The Russian Revolution, part 1
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A locomotive pushed over by striking workers during unrest in Russia following the "Bloody Sunday" massacre. (Wikipedia Commons)
In July 1917, Russia was under “dual power”- state authority shared between the Petrograd Soviet (a workers and soldiers council), and the provisional government which had replaced the last Russian Tsar- Nicholas II. The Tsar had stepped down just months before amongst declining approval, the toll WWI (1914-1918) was taking on the country, and popular unrest across the empire.
World War I was a divisive issue for the dual authority. Many in the provisional government wanted to make good on the promises and treaties of the previous regime- and win the war. The Bolsheviks, and the Mensheviks with a firm influence on the Petrograd Soviet, viewed the war as the old autocrats’ last blunder. There was a revolutionary zeal gripping the country, and appearing strongest amongst the workers and soldiers closest to Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914, the name was changed to sound less German). Some of the regiments stationed near Petrograd, through an agreement with the provisional government, believed it was their purpose to remain near Petrograd to “safeguard” the revolution.
What has come to be known as the “July Days” were a series of mass demonstrations amongst the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, culminating in an unorganized push by the Bolsheviks to take power for the Petrograd Soviet.
Joined by factory workers from the most revolutionary sections of Petrograd, the mob marched on the headquarters of the provisional government- Talurida Palace. They came under the banner of “All Power to the Soviet.” The leader of the provisional government would flee, and bring soldiers back from the Eastern Front to secure Petrograd.
In the Talurida Palace there was a “creeping sense of dread.”¹ Outside, the Bolshevik supporters had no idea what to do, or who was in charge. Lenin had urged calm earlier in the day. The first member of the provisional government to greet the revolutionaries asked “why have you come here armed? If you were needed, I would welcome you myself, but why are you here now?”¹
The next member of the Provisional Government to try to deescalate the situation was the minister of agriculture, Viktor Chernov. He was dragged out to an open vehicle by some of the soldiers, one of them shouted “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you.” They vowed not to let him go until the Petrograd Soviet had taken power.
The Soviet, which was in session, was alerted that “they are beating up Chernov.” Leon Trotsky would address the mutinous soldiers, and get them to release Chernov. After the near revolution between revolutions (February and October), many prominent Bolsheviks and revolutionaries were arrested, but Lenin managed to go into hiding. Trotsky, who had been jailed by the Provisional Government, remarked inside the jail “perhaps we made a mistake. We should have tried to take power.”₆ The Bolsheviks called off the protests after more soldiers loyal to the Provisional Government arrived in Petrograd.
Photo depicting street demonstration during the "July Days" unrest after being fired upon by troops. (Wikipedia Commons)
The power vacuum that the death of the autocracy had created would not be filled so easily in the unique situation that was the russian revolution. The country was vast, both in terms of size and population, was disorganized, and was exhausted from WWI. At this stage of the revolution, not even the Bolshevik leadership could foresee, or even wanted, what the revolution was to become.
In 1905, there was a similar attempted revolution in Russia. The country had seen increased revolutionary sentiments, especially in the larger cities, and had suffered a demoralizing defeat by an industrializing Japan that year. During the aftermath of “bloody sunday”, which will be covered later, the rebellion in St. Petersburg spread to the rural countryside. Between January and October 1905, soldiers were deployed to quell peasant uprising/revolt “no fewer than 2,700 times.”² The St. Petersburg Soviet was established during the uprising, and was “an ad hoc council of workers to direct the general strike.”² Orlando Figes writes in Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, “In a crisis of authority, a regime’s best hope of survival is to make concessions soon enough to satisfy and split off the oppositions moderate wing.”² The crisis of authority for Nicholas II, which could be traced as far back as the 1860s, was only growing. Nicholas II would try to make some concessions- he issued the October Manifesto, and put forth reforms that guaranteed basic human rights and an assembly (Duma), along with voting rights. The revolutionary movement in Russia at this time was already radicalized, and wouldn’t be won over by concessions.
