The Russian Revolution of 1917 centers around two primary events: the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The February Revolution, which removed Tsar Nicholas II from power, developed spontaneously out of a series of increasingly violent demonstrations and riots on the streets of Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), during a time when the tsar was away from the capital visiting troops on the World War I front.
Though the February Revolution was a popular uprising, it did not necessarily express the wishes of the majority of the Russian population, as the event was primarily limited to the city of Petrograd. However, most of those who took power after the February Revolution, in the provisional government (the temporary government that replaced the tsar) and in the Petrograd Soviet (an influential local council representing workers and soldiers in Petrograd), generally favored rule that was at least partially democratic.
The October Revolution
The October Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution) overturned the interim provisional government and established the Soviet Union. The October Revolution was a much more deliberate event, orchestrated by a small group of people. The Bolsheviks, who led this coup, prepared their coup in only six months. They were generally viewed as an extremist group and had very little popular support when they began serious efforts in April 1917. By October, the Bolsheviks’ popular base was much larger; though still a minority within the country as a whole, they had built up a majority of support within Petrograd and other urban centers.
After October, the Bolsheviks realized that they could not maintain power in an election-based system without sharing power with other parties and compromising their principles. As a result, they formally abandoned the democratic process in January 1918 and declared themselves the representatives of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In response, the Russian Civil War broke out in the summer of that year and would last well into 1920.
A Note on the Russian Calendar
Until February 1918, Russia used the Julian calendar, while the Western world used the Gregorian calendar in use today. This convention was dictated by the Russian Orthodox Church, which continues to follow the Julian calendar to this day. During the twentieth century, the Julian calendar fell thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar. Generally, historians writing about pre-revolutionary Russia today cite dates according to the calendar of the time; this book follows the same method. Dates prior to February 1, 1918use the Julian calendar; dates after that point follow the Gregorian calendar.
The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)
Key People & Terms
The Russian tsar, or emperor, whose death in 1825 prompted a mild secession crisis that created an appearance of weakness in the Russian monarchy. A group of 3,000 soldiers who termed themselves Decembrists took advantage of the chaos to demand reforms, such as a written constitution for Russia. Later revolutionaries such as Lenin saw the Decembrists as heroes.
The Tsar who formally abolished serfdom in 1861, freeing Russia’s serfs from indentured servitude to their landowners. Though reformers hailed the move, it engendered a severe economic crisis, angered landowners, and prompted a number of revolutionary groups to agitate for a constitution. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a member of one of these groups, prompting his successor, son Alexander III, to implement a harsh crackdown on public resistance.
The son of and successor to the assassinated Tsar Alexander II. Upon taking power in 1881, Alexander III cracked down severely on reform and revolutionary groups, prompting growing unrest. Alexander III’s son, Nicholas II, was the tsar in power during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
A Polish-born revolutionary who joined the Bolshevik Party after getting out of prison in 1917. Following the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin appointed Dzerzhinsky head of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police force and an early forerunner of the KGB.
Lev Kamenev (a.k.a. Lev Rosenfeld)
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party who initially resisted Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later. After the revolution, Kamenev went on to serve in the Soviet government but was executed during Josef Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.
A member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and an active participant in both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet. At first, Kerensky acted as a liaison between the two governing bodies. Within the provisional government, he served as minister of justice, minister of war, and later as prime minister. After the October Revolution, Kerensky fled the country and eventually immigrated to the United States, where he taught Russian history at Stanford University.
Vladimir Lenin (a.k.a. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov)
The founder of the Bolshevik Party, organizer of the October Revolution, and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin spent most of the early twentieth century living in exile in Europe (primarily Britain and Switzerland). He was a devout follower of Marxism and believed that once a Communist revolution took place in Russia, Communism would spread rapidly around the world. Though not involved in the February Revolution, he returned to Russia in April 1917 and orchestrated the October Revolution that turned Russia into a Communist state.
The younger brother of and successor to Tsar Alexander I. This unorthodox succession from older to younger brother caused a small public scandal in 1825 and enabled the Decembrist Revolt to take place. Nicholas I was succeeded by his son, Alexander II.
The last Russian tsar, who ruled from 1894 until 1917. Nicholas II, who assumed the throne with trepidation upon his father Alexander III’s death, was a clumsy and ineffective leader whose avoidance of direct involvement in government caused resentment among the Russian people and resulted in violence in 1905. Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, 1917, as a result of the February Revolution. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks executed Nicholas along with his wife, Alexandra, and their children.
A Russian peasant and self-proclaimed mystic who gained significant influence over Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, in the years immediately prior to the revolutions of 1917. Rasputin’s sexual escapades in the Russian capital of Petrograd caused scandal, and the Russian people began to believe that the tsar himself was under Rasputin’s influence. Aware that Rasputin’s presence was damaging Nicholas II’s credibility, supporters of the tsar had Rasputin killed in late 1916.
