There are many factors that help explain how and why the Bolsheviks managed to seize power in 1917. It was a combination of long and short term causes that together, created a revolution. The political system itself was long overdue for reform, but with a weak Tsar, the economic and social conditions became worse and worse. In 23 years, Nicholas II dropped from the glorious ‘Little Father of Russia’ to prisoners of his own country, hatred and despised by the majority, for the suffering and unhappiness he had helped create.
There were many long-term causes that gradually led up to the revolution in 1917. The political system installed in Russia under the Tsar was long overdue for reform. Russia was a vast empire rather than a single country, and as the Tsar believed in ‘divine right’ he was its supreme ruler, which even with a great, strong charactered ruler, is still a huge task. Nicholas believed in absolute autocracy, and by doing this he did not manage the country well. He could appoint or sack ministers or make any other decisions without consulting anyone else.
Unlike most other countries that had at least given them some freedom to say how their country was run, the Tsar was dedicated with the idea of autocracy, and seemed to be obsessed with the great past of his family. This could be the cause of Nicholas’ behaviour; wanting to live up to the name of his predecessors, and keeping the way the country was run the same. Yet he took no advice, often appointing people not capable of doing their job, just because they were personal friends or family.
Nicholas was a weak-charactered ruler who felt threatened by able and talented ministers such as Witte and Stolypin; he was not able, not at all forceful and tended to avoid making decisions. If Nicholas had been more responsible, and taken advice from an elected cabinet, things could have been different, but this was not the case. The Tsar’s indecisive ways meant that when situations occurred, they lasted for dramatic lengths of time or did immense damage. The poor economic and social conditions are prime examples of this, and are also a great factor in how the Bolsheviks managed to seize power.
Russia’s population had increased by 50% from 1860 to 1897. Land was in short supply and much of it was unsuitable for farming anyway. 80% of the population were poor peasant using ancient farming techniques. Working and living conditions were dreadful, with famine and starvation common occurrences. There was no basic education in Russia, but despite all their hardships many peasants remained loyal to the Tsar. This is partly because they were religious, and they would hear the Priest telling them that the Tsar is wonderful and how they, as peasants, and loyal subjects should love and support him.
The problem here was the huge difference between the classes. The peasant’s living conditions contrast sharply against those of the aristocracy, who led elegant lifestyles, owned town and country houses and vast estates. These people played a key part of the Tsar’s government, dominating the local assemblies and acting as local officials. They were loyal to the Tsar and wanted to keep Russia as it was, which suited them because they didn’t have to suffer the living conditions of the peasants’. The only real fear the aristocracy had was that the peasants would rise up and take their lands.
From the later 19th Century, the Tsar’s had been keen to see Russia as an industrial power, which was successful as they quadrupled much of their production. Some peasants left working on the land for the new industrialised jobs, but conditions hardly improved. Only a short walk away from the Tsar’s glorious Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, his subjects lived in filth and squalor. There were no working conditions or regulations, meaning brutal discipline, low pay, child labour, excessively long hours, no safety and no education.
Overcrowding, terrible food, disease and alcoholism were everyday happenings. Peasants began to realise that working in the factories was no better than working on the land. As a result of this industrialisation, a new class of people called the Capitalists began to emerge in Russia. These were the new middle class, which Russia had only seen as shopkeepers and university lecturers, but landowners, bankers, industrialists and businessmen flourished. The capitalist’s main concern was the management of the economy and controlling their workforce.
The clashes between the workers and the capitalists are another huge factor that lead up to the revolution in 1917. Not everyone however was readily loyal to the Tsar as explained earlier. Many middle-class people wanted greater democracy in Russia and wanted, like Britain, a monarch but also a powerful parliament. These were called liberals or ‘Cadets. ‘ The two other groups were more passionately opposed to the Tsar and believed revolution was the key to Russia’s problems. The Socialist Revolutionaries were a radical movement that believed violence was the only way to revolution, and support for them was wide spread.
Their aims were to divide the huge estates from the nobility and hand them over to the peasants. The socialist democratic party were another, smaller party of opponents that followed the ideas of Karl Marx, like the SR’s, they wanted revolution but wanted to bring it about peacefully. In 1903 there was a split in the party into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks were led by Lenin and wanted to create a revolution, whereas the Mensheviks believed Russia was not yet ready for revolution. Both these organisations were illegal and many members had been executed or exiled to Siberia.
By 1903 the activities of these opposition parties, combined with the appalling living conditions in towns and countryside led to a wave of strikes, demonstrations and protests. Ministers warned the Tsar that Russia was close to revolution, but the Tsar believed he was invincible, and was thoroughly convinced that he knew, and was in control of what was going on. The government’s attempt to deal with Russia’s problems failed dramatically. In 1903 it slightly relaxed its censorship and other oppressive measures. This resulted in an explosion of anti-government pamphlets, articles and books.
