The Russian Revolution

The people of Russia, like other peoples of Europe, were united in patriotic fervor at the outbreak of World War I. Conservative Russians saw the war as an opportunity for expansion of Russian territory into the Balkans and socialists believed that the alliance with Britain and France would bring democratic reforms. The unification of Russia behind a single cause was unique. Outside the Winter Palace, crowds sang the National Anthem, "God Save the Czar," while Nicholas II swore the same oath as had Alexander I in 1812 that he would never make peace as long as the enemy stood on Russian soil.

The strains of the war soon had its effects on Russia as it had in other parts of Europe. Russian supplies of shells and munitions were soon exhausted and horrendous losses were inflicted by German forces who were better equipped. In 1915, large numbers of Russian soldiers were sent to the front without rifles; they were told to pick up the rifles of soldiers who had been shot. In 1915 alone, there were two million Russian casualties. Even so, the peasant army continued to fight until early 1917.

Special committees were set up to coordinate defense, industry, transportation and agriculture for the war effort. This improved the military situation, and Russian factories produced twice as many shells in 1916 as they had in 1915, but there were still many problems, not the least of which was leadership.

The constitution which had resulted from the Revolution of 1905 had left the Czar in complete control of the bureaucracy and army. Legislation from the Duma was subject to the Czar’s veto. Nicholas II was a kindly man but a hopeless pinhead. A friend once said he "would have been an ideal country gentleman, devoting his life to wife and children, his farms and his sport." Nicholas sincerely believed that he must maintain his inheritance of supreme royal power, which, with the Russian Orthodox Church, was the key to Russia’s greatness as the Third Rome. He did not form close relationships with the citizenry to fight the war, relying instead on the old Russian bureaucracy. He distrusted the Duma and rejected any popular involvement in government. The end result was that the Duma and educated middle classes became increasingly critical of his leadership. Nicholas dismissed his minister of war, but also dismissed calls from the Duma for a government more responsive to the people. When in September a call was issued for a new government responsible to the Duma instead of the Czar, Nicolas dismissed the Duma and announced that he was traveling to the front to lead the troops personally. This was an insane mistake. Nicholas had no war experience, and he caused more problems on the front than he solved. His involvement was a comedy of errors.

While Nicholas was at the front, his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra fell under the influence of Grigori Rasputin, a self proclaimed "holy man," and first class pervert. Alexandra had a strong dislike of parliamentary government, and had long urged Nicholas to rule absolutely. With Nicholas gone, she tried to do so herself. She named and replaced top ministers with abandon, quite often on the advice of Rasputin.

Nicholas and Alexandra had five children, four girls and one boy who was the youngest. The boy, Alexis, was heir to the throne, but suffered from hemophilia, which meant that the tiniest injury could be fatal. Alexandra was dedicated to the boy to the point of obsession. She had soldiers with him constantly to prevent him falling, and oftentimes had him carried by the soldiers rather than allowing him to walk. Rasputin had appeared at the Winter Palace one evening and claimed to be able to heal the boy. He did have some success, apparently by hypnotizing the child which caused him to relax. Alexandra saw in him the boy’s savior, and insisted that Rasputin remain.

Rasputin knew a meal ticket when he saw one, and willingly stayed. He addressed Nicholas and Alexandra as "Mama" and "Papa." While there, he often lured women of the court into sexual trysts claiming to be able to heal them from their unhappiness. He told one married woman that she should bathe with him, and suggested to others that they would find wholeness by touching his "member.’ He was filthy and had a straggly beard, hardly in keeping with the refined company of Russian nobility, but Alexandra believed in him wholeheartedly.

Aside from his sexual perversions, Rasputin interfered in government decisions. Alexandra believed everything he told her, once writing to Nicholas, "believe in our Friend. He lives for you and Russia." The sheer surreal nature of the situation pushed Russia even closer to Revolution. Rumors circulated that Rasputin was in reality Alexandra’s lover (untrue) and three members of the aristocracy hatched a plot to assassinate the foul fiend.

Some historians have argued that one of the Assassins, a young married nobleman, was in fact bisexual and intrigued by Rasputin’s sexual prowess. He proposed a liaison which Rasputin quickly spurned, as he was only into women. The plot was to invite Rasputin to a party and poison him. When he arrived, anxious to get to the party (and the women there) he was first offered wine and cakes while a Gramophone upstairs played music to simulate a party which did not exist. The wine and cakes were heavily laced with poison, but after eating his fill, Rasputin wasn’t fazed. The second conspirator came into the room and shot Rasputin, who fell to the floor but immediately rose up and choked the first young man, shouting at him, "you naughty little boy." He was shot again, and his body carried to the river and thrown in through a hole in the ice. When his body was recovered the next morning, he was still breathing, but only for a short while. Some bad habits are hard to end!

