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Russia 1917-1924

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.


  1. The February Revolution - removal of the Tsar
  2. The October Revolution - Communists come to power
  3. Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power
  1. The February Revolution of 1917


Note - The Russian calendar was thirteen days behind the one used in the West. The dates given are from the old (i.e. Russian) calendar that was in use until 1918.

Russia had entered the war with universal popular enthusiasm among all classes. Support for the Tsarist regime was very strong. The German name of the capital St. Petersburg was changed to the more Russian sounding Petrograd.

However a series of events were to undermine this support until it eventually crumbled.

  1. Thee Tsar took personal command of the army in the summer of 1915 and left the government in the hands of his wife, the hated Tsarina (who also had the misfortune of being German). She was called "the German woman".
  2. The Tsarina was not only unpopular but she was also under the influence of the strange monk Rasputin, who had hypnotic powers. These powers he used with some degree of success to cure the Tsarevich, Alexei (the heir to the throne), of haemophilia. The absence of the Tsar meant that Rasputin's influence was almost total. He dismissed ministers at will and brought complete discredit to the whole Tsarist system of government. The Tsar knew what was going on but refused to take any action. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916.
  3. The offensive of 1916 had cost the Russians a million casualties and discontent was rife in the army. The soldiers lacked proper military training and the supply of arms and artillery were inadequate.
  4. The whole war effort had being organised in a most haphazard way. Manpower was conscripted indiscriminately without any regard for the needs of industry, agriculture or communications. The countryside was dispossessed of horses to serve the army's needs, leaving the peasants with no means of tilling the land. Distribution problems had led to a breakdown in food supplies to the cities. By 1916 Petrograd and Moscow were receiving only a third of their fuel and food requirements. This was made worse by hyper inflation that saw prices increase fourfold during the war. These factors created serious discontent among the working classes in the cities. There were a number of strikes that had to be put down by troops.

By the start of 1917, political parties were totally dissatisfied with the Tsar and his government. The main parties at the time were:

  1. The Kadets who wanted to give more powers to the Russian parliament or Duma. This party could be compared to the Liberals in Britain. They greatly admired the British system of government and wished to imitate it, i.e. a constitutional monarchy - power of the Tsar would be greatly reduced and important decisions would be made by parliament. They were led by the respected Prince Lvov.
  2. The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) were a party that wanted peasant ownership of the land in the form of communes. There was no comparable party in Western Europe. Alexander Kerensky was a leading figure in this party. Extreme members of the party used terrorism to achieve their aims.
  3. The Social Democrats - followers of Karl Marx. They believed that the industrialisation of Russia would lead to the collapse of the Land-owning class and that the Tsarist regime would also collapse with it. The party had split over tactics into the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) in 1903. The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries and were led by Lenin. The Mensheviks favoured peaceful methods and were similar to the SPD in Germany or the Labour party in Britain.

The February (March) revolution 1917

The discontent outlined above led to Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar.

In January, 300,000 workers staged a demonstration on the anniversary of the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Petrograd. Conditions were not helped by a particularly severe winter. During February, a strike for higher wages started at the huge Putilov engineering works. The Tsar departed from Petrograd for his headquarters at Mogilev and was absent from the capital for the next few crucial days.

Petrograd was soon paralysed with 240,000 on strike. From his headquarters the Tsar ordered that the strikes were to be crushed by troops. Forty people were killed as troops fired on rioters. The same evening the Petrograd garrison began to mutiny.

Feb 27-28: The key dates as all military command within the city collapsed as troops joined the strikers. Crucially the Tsar had lost effective control in the city.

At the same time the Petrograd soviet (council) was revived and quickly established itself as the real power in the city. It had full control over the railways and had the loyalty of the troops. The Tsar, against advice, sent General Ivanov to the city to restore order. However his troops deserted to the revolutionaries.

At the beginning of March, the Tsar left Mogilev to personally deal with the crisis but after taking advice from his leading generals, he decided to abdicate at Pskov. A Provisional government was set up under the leadership of Prince Lvov. This government was to rule until a constituent assembly was elected to draw up a new constitution. Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest.

Quotes on the February Revolution

Norman Stone: “Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos."
Dmitri Volkognov “The Russian government’s failings in the war and its weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent."


  1. The October Revolution

The Provisional government continued the war and postponed land reform. These decisions were two serious mistakes and were to be exploited by Lenin and his followers, the Bolsheviks.

March: The Tsar's abdication had left confusion as to who exercised the real power with the Provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet existing side by side. The Soviet had control over communications and the loyalty of troops in Petrograd.

Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland with German help. The Germans hoped that he would disrupt the Russian war effort and they helped to finance his activities. He published his "April Theses" in Pravda in which he argued for an immediate communist takeover. He advocated a policy of non co-operation with the Provisional government. Lenin policies were summed up in two slogans "Peace, Bread, Land" and "All power to the Soviets".

Lenin set about reorganising the Bolshevik party and it grew from 26,000 members to 200,000 members. At the same time, Alexander Kerensky (Minister for War) launched an offensive against Germany and Austria. This was defeated; morale collapsed and mutinies in the army spread.


Soldiers in Petrograd and the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base led demonstrations against the Provisional government. This event became known as the "July Days.”

The government feared a Bolshevik revolution and crushed the revolt. Many leading Bolsheviks, including Trotsky and Kamenev, were arrested. Lenin escaped to Finland.

During July and August the situation worsened for the Provisional government and there were mass desertions from the army. This was coupled with economic problems such as massive inflation Kerensky (Prime Minister since July 23) dismissed General Kornilov as commander-in-chief of the Russian army. Kornilov attempted to overthrow the provisional government. The Red Guards (under Bolshevik control) helped to defeat Kornilov, who was arrested on the 2 September.
September - October

Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd and Moscow Soviets were now under Bolshevik control. This gave the Bolsheviks effective control over Russia’s two largest cities. Lenin returned secretly from exile and a meeting of the Bolshevik central committee decided to stage a revolution by a 10 to 2 majority. Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed the decision.

