Russia’s revolutions: How 1917 shaped a century

The state created by the Bolsheviks after the toppling of the Romanov monarchy in 1917 survived two world wars and beyond. Robert Service traces the rise and fall of communist Russia, whose mission to export socialist revolution rippled through world politics across a century...

This article was first published in the February/March issue of BBC World Histories Magazine

Striking workers carry banners through the streets of Petrograd (St Petersburg)
Striking workers carry banners through the streets of Petrograd (St Petersburg) at the start of the February Revolution that brought the fall of the Russian monarchy the next month. (Getty Images)

 

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had an enormous impact on politics on a global scale for many 
decades. Nothing came close to it in importance – a fact recognised at the time and which continues to prove compelling a full century later.

There were, of course, two revolutions that year. When people write about historic impact they are nearly always referring to the October Revolution, by which Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and proclaimed the start of a new era in human affairs that would, they asserted, bring communism to the entire world. But the earlier revolution in February was acclaimed at the time as an event of momentous international significance because it brought the downfall of the Romanov monarchy. The Russian political system was widely reviled as the bastion of political reaction in Europe, and Nicholas II was dismissed as a butcher of the peoples in his empire. When he abdicated in March 1917 there were joyous celebrations not only in Russia but also in Paris and London. Crowds gathered to welcome the prospect of democracy.

Russia’s last monarch, Nicholas II, pictured under arrest following his abdication in March 1917 at the end of the 
February Revolution. (Getty Images)
 

There had been similar presentiments in 1905, when the massacre of peaceful petitioners outside the Winter Palace was followed by public demonstrations throughout the cities of the Russian empire. Strikes, rural disturbances and mutinies came close to bringing down the monarchy, and Nicholas was compelled to issue the ‘October Manifesto’, in which he promised to undertake reforms encompassing civic freedoms and elective representative institutions. This concession, extracted from a reluctant tsar, was accompanied by savage repression of the revolutionary parties. By the end of 1906 Nicholas II had stabilised his authority – albeit at a price: he had to allow the creation of the State Duma (Russia’s first elected parliament) and to permit broader freedom of expression and assembly. And over the next few years he tried to claw back the powers that he had inherited upon the death of his father in 1894.

A photo (possibly staged) shows Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace in Petrograd, ejecting the cabinet of the provisional Russian government. (Getty Images)
 

The revolutionary parties, both liberals and far-left socialists such as the Bolsheviks, were disappointed that Nicholas had managed to cling on to his throne. But he had been humbled, and the Romanov monarchy was never the same again. The spectacle of Nicholas ‘the Bloody’ being forced to accept the existence of an elected parliament had an influence on revolutionaries and reformers around the globe. Those in Turkey and China took heart, and reinforced their effort to secure the transformation of politics in their own countries. Where Russia had led, they reasoned, surely others would quickly follow.

When Nicholas II stepped down in the revolutionary crisis of March 1917, the situation was radically different. Russia, along with France and the United Kingdom, was involved in the First World War against Germany and Austria-Hungary. At first it was believed by pro-war politicians in Paris and London that a dynastic incubus had been excised from the Russian body politic, and that the Allied cause could only benefit. Nicholas’s indulgence of the religious mystic and serial philanderer Grigory Rasputin had brought the imperial court into disrepute, and food shortages snapped the patience of Petrograd workers and garrison soldiers, who took to the streets to call for an end to the monarchy. But the Russian army on the eastern front was acquitting itself well during that long, cold winter, and many western politicians, including the Americans – who joined the war in April – were jubilant that free Russia would now be able, under a liberal-led provisional government, to fight the Germans with heightened morale and efficiency.

Foreigners who yearned for reform in their own countries were impressed by the extent of the changes that emerged following the monarchy’s demise. Even Bolshevik leader Lenin acknowledged that Russia had become “the freest country in the world”. Lenin, at that time living in exile in Switzerland, aimed to exploit any opportunity to overthrow the new cabinet and unfurl the flag of communist revolution. 

However, conditions proved helpful. The urban economy collapsed. The administration disintegrated, and discipline broke down in the armed forces. Ultimate real authority lay not with the cabinet but with the workers’ councils (‘soviets’) that sprang up in cities, and the Bolsheviks worked hard to get themselves elected to leading positions in these councils. By October, Lenin had convinced his party that soviets could serve as the foundations of a revolutionary administration.

