So what caused the Russian Revolution? Why are people unhappy in Russia? If you’ll remember, ever since Peter the Great Russia has been playing this balancing game between modern westernization and traditional power structures. Czars are willing to reform the economy through industrialization, social hierarchy by emancipating the serfs, and culture by shaving everyone’s beard off.
But they are never willing to give up any of their political power. This makes sense – all of the other absolute monarchs were forced to give up their power because their government was overthrown (King George during the American Revolution, Louis XVI in France, the Shogun in Japan).
And there were still absolute monarchies hanging around, most notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomans in the Middle East. So Russia wasn’t alone. But a few events also occurred that exacerbated this tension between the people of Russia and the czar.
1905 was a bad year for the czar
First, they lost a war to Japan in 1905. They were fighting over control of the Korean peninsula and the fact that the tiny Japanese defeated the mighty Russian empire was very embarrassing.
In the same year, peasants and workers marched on the czar’s palace demanding reforms. Led by a priest named Father Gapon, the soldiers guarding the palace fired into the crowd killing hundreds of peaceful protestors. This event, known as Bloody Sunday (not the one U2 sings about), sparked outrage across the empire.
Czar Nicholas II responded to the Bloody Sunday fiasco by implementing some political reforms. He allowed the formation of political parties and created an elected parliament called the Duma. Unfortunately, the Duma was really just an advisory council. They had no real power, that still rested entirely with the czar.
The Russians in World War I
But the main event that leads to the end of the Russian Empire was World War I. Going into the war, against all advice, Czar Nicholas appointed himself as head of the army. Why would he do this? I guess if he was confident that they would win the war then it would be good PR for them.
Unfortunately, while all the other European powers were militarizing, Russia had not invested much money at all in modern weaponry or technology. They had a ton of troops (with one and a half million troops their army was twice as large as Germany’s)! So it seems like Nicholas was relying on the sheer size of his military, which might have been fine in traditional warfare but not World War I.
He left his family behind in St. Petersburg to lead the military. His wife was left in charge of the government along with her trusty advisor.
And now for a quick second about Rasputin. He was a Siberian peasant who became a mystic and self-proclaimed Orthodox Christian holy man. He wandered Russia until he ended up in St. Petersburg, gaining a lot of popularity and notoriety thanks to his enigmatic personality.
He met the czar in 1905 and claimed he could help heal the heir to the throne, Alexei, who was a hemophiliac. Nicholas’s wife, the empress Alexandra, became obsessed with Rasputin, believing he was the only one who could help her son.
Once in 1912, Alexei developed a hemorrhage in his thigh and was close to death. Alexandra wrote to Rasputin, who was in Siberia, and asked him to pray for her son. He responded, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” Within two days of receiving his reply, Alexei recovered.
After this, he grew very influential in the czar’s court much to the chagrin of the elite. He was often drunk and was accused of sexual misconduct on multiple occasions. Over the years he developed a philosophy of divine grace through group sin – something that would have seemed crazy to me before I watched the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Give people a weird quiet guy with a beard and they’ll do a lot of insane things.
During the war, Alexandra and Rasputin were viewed with suspicion. Rasputin, for obvious reasons, but also Alexandra was of Anglo-German descent and she was accused of spying for Germany. Oh yeah. And you know how Nicholas appointed himself head of the army? That’s because Rasputin claimed he had a vision that Russia would lose unless the czar himself took command.
Problems at home during the war
This caused problems because the Russian army seriously struggled in World War I. They were way less advanced than the Germans and Austrians. By the end of the war, some soldiers were being sent off into battle with fake guns because they couldn’t afford real ones. So there’s that.
Back home, people were starving as all of the food went to feed the troops. There were revolts and the military mutinied, forcing Czar Nicholas to abdicate the throne, under the advice of his generals. A new provisional democracy was set up in February or March of 1917 and this government allowed formerly exiled citizens to return to Russia. Enter: Vladimir Lenin.
Vladimir Lenin entered St. Petersburg – now called Petrograd to make it sound more Russian and less westernized (sorry Peter the Great) – and founded a rival government called the Petrograd Soviet. (Soviet was the word for their elected councils.) He called for the overthrow of the new provisional government, which had refused to leave World War I.
