In 1894 Nicholas II became Tsar of the Russian empire that contained more than 120 million people. It was a country in which workers and peasants lived in poverty and under bad conditions while Russia’s elite lived a luxurious life. There was a long history of conflicts in Russia against the injustices of the system and in 1905, the first uprising forced
the Tsar to allow the creation of a state duma or national assembly , but its power was limited.
In 1914 this divided empire entered a fresh crisis of World War One. World War One was a disaster for Russia. At the front, the country suffered many devastating defeats, meanwhile, at home, there
were food shortages and an economic decline. The people viewed the Tsar as responsible for standing in the way of government reform.
On February 23 in 1917, thousands of women went to the streets of the Russian capital, which was Petrograd, for International Women’s Day and to protest bread shortages. The next day, workers and students joined the street protest with placards illustrating “Down with the Tsar!” Troops who should have tried to put down the disorder
joined the protesters instead. As a result, supporters of the Tsar were arrested, police stations were attacked, symbols of the Tsar’s power destroyed. The government had lost control of the capital.
The Tsar abdicated on 2nd March hoping to bring back order and to protect the cou
ntry from a military defeat. The February Revolution was particularly bloodless to this point and hopes were high for the creation of a more democratic state.
Members of the State Duma, the national assembly, had formed a provisional government under the pretext to bridge the time until a Constituent Assembly was elected, to give Russia a new constitution. The reality was different: the Provisional Government had internal conflicts from groups with different political radicalizations. Parts of the Provisional Government did not believe that Russia was ready for socialism. Additionally, the Provisional Government had control over the troops and their organization and agreed to continue the World War One and fulfill the commitments that Russia had made for the allies. It was a bad decision because it strengthened one of the smaller parties called the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks leader was Vladimir Lenin. He excoriated the “Imperialistic War” and also demanded Russia’s transformation, like the redistribution of land from rich landowners
to peasants and the transfer of power to the people’s councils. With an ongoing economic military and economic decline these ideas appealed to the people more and more. A military offensive in June resulted in 400,000 Russian casualties and a moral collapse of the army.
In July, soldier
s and sailors in Petrograd mutinied. They were joined in the streets by workers, with Bolshevik support. But troops loyal to the Provisional Government still supporting the war, opened fire on the protestors. After that police arrested several Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky, Lenin, with the help of Josef Stalin, fled to Finland.
The socialist, Alexander Kerensky, became Russia’s new Prime Minister and was seen as the remaining option to save Russia from anarchy. At the same time, General Kornilov blamed the internal chaos for the military defeats so he ordered his men to march on Petrograd in August, to “restore order.” The Bolsheviks played a leading role in the city’s defense against this attempted military coup. Their organizer, Leon Trotsky, was released from prison, and sent armed Bolshevik militias, called “Red Guards,” to defend strategic points. Strikes by railway workers, many of them Bolshevik supporters, prevented Kornilov from an efficient supply and his soldiers began to switch sides or stopped fighting at all. This event pushed the Bolsheviks to the role as saviors of the revolution and by the end of September; they had gained a majority in the city council.
In October, Lenin decided the time had come. He returned from Finland to Petrograd, and began preparing to gather power. On 25th October, the Bolshevik’s Red Guards and loyal
troops conquered key points around the capital, and that night they stormed the Provisional Government’s headquarters at the Winter Palace. The next day, at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Lenin announced the overthrow of the Prov
isional Government. The following months, the Bolsheviks consolidated their authority while fighting a civil war against counter-revolutionary forces, which had foreign support. Some of them even hoped to put Tsar Nicholas back on the throne.
Nicholas and his family had been held under guard outside Petrograd. In the summer 1917 the family was sent to Siberia under house arrest in the Governor’s Mansion. The following spring, the Bolsheviks had the family moved to Yekaterinburg. In July 1918,
as counter-revolutionary forces attacked the city, Bolshevik soldiers executed the whole family – the Tsar, his wife, their son, their four daughters and four servants.
Russia’s civil war was one of the 20th century’s most devastating events. An estimated 2 million soldiers lost their lives, while an additional epidemic and famine led to further 9 million dead civilians. By the end of 1921, the Bolsheviks had emerged victorious and under Lenin’s leadership they set a new socialist order. The Soviet Union, created in 1922, emerged as a world superpower following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but it would always remain a single party state, where all opposition was suppressed. Those hopes for Russian democracy in early phases of the revolution were put beyond reach for decades by the Bolshevik October Revolution.
Jan Lubes, Germay