moscow in December and an attempted armed uprising on the Ekaterinin railroad, slowly fizzled out in the face of harsh government repression, and as most of the armed forces remained loyal to the tsar following their return from conflict at the end of the Russo–Japanese War in August, any chance of the peasantry and workers taking power by force dwindled. Trotsky’s St. Petersburg Soviet was dispersed and banned by the police, and activities like that at Ekaterinin met with bloody reprisals from Tsarist troops. In July 1906 P.A. Stolypin, minister of the interior from February until that point, was made prime minister and soon went about firmly restoring autocratic monarchical rule, and a large Anglo–French loan was secured to restore Russian solvency. With such stability reached, the Duma was able to water down the October Manifesto and withdraw many of the concessions it had granted. Though the gains of 1905 were ultimately negligible in the view of revolutionaries such as Trotsky and Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the seed of revolution had been sown among the Russian people so that 12 years later it was to be an altogether different story.
   2) (1917)
   In 1917 Russia underwent a seismic regime shift from the three-century old Tsarist dynasty to the birth of the Soviet Union, a transformation achieved through a year of reform and revolution, chiefly with the middle-class liberal, political revolution of March, and then the workers’ Soviet revolution of November.
   Twelve years on from the 1905 Russian Revolution, political liberals had grown frustrated at the lack of fruits that that initial action had borne them. Tsar Nicholas Romanoff II had become distanced from his nation, with the role of Rasputin causing widespread consternation amongst the Russian people, a people entirely dismayed by their lack of input into state policy. As Russia began participation in World War I, society was polarizing at an alarming rate for the Tsarist regime, with Nicholas II and his tiny clique of followers pitted against the revolutionary will of vast swarms of the Russian people. Russian involvement in the conflict became an unmitigated disaster, with technological and productive backwardness resulting in heavy losses, including some six million dead and wounded soldiers. As the beleaguered Russian troops struggled to get supplies of food and fuel to their country, the revolutionary climate threatened to boil over. On 7 March workers at St Petersburg’s principal industrial plant, the Putilov factory, began to strike for better pay and working conditions, at which point they were ejected from the premises by their employers.
   The following day, the now redundant workers joined with protestors attending an International Women’s Day rally against food shortages and lack of fuel. The group began to agitate outside factories all across St Petersburg, so much so that by 9 March their numbers had swollen and 200,000 people, half of the city’s industrial workers, were on strike. This increase in numbers was accompanied by flourishing radicalism amongst the strikers, who were in turn suppressed by heightened police violence. Yet the revolutionary tide proved difficult to stem, and when army troops began to lose faith in the Tsarist regime (including those Cossacks of the St. Petersburg garrison who refused to shoot down protestors on March 12th), the collapse of the regime appeared imminent. Unlike in 1905, those calling for change had large sections of the armed forces on their side. Inside the Duma, liberals demanded a government accountable to parliament, while professional revolutionaries capitalized on the disillusionment outside the corridors of power, with a rise in support for the Bolsheviks and their allies, such as Leon Trotsky and those in the soviet movement, throughout Russia. At the same time, a group of socialist leaders formed a temporary executive to recreate the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies that had been a catalyst for radical action in 1905.
   In response to these tumultuous events, a newly formed provisional committee inside the no-longer meek Duma requested that in order to attain stability, Tsar Nicholas II should abdicate with immediate effect. On 15 March, in the face of a crippling lack of backing from the generals of the Supreme Command of the Russian Imperial Army, the tsar did so, and also passed over the right to rule of his haemophiliac son Alexei. Nicholas hoped that his brother the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich Romanoff would take the reins, but when he declined the offer of power, a Provisional Government was installed to guide the revolution along moderate lines, and maintain Russia’s war effort against Germany. The Provisional Government was formed by the committee that had called for Nicholas’ renunciation of power in consultation with the Soviet group, and ruled by the progressive liberal Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) and the conservative Octobrists. The prime minister was the reform-minded Prince Georgi Lvov, and he presided over an offer to members of the Soviet to join the government, an offer declined by the group which, alongside other radical Marxist factions, thought it best to remain in opposition at that particular juncture. While this period of “dual power” vested formal authority in the Provisional Government, the Soviets possessed the backing of a large majority of the population and, crucially, the military garrison. Inevitably, tensions between the Provisional Government and the Soviet were never far from the surface. The former held constitutional power, benefited from fear of the rebelliousness of the masses, and represented middle and even upperclass views, while the latter embodied physical power, championed further revolution, and commanded the support of the army and workers. Growing discontent with increased economic hardship and constant wartime defeat swayed many ordinary Russians towards support for the radical Marxist program of the Soviets.
