What Was the Russian Revolution of 1917?
In 1917, two revolutions completely changed the fabric of Russia. First, the February Russian Revolution toppled the Russian monarchy and established a Provisional Government. Then in October, a second Russian Revolution placed the Bolsheviks as the leaders of Russia, resulting in the creation of the world's first communist country.
The February 1917 Revolution
Although many wanted a revolution, no one expected it to happen when it did and how it did. On Thursday, February 23, 1917, women workers in Petrograd left their factories and entered the streets to protest. It was International Women's Day and the women of Russia were ready to be heard.
An estimated 90,000 women marched through the streets, shouting "Bread" and "Down With the Autocracy!" and "Stop the War!" These women were tired, hungry, and angry. They worked long hours in miserable conditions in order to feed their families because their husbands and fathers were at the front, fighting in World War I. They wanted change. They weren't the only ones.
The following day, more than 150,000 men and women took to the streets to protest. Soon more people joined them and by Saturday, February 25, the city of Petrograd was basically shut down -- no one was working.
Although there were a few incidents of police and soldiers firing into the crowds, those groups soon mutinied and joined the protesters.
Czar Nicholas II, who was not in Petrograd during the revolution, heard reports of the protests but did not take them seriously.
By March 1, it was obvious to everyone except the czar himself that the czar's rule was over. On March 2 it was made official when Czar Nicholas II abdicated.
Without a monarchy, the question remained as to who would next lead the country.
Provisional Government vs. The Petrograd Soviet
Two contending groups emerged out of the chaos to claim leadership of Russia. The first was made up of former Duma members and the second was the Petrograd Soviet. The former Duma members represented the middle and upper classes while the Soviet represented workers and soldiers.
In the end, the former Duma members formed a Provisional Government which officially ran the country. The Petrograd Soviet allowed this because they felt that Russia was not economically advanced enough to undergo a true socialist revolution.
Within the first few weeks after the February Revolution, the Provisional Government abolished the death penalty, granted amnesty for all political prisoners and those in exile, ended religious and ethnic discrimination, and granted civil liberties.
What they did not deal with was an end to the war, land reform, or better quality of life for the Russian people. The Provisional Government believed Russia should honor its commitments to its allies in World War I and continue fighting. V.I. Lenin did not agree.
Lenin Returns From Exile
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, was living in exile when the February Revolution transformed Russia. Once the Provisional Government allowed back political exiles, Lenin boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland and headed home.
On April 3, 1917, Lenin arrived in Petrograd at the Finland Station. Tens of thousands of workers and soldiers had come to the station to greet Lenin. There were cheers and a sea of red, waving flags. Not able to get through, Lenin jumped on top of a car and gave a speech. Lenin at first congratulated the Russian people for their successful revolution.
However, Lenin had more to say. In a speech made just hours later, Lenin shocked everyone by denouncing the Provisional Government and calling for a new revolution. He reminded the people that the country was still at war and that the Provisional Government had done nothing to give the people bread and land.
At first, Lenin was a lone voice in his condemnation of the Provisional Government. But Lenin worked ceaselessly over the following few months and eventually people began to really listen. Soon many wanted "Peace, Land, Bread!"
The October 1917 Revolution
By September 1917, Lenin believed the Russian people were ready for another revolution. However, other Bolshevik leaders were not yet quite convinced. On October 10, a secret meeting of the Bolshevik party leaders was held. Lenin used all his powers of persuasion to convince the others that it was time for an armed insurrection. Having debated through the night, a vote was taken the following morning -- it was ten to two in favor of a revolution.
The people themselves were ready. In the very early hours of October 25, 1917, the revolution began. Troops loyal to the Bolsheviks took control of the telegraph, power station, strategic bridges, post office, train stations, and state bank. Control of these and other posts within the city were handed over to the Bolsheviks with barely a shot fired.
By late that morning, Petrograd was in the hands of the Bolsheviks -- all except the Winter Palace where the leaders of the Provisional Government remained. Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky successfully fled but by the following day, troops loyal to the Bolsheviks infiltrated the Winter Palace.
After nearly a bloodless coup, the Bolsheviks were the new leaders of Russia. Nearly immediately, Lenin announced that the new regime would end the war, abolish all private land ownership, and would create a system for workers' control of factories.
Unfortunately, as well intended as Lenin's promises might have been, they proved disastrous. After Russia pulled out of World War I, millions of Russian soldiers filtered home. They were hungry, tired, and wanted their jobs back.
Yet there was no extra food. Without private land ownership, farmers began to grow just enough produce for themselves; there was no incentive to grow more.
There were also no jobs to be had. Without a war to support, factories no longer had vast orders to fill.
None of the people's real problems were fixed; instead, their lives became much worse.
In June 1918, Russia broke out in civil war. It was the Whites (those against the Soviets, which included monarchists, liberals, and other socialists) against the Reds (the Bolshevik regime).
Near the beginning of the Russian Civil War, the Reds were worried that the Whites would free the czar and his family, which would not only have given the Whites a psychological boost but might have led to the restoration of the monarchy in Russia. The Reds were not going to let that happen.
On the night of July 16-17, 1918, Czar Nicholas, his wife, their children, the family dog, three servants, and the family doctor were all woken up, taken to the basement, and shot.
The Civil War lasted over two years and was bloody, brutal, and cruel. The Reds won but at the expense of millions of people killed.
The Russian Civil War dramatically changed the fabric of Russia. The moderates were gone. What was left was an extreme, vicious regime that was to rule Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.