THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

“I shall never agree to a representative form of government, because I consider it harmful to the people whom God has entrusted to my care.” Nicholas II 1904

In 1894, Nicholas II became ruler of a Russian empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific, inhabited by 126 million people, from 194 ethnic groups. It was a country in which workers and peasants lived in poverty and hardship - while Russia's elite - its imperial family and aristocracy - lived lives of gilded luxury. There was a long history of struggle in Russia against the injustices of the system. And in 1905, a revolution forced the Tsar to allow the creation of a state duma, or national assembly. But its power was limited, and the compromise pleased neither the Tsar nor the reformers. In 1914, this divided empire was plunged into fresh crisis... by world war.

 

‘What is all this talk about the people's confidence? Let the people merit my confidence!' Nicholas II 1916

 

World War One was a disaster for Tsarist Russia.  At the front, the country suffered a series of devastating defeats, while at home there were food shortages and economic chaos. The Tsar was held responsible for the crisis – after all, he was now the army's commander-in-chief, and he was standing in the way of government reform. His German-born wife, Empress Alexandra, was even thought to be supporting Germany; while the entire family was said to have fallen under the spell of a Siberian mystic and faith healer, Grigory Rasputin. In December 1916, Rasputin was murdered by Russian aristocrats, possibly with the help of British secret agents - both groups determined to end his influence over the Tsar. But in the eyes of many, the damage had already been done.

 

“Situation serious. There is anarchy in the capital. Government paralysed... On the streets, chaotic shooting.” Mikhail Rodzianko, chairman of State Duma

 

On 23rd February 1917, thousands of women took to the streets of the Russian capital, Petrograd, to mark International Women's Day and protest over bread shortages. The next day they were joined on the streets by workers and students, carrying placards that read 'Down with the Tsar!' Troops, ordered to put down the disorder, mutinied, and joined the protestors instead. Tsarist officials were arrested, prisons and police stations were attacked, emblems of Tsarist rule smashed and burned. The government had lost control of the capital. The Tsar was told by his ministers that order could only be restored - and Russia saved from military defeat - if he gave up power. So on 2nd March, Nicholas agreed to abdicate. In just 10 days, 300 years of Romanov rule had come to an end.

 

“The Provisional Government does not possess any real power.” Alexander Guchkov

 

The February Revolution had been remarkably swift and bloodless, and hopes were now high for the creation of a more democratic, more just Russian state. Members of the State Duma, the national assembly, had formed a Provisional Government, which was to hold power until a Constituent Assembly was elected, to give Russia a new constitution. But in reality, the Provisional Government shared power with the Petrograd Soviet, a council elected by workers and soldiers, that controlled the capital's troops, transport and communications. The Petrograd Soviet, dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the Marxist Menshevik Party, was much more radical than the Provisional Government... yet it supported the Government's decision to continue the war, and honour the commitments that Russia had made to the Allies. It was a fateful decision, that ultimately played into the hands of one of the smaller parties.... the Bolsheviks. Their leader, Vladimir Lenin, recently returned from 16 years in exile, bitterly opposed the 'imperialist war'. He also demanded the immediate redistribution of land from rich landowners to peasants; and the transfer of power from the 'bourgeoise' Provisional Government to the people's Soviets, or councils, that were springing up across Russia. The Bolshevik programme was summed up in a simple slogan, 'Bread, Peace and Land'. And as Russia's economic and military crisis deepened, its appeal to the masses grew and grew.

 

“Our tactics: absolute distrust, no support for the Provisional Government.” Lenin

 

In June, a new Russian military offensive ended in disaster, with 400,000 Russian casualties, massive desertions, and the collapse of army morale and discipline. In July, soldiers and sailors in Petrograd mutinied. They were joined in the streets by workers, with Bolshevik support. But troops loyal to the Provisional Government opened fire on the protestors, and dispersed the crowds. A police crackdown followed, leading to the arrest of several Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky, while Lenin, with the help of Josef Stalin, fled to Finland, travelling with forged papers under the name of Konstantin Ivanov... A socialist, and stirring orator, named Alexander Kerensky, became Russia's new Prime Minister, and was hailed as the man who would save Russia from anarchy. 

 

“Hang the German supporters and spies, with Lenin at their head, and disperse the Soviet.”
General Lavr Kornilov

 

The army's commander-in-chief, General Kornilov, believed Russia's war effort was being undermined by chaos at home, and deliberately sabotaged by men like Lenin, whom he declared a German spy. So in August, he ordered his men to march on Petrograd, to 'restore order'. Bolsheviks played a leading role in the city's defence against this attempted military coup. Their most brilliant organiser, Leon Trotsky, was released from prison, and sent armed Bolshevik militias, the 'Red Guards', to defend key points in the city. Strikes by railway workers, many of them Bolshevik supporters, prevented Kornilov from moving his men by rail, and his soldiers began to switch sides, or simply go home. The Kornilov Affair cast the Bolsheviks as saviours of the revolution. And by the end of September, they'd gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. In October, Lenin decided the time had come. He secretly returned from Finland to Petrograd, and began preparing to seize power. 

 

'It would be naive to wait for a "formal" majority for the Bolsheviks. No revolution ever waits for that.... History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now.' Lenin, September 1917

 

On 25th October, the Bolsheviks made their move: Red Guards and loyal troops seized key points around the capital, and that night they stormed the Provisional Government's headquarters at the Winter Palace – an event later immortalised by Bolshevik propaganda, and the great Soviet film-maker, Sergei Eisenstein. Kerensky fled the city at the last moment, narrowly avoiding capture, and the next day, at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Lenin announced the overthrow of the Provisional Government. 

 

“If we are not ready to shoot a saboteur and a White Guard, what sort of Revolution is that? Nothing but talk and a bowl of mush.” Lenin. 

 

The following months saw the Bolsheviks consolidate their hold on power, while fighting a brutal civil war against counter-revolutionary, or 'White Russian', forces, who had foreign support. Some Whites hoped to put Tsar Nicholas back on the throne. After his abdication, Nicholas and his family had been held under guard at Tsarskoye Selo, outside Petrograd, where they occupied themselves with gardening and other diversions. In summer 1917 the family was sent to Tobolsk, in Siberia, where they lived under house arrest in the Governor's Mansion. The following spring, the Bolsheviks had the family moved to Yekaterinburg. In July 1918, as White forces approached the city, Bolshevik soldiers gathered the whole family in a cellar – the Tsar, his wife, their son Alexei, their 4 daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, as well as 4 servants - and executed them all. Russia's civil war was one of the 20th century's most devastating events. An estimated 2 million soldiers lost their lives, while a typhus epidemic and famine claimed the lives of a further 9 million civilians. By the end of 1921, the Bolsheviks had emerged victorious, and under Lenin's determined and uncompromising leadership, set about building a new socialist order. The Soviet Union, created in 1922, emerged as a world superpower following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two. But it would always remain a single party state, where all opposition or dissent was ruthlessly suppressed. Those brief hopes for Russian democracy, that flowered amid the euphoria of the February Revolution, were extinguished by the Bolshevik October Revolution, and put beyond reach for decades to come.