The Russian tsar, or emperor, whose death in 1825 prompted a mild secession crisis that created an appearance of weakness in the Russian monarchy. A group of 3,000 soldiers who termed themselves Decembrists took advantage of the chaos to demand reforms, such as a written constitution for Russia. Later revolutionaries such as Lenin saw the Decembrists as heroes.
The Tsar who formally abolished serfdom in 1861, freeing Russia’s serfs from indentured servitude to their landowners. Though reformers hailed the move, it engendered a severe economic crisis, angered landowners, and prompted a number of revolutionary groups to agitate for a constitution. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a member of one of these groups, prompting his successor, son Alexander III, to implement a harsh crackdown on public resistance.
The son of and successor to the assassinated Tsar Alexander II. Upon taking power in 1881, Alexander III cracked down severely on reform and revolutionary groups, prompting growing unrest. Alexander III’s son, Nicholas II, was the tsar in power during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
A Polish-born revolutionary who joined the Bolshevik Party after getting out of prison in 1917. Following the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin appointed Dzerzhinsky head of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police force and an early forerunner of the KGB.
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party who initially resisted Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later. After the revolution, Kamenev went on to serve in the Soviet government but was executed during Josef Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.
A member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and an active participant in both the provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet. At first, Kerensky acted as a liaison between the two governing bodies. Within the provisional government, he served as minister of justice, minister of war, and later as prime minister. After the October Revolution, Kerensky fled the country and eventually immigrated to the United States, where he taught Russian history at Stanford University.
The founder of the Bolshevik Party, organizer of the October Revolution, and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin spent most of the early twentieth century living in exile in Europe (primarily Britain and Switzerland). He was a devout follower of Marxism and believed that once a Communist revolution took place in Russia, Communism would spread rapidly around the world. Though not involved in the February Revolution, he returned to Russia in April 1917 and orchestrated the October Revolution that turned Russia into a Communist state.
The younger brother of and successor to Tsar Alexander I. This unorthodox succession from older to younger brother caused a small public scandal in 1825 and enabled the Decembrist Revolt to take place. Nicholas I was succeeded by his son, Alexander II.
The last Russian tsar, who ruled from 1894 until 1917. Nicholas II, who assumed the throne with trepidation upon his father Alexander III’s death, was a clumsy and ineffective leader whose avoidance of direct involvement in government caused resentment among the Russian people and resulted in violence in 1905. Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, 1917, as a result of the February Revolution. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks executed Nicholas along with his wife, Alexandra, and their children.
A Russian peasant and self-proclaimed mystic who gained significant influence over Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, in the years immediately prior to the revolutions of 1917. Rasputin’s sexual escapades in the Russian capital of Petrograd caused scandal, and the Russian people began to believe that the tsar himself was under Rasputin’s influence. Aware that Rasputin’s presence was damaging Nicholas II’s credibility, supporters of the tsar had Rasputin killed in late 1916.
A Bolshevik leader who became prominent only after Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April 1917. Although Stalin was very much a secondary figure during the October Revolution, he did gain Lenin’s attention as a useful ally, and following the October coup, Lenin gave him a position in the government as commissar of nationalities. As Stalin was a member of an ethnic minority—he was from the central Asian region of Georgia, not Russia proper—Lenin felt he would be an effective ambassador of sorts to the many ethnic minorities within the former Russian Empire. After the revolution, Stalin became increasingly powerful and eventually succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union upon Lenin’s death in 1924.
The prime minister under Nicholas II. Stolypin was renowned for his heavy crackdown on revolutionaries and dissidents, in which thousands of suspects were given quick martial trials and promptly executed. A hangman’s noose was often referred to at the time as a “Stolypin necktie.” Stolypin himself was assassinated in 1911 by a revolutionary activist.
A Bolshevik leader and one of the most prominent figures of the October Revolution. Trotsky, who was in exile abroad during the February Revolution, returned to Russia in May 1917, closely aligned himself with Lenin, and joined the Bolshevik Party during the summer. Trotsky headed the Revolutionary Military Committee, which provided the military muscle for the October Revolution. After the revolution, he was appointed commissar of foreign affairs and led Russia’s negotiations with Germany and Austria for the armistice and subsequent peace treaty that made possible Russia’s exit from World War I.
A prominent member of the Bolshevik Party, closely associated with Lev Kamenev and a close friend of Lenin during Lenin’s years in exile. Initially resisting Lenin’s call to hold a revolution sooner rather than later, Zinoviev played virtually no role in the October Revolution and temporarily receded from party activities after the revolution. However, he became a member of the Politburo in 1919 and went on to serve in the Soviet government until he was arrested and executed during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.