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The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)

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Summary of Events

The Russian Revolution took place in 1917, during the final phase of World War I. It removed Russia from the war and brought about the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), replacing Russia’s traditional monarchy with the world’s first Communist state. The revolution happened in stages through two separate coups, one in February and one in October. The new government, led by Vladimir Lenin, would solidify its power only after three years of civil war, which ended in 1920.

Although the events of the Russian Revolution happened abruptly, the causes may be traced back nearly a century. Prior to the revolution, the Russian monarchy had become progressively weaker and increasingly aware of its own vulnerability (and therefore more reactionary). Nicholas II—the tsar who led Russia in the years leading up to the revolution—had personally witnessed revolutionary terrorists assassinate his grandfather and, subsequently, his own father respond to the assassination through brutal oppression of the Russian people. When Nicholas II himself became tsar in 1894, he used similarly severe measures to subdue resistance movements, which were becoming bolder and more widespread every year. As Nicholas’s newly imposed oppressions in turn incited still more unrest, he was forced to make concessions after each incident: it was in this manner that Russia’s first constitution was created, as was its first parliament. These concessions continued gradually until Nicholas II’s grip on power became very tenuous.

As Nicholas II grew weaker, Vladimir Lenin rose to prominence as the most powerful figure in Russia. Although this famous leader of the October Revolution was not even in Russia for the February Revolution—he had lived in self-imposed exile in Europe since 1900 and returned to Russia only in April 1917—he nonetheless exerted tremendous influence. Whatever history’s judgment of him, few other Russian revolutionaries possessed Lenin’s decisiveness and strength of vision for Russia’s future. Born in 1870 in the provincial town of Simbirsk as Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, the young Lenin was profoundly affected by his older brother Alexander’s 1887 execution for being involved in a plot to assassinate the tsar. As a young adult, Vladimir joined the resistance movement himself and took the pseudonym Lenin but swore that he would never engage in the sort of “adventurism” that had ended his brother’s life. Nevertheless, his actions would one day become very adventurous indeed.

The revolution that Lenin led marked one of the most radical turning points in Russia’s 1,300-year history: it affected economics, social structure, culture, international relations, industrial development, and most any other benchmark by which one might measure a revolution. Although the new government would prove to be at least as repressive as the one it replaced, the country’s new rulers were drawn largely from the intellectual and working classes rather than from the aristocracy—which meant a considerable change in direction for Russia.

The revolution opened the door for Russia to fully enter the industrial age. Prior to 1917, Russia was a mostly agrarian nation that had dabbled in industrial development only to a limited degree. By 1917, Russia’s European neighbors had embraced industrialization for more than half a century, making technological advancements such as widespread electrification, which Russia had yet to achieve. After the revolution, new urban-industrial regions appeared quickly in Russia and became increasingly important to the country’s development. The population was drawn to the cities in huge numbers. Education also took a major upswing, and illiteracy was almost entirely eradicated.

The Russian Revolution also had considerable international consequences. Lenin’s government immediately pulled Russia out of World War I, changing the balance of forces for the remaining participants. During the ensuing civil war in Russia, several nations, including the United States, sent troops to Russia in hopes of keeping the chaos from spreading beyond Russia’s boundaries. Over the next several decades, the Soviet Union actively sponsored and assisted Communist movements and revolutions around the world in an effort to broaden its sphere of influence. The country also played a fundamental role in the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II.

Threatened by the possibility of revolutions in their own lands, the governments of many Western nations viewed Communism as a spreading threat and moved to isolate the Soviet Union as much as possible. Following World War II and the advent of the nuclear age, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States took center stage. As this Cold War got under way, the two countries emerged as superpowers with much of the rest of the world falling in behind one or the other. A protracted nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union would last until the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.

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