Joseph Stalin (a.k.a. Joseph Dzhugashvili)
A Bolshevik leader who became prominent only after Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April 1917. Although Stalin was very much a secondary figure during the October Revolution, he did gain Lenin’s attention as a useful ally, and following the October coup, Lenin gave him a position in the government as commissar of nationalities. As Stalin was a member of an ethnic minority—he was from the central Asian region of Georgia, not Russia proper—Lenin felt he would be an effective ambassador of sorts to the many ethnic minorities within the former Russian Empire. After the revolution, Stalin became increasingly powerful and eventually succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union upon Lenin’s death in 1924.
The prime minister under Nicholas II. Stolypin was renowned for his heavy crackdown on revolutionaries and dissidents, in which thousands of suspects were given quick martial trials and promptly executed. A hangman’s noose was often referred to at the time as a “Stolypin necktie.” Stolypin himself was assassinated in 1911 by a revolutionary activist.
Leon Trotsky (a.k.a. Leon Bronstein)
A Bolshevik leader and one of the most prominent figures of the October Revolution. Trotsky, who was in exile abroad during the February Revolution, returned to Russia in May 1917, closely aligned himself with Lenin, and joined the Bolshevik Party during the summer. Trotsky headed the Revolutionary Military Committee, which provided the military muscle for the October Revolution. After the revolution, he was appointed commissar of foreign affairs and led Russia’s negotiations with Germany and Austria for the armistice and subsequent peace treaty that made possible Russia’s exit from World War I.
Grigory Zinoviev (a.k.a. Osvel Radomyslsky)
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party, closely associated with Lev Kamenev and a close friend of Lenin during Lenin’s years in exile. Initially resisting Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later, Zinoviev played virtually no role in the October Revolution and temporarily receded from party activities after the revolution. However, he became a member of the Politburo in 1919 and went on to serve in the Soviet government until he was arrested and executed during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.
The ideas for Russia’s future that Vladimir Lenin expressed upon his return to Russia in April 1917. They were published in the newspaper Pravda on April 7. In short, Lenin called for the overthrow of the provisional government and its replacement with a communist form of government led by the working class. He believed that other countries would follow Russia’s example.
A radical political party, led by Vladimir Lenin, that split from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903. The Bolshevik Party favored a closed party consisting of and run by professional revolutionaries and supported the idea of a dictatorship that would accelerate the transition to socialism. It placed an emphasis on the working class, from which it drew much of its support.
A political group (an acronym for Constitutional Democrats) that wanted to see Russia established as a democratic republic governed by a constitution and an elected parliament. This stance put the Cadets at sharp odds with the Bolsheviks, who favored a dictatorship of the proletariat. The Cadets drew support primarily from professional workers and the bourgeois class.
An elected body of representatives from around Russia, created in November 1917, that was meant to decide on the country’s governmental structure. When Nicholas II abdicated in February 1917, the provisional government that took power made plans for the formation of this Constituent Assembly in order to choose a more permanent government for Russia. After Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in the October Revolution, they initially allowed elections for the assembly to go forward as scheduled but changed their minds after receiving less than 25 percent of the vote in those elections.
A term referring to the two governments that Russia had following the February Revolution—the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet.
The Russian legislature from 1905–1917. The term, an ancient Russian word referring to small village councils that existed in early Russia, was resurrected when Tsar Nicholas II agreed to allow the formation of a legislature after the uprising of 1905. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the term has once more come into use, this time specifically referring to today’s lower house of the Russian parliament.
A political group that, like the Bolsheviks, split from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The Mensheviks, less radical than the Bolsheviks, supported the idea of a socialistic party that was open to all who wished to join and that would be ruled and organized in a democratic manner.
A body that existed prior to the February Revolution as a sort of underground revolutionary labor union for workers and soldiers in the Petrograd area, containing members of a number of different political parties. During the February Revolution, members of the Petrograd Soviet saw an opportunity and declared themselves to be the government of Russia. However, they quickly found themselves competing with the provisional government.
A government that members of the Duma formed following the February Revolution. The provisional government was meant to be temporary and would rule Russia only until the Constituent Assembly decided on a permanent government later.
Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP)
A party that formed in 1898 and was among Russia’s earliest revolutionary movements, though by no means the first. In 1903, the RSDLP split into two factions, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.
Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs)
A Russian political party during the revolutionary years that was more moderate than the Bolsheviks but less so than the Mensheviks. The SRs drew their support primarily from the peasantry and thus had a much larger base than the other parties in Russia. Before and during the October Revolution, the SRs were probably the Bolsheviks’ closest allies among Russia’s many political movements. After the revolution, however, the Bolsheviks abandoned the SRs after the SRs enjoyed a major victory over the Bolsheviks in the elections for the Constituent Assembly.
A Russian word literally meaning “council.” In the early twentieth century, Soviets were governing bodies, similar to labor unions, that existed primarily on the local/municipal level and collectively made policy decisions for their respective regions. The idea of Soviets was popular among the various socialist parties of the time, including the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries. When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in early 1917, the powerful Petrograd Soviet wielded significant political power in Russia.