What You Need to Know First to Understand the Russian Revolution

Read this first in a series of columns chronicling what led to that 1917 cataclysm

The Romanov family between 1913 and 1914. Alexei is seated in front. (Library of Commons via Wikicommons)
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“Now that the lush and prosperous years had come to Russia, the last thing she needed was war; they should have just said a Requiem Mass for that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, after which the three Emperors of Germany, Austria and Russia should have drunk a glass of vodka at the wake and forgotten the whole affair.”

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914 

The events that unfolded in Russia from the autumn of 1916 through the autumn of 1917, including the collapse of the czarist regime and the rise of Bolshevism, bent the arc of history in unfathomable ways and continues to influence Russia’s politics and relationship with the rest of the world today. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of these world-shattering events, we begin today with a series of columns that will highlight how the Russian Empire, ruled by the Romanov dynasty for more than 300 years, transformed into the Communist Soviet Union.

By the fall of 1916, Russia had been at war with the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey)—for more than two years. In the 20 years he had been on the throne prior to World War I, Nicholas II had faced pressure to reform the absolute monarchy that he inherited from his father, Alexander III, in 1894. At the time of his accession, the 26 -year-old czar appeared to embrace progress and modernity. He granted permission for the Paris Pathé company to film his 1896 coronation procession and his subsequent state visits to European leaders with his wife, Empress Alexandra and baby daughter, Olga, became the first royal tour documented by newsreel cameras. Throughout his reign, Nicholas showed a concern for his image at home in leveraging the emergent mass media of the early 20th century. When the Romanov dynasty celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1913, Nicholas commissioned an authorized biography of himself and photographs of his family appeared on postcards.   

His domestic policy, however, betrayed Nicholas’ governing principle of maintaining autocratic rule. In an 1895 speech to representatives of the nobility and municipal officials, the czar declared “there have arisen the voices of people carried away by senseless dreams of taking part in the business of government. Let everyone know that I will retain the principles of autocracy as firmly and unbendingly as my unforgettable late father.” The speech shattered the hopes of elected municipal officials who hoped for a gradual transition to a system closer to a constitutional monarchy.

Nicholas was forced to adopt new reforms, including the creation of the representative assembly called the Duma, after defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the massacre of workers demonstrating outside Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace the following year. Despite the Duma’s creation, Nicholas still retained the title of autocrat, the ability to appoint his ministers and the right to veto motions proposed by the assembly. Nevertheless, reforms occurred gradually during that first decade of the 20th century. The Russian peasantry, which had been freed from serfdom by Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, in 1861, began to receive individual landholdings, releasing them from the traditional peasant communes. These land reforms were designed to foster a conservative, monarchist peasantry than would serve as a counterweight to urban workers, who repeatedly demonstrated for better working conditions and compensation and were more likely to be drawn to Bolshevism.

The term Bolshevism came from the Russian word bolshinstvo, meaning majority. Adopted by a splinter faction of Russian revolutionaries advocating for a Marxist-inspired uprising of the working class, the Bolsheviks had their ideological roots in the 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The group’s leader, Vladimir Lenin, found in his supporters a smaller, more disciplined party that was determined to transform the First World War --“an imperialist war”—into a broader class war with the workers fighting the “bourgeoisie” and aristocracy.

The Russian empire’s involvement in World War I began when Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum that threatened Serbian sovereignty in the aftermath of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. Russia, as the traditional protector of other Slavic peoples, including the Serbs, mobilized its armies. The conflict in the Balkans expanded to encompass most of Europe as Russia’s allies in the Triple Entente—France and Great Britain—also went to war with the Central Powers.

The outbreak of the war prompted a burst of patriotism that initially reinforced the czar’s rule. Sixteen million soldiers were mobilized on the Eastern Front over the course of the conflict including 40 percent of all men between the ages of 20 and 50. Despite the enthusiasm and rapid mobilization, the Russian war effort was beset with problems from the start. The wages for workers in the munitions factories did not keep up with the increased cost of living, exacerbating the discontent that existed prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Industrial and transportation infrastructure was inadequate to the task of providing the necessary supplies for the troops.