 

Accessible communism

Lenin was a fanatical Marxist who deemed that only he could adequately interpret the doctrines of Marx and Engels. Short and stocky, he surprised even his own party in the way he successfully adapted to the demands of open politics in the revolution. Returning to Petrograd in April 1917, he recruited a former anti-Bolshevik Marxist leader, Leon Trotsky, to the Bolshevik party on the grounds that they agreed both about the need to stop the First World War and about the opportunity to overthrow the provisional government. Though Lenin was a rousing speaker, Trotsky was an orator of genius. Both were outstanding in their ability to simplify communist doctrines and policies to a form that was accessible to listeners who knew nothing of Marxist intellectual intricacy. The Bolshevik central leadership included other figures who bristled with political talent, among them Josef Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Felix Dzerzhinsky. All were committed to the objective of overthrowing the provisional government, and the party’s rank and file endorsed their radicalism.

Lenin and Josef Stalin in discussion in 1922. After Lenin’s death two years later, Stalin rose to power and instituted rapid industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation. (Getty Images)
 

On 25 October, the Bolsheviks led the military-revolutionary committee of the Petrograd Soviet into action and threw out the old cabinet. Lenin became chairman of Sovnarkom, the new Soviet government, which proclaimed a total reversal of previous policies. A general peace was to be arranged in the world war. Land was transferred to peasant control. Large-scale industry and the banking system were nationalised. 

The Bolshevik party believed that if only it could communicate its message to workers and soldiers on both sides in the war, those people, too, would rise up and throw out their governments. Soon, surely, there would be a ‘European socialist 
revolution’. Lenin and his comrades had taken a political 
gamble they believed was a sure-fire bet. Rival socialists in 
Russia warned that the odds were heavily against them, and that civil war and dictatorship were the likeliest results; they saw the Bolsheviks as irresponsible adventurers. Few people gave Sovnarkom much chance of enduring survival. But everyone was aware that an event of huge international importance had taken place. 

For Allied politicians, the danger was that Lenin, even if he were in power only briefly, would damage the war effort. Sovnarkom agreed a truce with the Germans and Austrians on the eastern front. It was obvious that, if the truce became a permanent peace, German divisions would be moved from east to west. That would decisively tip the military balance against the Allies.

Peace was signed between Sovnarkom and the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, and Germany came close to breaking the back of the western front in the spring. But the French and British armies held firm, and it was the German war machine that cracked. The war was over.

 

Utopian dreams dashed

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, found themselves, as their political enemies on the left had predicted, engulfed by a civil war. Most of them had expected to undertake a revolution that would move smoothly from success to success, and they had a deep suspicion of standing armies. But they learned by hard experience that for ‘Soviet power’ to survive, they must form a Red Army on principles of regular discipline, and use the expertise of officers who had served in Nicholas II’s armed forces. They 
had started, too, with ideas about liberating the initiative of 
ordinary factory workers. Instead they discovered that the 
Russian working class increasingly blamed them for failing to regenerate the economy and guarantee food supplies. Bolshevik leaders reacted by suppressing strikes and tightening their dictatorship. Bolshevism increasingly revealed and over-fed its 
principles of hierarchical, punitive organisation. The utopian, libertarian ideas that had inspired many party leaders and members in 1917 faded from the immediate agenda.

Soldiers of the Bolshevik Red Army, pictured c1920 during the Russian civil war. Red Army troops could be identified by the distinctive Budenovka cloth hat adorned with a star. (Getty Images)
 

Nevertheless the Bolsheviks still adhered to the goal of global revolution and in March 1919 created the Communist International (Comintern), the idea being to form communist parties throughout the world. Agents and subsidies were made available to achieve this. In nearly every country it proved possible to set up organisations to challenge the governing elites. With Moscow’s help, translations of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were made available. The word went forth that, however difficult the path, Russia’s communists were advancing towards the creation of a new kind of society that would bring health, shelter, education and material well-being to all members of society, and in the first instance the benefits would be directed towards the working poor. Communists produced cartoons of bloated capitalists, cigars in their mouths and purses of gold dangling from their belts, exploiting the ‘proletariat’. Vicious commanders and dyspeptic bishops were often depicted as the assistants of bankers and industrialists. In postwar Europe and even north America such ideas fell widely on fertile soil.

 

Exporting Bolshevism

Indeed, the Bolshevik model was quickly adopted in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919, where defeat in the war had led to political breakdown and food shortages. Far-left socialists seized their chance to take power in Munich and Budapest. The Bavarian revolutionaries were singularly incompetent, lacking the practical skills that Bolsheviks had developed in the long years during which they’d had to dodge the clutches of the tsarist secret police. Red revolution was snuffed out in Munich within a few weeks, and anti-communist demobilised officers and soldiers suppressed similar attempts in Berlin. 

In Hungary, though, the communists were better prepared. Led by Béla Kun, they put themselves forward as the only party that refused to bow the knee to the Allies. State ownership was declared throughout the urban economy and an attempt was made to impose a collective farming system on the peasantry. However, civil war followed, and a Romanian invading force defeated Kun’s army.

