In February 1917, long summering tensions sparked a revolution that led to the overthrow of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and the establishment of a new government under Kerenski which was later overthrown by a group that became the Communist Party (the October Revolution).
Guest Joan Neuberger from UT’s Department of History discusses the long-simmering causes of the revolution and discontent in Russia, and what finally lit the spark that caused the uprising that toppled the three hundred-year old Romanov dynasty.
- Joan NeubergerProfessor of History, University of Texas at Austin
- Christopher RosePostdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Historical Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
In a nutshell, what is the difference between the February and October revolutions?
The Russian Revolution that brought communism to the Russia and its empire in 1917 occurred in two stages. In February Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and a liberal democratic government came to power. In October, that government was overthrown by an extreme socialist party that later became the Communist Party.
So, what led to the February Revolution?
Often major historical events come about because of a combination of long-term and short-term causes. In this case there is a long-term cause, a short-term cause, and one in the middle.
The long-term cause has to do with the overwhelming peasant agricultural nature of the Russian population and economy. For all of its history before the 20 century, 80-95 % of the population were poor peasants, farmers just barely scratching a living from the land. For most of that history (between 1649-1861) the majority of those peasants were enserfed. They lived like slaves on land owned by noblemen, most in deep poverty. Even after serfdom was abolished in 1861, around the same time US slaves were emancipated, their poverty hardly lifted.
For more than a century before 1917 the peasants’ difficult situation won sympathy and support from liberal members of the elite. This contrasted with the peasants’ treatment by the government, which seemed indifferent to the poverty in which peasants lived. Increasing numbers of educated society became angry with the tsarist government’s apparent indifference or inability to address problems of peasant poverty. They saw themselves as educated, humane, civilized Europeans and began to think Russia’s poverty was preventing Russia from truly becoming a civilized European nation. Gradually educated society organized into political parties to call for both alleviation of poverty and a voice in government – and that leads to the medium-term cause …
Which is … ?
Autocracy. The tsarist government was a centralized, autocratic government. That means that all political power was in the hands of the tsar and his closest – appointed – advisers. There were advantages to autocracy, for a huge and far flung empire like Russia, with its 120+ ethnic groups, but in the 19th century a significant minority of the Russian population began to call for a voice in government. They thought that educated people, people who knew what was going on in those far flung regions, people who had contact with specialists in other countries, should contribute to making government policy.
Like other 19th century liberal democrats, they were idealists, that is they believed that they could improve society by applying modern ideas to produce modern policies in agriculture, commerce, education, culture, justice, military affairs and so on. Many liberal democrats came from non-Russian regions of the empire: they were Tatars and Ukrainians and Armenians and Jews, who wanted greater rights for non-Russian people, or independence altogether from the empire.
In Russia central though, they called for government reform, primarily because they believed that the government was mishandling or not handling at all the economic and cultural problems Russia faced as it competed with western European nations at the end of the nineteenth century. Some were so disheartened by peasant poverty on the one hand and government indifference on the other that they became socialists, they wanted to overthrow the tsar and create small cooperative communities in which wealth would be equally divided.
By 1900 there were political parties ranging from far right defenders of autocracy and Russian power over all other ethnicities, to far left revolutionaries calling for the overthrow of the government. The most powerful opposition parties were still in the middle: liberal democrats, who wanted a constitutional democracy: democratic elections to a national parliament and constitutional rights for all. These conflicts came to a head 12 years before 1917. In 1905 a group of St Petersburg factory workers, decisively anti-revoltuionary, led by a priest, Father Gapon, wrote a petition to the tsar. They were asking for better working conditions and respect for themselves as human beings. They decided to present the petition to the tsar personally on a cold Sunday in January. Meeting in groups all over the city they began walking to the Winter Palace in the center of the city.
How did the tsar respond?
He refused to meet with them, believing that most of his people loved him, but that these demonstrators with their humble petition were some kind of wild eyed radicals. So left the city in the hands of its chief military officer, with orders to meet the peaceful, unarmed, impoverished workers with bullets. By the end of the day hundreds of men and women were left bleeding in the snow. The outcry over this inhuman massacre sparked a revolutionary movement that united all dissenting voices in the country and eventually culminated in 1917.
So, what was special about 1917? Why did things come to a head then?
The revolutionary movement had been stamped out, or at least sent into hiding over the next decade but the outbreak of WWI brought it to the surface again. Even before the war urban workers all over the Russian empire had been increasingly radical, but the war brought the government’s incompetence and the people’s grievances into sharper relief. The first months of the war were a disaster for Russia.
Undersupplied peasants and workers were sent to the front lines without boots or even weapons-they had to wait until their own comrades were killed to pick up their guns to defend themselves. This was an unpopular fought for no particular reason that ordinary people understood. Hunger increased and inflation was through the roof, prices of bread multiplied and bread itself became scarce. But – unlike in democratic countries in western Europe–the tsar would not allow people to organize philanthropic groups or associations to help with food distribution (or anything else). The government requisitioned (that is, stole) food and supplies to feed the troops. Leaders of prominent political parties called for an end to autocracy (though they didn’t want to see the tsar altogether overthrown) and people on the streets began calling for an end to the war.
So, not everyone wanted the monarchy to end, but that’s eventually what happened. What changed?
Nicholas sealed his doom when he tried to escape the turmoil of his unhappy population in St Petersburg and head for the front to administer the war directly. His generals didn’t want his interference either though and reluctantly agreed with the politicians calling for him to abdicate his throne.
On February 23 groups of cold, weary women standing in line to buy bread began to grumble about the incompetence of the government, as they mingled with unemployed workers and large number of soldiers –just “peasants in uniform” garrisoned in the capital, grumbling turned to radical demonstrations, as almost the whole city turned out on the streets. When Nicholas called for troops to shoot the demonstrators, they refused further inflaming the crowds and Nicholas was forced to abdicate. The three hundred year old Romanov dynasty, the autocratic form of government, was over.