Two big trends in 19th century Europe emerge. The first is that as populations grew and industrialized, there was a far greater demand for equality and representation, usually in the form of some kind of parliament to act as a form of “checks and balances” to go along with whatever monarchy existed. Literacy rates rising quickly have also been seen as important precursors to the revolutions.
The second trend is epitomized by German leader Otto Von Bismarck, and his “Realpolitik.” In the 1880s, the new German unity was threatened by growing liberal radicalism. These trends ran differently in different areas of the world/different nations. In Germany in the 1880s, like Russia in the final decade of the Romanov dynasty, there were rapidly growing/industrializing urban areas fueled by recent immigrants from rural areas. Bismarck, who disdained socialism, sought to “kill the socialists with kindness.” At the same time, he wasn’t a fan of laissez-faire capitalism, and he supported protectionist policies like trade tariffs.
“By his government-sponsored tariff law and by the government encouragement of German industry and agriculture he had succeeded in gaining the sympathy of powerful business and agricultural interests. Accordingly, perhaps a government-sponsored welfare program could win the allegiance of the working classes. Revolutionary socialism was to be undercut by state socialism.”³
What some have seen as the first example of the modern “welfare state” term originated with the German Reichstag passing laws establishing insurance for “health, accident, old age and invalidism.”³
Tsar Nicholas II could have also been hampered in any larger reforms by his own side. The Tsar’s support amongst monarchist supporters in Russia could have been weakened by reforms, and this sense, the Tsar was bound by oaths and treaties.
“Here, then, were the roots of the monarchy’s collapse… [they lie] in the growing conflict between a dynamic public culture and a fossilized autocracy that would not concede or even understand its political demands.”²
Peasant life in rural Russia was centered around their village communes. The communes were the general authority in rural Russia, and handled law and order. Land was held in common, and strips of farmable land were allocated by the village communes for the peasants to work.
“Long before it was written down by Marx, the Russian people had lived by the idea that surplus wealth was immoral, all property was theft, and that manual labor was the only source of value.”₄
In 1913, the Russian population was 85% rural. “Even after the emancipation [of 1861] the overwhelmingly peasant nature of the country convinced many observers that the empire of the Tsars could not adapt to the western capitalist model”.₅
Before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, or abolition of serfdom, Tsar Alexander II believed serfdom would abolish itself from below if no actions were taken to modernize. Even after the reform, most land remained the “property of the gentry landowners, who rented it out to the land hungry peasants at rates that increased steeply in the later nineteenth century as the population rose.”² The land given to each peasant, or made available to use, fell after the reforms by anywhere from 18 to 40%.₅
“Russian history came increasingly to be dominated by a struggle between the government Right and revolutionary Left, with the moderates and liberals in the middle powerless to influence the fundamental course of events.”₅
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, revolutionary radicalism grew, and in 1879 a group calling itself the “People’s Will” mounted an “all out terroristic offensive against the government… what followed has been described as an ‘emperor hunt’ and in some ways it defies imagination.”₅ The group made numerous attempts on the Tsar’s life, and other representatives of the monarchy, and finally succeeded on March 13, 1881. The majority of the members of the group had been killed off by the time of the Tsar’s assassination. The next Tsar, Alexander III, would develop a secret police force to combat violent underground revolutionary groups.
In 1887, on the sixth anniversary of assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Alexander Ulianov (Lenin’s older brother) was arrested carrying a bomb in St. Petersburg. He, along with accomplices, were planning on throwing the bomb at Tsar Alexander III. Lenin’s older brother would be tried and executed.
In the late 19th century, and early 20th century, Russia was industrializing and modernizing quickly. Literacy rates doubled between 1897 and 1914. One study of rural children at the turn of the century showed less than 2% wanted to work the fields like their parents. Half of them wanted to pursue an “educated profession” in a city.²
Harsh famine in the early 1890s had only hastened the urban growth which coincided with government modernization programs from the 1890s up until 1905. Russians in the early 20th century were the “most strike prone in Europe.”²
The question of who exactly became the footsoldiers of the revolution is still debated a century later. Many have pointed to the rural immigrants to St. Petersburg, and other large cities, bringing with them their communal ideals. Others believe it was the most skilled and most literate that carried the revolutionary zeal forward. Numerous peasant uprisings have happened as literacy rates were growing rapidly.
