Russian Revolution Revision Notes and Essays

May 2010 IBDP Paper 3 Question:
Compare and Contrast the Causes and Nature of the 1917 Russian Revolutions


It is asserted that two revolutions took place in 1917 in Russia – the February Revolution which forced the abdication of the Tsar and implication of the Provisional Government, and the October Revolution which saw his death and the overthrow of said government by the Bolsheviks. According to Soviet historiography, such as in the novel, History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks), the genuine popular uprising of the Russian people against a corrupt and bourgeoise regime, guided by the leadership of Lenin, was what resulted in the October Revolution. However, this view has been completely dismembered in the West, where historians such as Pipes view October as “a classic coup d'etat” with the aim of building a “one part dictatorship.” Therefore, to compare these two events, one must thoroughly examine two aspects. First, what was the nature of each of the “revolutions” -  a political or social revolt? Second, the instigation and driving cause of the revolutions must be examined – a manipulation of the people, or a spontaneous uprising? This essay will argue that February served as a political change, and October as a social one, and that although the cause of the revolutions had similar roots, the also held fundamental differences.   

First, the term “revolution” must be defined. The dictionary refers to it as “a forcible overthrow of a government or a social order, in favour of a new system.” However, this definition is limited. According to international relations expert and university lecturer Neil Davidson, there are two kinds of revolution. Political revolutions are struggles within a society for an existing state, but ones that leave the social and economic structure intact. Generally, the class that was in control stay in control (although individuals and political parties may have been replaced), and the class that was exploited remains so. Social revolutions on the other hand result in the complete and total transformation of one type of society into another. From this, one can argue that the February revolution was a political one. Support for the February revolution (8th March) being a political one, and not social, is rife. After the autocratic and oppressive rule of the Tsars, the Russian people hoped the government would introduce the liberal reforms they so desired. Although at first it appeared as though this was the case – legislation was passed that led even Lenin (a fierce critic) to declare Russia “the freest of all the belligerent countries,” there was universal suffrage (made all the more powerful when one sees 'Great' nations such as America and Britain did not allow 50% of their population this privilege, and yet preached democracy), and freedom of speech, with no censorship. However, once the initial wave of support subsided, unrest grew once more. This was due to the revolutions failure to revolutionise more than the governmental system. The revolution had left the same class in power – the seats of the government were composed of the bourgeoisie, and remnants of those in power from the old Tsarist system. The war, which had been a key factor contributing to the bread riots that sparked the revolution on International Women's Day, was still raging on claiming ever more lives, and the class that had been suppressed throughout serfdom remained so, as the bourgeoisie in control found the concept of the working class owning the land they worked on completely abhorrent.                                            

In contrast, the October Revolution was much less romanticized. Whereas the key dates for February highlight the role of protests and people en-masse, October can be broken into a meeting on the 23rd, wherein the Bolsheviks voted 10-2 for a resolution saying an armed uprising was inevitable, and that “the time is fully ripe,” and the 7th of December, where over that date and a few days after it, the Bolsheviks took over major government facilities culminating in an assault on the winter palace. During the course of the revolution, a comparatively bloodless 6 people died in total. Lenin himself was a meticulous planner, as can be illustrated by his rejection of the Kronstadt sailors revolt, telling them the time was not right (although his role is changed in Sergei Eisenstein's film, 'October'). Therefore, although in neither revolution the people rose up to defend the system in place, the methods through which the revolutions came to fruition were very different. Lenin was allowed this swift and easy takeover of the current government because, as with the Tsar, they did not have control over the army, their power had been split with the Soviets from the very beginning, and no one was fighting for the provisional government. Their lack of censorship of the press led to greater opportunities for propaganda, as can again be seen through reference in Lenin's theses; “as long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticising and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.” Evidently, the causes of the two revolutions, although both linked to the war, and both aided by a lack of support for the existing regime, are decidedly different – one was a spontaneous uprising, while the other was an organised and meticulously planned take over based around weaknesses in the existing regime and careful assessment and application of the wills of the people.        

