The Russian Revolution of February – March 1917 might have been the most justified revolution in history. The abdication of the Tsar finally gave the Russian people a voice in society. Prior to this event, people had suffered unimaginable hardships due to their corrupt and incompetent rulers. Their leader, the Tsar, all but destroyed the economy, starved the people, sent poorly led peasants into battle to be slaughtered and allowed incompetent people run the nation. The public attitude towards the Tsar and the system of an autocratic monarchical government changed dramatically during the early twentieth century.
Prior to the revolution, the Russian people were strongly influenced by the Orthodox Church and faithfully believed that the Tsar was chosen by God to rule Russia. Russia was the most autocratic nation in Europe, primarily because the people obeyed the Tsar’s commands out of fear of god. “The emperor of all the Russia’s is an autocratic and unlimited monarch. God himself commands that his supreme power be obeyed, out of conscience as well as fear. (Armstrong, P. People and Power: Russia, 1993).
Several events occurred during the reign of Nicholas II, which made the people of Russia question the ruling and power of the Tsar. Firstly, the worsening of the working and living conditions of the peasants made them question the intent of the Tsar and his government. There was also an increase in the number of literate and educated people who could see that what was happening to the people was wrong and that it should be stopped. In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan over the possession off Port Arthur, which is ice free all year round. At one point he actually described the Japanese as “little yellow monkeys”.
Nicholas II greatly underestimated the Japanese and over the next year his army and navy suffered one defeat after another. The Russian armies were ill equipped, badly armed, and poorly trained. By the end of the war, all of the Russian fleets had been destroyed. Russia’s performance in the war exposed the corruption and inefficiency of the government and greatly undermined its authority over the people. Near the end of the Russo-Japanese war, in 1905, a priest, Father Gapon, who was one of the organisers of a trade union, decided to put together a petition and present it to the Tsar at his Winter Palace.
This petition was signed by 135,000 people and asked for both political and economic reforms, such as a Duma which would be elected by the people, freedom of speech, labour legislation, an eight hour working day and the introduction of a new and fair tax system. It also called for the war to be stopped immediately. Gapon hoped that the Tsar would grant the reforms to lessen the recent discontent of the people. 150,000 people marched with father Gapon to the Winter Palaces gates. It was a peaceful march and many brought frames with pictures of the Tsar and other religious figures.
When the crowd reached the palace, the guards opened fire on them. Hundreds were killed and hundreds more were wounded. After this “Bloody Sunday” the Russian people lost faith in the Tsar as the guardian of his people. In order for the autocratic monarchy to survive, the Tsar produced what was known as the “October Manifesto”, a reform which promised the people freedom of speech and a Duma which was elected by the people. This was a temporary relief for the Tsar, and his government was back in control by 1906.
Furthermore, the press was censored by the government to stop any information that could be potentially harmful to him from being released. However, as most Russian citizens were illiterate, this was unnecessary. There were numerous incompetent political figures appointed during Nicholas II’s reign as Tsar, including the Tsar himself. In 1915, the Tsar appointed himself Supreme Military Commander, leaving his wife, Alexandra in control of the capital, Petrograd. The Russian people were suspicious of the Tsarina, as she was a German princess and they were fighting the country of her origin in World War I.
Alexandra appointed a whole string of incompetent government ministers. Stirmer was a German courtier, devoid of any political experience whatsoever and became the minister of foreign affairs during WWI. Rasputin was a monk believed by the Tsar and Tsarina to have magical healing powers. Rasputin had a huge influence over the Tsarina and so in the Tsar’s absence, practically ran the country. Prince N. D. Golitsyn became the Prime Minister as a friend of Alexandra’s. He was elderly, incompetent, and often dozed off in meetings with the council of ministers.
In autumn 1916, the Tsar appointed the most inept Minister in Interior ever. Potropopov was corrupt and crazy, appointed only as a friend of Rasputin’s. It was no wonder that Russia was completely incompetent. As the industrial revolution took off in Russia, the government was very eager to see its development flourish. World War I also caused a huge increase in industry. During the industrial revolution in the rest of Europe, private groups or company’s funded most of the heavy industry. In Russia however, heavy industry was primarily funded by the state.
The government invested heavily in industry to obtain armaments and as a result, the economy of the country became distorted. The economy could not support both the war and the people of Russia. Taxation was not raised enough to cover these investments and so the government had to borrow and print more money. This in turn triggered off inflation. In 1914 there were 2,400,000,000 roubles in circulation in Russia. By 1917 there were more than 11,200,000,000 roubles. This rise of almost 500% caused prices to rise by more than 700% over the same period of time.
Although the wages of the workers did increase, prices increased more than twice as fast. Workers soon began demanding increased wages and went on strike when they didn’t get them. By 1917, striking workers caused industrial production to drop by 50%. These strikes were one of the immediate causes of the imperial collapse. The main economical problem was that money could not be easily converted into food. Inflation meant that money was not worth as much as food, being so rare was highly prized. Even if you had money, there was still no food to be had.
The government made desperate attempts to fix prices and halt inflation, all of which failed and worsened the situation by creating a huge black market and widespread shortages of goods. By 1916 peasants began to hoard their harvests for better times. This caused a lack of food in the cities where most of the food was taken. The rail systems also contributed to the lack of food in the cities. Between 1914 and 1916, rail traffic increased from 235,000,000 to 348,000,000 passengers and freight increased from 13,826,000,000 pounds to 17,228,000,000 pounds (Bradley, J.
