Russia and the Soviet Union, 1917-41
The two revolutions of 1917
Russia in early 1917
At the beginning of the twentieth century Russia was a very backward country. Only 2% of the population worked in industry, 80% worked in agriculture, which was often very primitive, and there was 80% illiteracy. Many Russians distrusted Western ideas and preferred to use old-fashioned methods.
In Russia there were extremes of wealth and poverty, far greater than in any other European country. These were made worse by big increases in the populations of the two main cities, St Petersburg and Moscow. The number of people living in these cities nearly doubled between 1880 and 1914. This led to overcrowding, shortages of food and unrest. The opposition groups in Russia took advantage of this situation. In 1917 events in Petrograd were all important.
Autocracy was the form of government in Russia. It meant that the Tsar had absolute power. He could make laws, appoint ministers and decide on all policies completely on his own. Autocracy led to the creation of many opposition groups in Russia. The most powerful and the biggest was the Socialists-Revolutionaries, which were strongest in the countryside, where they had the support of many peasants. But the Bolsheviks, part of the Social Democrats (the other part was the Mensheviks) were to be the most significant. All of these groups used violence.
Tsars had traditionally relied on repression to deal with opposition. The secret police, the Okhrana, were very efficient and street disturbances were broken up by the Cossacks. This had always worked in the past and he had no other alternatives. This meant that opposition groups also tended to be violent. Nicholas’s grandfather, Alexander II, was killed by a bomb in 1881.
Tsar Nicholas II was weak and easily influenced by others. Even when he took the right decision, e.g. after the 1905 Revolution, he changed his mind later on. He did not want to be Tsar and was not capable of acting sensibly. But he felt he had to keep going to pass the throne on to his son. Even after the setting up of the Duma in 1906, Nicholas II was very reluctant to allow it any real power. This meant that it was impossible to bring about any changes in Russia without Nicholas agreeing to them.
Although Russia appeared to recover in the years from 1906 to 1914, opposition to the Tsar grew in key areas. There were increasing strikes in industry and at the Lena goldfields, 500 miners were killed by troops in a protest.
There were two main opposition groups. The Social Revolutionaries were the more popular and had the support of the peasants, who were the largest social group in Russia. The Social Democrats drew their support from urban workers. In 1903, the SDs had split into two groups. The larger was the Mensheviks (although the name actually meant the ‘minority men’). The smaller group was the Bolsheviks (‘majority men’). The names came about because they had split after a meeting in London where the Bolsheviks had been in the majority. The Bolsheviks were led by Vladimir Lenin who was in exile in Switzerland when the First World War broke out in 1914. Both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were Marxists, but the Bolsheviks were more united and more determined.
How did each of the following help bring about unrest in Russia?
Rich and Poor
Life in the cities