A Military Revolutionary Committee was set up by the Bolshevik dominated Petrograd Soviet apparently to defend the city against the Germans. But in reality this was a cover to organise a revolution and to gain control of the military in the capital. Trotsky persuaded the garrison of the Peter and Paul fortress to change sides and 100,000 rifles fell into Bolshevik hands


Kerensky now tried to act against the Bolsheviks. The cruiser "Aurora" suspected of supporting the Bolsheviks was ordered to put to sea and Bolshevik newspapers were closed down. Trotsky was able to have these orders countermanded.

That evening Trotsky issued orders for a coup. At 9.00pm the firing of the "Aurora's" guns signalled the start of the revolution. Most of the main buildings in Petrograd were seized e.g. Winter Palace, railway stations, telephone exchanges etc. The next day the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened with a large Bolshevik majority Trotsky informed the congress that the Bolsheviks had seized power. The Bolsheviks were in full control of the capital. Kerensky's attempts to regain control failed. By early November Petrograd, Moscow and most of the larger cities had recognised the new government.


  1. Lenin in Power

The new government

The new government's first acts were to agree an armistice with Germany. They abolished private ownership of land and distributed it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized and workers' control over factory production was introduced. The government or the Council of Peoples' Commissars (Sovnarkom) was set up. Lenin was the president and there were 15 ministers. Trotsky was Commissar for Foreign Affairs.

Lenin was no democrat. The Bolsheviks were determined not to share power. Elections were held for a Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks only received one-third of the popular vote. The Constituent Assembly dissolved at gunpoint by the Bolsheviks. This was the last democratic election in Russia for the next seventy years. All opposition was ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka, or political police. The Red Army was also formed at this time.

In March, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed with the Germans. Russia lost the Ukraine, its Polish and Baltic territories, and Finland. The treaty was hugely unpopular in Russia but necessary if the Bolsheviks were to establish control of Russia. Lenin believed that the revolution would soon spread to Germany and this would reduce the effect of the Treaty.

The Russian Civil War

In June 1918 the Russian civil war broke out. The supporters of the government were called the Reds and their opponents the Whites.

Japan, Britain, France and the US intervened on the side of the Whites. However the aid was half-hearted and morale among many of the foreign troops were low. During July 1918 as White armies advanced the Tsar and his family were shot at Yekaterinburg.

Bolshevik forces defeated the different White generals who never fought together and were separated from each other. The main White armies under the Generals Kolchak Denikin, Yudenich, and Wrangel were each in turn crushed. The war ended in 1921. It is estimated that 9 million people died as a result of the war.

Factors contributing to the victory of the Reds:

Economic Policies

War Communism was an emergency programme established by Lenin during the civil war. War Communism included forced seizure of grain, nationalization of all trade and industry and strict control of labour. As a result of this program and of the ravages of the war, industrial and agricultural production declined sharply, and the population suffered severe hardship. It caused a famine that led to the death of an estimated 5 million people.

The following figures show the total collapse of the economy:

Grain 80 million tons 37.6 million tons
Coal 29 million tons 9 million tons
Iron 4.2 million tons 1 million tons
Oil 9.2 million tons 3.8 million tons

By 1921 opposition to the communists had grown. General unrest erupted in a rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base. Shaken by this revolt, Lenin introduced the NEP in order to revive the economy. The new programme signalled a return to a limited capitalist system. Peasants could retain excess produce and sell it for a profit. Smaller businesses were permitted to operate as private enterprises. Large industries remained under state control. By 1928, the NEP had raised the Soviet national income above its pre war level. However, the NEP policies were reversed (1928) by Stalin .

Death of Lenin

In May 1922 Lenin suffered his first stroke. In all Lenin was to have four strokes. He was greatly weakened and was an isolated figure, as a power struggle began to succeed him. After a stroke in 1923 he could not speak. He died in January 1924 in the village of Gorky, near Moscow. His body was preserved and St Petersburg renamed Leningrad in his honour.

Lenin - an evaluation

Lenin’s ability to seize an opportunity when it arose was one of his major political skills. He was convinced that the Provisional Government was doomed by October 1917. Against the advice of many of his supporters, he led a successful revolution.
He pulled Russia out of the war with Germany which helped to consolidate his regime. Victory in the Civil War ensured the effective establishment of the Communist state. His ability to recognise when his policies had failed led him to abandon War Communism and replace it with the New Economic Policy.

However Lenin instituted a very brutal totalitarian regime. Democracy was banned and a one-party police state was established where political opponents were shot out of hand. The murder of the royal family cast a shadow across the new government. War Communism resulted in a famine in which an estimated 5 million people died.

Perhaps two of the biggest criticisms of Lenin were his failure to stop the rise of Stalin even though he realised his failings and his use of terror as state policy. This policy was directed against different groups in society who were seen as enemies of the people. He devalued human life and Stalin was to take this policy to its logical bloody climax in the 1930s.

Quotes on Lenin:

Dmitri Volkogonov

"The movement for a just and classless society in Russia began with unbridled violence, denying millions of people all rights except the right to support Bolshevik policy."

"It is surely indisputable that no single leader in the twentieth century exerted as great an influence on the course of world history as Lenin."

Martin Amis “Lenin bequeathed to his successors a fully functioning police state.”

Michael Lynch

“Lenin’s greatest achievement as a revolutionary was to reshape Marxist theory to make it fit Russian conditions.”


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11 November, 2013