It also tried to set up government-approved unions (others were illegal) but this led to demands and strikes for free unions. In 1904, to unite Russia behind the Tsar, hoping for spectacular victories, Nicholas embarked on a war with Japan. All these tensions, the strikes, the anger, starvation, social and economical conditions, and the failing war bringing humiliating losses, came together on Sunday 22 January 1905, when a crowd of 200,000 protestors came to the Winter Palace. A priest called Father Gapon led them, where they came to give a petition to the Tsar. Many of the marchers carried pictures of the Tsar to show respect for him.
However, Nicholas had left St. Petersburg at the first signs of trouble. The people were met by soldiers and mounted Cossacks. Without warning they opened fire and charged. It was a decisive day and a key factor demonstrating how Tsarist Russia began to ‘break at the seams. ‘ The Tsar lost the respect of the people of Russia. And it would be remembered. For the following 10 months, it seemed Nicholas might lose control of Russia. His Uncle had been assassinated in Moscow where striking workers had barricaded the street. Sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin revolted, and a general strike began and paralysed Russian industry.
Revolutionaries, including Lenin and Trotsky returned from exile to join the revolution. Worker’s Councils were formed in towns and in the countryside peasant’s murdered landlords and took over their lands. Action needed to be taken if the Tsar didn’t want to lose Russia altogether. In his October manifesto, the Tsar offered his people a Duma (an elected government), the right to free speech, and to form political parties. In November he announced further concessions and financial help for peasants. This split the opposition, the middle-class liberals who were delighted, but the suspicion grew among the revolutionary groups.
While his opponents decided what to do, the Tsar made peace with Japan and brought his best troops home to crush the revolt. In December, leaders of the St. Petersburg and Moscow soviets were exiled. This led to serious street fighting in Moscow, but strikers were no match for the professional army. By March 1906, the revolution was completely crushed and in May 1906, the Tsar underlined his victory by introducing Fundamental Laws. These agreed to the existence of the Duma, but put so many limitations on power it could do virtually nothing. It was clear that no revolution would happen if the Tsar was supported by a faithful army.
So Nicholas managed to survive the 1905 revolution, but the question that the next revolution might succeed still posed a worry to the Tsar. The Tsar however continued to rule paying no attention whatsoever to what the Duma had to say. In 1906, Nicholas appointed Peter Stolypin as the new, talented, prime minister. He used a ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach to solve Russia’s problems, which involved crashing down hard on opponents, but rewarding and ‘winning over’ the peasants by offering them land. The actual living conditions however did remain the same.
There was impressive economic growth but wages stayed low and the cost of living remained very high. All profits were going to the Capitalists, or being paid back to France in loans for the industrial growth. In 1911, The Tsar felt threatened and thought Stolypin was trying to change Russia too much, but before Nicholas could sack him, Stolypin was murdered. He had already blocked some of Stolypin’s plans to bring about basic education for the people, and regulations to protect factory workers. The Tsar however was easy to influence, and the Landlords and members of the court did so very well.
They saw Stolypin’s reforms as a threat to the traditional Russian society where everyone knew their place. Relations between the Tsar and his people became steadily worse. In 1912 the economy declined causing unemployment and hunger. Celebrations for 300 years of Romanov rule in 1913 were meant to bring Russia together, but enthusiasm was very limited. The government attempted to use other methods to get the peoples support such as discrimination and violence against Jews, Muslims and minorities. This had little effect. Strikes were on the rise and his own supporters were beginning to doubt him.
The Tsar was gradually losing the support of many of his own. After the highly publicised Lena gold field strike, where troops opened fire on miners, some of the government’s supporters were less sure about the government. Industrialists were concerned by the way in which the Tsar preferred to appoint loyal but unimaginative ministers such as Goremykin. Other supporters were alarmed by the influence of Rasputin. Rasputin’s influence is another large significant factor to how and why the Bolsheviks managed to take control. Rasputin was an aid, using hypnosis to help control the Tsar’s son, Alexis’ haemophilia.
He was respected as a miracle worker by the Tsarina, and began to give advice to both of them on how to run the country. The Russian people however were suspicious of Rasputin as he was a known drinker and a womaniser. Opponents seized on Rasputin as an example of the Tsar’s weakness and incapability to rule Russia. This demonstrated how out of touch the Tsar was with his country, as he either didn’t notice their concern, or worse, didn’t care. More medium term causes involved are the effects of the First World War. In August 1914 Russia entered the First World War.