Minister of War Vladimir Suklominov was accused of corruption and Nicholas ultimately removed him from office for failure to provide necessary munitions, sentencing him to prison for two years. (Suklominov’s actual culpability remains a matter of historical debate.) Russia suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg in the first weeks of the war, resulting in 78,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded and 92,000 captured by the Germans. The next year, Nicholas assumed direct control of the army as Commander in Chief, placing himself personally responsible for subsequent defeats.

A chance to end the stalemate on the Eastern Front came in the summer of 1916. Representatives from Britain, France, Russia and Italy (which joined the war on the side of the Triple Entente in 1915) agreed at the Chantilly conferences of 1915 to undertake coordinated action against the Central Powers. Under the command of General Alexei Brusilov, units of Russian shock troops broke through Austria-Hungarian lines in what is now western Ukraine and prompted Germany to divert forces from Verdun on the Western front. The victories achieved by the Brusilov offensive came at a cost of a million Russian soldiers and ultimately came to an end in September 1916 because of persistent supply shortages in the Carpathian Mountains.

Just as Nicholas was experiencing military setbacks on the Eastern front, his wife, Alexandra, was overwhelmed by challenges on the home front. The importance of the railways for transporting military supplies to the front disrupted the transportation of food to the cities and, outside of sugar, no other goods were subject to a regimented rationing system. Alexandra and her two eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, trained as nurses, endowed hospital trains and established committees to address the needs of war widows and orphans, and refugees. (In Boris Pasternak’s epic, Doctor Zhivago, Lara travels to the front in search of her husband as a nurse aboard a Tatiana hospital train). The philanthropy of the Imperial women, however, could not compensate for the absence of a coordinated government response to the needs of thousands of wounded soldiers, military families and displaced persons.

Nicholas and Alexandra also struggled with family challenges; their most urgent concern was Alexei’s health. The heir to the throne suffered from hemophilia, a disease prevalent among the descendants of his great-grandmother, Britain’s Queen Victoria, which prevented his blood from clotting normally. In their 1916 correspondence, the royal couple expressed relief that Alexei had recovered from a life-threatening nosebleed. The czarina turned to faith healers, including a wandering holy man from Siberia named Grigori Rasputin, who became known as “the Mad Monk” though he never entered a holy order and was in fact married with three children. Before the war, Rasputin provided spiritual counsel for the Imperial couple and prayed for the recovery of the heir to the throne. During the war, however, Rasputin provided Nicholas and Alexandra with political advice. When Suklominov was released from prison after only six months, the Russian public blamed Rasputin’s influence.

Because Alexei’s hemophilia was kept secret, little could be done to quash the rumors swirling about Rasputin, who had a disreputable reputation because of his drunkenness and womanizing. Alexandra, in turn, became a deeply unpopular figure because of her familial relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (they were first cousins) and her perceived reliance on Rasputin.

In these conditions, the Duma assumed the role of critiquing the policies of the czarist regime and demanded even further reform. In November 1916, Vladimir Purishkevich, a reactionary deputy known for his militant anti-Bolshevism gave a speech in the Duma denouncing what he described as the “ministerial leapfrog” in which Nicholas, under the influence of Alexandra who was in turn influenced by Rasputin, removed competent ministers from office and replacde them with unqualified figures endorsed by Rasputin. Purishkevich concluded his speech with the words, “While Rasputin is alive, we cannot win.” Prince Felix Yusupov, the wealthiest man in Russia and the husband of Nicholas’s niece Irina was impressed by the speech and began plotting the murder of Rasputin.

(Editor’s Note: For purposes of these columns, we will use the Gregorian calendar dates, which we use today, but Russia only started using in February 1918. Hence, the Bolsheviks took power on November 7, 1917, even though it was called the October Revolution.)

Next: December 1916: The Murder of Rasputin

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