Lenin gained popularity because he promised three simple things: peace, land, and bread. His revolution against the provisional government was led by the Bolsheviks, his communist party, but joined by others who just wanted something new.
After they stormed the Winter Palace and took control of Russia, they signed a peace treaty with Germany, taking Russia out of World War I a year early. They abolished private land ownership and allowed the peasants to share the land on communes – finally settling the peasants demands that started last century when Alexander emancipated the serfs. And they passed a minimum wage for workers and improved agricultural output. They also established universal health care, education, and increased women’s rights. Typically, these are all things that communists do pretty well.
Something communists don’t do very well? Lose elections. Lenin held free and fair elections as promised, which is awesome! Except that he lost those elections and so he invalidated them and had his Red Guard military take control of the government. So there goes that whole idea about power to the people, am I right?
The Reds and the Whites
A civil war broke about between the communists, nicknamed the Reds, and everyone else, called the Whites. Even though the Whites were supported by the British, French, Americans and Japanese – all hoping they would win and bring Russian troops back into the war – the Reds won the civil war.
One of the problems was that the Whites were really disunified. They often fought amongst themselves because the only thing they could agree on was that they didn’t want the Reds in charge. Some Whites were monarchists who wanted to reinstate Czar Nicholas, others were nationalists who wanted independence for their countries that had been conquered by the Russians – like the Czechs, for example.
In an attempt to weaken the monarchists and not let him fall into enemy hands, the Bolsheviks executed the czar and his family in 1918. And yes, this includes his daughter Anastasia. Believe me, no one wants the plot of the cartoon musical Anastasia to be true more than I do. But she died. Sorry.
The Red Terror
The execution of the czar and his family set off the Red Terror. Remember our anatomy of a revolution from a few episode ago? Let’s recap: people were frustrated with the old regime so they overthrew it. A moderate government rose in its place but some people felt like not enough had changed. Then a radical phase of the revolution comes about, only to be stopped by the rise of a strong man. Sound familiar?
During the Red Terror, dissidents were sent off to Siberian workcamps. Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s right-hand-man and heir apparent, held families of generals hostage so that they would stay loyal. They also conquered land in eastern Europe and set up puppet socialist governments in the Ukraine and Belarus. They all joined together in 1922 in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. They tried to conquer Poland, but the Polish fought back and maintained their independence (for now).
Lenin tried to set the economy on a right path. He actually allowed for some private enterprise (not very Marxist of him) but he died of a stroke in 1924. The person who Lenin wanted to take over after him was Leon Trotsky. But the person who actually takes over is Joseph Stalin.
The big difference between these two guys is ideology. Trotsky wanted what he and Lenin called “permanent revolution.” Basically, he was more of a pure Marxist who believed that communism should spread everywhere across the globe. So he wanted to fund communist movements around the world – especially in the recently decimated Austria and Germany.
Stalin, on the other hand, was more concerned with shoring up support in the USSR. He promoted “socialism in one country,” which basically meant he wanted to make sure the USSR was strong before they went out spreading themselves too thin. It’s pretty smart and it works.
The Reign of Stalin
Stalin’s Five Year Plans jump-started industrial output, turning Russia into an economic powerhouse. He also collectivized farming making it surprisingly more efficient for a little while. This command economy – where the government directs all aspects of the economy – will come back to bite them later, but for now, it works to bring Russia up to speed with the rest of the western economies.
But Stalin also shores up support at home by purging anyone who disagrees with him. He assassinates rivals, censors any speech that goes against his ideas, and established a secret police (a precursor to the KGB). Anyone who spoke out was sent off to gulags, brutal work camps in Siberia, and never heard from again.
Historians now have a hard time figuring out just how many people died because of Stalin, but most estimates range from 3 to 9 million people. And that’s not counting all the people who died in the 1930s and 1940s during the famines. If we include those numbers, then around 50 million people died under Stalin.
We’ve gotten a little off topic, but I wanted to make sure we all knew what was going on in Russia. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was directly caused by the death and destruction Russia saw in World War I. But what else was going on in the world after the end of the Great War?