Elliot Fernandez

The Revolution of Russia of February and October 1917

The First World War opened a new historical period in Europe: that of communist and social democratic revolutions. The revolutionary response to the war had as its main focus Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-10-20 | Updated on 2022-09-14

The end of the First World War opened a new historical period in Europe: the revolution in Russia in 1917 (February and October) and then in Germany in 1918 (November). The main focus of the revolutionary reaction to the war was precisely Russia and Germany. But it was also the years of the rise of fascism into power, first in Italy since 1922 and in Germany in 1933; the crisis of bourgeois democracy; the progress of technology; and the contrast between the great development of capitalism during the 1920s and one of the greatest economic crises in recent world history in 1929, the Great Depression.

The February and October Revolutions in Russia (1917)

The Russian Revolution was one of the direct consequences of the involvement of the Russian Empire in World War I, but it was not the only one. The Revolution took place in two stages: the first with the fall of the autocratic government of Tsar Nicholas II during the February Revolution of 1917 (March 8 – 16 according to the Gregorian calendar); the second one with the October Revolution (November according to the current Gregorian calendar) of the same year, whereby power passed into the hands of the Soviets under the leadership of Lenin, the main leader of the Bolshevik Party.

The causes of the February Revolution

Economic, political and social context of Tsarist Russia

There are several reasons why Russia forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the representative of Europe's most autocratic monarchy. Russia was governed by an absolutist monarchy, with schemes more proper of Ancient Regime in Europe. Until now, there had been no real process of economic modernization that would have allowed its inhabitants to escape from the most absolute poverty.

The general situation of Russia until 1917 was as follows:

Russian society demanded measures of political and economic reform, but these pretensions clashed with the intentions of the autocratic tsarist regime, which did not want to cede any form of power. Power was in the hands of the tsar and the territories were controlled by the nobility, which had no interest in promoting agrarian reform. Autocracy is an obstacle to economic development.

The tsarist regime identified itself with the interests of the nobility, so the incipient bourgeois class could not impose on the state the economic policy it was interested in. The only way out for the bourgeoisie was the conquest of foreign markets, blocked towards the European world and the Middle East. Russia's foreign expansion went to Asia, but it did not work because of Japan's competition. In 1904 there was a clash between Japan and Russia (Russo-Japanese War).

Russia's unexpected defeat to Japan in 1905 exposed the Russian state, provoking an internal crisis in which bourgeois and proletarian interests united. Russia's war and failure led to an anti-government, spontaneous revolt, widespread throughout the Russian Empire. Events have gone down in history as the 1905 Revolution. Apparently the revolution had neither direction nor control, nor any recognized objective. But it is generally regarded as the starting point for the changes in Russia that culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the end of Tsarism.

Diumenge sagnant to Iaroslavl (AI Malygin, 1929).  Revolutions of Russia and Germany
Revolution of 1905. Bloody Sunday in Yaroslavl (A. I. Malygin, 1929).

The Tsarist regime tried, after the 1905 Revolution, to approve some concessions by projecting a political and social reform with two main measures:

They were very limited political reforms, driven by Prince Pyotr Stolypin, who was appointed Prime Minister by the first Duma. Stolypin tried to promote a liberal agrarian reform, by which he suppressed the Obshchina (the communities of peasants who shared communal ownership of land) and liberalized the purchase and sale of agrarian property. Stolypin's intention was to create a group of prosperous peasants (kulaks) to provide social support to the government, as to curb the struggle for land of the bulk of peasants. This reform allowed an agrarian modernization that led many areas of the country from self-consumption to a commercial agriculture that could supply even the cities.

With the suppression of the Obshchina, an attempt was made to boost the land market through the privatization of communal lands. The “modernization of the countryside” was defended, following the English model, introducing capitalism into the agrarian world as to consolidate private property. The agrarian reform had to be imposed through the repression against the dissident peasants who reject it, and that ended with a multitude of executions.

In 1911 Stolypin was assassinated by Dimitri Bogrov, a radicalized revolutionary. Thus, the tsar had the excuse to interrupt the reform process and marginalize the Duma. When World War I began, the situation in Russia was worse than in 1905. Russia joined the First World War in a situation of social crisis.

The Russian Empire during the First World War

The First World War (1914-1918) generated enormous economic and social costs for all the countries that participated in it, but especially for Russia. The political response of most of the countries that participated in the war was the creation of national unity governments, in which all political parties participated. But that did not happen in Russia. Countries that built national unity governments associated war with collective interests. Russia joined the war for strategic interests: it needed free access to the Mediterranean blocked by the Ottoman Empire. But there was no collective motivation for war.

The first world war caused great inflation in the Russian Empire, chaos in the supply of products in the cities and mobilizations of peasants who were very dissatisfied with the previous reforms. In 1916 the situation was already quite convulsive. There were constant local conflicts, the tsar was not supported by the people and his management of the war was questioned. The February Revolution of 1917 did not suddenly break out, but came because there were many strikes in the cities and peasant riots all over the country. Also, evident to all, was the great military incapacity of the Russian High Command, which was unable to guarantee the food supply of the cities because national agricultural production was being diverted to feed the army on the front.