People united as Russians and became surprisingly patriotic. Tension disappeared and the strikes stopped. The Tsar’s action was applauded as workers, peasants and aristocrats all joined in enthusiastically to support the Tsar. This good feeling and patriotism however was short-lived. As the war gradually continued, the support lessened. The Russian soldiers had to do their best with major shortages of equipment and artillery, many not even with boots, no first aid, and despite fighting bravely, they were no match for the German army. The peasant soldiers were led and treated appallingly by aristocrat officers.
The Tsar took personal control of the army in September 1915. He was not however an able commander, so people used this to hold him personally responsible for the defeats and blunders. In 1916 they suffered immense losses and large-scale defeats. By 1917 there was deep discontent throughout the army, and many soldiers supported the Bolsheviks. Beforehand, it was the support of the loyal army to the Tsar that had helped Nicholas overcome the 1905 revolution. By 1917, he had lost this. Other factors resulting from the war was the decline in support from the peasants, workers, and ethnic minorities.
Whole villages were wiped out from the war losses, leaving widows and children that received no state war pensions. The Tsar caused a revolt when he tried to conscript Muslims into the army. Workers got no extra wages even though 3. 5million jobs were created, and they suffered even more overcrowding than before the war. There were fuel and food shortages. What made this worse was that there was enough food and fuel; it just could not be transported to the cities, as the rail network couldn’t cope with the needs of the army, industry and the cities’ populations.
As 1916 became 1917, and people stood and shivered in bread queues, they cursed the Tsar. The middle classes were not really affected like the peasants, but they too were unhappy with the Tsar by the end of 1916. They were appalled by reports of no first aid and so formed their own Red Cross. Many industrialists by 1916 could not complete war contracts because of shortage of raw materials, and when the Duma asked the Tsar to work with them in a way that would unite the people, he refused. The Duma was dismissed a month later. The Tsar also upset the aristocracy. In late 1916 the Council of United Nobility asked the Tsar to step down.
The junior officers, who were the future aristocrats, had suffered great losses. And the conscription of 13 million peasants meant had no one to work on their estates. Again, the influence of Rasputin over how the government ran appalled Russians. Another doing by the Tsar that declined his popularity was leaving the Tsarina in charge when he went to lead the army. The Tsarina was German, and this started rumours flying. Many also suspected she was having an affair with Rasputin. Ministers were dismissed and then replaced. On March 11th an order was issued sending Rasputin to Tobolsk, but the Empress ordered it to be cancelled.
The concerns were so great that a group of leading aristocrats murdered Rasputin in December 1916. As 1917 began, few people now had any hope or supported the Tsar. In January, strikes broke out all over Russia and even more so in February. The Tsars best troops had died in battle, and the soldier’s left were recent conscripts who had more in common with the strikers than their officers. On March 7th, workers from the Putilov steelworks in Petrograd went on strike, as well as thousands of women supporting international women’s day, and many other discontented worker’s demanding the government provide bread.
From 7th-10th March, the number of striking workers rose to 250,000. Industry had come to a standstill. The Duma set up a Provisional Committee to take over government but the Tsar ordered them to disband, to which they firmly refused. On 12th March the Tsar ordered his army to put down the revolt by force, and they firmly refused. This was a crucial moment and a very important reason as to how the Bolsheviks managed to take power. With the army’s support, the Tsar was strong. Without it, he was gone and Tsarist Russia had fallen.
The revolution marched to the Duma demanding they take over the government; the Duma leaders’ accepted reluctantly as they wanted reform rather than revolution, but now there seemed no choice. On the same day revolutionaries took control of food supplies to St. Petersburg, Soldiers’ committee’s had been set up, undermining the authority of the officers. At this point there was confusion over who was actually in control of Russia, but one thing was clear, it definitely wasn’t the Tsar! On 15th March, a statement was issued to declare the Tsar was abdicating. This left a gap in Russian power open for the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
There was also many short-term causes that helped the Bolsheviks seize power, such as the Kornilov revolt, the failure of the Provisional Government, and the crucial roles of Lenin and Trotsky. The Dumas Provisional Committee that took over the government had 3 urgent decisions, whether to continue fighting, to distribute land to peasants, and how to get food to cities. It decided to continue fighting, and asked peasants to wait for elections before taking land. The idea was it would stand down and allow free elections that would fairly and democratically represent the people of Russia.
However, the Provisional Government was not the only option for government. Mainly workers in key industries such as coal mining, water and the army also supported the Petrograd Soviet. There was one man, Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks that wanted to push the revolution further. He returned from exile (in a train provided by Germans hoping he would cause more chaos in Russia! ) Support for the Bolsheviks increased quickly after Lenin issued his ‘April Theses’ where he encouraged support for Bolsheviks in a second revolution.
