Russian Revolution – Causes, Timeline and Definition

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 the Csarist regime. The Bolsheviks would later become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

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 formation of the Soviet Union. While the two groundbreaking events took place within months, social unrest in Russia had been simmering for decades.

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. In contrast, the practice had died out 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.

Russian Revolution of 1905

Russia industrialized much later than 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 (1854-1856) – led to frequent food shortages in the vast empire.

Large demonstrations by Russian workers against the monarchy led to the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905. Hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed or injured by the Tsar’s troops.

The massacre sparked the Russian Revolution of 1905, in which angry workers responded with a series of crippling strikes across the country.

Nicholas II

After the bloodshed of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II promised the formation of a series of representative assemblies, or Dumas, to work for reform.

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

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 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 the name “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 Rasputin, has increased his influence over Russian politics and the Romanov royal 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 rampant, the Russian economy remained backward, and Nicholas repeatedly dissolved the Duma, the toothless Russian parliament created 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 because of 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 waver.

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

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

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

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 soon formed a new government with Lenin at its head. Lenin became the dictator of the world’s first communist state.

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 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.

Impact of the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution paved the way for the rise of communism as an influential political belief system in the world. This paved the way for the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power that would confront the United States during the Cold War.


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.