World Politics Explanator: The Russian Revolution

This article is part of our series of explanations of the key moments of the last 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.

To most people the term “Russian Revolution” conjures up a collection of popular images: of the cold February 1917 protests in Petrograd, of men in full blouses in the Petrograd Soviet, Vladimir Lenin addressing the crowd. in front of the Finnish station, demonstrators dispersed during the month of July days and the capture of the Winter Palace in October.

What happened?

These are all significant events that forced the Tsar to abdicate, brought the Bolsheviks to power, brought Russia out of WWI, brought about British, American and Japanese interventions and dragged the Romanov Empire into years of bloody civil war. .

Among revolutionary socialists, they still inspire dreams of future revolutions. Historians on the political right, on the other hand, present them as warnings of what will happen if you try to change the world. In Russia, on the other hand, they pose complex challenges in building a past that can inspire the present.

The standard story summarized by these images looks like this:

Protests in Petrograd, February 1917.
Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, July 1917.
Viktor Bulla / Wikicommons
Capture of the Winter Palace, October 1917.

The Russian Empire, already under serious political and social tensions in 1914, collapsed under the pressures of modern warfare. In 1916, a massive uprising against conscription to work shook Central Asia.

In 1917, it was the turn of the heart of Russia. Industrial strikes, protests over food shortages and women’s protests combined to create a revolutionary crisis in Petrograd, the empire’s capital.

Ultimately, this crisis convinced the political and military elites to put pressure on the Tsar to abdicate. These events are known as the February Revolution.

They turned out to be just the first step. Throughout 1917 the revolution radicalized until October, the most radical wing of the Russian Social Democrats – Lenin’s Bolsheviks – seized power on behalf of the revolutionary working class. The October Revolution, in turn, sparked the Russian Civil War which was ultimately won by the Bolsheviks.

But this focus on the events in Petrograd in 1917 is misleading. If we are to understand the significance of the Russian Revolution for the world today, we must understand both its position in a larger historical process and its very complexity.

Read more: Friday Essay: Putin, the wars of memory and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution

The wider context

What happened in 1917 was not just the beginning. It was also a moment in the wider trajectory of the Romanov Empire (the pre-Soviet Russian Empire) embroiled in a global war for which it was ill-prepared.

1917 is part of the story of how an empire, built between the 15th and 18th centuries on the basis of peasants attached to their master’s land (serfdom) and the undisputed power of the Tsar (autocracy) attempted to attack to a changing world in the 19th and early 20th centuries filled with overseas empires, industrialization and emerging mass society.

It is only a snapshot in the history of imperialism, economic and social changes and decolonization. These are all ongoing processes that still trouble the region today.

This sequence of events began with the Lost Crimean War of 1853-56, which sparked the great reforms of the 1860s and 1870s.

Combined with a determined push in the 1890s to industrialize the country, these reforms gave birth to a new society that was more modern, more urban and more educated.

This more complex society then faced its first test in 1904-05. A disastrous war against Japan destabilized the empire enough to spark a first revolution in 1905. It forced the Tsar to make concessions to modern politics by creating a pseudo-parliament, legal parties and a less control of the media.

Then came the First World War. The military campaign went badly, angering the elites of a clearly incompetent regime, massively disrupting populations, intensifying national sentiments in this multi-ethical empire, triggering an economic crisis of immense proportions, and further polarizing social divisions between the haves and the rich. -not.

The result was a set of wars, revolutions and civil wars that lasted until the early 1920s. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that emerged from this catastrophe united most of the lands that the Romanovs had ruled. . Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland went their own way, at least until WWII.

Map of the states of the former USSR.
Wikicommons, CC BY-SA

Contemporary relevance

The “Russian revolution”, then, was not just Russian and not just a revolution. It was also a time when modern nations were born.

Despite past stories, today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia began their lives in the crucible of war and revolution. Independent Finland and Poland also came into being in 1917.

As one historian pointed out in a succinct overview of events in Ukraine, “the Ukrainian revolution is not the Russian revolution”. The more democratic revolutions in Omsk, Samara, and Ufa were also not the same as the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd, let alone those beyond the Caucasus peaks, or popular rural revolutions across the country. empire. These other revolutions, often overlooked but as much a part of the process as the iconic events in Petrograd, culminated in the catastrophic collapse of the empire in 1918.

But the revolutionary period saw more than the simple replacement of one empire by another. It also changed things decisively. On the one hand, the Soviet empire was not capitalist, despite the limited market mechanisms authorized by the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921 to deal with the catastrophic economic crisis engendered by war, revolution and civil war.

The new empire was also much more national in form than its predecessor Romanov had been. The aspirations of the non-Russian peoples had to be met in one way or another and a pseudo-federal state was therefore erected, where the “Union republics” (such as Ukraine, Belarus or Russia) were united in a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (or USSR). In 1991, it will break up along the borders of these federated republics, lines drawn roughly following the reconquest of the lands of the Romanovs by the revolutionary Red Army.

These lines became more important over time, due to a second far-reaching aspect of the national transformation of the multi-ethnic Romanov empire in the crucible of the “Russian” revolution. In order to face the threat of nationalism, the Soviet Union became an “empire of affirmative action”, which gave non-Russian minorities space and resources to develop their languages ​​and cultures. This affirmation of the national principle was aimed at disarming nationalism and helping the development of socialism. Instead, he inadvertently “promoted ethnic particularism”.

As a result, many of the nationalisms we encounter in the region today are to a large extent the result of this paradoxical Soviet nation-building.