Russian Revolution: causes, chronology and the Bolsheviks – HISTORY

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the most explosive political events of the 20th century. The violent revolution marked the end of the Romanov dynasty and centuries of Russian imperial rule. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks, led by left-wing revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, seized power and destroyed the tradition of Tsarist rule. The Bolsheviks would later become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

LOOK: Vladimir Lenin: the voice of the revolution on HISTORY Vault

When was the Russian Revolution?

In 1917, two revolutions swept through Russia, ending centuries of imperial rule and triggering political and social changes that would lead to the eventual formation of the Soviet Union.

However, while both revolutionary events took place a few months after 1917, social unrest in Russia had been simmering for many years before the events of that year.

In the early 1900s, Russia was one of the poorest countries in Europe with a huge peasantry and a growing minority of poor industrial workers. Much of Western Europe viewed Russia as an underdeveloped and backward society.

The Russian Empire practiced serfdom – a form of feudalism in which landless peasants were forced to serve the landowning nobility – until the 19th century. On the other hand, this practice had disappeared in most of Western Europe by the end of the middle ages.

In 1861, the Russian Empire finally abolished serfdom. The emancipation of serfs would influence events leading to the Russian Revolution by giving peasants more freedom to organize.

What caused the Russian Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution gained a foothold in Russia much later than in Western Europe and the United States. When it finally did, at the turn of the 20th century, it brought about immense social and political change.

Between 1890 and 1910, for example, the population of major Russian cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow nearly doubled, resulting in overcrowding and destitute living conditions for a new class of Russian industrial workers.

A population boom in the late 19th century, a difficult growing season due to Russia’s northern climate, and a series of costly wars, beginning with the Crimean War– created frequent food shortages across the vast empire. Moreover, a famine in 1891-1892 is said to have killed up to 400,000 Russians.

the devastator Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 further weakened Russia and the leadership position Tsar Nicholas II. Russia suffered heavy losses of soldiers, ships, money and international prestige during the war, which it ultimately lost.

Many educated Russians, watching social progress and scientific advancement in Western Europe and North America, saw how growth in Russia was hampered by the monarchical regime of the Tsars and the Tsar’s followers in the aristocratic class.

Russian Revolution of 1905

Soon, large demonstrations by Russian workers against the monarchy led to the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre. Hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were killed or injured by the Tsar’s troops.

The Bloody Sunday massacre sparked the Russian Revolution of 1905, in which angry workers responded with a series of crippling strikes across the country. Farm workers and soldiers joined the cause, which led to the creation of worker-dominated councils called “soviets”.

In a famous incident, the crew of the battleship Potemkin staged a successful mutiny against their authoritarian officers. Historians would later call the Russian Revolution of 1905 “the great dress rehearsal” because it set the stage for the upheavals to come.

Nicholas II and the First World War

After the bloodshed of 1905 and Russia’s humiliating loss in the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas II promised greater freedom of speech and the formation of a representative assembly, or Duma, to work for reform .

Russia has entered First World War in August 1914 in support of the Serbs and their French and British allies. Their involvement in the war would soon prove disastrous for the Russian Empire.

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Militarily, Imperial Russia was no match for industrialized Germany, and Russian losses were greater than those suffered by any nation in any previous war. Food and fuel shortages plagued Russia as inflation soared. The already weak economy was desperately disrupted by the costly war effort.

Tsar Nicholas left the Russian capital of Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) in 1915 to take command of the front of the Russian army. (The Russians had renamed the imperial city in 1914 because “St. Petersburg” sounded too German.)

Rasputin and the Tsarina

In her husband’s absence, Tsarina Alexandra – an unpopular woman of German ancestry – began firing elected officials. Meanwhile, his controversial adviser, Grigori Rasputinincreases his influence on Russian politics and royalty Romanov family.

Russian nobles eager to end Rasputin’s influence assassinated him on December 30, 1916. By then, most Russians had lost faith in the Tsar’s failing leadership. Government corruption was endemic, the Russian economy remained backward and Nicholas repeatedly dissolved the Dumathe toothless Russian parliament established after the 1905 revolution, when he opposed his will.

Moderates soon joined radical Russian elements in calling for the overthrow of the unfortunate Tsar.

February Revolution

The February Revolution (known as such due to Russia’s use of the Julian calendar until February 1918) began on March 8, 1917 (February 23 on the Julian calendar).

Protesters demanding bread took to the streets of Petrograd. Backed by huge crowds of striking industrial workers, protesters clashed with police but refused to leave the streets.

On March 11, troops from the Petrograd Army Garrison were called in to suppress the uprising. In some encounters, regiments opened fire, killing protesters, but protesters remained in the streets and troops began to falter.

The Duma forms a provisional government on March 12. A few days later, Tsar Nicholas abdicated the throne, ending centuries of Russian Romanov rule.

Alexander Kerensky

Leaders of the Provisional Government, including young Russian lawyer Alexander Kerensky, established a liberal agenda of rights such as freedom of speech, equality before the law and the right of trade unions to organize and strike. They opposed violent social revolution.

As Minister of War, Kerensky continued the Russian war effort, even though Russian involvement in World War I was extremely unpopular. This further aggravated Russia’s food supply problems. Unrest continued to grow as peasants looted farms and food riots broke out in towns.

bolshevik revolution

November 6 and 7, 1917 (or October 24 and 25 on the Julian calendar, which is why the event is often referred to as the October Revolution), left-wing revolutionaries led by the leader of the Bolshevik Party Vladimir Lenin launched an almost bloodless coup against the Provisional Duma Government.

The provisional government had been formed by a group of leaders of the Russian bourgeois capitalist class. Lenin instead called for a Soviet government that would be run directly by councils of soldiers, peasants and workers.

The Bolsheviks and their allies occupied government buildings and other strategic locations in Petrograd, and quickly formed a new government with Lenin at its head. Lenin became the dictator of the world’s first communist state.

READ MORE: Leaders of the Soviet Union: A Timeline

Russian Civil War

Civil war broke out in Russia at the end of 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. Warring factions included the Red and White armies.

The Red Army fought for the Bolshevik government of Lenin. The White Army represented a large group of loosely allied forces, including monarchists, capitalists, and supporters of democratic socialism.

On July 16, 1918, the The Romanovs were executed by the Bolsheviks. The Russian Civil War ended in 1923 with the victory of Lenin’s Red Army and the establishment of the Soviet Union.

After many years of violence and political turmoil, the Russian Revolution paved the way for the rise of Communism as an influential political belief system around the world. He set the stage for the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power which would confront the United States during the Cold War.

Photo Galleries


The Russian Revolutions of 1917. Anna M. Ciencia, University of Kansas.
The Russian Revolution of 1917. Daniel J. Meissner, Marquette University.
Russian Revolution of 1917. McGill university.
Russian Revolution of 1905.
The Russian Revolution of 1905: what were its main causes? Northeastern University.
Chronology of the Russian Revolution. British Library.