Rasputin’s murder sent Alexandra into shock, primarily because of Rasputin’s prophecy/threat to her: "If I doe or you desert me, in six months you will lose your son and your throne." On March 8, 1917, bred riots broke out in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg). They soon spread to the factories and throughout the city. Nicholas issued orders from the front that troops should restore order, but the soldiers broke ranks and joined the revolutionaries. The Duma declared a provisional government and on March 15, 1917, Nicholas abdicated. He was the last of the Romanovs and the last Czar of Russia

The Provisional Government: Although the March Revolution which toppled Nicholas’ government was unplanned, it was received joyfully throughout the country. The upper middle classes anticipated a more determined and effective war effort and workers anticipated better wages and more foot. Everyone called for liberty and democracy. The provisional government quickly established equality before the law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and assembly, and the right of unions to organize and strike.

Alexander Kerensky headed the new government formed in May, 1917, and disappointed radical socialists when he refused to confiscate large landholdings and give them to the peasantry. Kerensky considered the prosecution of the War to be the government’s most important mission; land reforms could come later. He directed the government’s efforts toward the war while war weariness and suffering at home continued to increase. The provisional government was forced from the beginning to share power with the Petrograd Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The Russian word for Worker’s Council is Soviet. The Petrograd Soviet saw itself as a grass roots revolutionary democracy and did not help the provisional government, rather it weakened it.

Among the more infamous provisions was Order Number One, which stripped power from officers in the army and assigned it to elected committees of common soldiers (literally letting the Indians decide the war rather than the Chiefs.) The idea was to prevent some counterrevolutionary such as Napoleon Bonaparte from rising; but the effect was the total collapse of army discipline. Officers were often hanged and masses of peasant solders, to use Lenin’s phrase, "voted with their feet," by returning to their villages to help their families get a share of land which peasants were snatching up as they began a great agrarian revolution. Liberty was becoming anarchy.

The breakdown of order provided a golden opportunity for the most talented and radical of Russia’s social leaders, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924.) Lenin had been born to the middle class but became an enemy of imperial Russia when his older brother was executed for the plot to kill Alexander II in 1887. He soon became a Marxist and began to win converts among radial intellectuals. He had a successful law practice with a Moscow law firm, but his revolutionary ideas and writings got him exiled to Siberia for three years. While there, he studied Marxist ideas with religious fervor. Upon his release from Siberia, he moved to Switzerland where he lived for seventeen years and developed his own revolutionary interpretations of Marxism. Lenin had three ideas of Marxism:

Lenin preferred Marx’s earlier writings of 1848 and The Communist Manifesto for inspiration. He stressed that capitalism could be destroyed only by violent revolution. As a result, Lenin denounced all theories of a peaceful revolution, stating they betrayed Marx’s message of an unending class conflict.

Lenin believed that a socialist revolution was possible even in a country as backward as Russia. Capitalism had not fully developed in Russia, and the working class was small. Since the peasants were poor, they provided the necessary potential for revolution.

He believed that revolution was determined by human leadership; not historical laws. Thus, there was necessary a highly disciplined elite of intellectuals and full time revolutionaries who, unlike ordinary workers and trade union leaders , would not be satisfied by small term gains.

At a meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Labor party in London in 1903, Lenin’s ideas were challenged. Lenin wanted a small, disciplined, elitist communist party while his opponents wanted a more democratic party open to mass membership. The party thus split into two groups, the Bolsheviks, or "majority," which supported Lenin, and the Mensheviks, or "minority." Even though Lenin’s majority did not last, he kept the name "Bolshevik" and developed a tough, revolutionary party.

Lenin did not become a patriotic supporter of the war as did other socialists in 1914; rather from Switzerland, he saw the war as a product of imperialism and the opportunity for class war and social revolution. He considered the March Revolution in which Nicholas had abdicated as a step in the right direction. He even went so far as to collaborate with the Germans, who provided him, his wife, and about twenty colleagues passage across Germany in a sealed train. The Germans knew he would undermine the Russian government, which might provide them with victory on the eastern front; so they were happy to oblige him. The train was sealed so that he could only get off when the train stopped at Finland station in Petrograd. He arrived on April 3, 1917, and rejected all ideas of cooperation with the "bourgeois" provisional Kerensky government. His slogans were: "All power to the Soviets;" All land to the peasants," and "Stop the War now."

An attempt to seize the government in July failed, and Lenin was forced to go into hiding to prevent his arrest on charges of being a German spy. (He and the Bolsheviks were indeed being bankrolled by the Germans.) Later, in July, Kerensky’s commander in chief, Lavr Kornilov, a war hero described as having "the heart of a lion and the brains of a sheep" led a feeble attack against the provisional government. The attempt gave the Bolsheviks all the excuse they needed to rearm. Kerensky lost all credit with the army, the only force that might have saved him, and any possibility of democracy.

Trotsky and the Seizure of Power: Over the summer, membership in the Bolsheviks had grown from 50, 000 to 240,000, and in October, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. It was at this point that Lenin aligned himself with Leon Trotsky, a radical Marxist and spell binding orator. Trotsky was Jewish by birth, and had shown signs of brilliance as a young man. He painted a brilliant, (although untrue) picture of German plots and convinced the Petrograd Soviet to form a special military revolutionary committee with him as its leader. On November 6, the Bolsheviks with Trotsky’s committee seized government buildings and declared that all power had passed to the soviets and named Lenin head of the new government.

