To what extent was the impact of the first world war crucial to the success of the Bolsheviks in the Revolution of October 1917?
The Bolsheviks were a division of the Marxist inspired Social-Democratic Labour Party who rose to power in 1917, after having relatively little influence and authority. So how was this possible? Looking at the social and political climates at the time, to what extent can the effects of WW1 contribute to the triumph of the Party and what other factors can we attribute to this success? By analysing the timeline of events, from long-term; mid-term and immediate trigger factors, the elements of the answer can be deduced.
Russia, unlike most of Europe at the time, is an Autocratic state ruled by Tsar Nicolas II. The Romanov monarch inherited an extensive empire consisting of multiple nationalities, languages, and cultures, however, there was a notable grading between them1 with clear distinctions on what it meant to be Russian. Russification was a policy for complete Russian supremacy with the cultural integration of any non-Russian minority rejecting their own languages, religions, and cultures whether they wanted to or not. These minorities, who were expected to assimilate were restricted to certain levels of education, the occupations2 they could have any areas of land they could purchase. Russification isolated the very groups it sought to envelop leading to its resentment and the dissociation of these cultures. The Crimean War brought foreign debt and reparations to Russia leading to much of her funding going towards the military. Coupled with a shortage of peasantry tax income and agricultural difficulties3 famine soon took hold across the empire in 1891, three years before Nicholas ascends the throne.
Russia was urbanising and seeing industrial growth, however, this industrialisation was not only rapid but contained to select parts of Russia. There was a complete failure to ensure social changes were maintained leading to drastically insufficient infrastructure, housing, and healthcare in these densely populated areas4. Such conditions often result in disease, malnourishment, and increased crime. Furthermore, the Emancipation Reform of Serfdom in 1861, had intended to enable the peasantry to buy land from the nobility to support themselves. This back-fired though, causing severe agrarian issues. This ‘allotment land’ was communally owned by the peasants rather than individually and they were not given the freedom to sell this land thus having no choice but to pay the dues the land incurred. However, there wasn’t enough land nor were the peasants paid enough to feed themselves or pay for the allotment costs5, ergo, we see droves of starved and unsatisfied peasants searching the rural lands of Russia for food and work. So, we now have a severed, desperately hungry peasantry, yet we also have those in the urban areas feeling the harsh implications of life where the state has neglected their welfare during this rapid industrialisation6.
The notion that strong leadership was inextricably linked to stately expansion for Nicholas, and despite the growing tensions between the Tsar and his people they loyally supported him in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Seemingly a sure success, especially considering the views that Japan was an inferior nation in comparison to mighty Russia7, the war would also serve as a welcome distraction to the issues at home. Humiliation would be the only thing Nicholas secured from the war. Russia was brutally defeated. The resulting Treaty of Portsmouth (Sept 1905) only further weakened Russia’s struggling economy and the reputation of the Tsar and his advisors8.
With Russia’s climate established, we can continue with a further analysis of the mid-term factors. During January 1905, a peaceful petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace erupted as the Imperial Guard openly fired upon unarmed demonstrators in what would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. The backlash of the events in Petrograd caused severe consequences for the Tsar and his autocratic regime and is considered the beginning of the 1905 revolution. The motives for the petition are clear. The reality for the displaced peasantry in cities was of long working hours, low wages, unsafe practices with inadequate living and working conditions often seeing factory employers using abusive measures to enforce their authority. Public uproar broke out as people took to the streets and strikes spread across urbanised areas.
To ameliorate public tensions and regain political face the Tsar publishes the October Manifesto. It cites political placation in the form of the Duma, a legislative assembly9, with the first sitting in April 1906. It also brings reductions in censorship10. This means there is now transparency in the differences between Russia (politically, economically, socially) and the rest of Europe11. With access to humanist literature, new art and alternative politics, a newfound critical thinking developed and now had a place to be voiced, the Duma. The 1906 constitution shows the Tsar had no intention of relinquishing power and any policy they tried to pass was often stopped. The Duma became a farce and the autocratic regime remained. However, the lift on censorship meant those being denied basic political freedoms, by European standards, were becoming increasingly aware of their oppression. Pyotr Stolypin, the 3rd Prime Minister of Russia pushed to introduce land reforms despite receiving heavy criticism from the Tsar. His idea was to create ‘prosperous peasants’ by opening up Siberia for cultivation12. His policy was viewed as ‘too little too late’, antagonising tensions as the Siberian land was too hard to tend. Historians can only guess how successful the land reforms would have been as plans were interrupted by WWI. So as Russia enters the war, the empire is both economically and politically unstable with sustained riots breaking out.
The origins of mass discontent are growing without having touched on the impacts of WW1, yet the foundations for social unrest and revolution are firmly laid, the Russian people are crying out for someone to implement change and bring about improvements.
Russia patriotically followed their Tsar into the first World War, but the sentiment wasn’t to last as anti-war demonstrations swept across the rural parts of the country.13 The war had devastating effects. While Nicholas was chasing the fantasy that he could be a strong, strategic military leader, Russia was left politically unstable and vulnerable to chaos. Nicholas, descended from King Christian IX, was cousins with George V of Britain and Wilhelm II of Germany. It is well documented that Nicholas and George were close, with Nicholas and his wife godparents to George’s child. Also, Queen Victoria, though now deceased, had disliked Russia due to the Crimean war. These could add to the notion that Nicholas felt he had a point to make14. To prove his capabilities Nicholas took command of the army in 1915 despite having no military skill or knowledge. His interference was a hinder to the efforts of his generals.
