The Russian Revolution

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Russian Revolution

World War I played a major role in bringing about the Russian Revolution. The advance of the German army into Russia brought food shortages, famine, and starvation; it smashed the Russian railway system in the west; it diverted thousands of able-bodied men from their jobs to serve in the army. As it had elsewhere in Europe, war brought industrialization to a halt and wrecked the economy. It was easy for ordinary Russians to see that the czar was helpless to take control and improve matters.

Czar Nicholas II had succeeded to the Russian throne in 1894. Like most of his predecessors, Nicholas believed that he ruled by divine right and that no one should question him. The revolution of 1905 forced him to acknowledge that times had changed—that the people demanded some say in how they were governed. Although Nicholas made some concessions toward the demands of liberalism and republicanism, his reforms were too timid and slight to satisfy any but the most conservative. Resentment against the czar led to a popular uprising in 1917, as a result of which Nicholas abdicated.

There was no orderly transfer of power. In the wake of the czar’s abdication, the Socialists and moderates set up a Provisional Government, which shared its power with the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The aims of these two bodies were not the same. The Provisional Government concentrated all its planning on defeating the Germans in the Great War. The Soviet, on the other hand, made the domestic economy its priority. Its goal was to set up a legislative assembly that could address pressing concerns about land ownership, grain prices, and food shortages.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, born in 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga River, quickly rose to prominence as the leader of the Bolshevik (Russian for “majority”) Party. Lenin made a great impression on the people by continually repeating the slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread”—the three issues of greatest concern to the ordinary people.

By November, the government had become so unpopular that the Bolsheviks were able to grab power in a successful coup d’etat , orchestrated by Lenin’s close associate Leon Trotsky. Lenin lost no time in setting up one-party rule, with himself as the party dictator. Lenin’s most pressing concern was to end the war with Germany. He cared nothing for victory over Germany, nor did he respect alliances made by the former Russian regime with the Western capitalist nations he despised and hoped one day to overthrow. Therefore, the quickest way to achieve peace was through diplomacy. In December of 1917, Russia and Germany agreed on peace terms; German forces would withdraw in exchange for a vast swath of Russian territory (Latvia, Lithuania, Russian territory in Poland and Finland, and the Ukraine). The terms were made official in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918.

By signing this treaty with Germany, the Bolsheviks aroused strong opposition in two groups of people. The first was Russia’s former allies, still fighting the First World War. Britain and France felt that Russia had betrayed and abandoned them. The second group was the many Russians who were alarmed at the terms of the treaty. The loss of the western territory was significant because this was the most “modern” part of the country. Western Russia was better developed, more densely populated, and more industrialized than the central and eastern portions of the country. However, Lenin believed that the first thing he must do in power was to seize control and hold it. This did not allow for the niceties of pleasing his future constituents or kowtowing to his power base. He needed to demonstrate that he was in charge and that he knew what he was doing. Therefore, he ignored all opposition to the treaty.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Russian Revolution Practice Test

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