FC129: Background to the Russian Revolution


FC129 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1800.

Causes and background

One of the most startling and far-reaching results of the First World War was the Russian Revolution.  Not only did it affect the largest nation on earth, it also had a huge impact on the rest of the world, helping lead to both World War II and the Cold War following it.  While World War I may have triggered this Revolution, its roots go much further back into its history and geography in two ways.

First of all, Russia's flat and open terrain made it vulnerable to invasions that forced the Russian Czars to develop a strong absolutist state in self-defense.  Second, Russia's huge size, northerly location, and isolation from Europe kept Russia cut off from the mainstream of political, economic and technological developments taking place in Western Europe.  Therefore, Russia's geography and history made it a slow moving, autocratic, and backward giant that was constantly falling behind the more advanced societies in the West.

This triggered a vicious cycle of reforms to catch up with the West, a conservative backlash against the reforms, Russia falling further behind the West, more reforms, and so on.  Unfortunately, not all Russians felt the West was worth copying.  This led to a conservative backlash that would wreck the reforms, causing Russia to fall further behind, and so on.  Peter the Great in the early 1700's, Catherine the Great in the later 1700's, Alexander I in the early 1800's, and Alexander II in the mid 1800's' all tried, or at least espoused, the cause of reform which led to conservative backlashes and the cycle repeating. That struggle is still going on in Russia today.

By the 1890s Russians could no longer ignore the forces of industrialization transforming the rest of Europe and leaving it further and further behind.  Therefore, reformers targeted Russia's repressive government that used secret police to track down socialist dissidents, its backward social structure that kept the peasants in virtual, if not legal, serfdom, and its equally backward economy just starting to industrialize.  Two other factors also pushed Russia toward change.  One was the rising popularity of socialism.  A more immediate catalyst for change was Russia's humiliating defeat in a war with Japan (1903-5) that dramatized Russia's backwardness.

All this set off the Revolution of 1905, which took Czar Nicholas II by surprise and forced him to agree to both political and economic reforms.  The main political reform was the establishment of a Duma (parliament), which attempted to turn the Czar's absolute government into a constitutional monarchy. However, once the revolution settled down, the czar did all he could to crush and eliminate the Duma.  Nevertheless, the Duma, however limited in power, persisted in being a voice for reform even as political repression reasserted itself.

At the same time, substantial economic reforms were taking place.  The Czar's chief minister, Peter Stolypin, pushed through reforms that distributed land to some two million peasants.  This gave peasants an incentive to produce more, and, by World War I, 75% of Russia's crops were going to market, with 40% of those crops going abroad.  This, combined with Russia's political repression, created a gap between its economic progress and political backwardness.  All that was needed was a catalyst to trigger a full-scale revolution.  That catalyst was World War I.

ManyRussians, like other Europeans, greeted war jubilantly in 1914, sure that they would win a quick and glorious victory.  In fact, Russia was poorly prepared for war.  Its troops, although brave, were barely trained, poorly equipped (many not even having rifles), and incompetently led.  Their war minister boasted of not having read a new book on military tactics in twenty-five years.  As a result, Russian armies met with one disaster after another.  Aggravating the situation was the Czar, Nicholas II, a weak willed man who was controlled by his wife, the Tsarina.  She herself was German born and of suspect loyalty as far as many Russians were concerned.  She was also under the spell of Rasputin, a drunken, semi-literate Siberian peasant posing as a monk.  He did have the apparent ability to control the bleeding of the crown prince, who was a hemophiliac, along with an apparent hypnotic power over women.  While scandal reigned at court (at least until Rasputin was murdered), Nicholas took personal command of the war effort, with catastrophic results.