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A brief history of Russia

Red October

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The top echelons of Russian society were intensely reactionary. The Tsar was a convinced autocrat who believed that even a minimal form of democratic control was an aberration of the Russian tradition and of no use in the ordering of society. There was therefore no form of parliamentary government whatsoever.

The Russian intelligentsia were divided into two fundamental groups. Those who believed that Russia was part of Europe and should strive to introduce western values and incorporate western ideas. The slavophiles who believed Russia should develop its own culture and reject the decadence of the West.

Russia was in the throes of the industrial revolution. There was strong capital investment from Europe, used to finance railway construction, mines, factories. Exports rose fourfold between 1880 and 1913 while imports rose fivefold. Industrialisation led to a rapid growth of the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes, although not nearly as much as in Europe.

Conditions, however, were generally appalling. Yet much of this was owned by the state itself, with borrowing from abroad. Therefore the state was better able to maintain its autocratic system.

Russia was still predominantly agricultural, with four-fifths of the population being peasants. Peasants lived in village communes called mirs, where land was divided by agreement of the community. No-one could leave the mir without community permission. The peasants were heavily taxed and were paying exorbitant sums to redeem their emancipation of 1861.

The bulk of the land was owned by the aristocracy. Hence, under economic pressure because of crude farming methods. Therefore continual need for more land. There was also a minority of enterprising and wealthier peasants who owned their own land and could use profits to buy more as well as hire labourers to work the fields (later called Kulaks).


Initially the establishment of the Duma or Legislative Assembly in October 1905 offered Russia hope of peaceful democratic evolution. The Constitutional Democrats (closely akin to the contemporary western liberal parties) were able to work in close alliance with the Octobrists (moderate conservatives). Such an alliance could have kept both the extreme Right and Left at bay.

The higher echelons of Russian government, however, were deeply suspicious of any form of democracy, believing that it was "infinitely corruptible". The primary means of social order lay rather in the maintenance of Tsarist autocracy.

At the same time, Tsar Nicholas made it clear that his constitution of October 1905, though establishing democracy, in no way impeded the Russian tradition of autocracy. The October Manifesto therefore contained the implicit ambiguity of creating a democratic autocracy.

In theory, the Duma could remove members of the Russian cabinet from power, although in practice it could not. At the same time, it had powers to debate finance but had no power to prevent the government from spending money. The Duma had the power to institute reforms but the Tsar had the power to veto their action.

It is probable that the Tsar deliberately defused the revolt by offering a constitution which he had no intention of keeping. The Constitutional Democrats hoped that social problems could be solved by means of the assembly. The Liberals were afraid of the Radicals. At the same time the Marxist groups refused to have anything to do with the Duma, which resulted in its being weakened.

The result was an increasingly frustrated Duma which would become more and more belligerent in time. The Tsar countered this by interfering in the elections until he established a conservative-dominated body which would be docile to his wishes. That in turn led to an increasingly inefficient government which could not be reformed in any way by the Duma.

At the same time, Russia overcame an initial economic depression after the Russo-Japanese War to enter into a phase of marked economic development. Coal and iron production more than doubled between 1905 and 1913.

The annual average growth rate was about 6 percent. Even Lenin claimed that he would not see the longed-for revolution in his lifetime. This in turn served to increase the number of bourgeoisie who joined in the clamour for reform.

At the same time, revolution was not inevitable. It was generally believed that, with time, Russia could catch up with the west. Without any other interference, time was on Russia's side. It was the outbreak of the Great War that altered all that.

Russia was simply not prepared for the war. The army was inadequately supplied. The men were inadequately trained.

Many peasants were sent to the war-front without even any weapons but were told that they would get their weapons from the Germans they captured or killed. To top the whole thing off, the officers were not of sufficient calibre to win the war. There was also no spirit of nationalism which would be the driving force of the other countries of Europe.

Eventually, Tsar Nicholas himself in 1915 decided to take the reigns of battle. The outcome was a disaster for he was not competent to lead the army. At the same time, it left a vacuum in the government, taken up by Alexandra and Rasputin which caused a total scandal amongst the Russian aristocracy until they clubbed together and assassinated him.

Nevertheless, Russia was not capable to supplying a suitable government in the absence of the Tsar. Whereas the western governments during the war became increasingly autocratic, the Russian government became increasingly democratic but with no real constitutional basis.

Ultimately, Russia's collapse during the war could only trigger a revolution by the bourgeoisie as a means of obtaining some sanity for the country.


There are two main interpretations of the Russian revolution of November 1917 (Red October). The first is the traditional Marxist view that the revolution was part of the dialectical process and the completion of a movement towards a higher form of state. According to this argument, feudal economy goes through a bourgeois revolution whereafter it undergoes the final proletarian revolution.

In normal circumstances, the interval between the latter two revolutions is considerable. In the Russian case, however, it was a matter of months, speeded up by the Bolshevik Party which spearheaded the "proletariat revolution" only eight months after the Bourgeois Revolution.

The opposing viewpoint is that the October Revolution was a "freak occurrence" and a "perversion of Russia's historical trends". A well-organised minority, manipulated the social, economic and political chaos to seize control through a combination of conspiracy, treachery and armed struggle .

To understand the success of the Red October revolution, one has to analyse the very complex circumstances which prevailed in Russia in 1917, especially the following: The problem of whether or not Russia should continue the war against Germany.

The lack of organised leadership. The problem of the land issue. The vastness of the territory to be governed. The complexity of the economic issues.

A major issue in understanding the Bolshevik Revolution was the continuation of the Great War. Had the Russian Revolution happened in a time of peace, there is little doubt that the Provisional Government could have made progress and remained in office until the Constituent Assembly had taken office.