Lenin’s slogans, ‘Peace, Land and Bread’ and ‘All power to the soviets’ contrasted drastically with the cautious message of the Provisional Government. By the second half of 1917, the Provisional Government was quickly losing support from soviets, and members of the army turned their attentions to the aims and messages of the Bolsheviks. The Provisional Government’s authority was steadily collapsing, encouraged by the failing war they had kept up. Soldiers were deserting in the thousands. Kerensky became Minister for War and planned a great offensive in June. It was a disaster.
The army began to fall apart at the beginning of a German counter-attack and so the deserters decided to come home. There were even more desertions because of the failure of another of the Provisional Government’s policies. Peasants ignored the order to wait for land, taking control of countryside. Soldiers, mostly peasants, didn’t want to miss out on their turn as shortages of food were common and this was very important The situation for the Provisional Government worsened during the ‘July Days’. Bolshevik-led protests against the war turned into a rebellion.
But When Kerensky produced evidence that Lenin had been helped by the Germans, support fell. Lenin, in disguise, fled to Finland. Kerensky used troops to crush the rebellion and took over the Government. The Provisional Government had failed, one less competitor for the Bolsheviks. The upper and middle classes now wanted Kerensky to restore order, but the real power was with the soviets. This was especially true with the Petrograd, which had a Bolshevik majority, and a Bolshevik chairman called Leon Trotsky, which also had the support of the army and industrial workers.
The impact of the Kornilov revolt also added to the short term causes helping to bring about the Bolsheviks seizure of authority. The Provisional Government had not fulfilled other people’s expectations; much of the army was fed up. In September 1917, the army leader Kornilov marched his troops towards Russia intending to get rid of the provisional government and the Bolsheviks. Kerensky had few army and no other choice but to join with his Bolshevik opponents who dominated the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks organised themselves into an army called the Red Guards.
Kornilov’s troops refused to fight members of the soviet and so his plans collapsed. This however didn’t not secure Kerensky’s government. By October, this government was doomed. They had tried to continue war and by failing, had lost the army’s support. It had tried to stop peasants taking land and so lost their support too. Without peasant support it had failed to solve the food shortages, food prices spiralled upwards. It had now lost any support it had from urban workers. It was now the right time for the Bolsheviks to promote what they were promising, which was what people wanted, ‘Bread, Peace, and Land.
It was them that removed the threat of Kornilov, and by the end of 1917 there were also Bolshevik majorities in Petrograd and Moscow soviets and in most major towns and cities. The roles of Lenin and Trotsky were very important to the success of the Bolsheviks. Their outstanding personalities are what drove much of the events leading up to the final take-over by the Bolsheviks and encouraged the fall of the Provisional Government. By the end of October 1917, Lenin felt it was the time to seize power. Not all agreed with him, but they were no match to his arguments.
During the night of the 6th November, Red Guards led by Trotsky took control of post offices, bridges and the state bank. Kerensky awoke on the 7th November to find the Bolsheviks were in control of most of Petrograd. Through the day, with little or no opposition they took over other important targets. That evening they stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the ministers of the Provisional Government. Kerensky escaped and tried to rally loyal troops, but this failed and so he fled into exile. On 8th November an announcement was made to the Russian people, “the provisional government has been overthrown… he immediate proposal of a democratic peace, the end of land owners’ rights, workers; control over production, the creation of a Soviet government.
Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants! ” And so it was the combination of causes and events, both long and short term, that brought about the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917. They managed to do this even though they did not have the support of the majority of Russians. It was initially the dislike for the Tsar and his way of ruling Russia, and the unpopularity of the Provisional Government, which was the critical factor, and allowed them to do so.
The Bolsheviks to the end, were the only party that wanted to pull out of the War, and had many supporters in the right places. At least half of the army supported them, as did the sailors at the important naval base at Kronstadt near Petrograd. The Bolsheviks were also a disciplined party dedicated to revolution, with some outstanding personalities such as Lenin and Trotsky. There were around 800,000 members, helped by having the major industrial centres, near the Moscow and Petrograd soviets especially, that were all pro-Bolshevik.
The Bolsheviks offered an effective solution to the squalor and starvation the people had suffered under the Tsar, upholding a political system already long overdue for reform. All the events leading up to this radical uprising of the Bolsheviks, helped create the October-Novemeber revolution. This made Russia a democratic country with an elected government working for it’s people, it’s workers, it’s soldiers, and the peasants. Tsarist Russia was now history, but for Bolshevik Russia, this was just the beginning.