The February Revolution of 1917

On February 18th (according to the Julian calendar), Petrograd's largest factory, the Putilov factory, announced a strike; the police fired on the strikers and some stores closed, leading to insurrections in other production centres. On February 23rd, a series of rallies and demonstrations were held on the occasion of International Women's Day, which gradually acquired a strong political and economic tone. Again the response of the state was repression: a battalion of soldiers was sent to the city to appease the uprising, but many of them not only preferred to defect but rebelled against their commanders. These events forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2 (JU) (March 15, from the Gregorian calendar).

Revolutionize in an imatge of February 1917
Revolutionaries in a picture dated February 1917

With the tsar's abdication, the regime sank. In some parts of the country the authorities could maintain autocratic power, while in other places the Soviets began to be formed, as was the case of the Petrograd Soviet, which played an important role during the revolutionary days and acted as a counterweight to the provisional government established after the fall of the tsar.

The Provisional Government

On March 2nd the first provisional government was formed to fill the power vacuum left by the abdication of the tsar. It was headed by Prince Gueorgui Yevguénievich Lvov and comprised members of the Russian Constitutional Democratic Party (KD), including Pavel Milyukov and Alexander Kerensky. The former was a nobleman, the latter a bourgeois and the latter a politician of the Social-Revolutionary Party (SR).

The provisional government of St. Petersburg was recognized by the army and the main local governments, but not by all political forces. Its main objective was to govern and encourage the construction of a new regime. And that is why elections were called for a National Constituent Assembly.

The interim government had to solve the problem of scarcity and the problem of war. They did not remove Russia from the war because they could not break the Entente pact with France and England.

In May, Milyukov sent a telegram in which he assured that Russia would remain active on the eastern front, which led to the fall of the provisional government, which had to resign. This was followed by the formation of a Second Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky (21 July – 8 November) and with the participation of all political groups except the Bolsheviks.

The October Revolution of 1917

Meanwhile, Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), who was exiled in Switzerland, agreed with the Kaiser of Germany to withdraw Russia from the war in exchange for allowing it to pass through Germany so that it could reach Russia. The train left Geneva on April 9th. On April 15th it arrived in Petrograd.

Upon his arrival, he uttered some well-known words:

Lenin up to Saint Petersburg
Lenin arrives in Petrograd on April 15th, 1917

“The people need peace; the people need bread; the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread—leave the landlords still on the land... We must fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the world-wide social revolution!”

In April 1917 Lenin developed and publicly exposed his idea that a new revolution was needed to replace the provisional government and to make a government of the proletarians and workers (Soviets). Later they would be known as “The April Theses.”

The provisional government included the Bolshevik opposition (which defended the thesis of “bread, peace and land” for the workers) and a section of the army that conspired against the government. When the first provisional government fell, the first thing that the new Prime Minister Kerensky did, it, was to arrest the Bolshevik leaders. Lenin managed to flee to Finland, but other Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and Lunacharski, were arrested and imprisoned on July 22nd (August 4th on our calendar).

In August, General Lavr Kornilov went to St. Petersburg and attempted an aborted coup. This discredited Kerensky. To resist a possible attack by Kornilov's forces, Kerensky considered it necessary to resort to the military apparatus of the Bolsheviks. In addition, Kerensky ordered that 40,000 rifles be distributed to Petrograd workers, many of which ended up in the hands of the Bolsheviks. On September 4th, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were released. Trotsky became the leader of Petrograd's Soviet Council. Lenin was already thinking about the assault on power and will impose his criteria within the party.

At ten o'clock in the morning of October 25th (November 7th in the Gregorian calendar), the Military Revolutionary Committee published the proclamation, written by Lenin, of the dissolution of the Provisional Government and the transmission of power to the Soviet of Petrograd. Early in the afternoon, Trotsky convened an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet to prepare for the Congress of the Soviets. The meeting was controlled by the Bolsheviks and by the left-wing faction of the social-revolutionaries.

The Military Revolutionary Committee sent armed workers and soldiers to capture key Petrograd buildings. The Winter Palace was attacked at 9.40 a.m. when Kerensky left Petrograd. Bolsheviks had taken the power.

On October 26th (November 8th), the Congress of the Soviets approved the Decree on Peace, the Decree on Land and the formation of a new government called the Council of People's Commissars under the presidency of Lenin, which was to exercise its functions until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly.

The elections were held on November 25th, 1917, but were not won by the Bolsheviks, but by the revolutionary socialists (moderate wing), which was Lenin's political slap in the face. The Constituent Assembly was dominated by the revolutionary socialists.

On January 5th the Constituent Assembly met, presided over by Victor Chernov, but it was dissolved by the Red Army. The process towards dictatorship began. Chernov had to flee to the Caucasus and there formed a Government of the Constituent Assembly, rival to the Bolshevik government. Russia's withdrawal from the First World War, with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on 3 March 1918, affirmed the independence of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Lenin es dirigeix a l'Exèrcit Roig al 1920, sota la presència de Trotsky
Lenin addresses the Red Army in 1920, in the presence of Trotsky.

The Bolshevik government promoted the Agrarian Reform, expropriated the lands of the landowners into public estates to distribute them among the landless peasants and gave control of the factories to the workers.