Sergei Nechaev, founder of the “People’s Will” group that terrorized Russia in the later part of the nineteenth century, wrote “the revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property and no name… Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and single passion for revolution.”¹ Vladimir Lenin would come to epitomize this statement, and probably by intention.
In an oft-cited anecdote about Lenin’s lack of sentiment, he is said to have stated after listening to Beethoven: “I can’t listen to music too often. It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them over the head, beat them without mercy.”² Apart from thinking of himself seemingly only in terms of his role in the revolution, Lenin was also more interested in Clausewitz and “militarized politics” than the social theories of Karl Marx. He once remarked that peace was “a breathing spell for war.”₆ Lenin said explicitly that he had sought to combine elements of the “people’s will” group with Marxism.₆
Lenin was also likely influenced by revolutionary theorist Petr Tkachev, who “in the 1870s had argued for a seizure of power and the establishment of a dictatorship by a disciplined and highly centralized vanguard on the grounds that a social revolution was impossible to achieve by democratic means…”²
The RSDLP was formed in 1898, and was a Russian revolutionary socialist party. At the Second Party Congress in 1903, the party split into two new political parties. The Mensheviks, who included Leon Trotsky, wanted mass worker, and to achieve this they wanted as many members as possible. Lenin wanted the party to be all about hardliners who would actively agitate and be a vanguard for the revolution. Lenin won a narrow vote, and he and his supporters became the Bolsheviks (Majoritarians), and those against the stricter prerequisites for party membership became known as the Mensheviks (Minoritarians). There are also aspects of how the split transpired that brings about questions about nationalism, and antisemitism.
The barricades of Presnya, 1905 by Ivan Vladimirov. Depiction of a 1905 uprising in Moscow. (Wikipedia Commons).
In 1905, on the eve of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his diary, “At the head of the workers’ union is some kind of a priest-socialist, Gapon.”₆ St. Petersburg was in the midst of mass popular unrest. Father Gapon, partly inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy’s later writings, headed one the government sanctioned workers’ unions in the city. Some of Leo Tolstoy’s writings inspired the “Tolstoyan” movement, and what has been called “Christian anarchism.” Likewise, Father Gapon “agreed to cooperate with authorities only after considerable hesitation.”₆
When Father Gapon led a strike on Sunday January 9th, 1905, the striking workers were no longer protected by the government of the Tsar, who feared the rising unrest. The strikers gathered at six pre-arranged assembly points in the city that day. “The demonstrators were in the grip of a religious exaltation and prepared for martyrdom: the night before, some had written farewell letters.”₆ They marched towards the city centre intending to have the Tsar presented with petition that demanded “the convocation of a Russian constituent assembly, an eight hour workday, living wages, and the release of political prisoners.”¹
As they made their way down Nevsky Prospekt they reached a squadron of Cossack cavalry, as well as pickets backed by soldiers with rifles. Accounts of what happened vary, particularly whether the demonstrators were pushed forward towards the soldiers by the over eager mass of people behind them, or whether they rushed in. After firing a “couple warning shots” at the demonstration, one of the soldiers fired into the crowd, after which there was “a terrible chain reaction as demonstrators screamed and ran, and soldiers and cossacks fired into the crowd.”¹ After that day the reputation of the Tsar was severely damaged, and from at least this point forward, the Romanov dynasty was doomed. “Russia stood on the edge of an abyss. It seemed as if the country was boiling over from anger, envy, and resentments of every imaginable kind which until then had been kept under a lid of awe and fear.”₆
1.McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Revolution: a New History. Basic Books, 2017.
2. Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia: 1891-1991: a History. Metropolitan Books, 2014.
3. Gilbert, Felix, and Norman Rich. The Age of Nationalism and Reform: 1850-1890. Norton, 1977.
4. Figes, Orlando. Natasha's Dance: a Cultural History of Russia. Penguin Books, 2003.
5. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2011.
6. Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. Vintage Books, 1990.