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Prelude to the Russian Revolution of 1917

The Unhappy History That Led to Revolution

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Picture of a calvaryman scattering a crowd during the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Demonstrators scatter in fear as a cavalryman uses his whip to clear the streets of Petrograd during the Revolution of 1905.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was rooted in a long history of oppression and abuse. That history, coupled with a weak-minded leader (Czar Nicholas II) and entry into bloody World War I, set the stage for major change.

How It All Got Started - An Unhappy People

For three centuries, the Romanov family ruled Russia as czars, or emperors. During this time, the borders of Russia both expanded and receded; however, life for the average Russian remained hard and bitter.

Until they were freed in 1861 by Czar Alexander II, the majority of Russians were serfs who worked on the land and could be bought or sold just like property. The end of serfdom was a major event in Russia; yet it just wasn't enough.

Even after the serfs were freed, it was the czar and nobles who ruled Russia and owned most of the land and wealth. The average Russian remained poor. The Russian people wanted more, but change was not easy.

Early Attempts to Provoke Change

For the remainder of the 19th century, Russian revolutionaries tried to use assassinations to provoke change. Some revolutionaries hoped random and rampant assassinations would create enough terror to destroy the government. Others specifically targeted the czar in the belief that killing the czar would end the monarchy.

After many failed attempts, revolutionaries succeeding in assassinating Czar Alexander II in 1881 (they threw a bomb at the czar's feet). However, rather than ending the monarchy or forcing reform, the assassination sparked a severe crackdown on all forms of revolution. While the new czar, Alexander III, attempted to enforce order, the Russian people grew even more restless.

When Nicholas II became czar in 1894, the Russian people were poised for conflict. With the majority of Russians still living in poverty with no legal way to improve their circumstances, it was nearly inevitable that something major was going to happen. And it did, in 1905.

Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Revolution

By 1905, not much had changed for the better. Although a rapid attempt at industrialization had created a new working class, they too lived in deplorable conditions. Major crop failures had created massive famines. The Russian people were still miserable.

Also in 1905, Russia was suffering major, humiliating military defeats in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In response, protesters took to the streets.

On January 22, 1905, approximately 200,000 workers and their families followed Russian Orthodox priest Georgy A. Gapon in a protest. They were going to take their grievances straight to the czar at the Winter Palace.

To the crowd's great surprise, palace guards opened fire on them without provocation. About 300 people were killed and hundreds more were wounded.

As the news of "Bloody Sunday" spread, the Russian people were horrified. They responded by striking, mutinying, and fighting in peasant uprisings. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had begun.

After several months of chaos, Czar Nicholas II tried to end the revolution by announcing the "October Manifesto," in which Nicholas made major concessions. The most significant of which were granting personal liberties and the creation of a duma (parliament).

Although these concessions were enough to appease the majority of the Russian people and ended the 1905 Russian Revolution, Nicholas II never meant to truly give up any of his power. Over the next several years, Nicholas undermined the power of the Duma and remained the absolute leader of Russia.

This might not have been so bad if Nicholas II had been a good leader. However, he most decidedly was not.

Nicholas II and World War I

There's no doubt that Nicholas was a family man; yet even this got him into trouble. Too often, Nicholas would listen to the advice of his wife, Alexandra, over others. The problem was that the people didn't trust her for she was German born, which became a major issue when Germany was Russia's enemy during World War I.

Nicholas' love for his children also became a problem when his only son, Alexis, was diagnosed with hemophilia. Worry about his son's health led Nicholas to trust a "holy man" called Rasputin, but whom others often referred to as "the Mad Monk." Nicholas and Alexandra both trusted Rasputin so much that Rasputin was soon influencing top political decisions. Both the Russian people and Russian nobles could not stand this. Even after Rasputin was eventually assassinated, Alexandra conducted seances in an attempt to communicate with the dead Rasputin.

Already hugely disliked and considered weak minded, Czar Nicholas II made a huge mistake in September 1915 -- he personally took command of Russia's troops in World War I. Granted, Russia was not doing well up to that point; however, that had more to do with bad infrastructure, food shortages, and poor organization than with incompetent generals.

Once Nicholas took over control of Russia's troops, he became personally liable for Russia's defeats in World War I. And there were many defeats.

By 1917, pretty much everyone wanted Czar Nicholas out.

Part II: The Russian Revolution of 1917 Begins

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