Russian Revolution (history)
Russia before communism
In 1917 Russia had been ruled for many years by Tsar Nicholas II. He was an autocrat; this meant that there were no limits to his power. The great majority of Russians were extremely poor peasants living in the countryside. A small but growing number of people lived in towns and worked in mines and factories.
In 1904-1905 Russia fought a war against Japan and lost. Defeat led to an attempted revolution in Russia in 1905. Tsar Nicholas only retained control by promising reforms. He set up a parliament for Russia called the duma. This had little real power and it proved to be a great disappointment.
Russia took part in the First World War and fought against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The war was a disaster for Russia and by 1917 many Russians were ready for another revolution.
The two revolutions of 1917
Revolution first broke out in St Petersburg (known at the time as Petrograd) in March 1917. Shortages of bread led to strikes and riots in the city. Law and order broke down. The army mutinied and refused to help . Tsar Nicholas admitted defeat and abdicated on 15 March.
Why did some Russians want a change of government in 1917?
• The gap between rich and poor was enormous. Peasants and factory workers wanted a fairer deal.
• Ordinary people had no political power. They were angry that the Tsar could do what he liked and disappointed that the duma had no real power.
• Russians did very badly in the First World War. Russian armies were defeated by Germany.
• The war put a great strain on the Russian economy. Prices went up and food was scarce.
The Soviets and the Bolsheviks
Although the Tsar was no longer in charge, there was confusion about who would replace him. The duma set up a so-called 'provisional government'. Workers and soldiers in Petrograd established a governing committee or soviet. Soon soviets were set up in other large towns. Both the provisional government and the soviets claimed to be in charge.
Among the revolutionaries was a group of communists known as Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik leader, Lenin, returned from exile to Petrograd in April 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted to overthrow the provisional government. His slogan was 'All power to the soviets !'. One of Lenin's most important colleagues was Leon Trotsky. He played a key role in the organization of the Petrograd soviet. On the 6-7 November Bolshevik fighters, known as Red Guards, seized power in Petrograd. Soviets all over Russia followed the lead from Petrograd and took control of their local area. The Bolshevik revolution had begun.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
At first. Lenin was convinced that the revolution would soon spread to the rest of the world. There was no need for a foreign policy because non-communist states were doomed. This belief encouraged him to make peace with Germany in 1918. Russia lost huge areas of territory under the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Lenin was not concerned because he thought the settlement would soon be swept aside by a world revolution.
The civil war
The Bolshevik take-over was opposed by many Russians. In May 1918 fighting broke out between the Red Guards and anticommunist forces known as the Whites. This was the start of a vicious civil war. In areas such as the Ukraine, Georgia and Siberia, independent White governments were set up. The British, French, Americans and Japanese also sent forces to fight the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, organized the Red Army very effectively. The Whites were divided among themselves and the foreign armies began to withdraw in 1919. By 1920 the civil war was over and the Bolsheviks had won.
Immediately after the Russian Revolution communists in other countries tried to copy the Russian example. Lenin encouraged this; he thought that without communist revolutions in other countries, revolutionary Russia would be destroyed. In 1919 an organization known as Comintern (the Communist International) was set up by the Bolsheviks to encourage revolutionaries in other countries. There were many followers of communism in Germany. Communists briefly took power in Hungary but were overthrown in July 1919.
Lenin died in 1924. By this time there was no immediate prospect of a world revolution. Stalin took control of the Soviet Union and Trotsky went into exile in 1927. The new Soviet leader did little to encourage revolution abroad. Instead, he concentrated on transforming the Soviet Union into a powerful industrial country. However, all over the world governments remained afraid of the spread of communist ideas.