   The time bomb of friction between the two groups finally exploded in May over the issue of war aims. The primary goal of the first Provisional Government was victory in World War I and the imperial gains it would bring, and all other matters were to be deliberately neglected until this had been secured. Conversely, the Soviet demanded cessation of conflict to be followed by a democratic peace that featured no annexations or indemnities on any side. On 1 May Provisional Government Foreign Minister Professor Pavel Milyukov presented a note announcing that Russia had entered into an Entente agreement to continue the conflict until victory had been assured, and then strip Germany of much of its financial and natural wealth. When this became public, demonstrations of soldiers and workers broke out on the streets; the desires of the Soviets and their many supporters had been completely ignored, and the Russian people were outraged. The popular pressure was too much for a government living in fear of a restless workers’ revolutionary movement, and Milyukov, along with Octobrist leader Alexander Guchkov, was forced to resign. Lvov remained as prime minister, and appointed the socialist Alexander Kerensky minister for war, while Soviet representatives were included in a new coalition cabinet which included Menshevik, Tradovik, Popular Socialist and Socialist Revolutionary party representatives. The Bolsheviks, however, remained outside of the coalition and continued to call for a fully Soviet Bolshevik government comprising only the working classes, as outlined in Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s April Theses (Lenin had returned to Russia in that month, with Trotsky following him in May).
   Support for the Soviet movement was gathering pace, and as radicalization spread further amongst the population, in June the first allRussian Congress of Soviets convened in the city, with 400 representatives of Soviets from all over Russia present. Disenchantment with the Provisional Government intensified yet again in July, when news of Kerensky’s disastrous campaign against the Germans at Galicia reached home. The offensive, despite early gains, was crushed by the Germans, and with it so too was the will of the army. In Russia people began to question the wisdom and capability of the Provisional Government, and Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized the opportunity to court military and worker support for their campaign to hand state power to the Soviets. Spontaneous demonstrations, later known as the “July Days,” once again erupted on the streets of St. Petersburg, with an angry populous demanding that the Provisional Government be replaced with the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, and calling for Russia’s withdrawal from World War I. However, after two days of violent siege, as a consequence of a lack of direction within the movement and a number of troops remaining loyal to the government, on 18 July the July Days came to a halt with hundreds dead and no Soviet power secured. The failure of the insurrection led Lenin to believe more than ever in the importance of a vanguard party to direct and lead revolution.
   However, the July Days did succeed in forcing Prime Minister Lvov to resign. His replacement, Kerensky, announced in early August the formation of a coalition government containing 10 socialist members and seven non-socialists. Yet this did not represent a swing towards allowing Soviet power, as Kerensky instigated a period of repression against Bolsheviks and other revolutionary figures that saw Lenin flee to Finland. Kerensky’s new cabinet was enough, though, to cause grave concern for the political right in Russia. Alarmed too by the leftwards sway of public opinion, Russian reactionaries and centrists transformed the new prime minister’s Moscow state conference into a rallying cry for bringing about a return to authoritarian rule and crushing revolutionary fervor. It was thus decided that General Lavr Kornilov, commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, was the “strong man” required for the job. At the end of August, Kornilov sent troops towards St. Petersburg. Their aim was to displace and arrest Kerensky and his ministers, put down any revolutionary uprisings, and install the General as the head of a military dictatorship. This attempted coup ended only in disaster for Kornilov, as socialist railwaymen refused to move his troops, and Soviet activists in St. Petersburg persuaded his men there not to fire on “their brothers.” Instead, Kornilov’s men joined in the mobilization to defend the city, and the attempt ended only in acrimony and arrest in September for Kornilov. For the Bolsheviks, to an extent alienated following the failures of the July Days, the outcome was far more positive. They gained renewed legitimacy from the rest of the Soviet movement as a result of their willingness to fight tooth and nail for the cause, and from the ever-radicalizing public attained increased support that was fuelled by the popular rumor that Kerensky played a part in the Kornilov plot. It was in this more favorable atmosphere for the Bolsheviks that Lenin was able to return to Russia in October, and call for an armed uprising against a Provisional Government now led dictatorially by Kerensky, the four-man cabinet of which included two senior military figures.