Béla Kun, the Bolshevik communist revolutionary who led Hungary for 
a few months in 1919. (Getty Images)
 

By 1920, by contrast, the civil war in Russia had ended in a communist triumph. Such was Lenin’s confidence in the 
Red Army that he deployed it against Poland with a view to 
exporting revolution to central Europe. The idea was not only to communise the Poles but also to break through to Germany and resuscitate the will of far-left socialists and communist sympathisers to overthrow the German government. Thus would be realised the dream of ‘European socialist revolution’. But Lenin had made a gross miscalculation. The Red Army met with tremendous resistance short of Warsaw as Poles, including workers, massed to repel invasion by the old national enemy. Sovnarkom, desperate at a time when it was facing peasant revolts in Russia and Ukraine, sued for peace. The humiliation was complete, and for many years afterwards the communist leadership in Moscow dropped plans to export revolution to Europe by military force.

A starving family in the Volga area, pictured during the famine that afflicted the area over the winter of 1921/22, caused in part by the economic and logistic effects of the Russian Revolution. (Getty Images)
 

It did, though, continue to supply guidance and subsidies to parties belonging to Comintern. As reports grew about communist atrocities in the Soviet Union, there was a predictable political reaction in the west. Governments and churches denounced the ‘red menace’; they spoke out against the collectivist purposes of communism, and defended the values of faith, tradition and individual freedom. Fascist parties sprang up to counter communist influences in their countries – and these parties were organised according to a pattern of hierarchy and militancy that copied Bolshevism itself. The political far right seldom neglected to mention in its propaganda that several of the Bolshevik leaders were of Jewish origin. This idea was employed as a way of portraying communists who operated in European countries as alien conspirators who sought to bring Christian civilisation to an end.

Lenin died in 1924 but the Soviet state, which designated itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), survived the internal battles over policy and the political success. Josef Stalin, having overcome the challenge from Leon Trotsky, initiated a comprehensive campaign to deepen the foundations of Lenin’s October Revolution. From 1928 
Stalin introduced a programme of forced-rate industrialisation and violent agricultural collectivisation. The Red Army was 
increased in size and re-equipped with advanced weaponry. At the same time Stalin spread a network of modern educational facilities ranging from primary schools to universities. The communist party, which was already in charge of every governmental agency in the USSR, received the task of leading the campaign. Dissent was mercilessly suppressed. The powerful political police was reinforced. Stalin’s name was ceaselessly glorified in the media.

A Russian propaganda illustration from 1929 shows the force of opposition to fascism. Conversely, Hitler was determined to halt the spread of communism. (Getty Images)
 

At last, it was boasted, the Soviet state could defend itself and realistically hope that foreign sympathisers would find ways to emulate its achievements through their own revolutions. This served to agitate those foreigners who dreaded the establishment of communism. In Germany and France the communist parties were large, vocal and active. When Hitler came to power in 1933, he portrayed himself as the only man in Europe who could prevent communism’s advance, and he quickly suppressed the German communist party and arrested those of its leaders who had not fled abroad. In the Spanish 
Civil War, from 1936, warplanes were sent by Fascist Italy and the Third Reich to aid the revolt against a republic that was supported by, among others, communists. The struggle between communism and fascism culminated in Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. 

 

Domination and decline

At first it appeared that the end of the October Revolution was nigh. But the USSR re-grouped its defences outside Moscow and Leningrad and, using its industrial hinterland and its people’s patriotic spirit, crushed the German Wehrmacht and fought its way to Berlin. The Soviet Union took a leading role in the settlement after the Second World War, forcing the world to accept its domination of eastern Europe. It also acquired nuclear weaponry to compete with American military power. 

In 1949 another great country, China, underwent communist revolution. For many decades it appeared that communism’s territorial expansion would be difficult to prevent. The rivalry between the two superpowers, the USSR and 
the USA, was at the fulcrum of the Cold War. Yet Soviet might came at an internal price that in the mid-1980s compelled the communist leadership 
itself to undertake comprehensive reform. From 1985, under the dynamic reforming leader Mikhail 
Gorbachev, the USSR was ‘restructured’.

Mikhail Gorbachev, pictured on the day of 
his resignation as leader of the Soviet Union, 
25 December 1991. (Getty Images)
 

Gorbachev’s efforts served mainly to destroy the foundations of state power. In December 1991 he saw that his dream was in tatters, and announced the abolition of the USSR. For Gorbachev this was a personal tragedy because he fervently believed in what he regarded as the greatness of Lenin’s ideology. It was also a landmark in world history. The October Revolution was at last dead in its homeland. What Hitler had failed to achieve by deliberate means, a Russian – indeed, a Russian communist – had inadvertently brought about, and Soviet communism tumbled into the wastepaper basket of history. 

Robert Service is a historian whose books include The Penguin History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century (Penguin, 2015)

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