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The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)


Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

Compare and contrast the February and October Revolutions.

The February Revolution grew from a street demonstration gone out of control; there was no single political force behind it, and it was not a strategically planned event. Once the military mutinied and the situation had become uncontrollable, the Duma recognized that the tsar’s abdication was the only likely way to quell the unrest. The Duma was Russia’s officially sanctioned parliament, and while it certainly had conflicts with the tsar on many issues, it did not have an agenda to remove him from power, nor was it intent on ending the monarchy. When the Duma requested the tsar’s abdication, they wanted him to do so only in order to enable his son to take the throne in his stead.

The October Revolution, on the other hand, was a planned coup, designed and brought about by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. This second revolution was a deliberate attempt to overthrow the current Russian government, seize power, and institute a Communist state in place of the monarchy. While the Bolsheviks did not have a detailed plan for how the new government should be run, they unarguably had a clear vision for what they wanted it to achieve.

Compare the collapse of the Russian monarchy with the collapse of the provisional government. Did the two governments fall apart for the same reasons or for fundamentally different reasons?

The collapse of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the provisional government were unrelated, but each marked the downfall of an ineffective government that was perceived as weak or incompetent. Tsar Nicholas II had long been seen as out of touch and ineffective, and Russia’s embarrassing and costly military failures in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I reinforced this bad reputation. Although the tsar did have a considerable amount of raw power in his military and secret police forces, these forces were effective only insofar as they were loyal. During the February Revolution, the military, when summoned, failed to follow orders and in fact ended up fighting the police. Without the military, the tsar was unable to hold on to power, and even his own government was helpless to save him.

The provisional government was arguably even weaker than the tsar had been, for it never gained a reliable control over the military, nor did it demonstrate a clear vision for the future. Only the prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, demonstrated determined leadership, but incidents such as the Kornilov affair of August 1917 gave Kerensky and his government an air of incompetence. Moreover, the very nature of the provisional government was temporary, simply something intended to hold Russia together until the Constituent Assembly could be elected and establish a permanent government. This intrinsic flimsiness put the members of the provisional government in an awkward and vulnerable position. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were keenly aware of this vulnerability and timed their October Revolution to take advantage of it.

Bolshevism was a rather extreme political movement and did not have widespread popular support. Discuss the reasons why the October Revolution nonetheless succeeded and why it faced so little serious opposition.

In some respects, the Bolsheviks’ success in the October Revolution seems surprising. The party advocated much more radical policies than their political opponents in Russia at the time, and it is clear that the majority of the Russian population did not share the Bolsheviks’ views either. Moreover, Kerensky and the provisional government knew for several weeks that Lenin was planning a major action and did their best to prepare for it. However, despite these factors, the significant leadership vacuum in Russia in October 1917, combined with the Bolsheviks’ vagueness about their political goals, enabled them to take control of the country handily.

The political situation in Russia in the fall of 1917 was uncertain at best. The country was in a weak and confused state, reeling from World War I losses and under the vague, ineffective leadership of a temporary provisional government. Although many in the country were dissatisfied with the provisional government, there was a distinct lack of initiative or willingness to take on the responsibility of leadership. In many respects, Lenin was the only Russian politician at the time who appeared confident and to know what he was doing. Nonetheless, few members of the provisional government, aside from Kerensky, recognized the threat that the Bolsheviks presented. As a result, despite Kerensky’s efforts to institute measures against the Bolsheviks, other ministers in the government refused, wanting to pursue negotiations with the Bolsheviks instead.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that the Bolsheviks were somewhat ambiguous about their ultimate goals. Russian leaders indisputably saw Lenin as an extremist, but many dismissed him because they were unaware just how extreme he really was. Moreover, because the various political parties in Russia had cooperated actively with one another and shared power in relatively democratic fashion ever since the February Revolution, many Russian leaders assumed that this measured power-sharing would continue. After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks allowed this illusion to persist until it became inconvenient, at which point they disbanded the Constituent Assembly and began to rule Russia with an iron fist.

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