The Russian Revolution, 1988). Rail systems could not cope. The army, civilian passengers and freight clogged the rails and slowed the supply of food to major cities. This caused bread riots in Petrograd and widespread famine across Russia. The critical food shortages that occurred in the early 1900s, particularly during the demands of World War I, caused an outrage amongst Russian peasants and workers. With the growing difficulty of the agrarian life in the late 1800s and the rapid rise of industrialisation in large towns, there was a massive population movement from rural to urban regions.
The living and working conditions in the towns and cities were no better than the country. The average wages of factory workers were extremely low, hours were long, and working conditions were appalling as well as dangerous. Rapid industrialisation and poor management of the economy caused many political strains. Inflation occurred and the little money people earned rapidly lost its value. Shortages in food fuel and goods became common at the turn of the century due to the incompetent ruling of the Tsar.
However, in 1914, when the Tsar decided to become involved in World War I, the shortages of food and supplies further intensified. The caused lay not only in the decline in agricultural production but also in the combination of a disrupted economic life. The food production in farms dropped to a critical low because of the millions of peasants conscripted into the army. Lack of cold storage plants and lack of co-operation between departments meant that the little food that was available was left to rot. Due to war, in Ukraine, the largest single corn producing area in Russia had been lost.
Much of Russia’s railway lines had also been lost and what remained was unable to cope with the demands of the army as well as the needs of the farmers and workers. The sharpest increase in food prices occurred in major industrial regions. Milk increased by 150%, bread, 500%, butter, 830% and shoes and clothing, 600% (R. B. Rose, The Russian Revolution). As the conditions grew worse, death amongst soldiers and civilians due to malnutrition became increasingly common. The critical food shortage in addition to the unbearable cold winter of 1917 was a short term cause of the February Revolution.
By this time, the public attitude towards the Tsar and the government had developed into hatred and a revolution to overthrow the monarchy became almost inevitable. A major factor which caused the Russian people to revolt against the Tsarist regime was the increasing rate of poverty amongst the peasants and the proletariats. Although the emancipation of serfs in 1861 freed millions of people from slavery, their lives had not improved at all. The new ‘liberated’ peasants were graced a very small portion of land from their former master’s estate.
The government had compensated the land owners for the land given up and the peasants were expected to pay high ‘redemption payments’ plus general taxes throughout the rest of their lives which resulted in millions of people who were deeply in debt. Although these payments were abolished after several decades, they caused great bitterness and discontent. The poverty of the peasants was also a result of their agricultural practices. Firstly, their land was so small that they could barely feed their families, and secondly, the farming methods they used were old fashioned and inefficient, as most peasants could not afford to buy machinery.
However there was a considerable gap between the rich and poor. A small minority of nobles and wealthy landlords owned vast areas of land and lived in absolute luxury. The peasants however lived in squaller. With hardly enough food to feed their families, there was no time or money to fix houses and sanitations. Many towns fell into disrepair and hardly any towns had working sewerage systems. This was especially true during WWI. The lack of a clean living environment caused disease and in the cold winters, many died because of a lack of shelter.
The extreme state of poverty experienced by the majority of the Russian population contributed significantly towards the revolution as it was a major long term cause of the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. By the spring of 1917, peasant soldiers were extremely dissatisfied with their fighting conditions and became mutinous. The soldiers were irregularly receiving poor rations and sometimes none at all, unlike the period between 1914 and 1916 when there was an abundance of food and clothing. The losses of Russian troops between the start of the war in August 1914 and March 1917 were staggering.
There were 1,300,000 soldiers killed, 4,200,000wounded and 2,500,000 captured – a total loss of 8,000,000 soldiers (Campling, E. The Russian Revolution: How and Why). The Russian army, though magnificent in numbers, was poorly led, poorly fed and consisted of many soldiers who were illiterate and ignorant, some of which consistently broke down communication lines by chopping down telephone poles to brew their tea. These factors led to an ever increasing lack of morale amongst the troops. Russian troops were sometimes limited to four shots or less a day with one gun frequently shared between four men.
This lack of organisation was typical of the incompetent leaders of the Russian army – with the Tsar appointing himself as the Commander in Chief and officers treating the men like savages, enforcing discipline through public beatings. The morale of the men was so low that after a burst of shellfire at the frontline, the recruits would start crying. During the Brusitov offensive in 1916, men were shooting themselves in the fingers and being carried off to avoid having to fight. “They took on us like soulless lumps, without any feeling at all.
Beatings are savage: sometimes old men with long beards are beaten. We throw our rifles away and give up because things are dreadful in our army and so are the officers” (Bradley, John. The Russian Revolution, 1988). General Yavushkevich, the Stavka Chief of Staff, tried to reinvigorate the soldiers’ motivation by proposing to the council of ministers that peasant soldiers who fought well should be rewarded with 25 acres of land. However, this idea was rejected. By 1917, soldiers under the influence of alcohol purchased on the black market were openly mutinous, attacking and sometimes killing their officers.
Widespread civil disorders broke out in Warsaw where mutinous mobs ruined the city before running away in panic. A similar situation occurred in the capital, Petrograd, and officers could not be expected to suppress them. This was the most immediate cause of the Tsar’s collapse. There were several social, economic and political factors which caused the Russian people to revolt against the Tsarist regime in February – March 1917. The country’s poverty and late industrialisation caused economic struggles for most peasants and workers.
It also resulted in critical shortages of food, fuel and other goods. Events such as the Russo-Japanese war and Bloody Sunday had an immediate impact on the people’s faith in the Tsar and the political system by which they were forced to abide. The poor leadership, Russia’s incompetent political figures and the social and economic impacts of Russia’s involvement in World War I eventually resulted in a loss of civilian and military control and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Russian Revolution of February -March 1917 had signified the end of the 300 year old Romanov Dynasty.