The Bolsheviks succeeded for three reasons:

Anarchy had prevailed over democracy. Power was there for anyone who would take it.

Lenin and Trotsky were utterly determined to succeed. Neither the Czarist government nor the provisional government possessed that degree of determination.

The Bolsheviks appealed to soldiers, urban workers and others who were exhausted by the war and eager for socialism.

Lenin was very capable at profiting from events over which he had no control. When a peasant revolt broke out in which peasants seized the land of landlords and the church, Lenin’s first law gave land to the peasants, in effect approving what they had already done and he was powerless to stop. He also acknowledged that Russia had lost the war, and the only realistic goal was peace at any price. He sent Trotsky to negotiate peace with the Germans, who were not in a forgiving mood, even though they had slipped him into the country to undermine the government. When their terms seemed too harsh, Trotsky informed the Germans that Russia would simply "withdraw" from the War. The Germans told him in no uncertain terms that this was not an option, that they would continue fighting even if the Russians would not.

The resulting Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was harsh in the extreme. A third of Russia’s western territory was lost to Germany. Many of the areas forfeited to Germany were occupied by Poles, Finns, Lithuanians and other non-Russians who had been part of Russia’s "prisonhouse of nationalities" for several centuries. But with peace, Lenin escaped certain disaster, and was free to pursue his goal of absolute political power to the Bolsheviks, who were now renamed Communists.

A brief civil war broke out when the Socialist Revolutionary Party won a majority in the Constituent Assembly and Lenin had Bolshevik soldiers disband the assembly. Since the assembly had been democratically elected, many people rose up in protest. A number of self proclaimed regional governments developed and a "white army" formed of revolutionaries who marched on Petrograd. In the end, however, the Communists reconquered all areas under White Army control, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks had complete control of the government. Trotsky was instrumental here in his capacity as war commissar. He reinstituted the draft and imposed drastic discipline on the newly formed "Red Army." Soldiers who deserted or disobeyed an order were summarily shot. He soon had a disciplined fighting force against whom the White Army had no chance.

Now that they were in control, the communists imposed "war communism" by seizing grain from peasants, introducing rationing, nationalizing all banks and industry, and requiring everyone to work. The old Czarist secret police was reestablished as the Cheka, a communist secret police force which hunted down and executed thousands of real or supposed enemies.

Among the victims of the Cheka were Nicholas II and his family. Nicholas had been taken off a train returning from the front, and arrested. He and his family lived somewhat happily in a large house in the town of Yekaterinburg for some time. Lenin feared that Nicholas might constitute a rallying point for those who opposed him and issued orders for the execution of the entire family. The family were rousted from bed in the middle of the night and told that they were to be relocated; however they were first taken to the basement and told that they must be photographed. Instead, gunmen came in and shot all of them.

Soldiers present reported that the daughters screamed and ran around the room and that it seemed as if the bullets bounced off them. In fact, numerous Romanov family jewels had been sewn into the girl’s night clothes which caused the bullets to be deflected. When the bullets did not kill them, the girls were bayoneted. The bodies were buried in a common unmarked grave and acid poured on the bodies to prevent their identification.

Some years later, a woman appeared in Germany claiming to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter, who claimed that she had miraculously escaped by falling to the floor and pretending to be dead. The multi-million dollar Romanov family fortune undoubtedly did not enter her mind when she claimed to be the sole surviving heir. DNA testing was not available at the time, but a German court determined that she was NOT in fact Anastasia. The court was correct; after the fall of the Soviet Union, a group of Russian archeologists located the remains of the Romanov family, including those of Anastasia. They were buried in a Russian cathedral in 2001 and proclaimed saints of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Cheka were merciless in stopping those who opposed the government or spoke against it even in the most casual tones. In March 1918, after the government moved from Petrograd to Moscow, a circus clown was making fun of the Bolsheviks. Cheka agents in the crowd pulled out their guns and shot several people who were laughing. People were shot or threatened with death for minor nonpolitical failures. The fear of the secret police soon became an effective tool of the government; no one dared speak against it, and a counter-revolution was virtually impossible.

The Communists were actually helped by foreign intervention in the civil war. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, American, British and Japanese troops landed at Archangel and Vladivostok to prevent war materiel from being captured by the Germans. The Soviets nationalized all foreign owned factories without compensation and refused to pay Russia’s foreign debts. Western governments began to support efforts by the White Army to overthrow the communists. The efforts were small and half hearted, and few people in the West, already sick of war, supported a military campaign against the communists. Allied intervention did not aid the Whites but it did allow the communists to appeal to nationalist and patriotic sentiments against the Allies.

Once in power, the Communist government of Russia encouraged world wide revolution. The communist triumph in Russia is one of the reasons the First World War is such a turning point in modern history.