People across the world woke up to October 25, 1917, realizing their whole world had been overturned. The most conservative monarchy in Europe, the Czarist Romanov empire of Russia, had fallen. It had not fallen to a liberal democracy, like the majority of Europe had over the past century, not fallen to anything of the sort. It had fallen to the most radically leftist ideology in the world (at this point), Bolshevist Communism, in only 6 months. This, of course, is simply history to us, but one can only imagine the fear that this inspired in the people of the world. Fear, not only of them, but of becoming them. This is the story of how that Bolshevist regime came to power.
The capitalist system under the tsar is a stereotype for workers rights abuses. Russia was a little late to the party when it came to the industrial revolution, and in the late 1800s, Russians were flooding into larger towns to work in factories. Conditions were horrid, yet the government was still essentially a monarchy. Orlando Figes describes some conditions: “Unventilated working areas were filled with noxious fumes. Shopfloors were crammed with dangerous machinery: there were frequent accidents. Yet most workers were denied a legal right to insurance and, if they lost an eye or a limb, could expect no more than a few roubles’ compensation.”1 The horrors of the capitalist system pitted many against the Czarist regime. Many turned to Marx and Communism.
In 1914, the Russians joined their slavic brothers, the Serbs, to fight the Austrians, and their allies, the Germans, in the First World War. Prior to this time, the Russians had been known for their fighting prowess, most notably repelling the great early 19th century conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. Struggle brought a divided country together, for a time. The Duma (Russian Parliament) even dissolved itself, not wanting to interfere with the war.1 The Germans feared the Russian army intensely, and built their whole military plan around that fear. The Russian army was in many ways a paper tiger, though. Under the facade of many millions of soldiers, Russia faced the bleak fact that many Russian troops didn’t care about the empire they lived in. Russia was too large and had too long of a history for all to be so patriotic. Russian military leadership learned these facts very often in the war.
The Germans didn’t know how these facts, but this didn’t end up mattering. The Germans left whatever troops they could spare on their eastern border (now Poland), to try and hold off the Russian advance. But, despite being heavily outnumbered, these few German armies destroyed large Russian armies without too much headache. These first few battles sent a message to Russia for the rest of the war, a message of failure. The patriotic fervor that had existed at the beginning of the war quickly melted away as Russia was bogged down in a war of attrition. The Russian people wanted the war to end, and they would make their voices known in 1917, the fourth year of the war.
On February 23, International Women’s Day, a large group of women and mothers were in the capital, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), protesting for equal rights.2 More people joined as the day wore on, and the protest quickly became about lack of bread, a symptom of Russia’s freezing temperatures and faulty transportation system. Police and the local garrison were asked to halt the protest, but no harsh actions were taken. Day after day, the protests grew larger and more violent, until that Sunday, when the Tsar ordered the local general to “put down the disorders tomorrow.”3 The local troops were ordered to fire on the civilians, in some cases killing 50 demonstrators. This, as well as a similar event in 1905, is known as “Bloody Sunday,” as they both were times when a protest was violently brought down on a Sunday. Orlando Figes relates the import of this event, “Bloody Sunday proved a critical turning-point. The demonstrators knew they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against the regime, and the killing of their comrades had emboldened them.”4 The revolutionaries quickly received the support of the local troops and garrisons on their side, and forced the Duma to create a new government, known as the Provisional Government. This concluded what is known as the February Revolution, the first phase of the Russian Revolution. The Provisional Government was placed in charge because of the lacking efficiency of the monarchy, and the extended time in the war. When, the Provisional Government decided to stay in the war, the Russian people turned on them too.
The other allies, including the US, supported this initial revolution, as a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism. This, of course, was the propagandist Allied reaction to the February Revolution, since their whole propaganda was centered around the evils of the German Emperor (the Kaiser). The phrase, “make the world safe for democracy” originated from this war. The Allies really worried more about Russia’s involvement in the war, and less about what type of government made that happen. One of the communists’ ideals at this point was peace, at least in reference to the First World War. The communists saw the war as expansionistic and useless, and fighting could only benefit the bourgeoisie. Also at this point, one of the only things that almost all Russians could agree on was their want of leaving the war.
The German Empire, seeing weakness in the Provisional Government, sent an exiled communist revolutionary back to Russia, hopefully to overthrow the regime they saw as so perilous. This revolutionary was Vladimir Lenin, the first leader of the Soviet state.6