But the war complicated matters in a number of ways. It was the war which had led to the revolution in the first place. Russian troops, mostly peasants, were largely unprepared for the conflict, were badly armed and had little desire to fight.

On the contrary, most wanted to return to their homes because they knew that the revolution was leading to land-grabbing and they wanted to be there to ensure their own claim.

By 1917, however, the war was by no means over. Russia's withdrawal from the battlefield, however, would leave Germany's eastern front secure. That in turn would strengthen Germany's resolve in the conflict against Britain and France. With all else equal, Russia's withdrawal would almost certainly spell German victory.

Although Lenin and his Bolsheviks believed that the Great War was an imperialist conflict, his view was not generally held by the other spectrum of socialists in Russia. On the contrary, many saw the conflict as one between feudal dictatorships (Germany and Austria) and democratic masses. They wished to play their part therefore in ensuring the freedom of all Europe.

Furthermore, surrender to Germany would mean national humiliation. It would bring the Provisional Government into disrepute. That in turn would quite possibly bring about a right-wing counter-revolution.

The Provisional Government, however, did not see that the danger to the left. Continuation of the war played into the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Either way, however, the Provisional Government lost face. In short, it found itself in a Catch 22 situation.

A second major problem was the fact that the main actors within the Provisional Government could not reach consensus on objectives. Although they were mostly socialists, they represented various spectra of socialist thought. The more they disagreed with one another, the more they played into the hands of the Bolsheviks on the left.

There were several parties within the Provisional Government. The first was the Kadet Party which contained both conservative and liberal members, people from the nobility, the civil service, the army, the various professions as well as the land-owners.

Generally they preferred a constitutional monarchy and believed in the right to private property. Yet they were not clear in their attitude to the many differing nationalities which made up greater Russia.

The Socialist Revolutionaries was the largest political party but was split on various issues. Some wished to nationalise the means of production whilst other preferred the concept of small landed proprietors. They generally agreed that family farms were preferable to collective ones.

In February 1917 they probably did not aspire to government although, together with the Mensheviks, they controlled the soviets. They also had the support of the army. Although they believed in the concept of the proletarian revolution, they nevertheless also believed that Russia was not yet ready for it and would not be for a long time to come.

They were therefore happy to allow the bourgeois revolution to run its course and to allow the bourgeois to take and maintain control of the Provisional Government while the soviets should take a supervisory position.

The Mensheviks relied on the workers for support and were numerically stronger that the Bolsheviks. They also believed that the bourgeoisie would remain in power for a lengthy period.

The Bolsheviks, particularly after Lenin had returned to Russia in May, saw at once that the bulk of the army was peasant and the bourgeois government did not have the confidence of the police. Without either it was impossible for it to impose its authority.

The Provisional Government only appeared to be in power whereas both the army and police gave its allegiance to the soviets. The concept of "All Power to the Soviets' was therefore a powerful slogan.

Furthermore, Lenin had long been totally intolerant of any form of opposition, especially when it came from other socialist parties whom he branded as traitors to the cause. It was possible therefore to seize power much sooner than was predicted by any of the other socialist parties.

A major problem during the period between the two revolutions in 1917 was the lack of decisive leadership. Russia had urgent problems to attend to but the leaders had little enthusiasm to tackle any of the major issues.

The war issue brought down the first government. The second government, under Kerensky, attempted to discredit the Bolsheviks but accusing them of receiving German funding. Its ordering Commander-in-Chief Kornilov to storm Petrograd and then getting cold feet saw the discrediting of both Kornilov and Kerensky discredited. Support from both Left and Right withered, leaving Kerensky alone in an attempt to hold together a very shaky government.

Furthermore, Kerensky eventually had to appeal to the Bolshevik's themselves for aid in putting a stop to Kornilov, thereby arming the most dangerous wing of the opposition. As McCauley puts it, "Popular exasperation at the government's ineffective showing and disillusionment after the Kornilov attack produced wave after wave of support for the radicals with the Bolsheviks gaining most" .

The problem was worsened by the fact that the autocratic Tsarist regime had provided no experience whatsoever to those who now attempted to replace it with democratic government. Lenin, on the other hand, had spent several decades contemplating just such an eventuality and he was ready to step into the breach at a moment's notice. After all, Lenin was not an adherent of democracy but only used that political system when it best served his party's ends.

Lenin's method was totalitarianism and in that the Tsars had given plenty of examples. And the situation in 1917 favoured the group with the firmest resolution, the greatest discipline and the most effective powers of coercion, attributes of the Bolsheviks rather than the liberals and moderate socialists.

A further complication was the fact that there were actually two governing bodies, namely the Provisional Government and the Soviet. Initially, the Petrograd Soviet promised co-operation and many of its members, including Kerensky himself, served in the provisional Government.

With the collapse of unity within the government and as Kerensky found himself increasingly isolated, the Soviet was able to claim more and more power as elected representative of the proletariat. The Provisional Government, on the other hand, could claim no legitimate power base.

The options open to Kerensky were either to incorporate the Soviet within the Provisional Government itself or disband the Soviet completely as a threat to the government. The fact that he did neither allowed the Soviet to claim all power to itself and, in November 1917, it became the government. In doing so, Lenin was able to claim that he was seizing power not against the Soviet, but for it .

As mentioned above, autocratic policies of the Bolsheviks was a decisive factor in the October Revolution. It was not simply that the Bolsheviks were ruthless, however, but that their strategy was one of careful manipulation of opportunities. The right degree of force at the right time.

To achieve their end, therefore, the Bolsheviks were prepared to compromise with the opposition, as they did with the Provisional Government over the Kornilov affair. They were also prepared to manipulate the various destructive forces in order to discredit the government.

Their use of the Great War to undermine the government is a point in question. They also manipulated the intense regional nationalism against the government so as to confine the power of the Provisional Government to the core of Russia itself.

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