Nicholas also decided in 1914 to change the name of St Petersburg, which sounded too German, to the more Russian Petrograd. The irony of this is that whilst the Tsar was at the frontline he had left Tsarina Alex in charge, who was German. Having a German at the helm of the Russian state, making decisions on the Duma, made for uneasy advisors and nobility. To add to the mounting tensions and lack of confidence the Royal household took guidance from self-proclaimed holy man, Rasputin, primarily there to care for Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from the royal disease, Haemophilia. To protect the image of the royal family and prevent speculation on the strength of dynasty the prince’s condition was kept secret. Thus, shrouding the holy man and his intentions into mystery, amid rumours of sexual deviance, increasing political involvement and mystic powers, all while having the royal ear. This was intolerable to the government at the time and brought shame to the dynasty15. There is a consistent turnover of ministers and the government is becoming ever more unstable. Back at the front-line, Russia is suffering disastrous military defeats, led by the incompetent Tsar, with soldiers abandoning the cause and heading home. Back home hunger provokes bread demonstrations. February 14th (Julian16) saw military regiments join forces with the public after a bakery was stormed and police had opened fire. Full-scale rebellion broke out with prisoners being freed, institutions being burnt down with soldiers disobeying orders to put down the revolt.
At this point, the Bolsheviks are still a minority party with Lenin in Switzerland during the February revolt, but their influence is growing. From February to October, the face of Russian political power becomes unrecognisable. Provoked by the earlier rebellion, the striking workers and the Mensheviks form the new Petrograd Soviet. They meet with the Duma to prepare next steps and the growing view that Tsar Nicholas is a liability climax in his forced abdication, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. With such a power vacuum the question really is, who is running the country?
The Provisional Government, which has now been recognised by the allies, creates principles in which to govern including civil rights, political amnesty, and calls for elections for the constituent assembly. Germany sees an opportunity and helps Lenin return to Russia in the hope they will withdraw from the war effort.
Between a leaked telegram from Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov to the allies advises Russia will remain in the war to the end and a further 400,000 military casualties, against Austro-Hungarian forces under war minister Kerensky the people loose trust and rebel, workers and soldiers are now calling for the Bolsheviks and Soviets to take power. For now, they refuse as government forces crush the rebellion, but the tide is changing, and the rebellion sees the breakdown of the Provisional Government.
Kerensky becomes Prime Minister but to a cabinet of socialists. The return of the death penalty for mutinying soldiers shows the extent of discontent amongst the forces. Strikes continue into September with 700,000 railway workers downing tools17 and Bolsheviks leaders are released from prison. From here to the October revolution the Bolsheviks elect Trotsky as chairman and advise that ‘unarmed uprising is inevitable’ but there is no clear distinction that the Bolsheviks are set to take the seat of power. The Petrograd Soviet continues to gain authority and creates the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC).
Lenin claims, on the 25th October, that the Bolsheviks have seized power leading Menshevik and SR to desert the Congress of Soviets. Not till October 26th do the Bolsheviks seize power.
So, we can see that the conditions for revolution began as far back as the reign of Tsar Alexander II. With rural oppression and living conditions within cities, the social and economic climate was leading to unrest. The Russo-Japanese war saw political tensions enter the empire before the disastrous impact of WW1. The first world war did shine a light on the Tsar avoiding responsibility for the issues racking his empire, his ignorance, and vanity in how he handled the war and the reputation of Rasputin and the Tsarina ensured that the nobility was calling for abdication. The impact of the world war sees both ends of society calling for change and stability and therefore is a catalyst for the conditions for revolution. This could allow for the success of any political party though so why did the Bolsheviks succeed? Lenin prematurely claims the Bolsheviks have seized power and calls for a Soviet Government. When the members of the Congress leave the Winter Palace in protest we see the Bolsheviks walk in and take power. The Bolsheviks had no authority to arrest the Provisional Government and Lenin’s move for a Proletarian revolution doesn’t have the full backing of his party. Can we argue that the 26th October is a stroke of luck in what is a coup? The Bolshevik slogan of ‘Bread, Peace and Land’ appealed to the poor, hungry and war tired Russians but whether the Bolsheviks had taken power or another Soviet party, WW1 contributed to the end of autocracy, the instability of the provisional government and the desperation of a people prepared to shed blood in revolt to ensure change.
1 T. Weeks, Russification: Word and Practice 1863 – 1914, p.472
2 Ibid, p.474
3 M. Krot, “Reflection…Emperor Alexander II”, pp129-136
4 E. Acton, “Chapter 3…”, ‘Rethinking the Russian revolution’, pp 62-70
7 J. Steinberg, “Was the Russo-Japanese War World War Zero?”, p4
8 Ibid, p2
9 S, White, Elections Russian Style, p 531
10 A. Wood, ‘The origins of the Russian Revolution’,
11 R. Blobaum, The ‘Women Question’ in Russian Poland, 1900-1914, p 801
12 R. Manning, The Crisis of the Old Order in Russia: Gentry and Government,
13 C.M. Moore, “Demonstrations and lamentations… in 1914”, p555+
14 Royal Cousins at War- Into the Abyss, dir. Richard Sanders
15 A, Verner, “What’s in a Name? Of Dog-Killers, Jews and Rasputins”, p1069
16 Russia didn’t change to the Gregorian Calendar till 1918, losing 11 days.
17 C.M. Moore, “Demonstrations and lamentations… in 1914”, p555+