   All this made the second, this time worker-led, revolution of 1917 inevitable, and on 7 November, not merely by coincidence the day of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the Bolsheviks seized power from Kerensky, and the transformation of Russia from Tsarist autocracy to Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat began. Aside from taking root in the volatile political landscape of 1917, revolution also came about as a response to the desperate situation of a great number of Russians. Industrial production had plummeted, the transportation system hit stasis, and fuel and raw materials had grown ever more scarce. In the countryside widespread hunger looked set to turn to famine, prompting peasant revolt and seizure of land, and soldiers were deserting the army in great numbers in spite of continuing war with Germany. Thus, with political and social conditions perfect for a Bolshevik tilt at gaining power, and the party now the majority force in the Soviet Congress, Lenin launched the revolution on 6 November. Kerensky’s Provisional Government were rapidly overthrown by the Bolshevik-led force of armed workers (or “Red Guard”), soldiers and sailors in a relatively bloodless coup organized by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet. Lenin’s timing was impeccable as he was able to exploit the Provisional Government’s acute failure to offer any answers to Russia’s multiple crises, and use the Bolshevik hold on the Soviets to call for and obtain the seizure of power in cities across the country. The Bolsheviks were well aware that the Russian people were fatigued with the Provisional Government’s insistence on continuing World War I indefinitely, and Lenin promised, and in the shape of BrestLitovsk delivered, peace. In doing so, he gained the vital backing of sizeable elements of the armed forces, a lesson perhaps learned from the failures of the July Days. It was left to Leon Trotsky to announce the dissolution and arrest of the Provisional Government, save for Kerensky who had already fled. In unison, soldiers and workers proclaimed the Bolsheviks the legitimate governors of the country at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, and the Soviet of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom), with Lenin as chairman, was created as the new legitimate ruling body.
   To ensure the continued backing of the extensive peasantry, the new government set about enacting radical land reforms and encouraged peasant seizure of land to bring about the elimination of aristocratic social and economic muscle. The major consequence of this was the Peasant Revolution of 1918, where mass land seizures and the expropriation of noble property greatly improved the lot of the rural poor and strengthened their support for the Bolsheviks. Urban support was maintained and cultivated by the Bolshevik pledge to put bread on the tables of Russian industrial workers and their families. In July 1918 the Soviet constitution was announced, and Lenin shifted governance from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Counter-revolutionary forces had begun resistance against the Bolshevik revolution immediately in its aftermath, and this soon sprouted into a fully fledged civil war between Trotsky’s Red Army, and the anti-Soviet White Army. Lenin took Russia into a ruthless period of “war communism,” with the chief casualties being the peasants, as their bread, meat and grain were commandeered for supply to the cities in the name of the war effort. Ultimately, the counter-revolutionary forces of the White Army suffered greatly from their inability to knit together and fight as one, and by 1921 Lenin was able to proclaim the existence of the Soviet Union. What developed next was the creation of the MarxistLeninist dictatorship of the proletariat, in reality the creation of a boundless bureaucratic state that eventually paved the way for the authoritarian rule of Josef Stalin.
   The character of the second revolution of 1917 was more in keeping with the idea of a Marxist workers’ revolution. The March Revolution, though spontaneous and with the backing of the Russian proletariat, was essentially bourgeois and moderate in nature, and failed as it attained the support of only a minority of the armed forces. In contrast, the November Revolution was closer to the Marxist conception of a proletarian insurrection, a planned, precise operation led by a vanguard party (the Bolsheviks) swept into power with the backing of the proletariat, peasantry, and most of the armed forces to implement a radical program.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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