In stark contrast to this, the October Revolution was no doubt a social revolution. According to liberal Pipes, the October revolution was in fact a coup d'etat. He asserts that the Bolsheviks used a variety of techniques to gain and then consolidate power, manipulating the masses into accepting their violent takeover. Responding to allegations that he simply represents a Western view greatly influenced by negative Russo-American relations during the Cold War, he points to Russian Volkogonov, who had extensive access to Soviet archives and shares some points with Pipes. However, Volkogonov himself is part of the movement of contemporary Russian writers wishing to expose the failings of the Communist Party in an attempt to experience catharsis. Therefore there is room for this view to be challenged. Relating to Neil Davidson's definition, a revolution is not discounted from being called such simply because it was led and organised by one party or man. The actual effects of October themselves, compared to the regime in place prior to Bolshevik rule, are indisputably revolutionary. A key issue that was creating unrest was the lack of land ownership for peasants. In his April Theses, Lenin clearly outlines his plans for the “confiscation of all landed estates” and  “nationalisation of all lands in the country.” This was enacted once rule was consolidated. The freedoms women had enjoyed were also revoked, as well as many larger social changes. By 1920 the state had taken over all enterprises employing more than ten workers. A barter system replaced the free market, internal trade was made illegal, money disappeared as the state took over, Church and state were separated by decree and judges were removed and replaced by members of local soviets. Nine opposition parties were liquidated. Poorer peasants were mobilized against the kulaks. Evidently this was a complete social and political change. Lenin himself seemed to recognise the fundamental difference between the two revolutions, stating that “the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.” Evidently a key area of difference between the two is the role of the first as a political revolution, and the role of the second as a total social revolt.                         

The second area of contrast is to look at the method by which the revolutions came about. Both revolutions were effected by the war – as alluded to, unrest due to food shortages that were directly linked to the war had the population in unrest, and Lenin too played off this, a third of his thesis being “peace.” The war was also critical to instigating turning of popular opinion from the Tsar – when he took charge, the people turned against him, as he became the figurehead for the losses Russia was suffering in the war, as argued by Acton in 1990. However, where the war during the February Revolution had shackled the people of Russia and starved them to the point where they threw off their chains and clamoured for revolution, according to Fitzpatrick - who provides a more balanced account of the revolution – the Bolsheviks used the war as a means to gain power. The force behind the February revolution was rooted in the people. The events leading up to the February revolution were strikes, followed by demonstrations to demand bread, bringing out 50,000 workers to join the rally. By March 10th, just three days later, virtually every industrial enterprise in Petrograd had been shut down. Students, white-collar workers and teachers soon joined. When the Tsar, on March 11th, called for his troops to take action against the rioting force, they began to mutiny, asking “those are our brothers and sisters out there – asking for food. Are we going to shoot them too?”                     

In conclusion, when examining the nature of the two revolutions, one must specifically examine, and if necessary challenge, what is meant by “revolution.” In the case of Russia, the revolution of February represented a political revolution, one which, through failure to produce any significant social change that could be experienced by the masses, and freedom of press, allowed the Bolsheviks to rise in confidence and strategy. With Lenin back in the country, the war raging on, no land reforms and hunger still widespread, the Bolsheviks with their simple and yet powerful slogan “peace, bread, land” came to power. The systems in place prior to each revolution were not strong enough to maintain power, and were not liked enough to prevent revolution. With this failure of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks were able to move in and institute a complete social revolution, a revolution that has not only changed the face of Russia, but one which has had a long reaching impact across Europe, Asia, and far beyond its October beginnings into World War Two and the Cold War.


The main difference between the causes of the two revelations was that the one in February happened by chance and was a product of more widespread discontent while the one in October was the result of meticulous planning by one man and his lieutenants. The main difference in nature of the two was that in February the people were demanding the removal of a government while in October the people were demanding replacing it with a specific type of government.  

The February Revolution was not premeditated in any way but was rather a spontaneous outburst of civil discontent. The common people of Russia have long envied the privileges granted to their counter parts in more socially advanced European states such as Great Britain or Germany and their discontent was only further exacerbated by the shortage of food and other hardships mounted on them by the ongoing World War. It just so happened that these rumbling of discontent came to a head on February 1917, when on International Women’s Day women, men, and children took to the streets, demanding not a great social upheaval but rather just enough to sustain themselves. The Revolution was successful not because of the execution of a Byzantine plot decades in the making by some devious Machiavellian but rather for the simple fact that the soldiers, namely the Cossacks, were unwilling to shoot what could have been their own friends and family for demanding the privilege of not starving to death, their only reward being the inevitability of being sent to the cold, cruel front in an increasingly desperate war. As Wallace McCollum argues, the February Revolution was not a revolution but a coup triggered by a bread riot. With their army gone the last pillar upholding the rotting structure of the Russian Imperial Government was removed and converted into a battering ram, leaving it with no other choice but to relent to the new democratic government of the Duma.               

This new Duma was mainly made up of those from the middle class of Russia and supported progressive reforms such as freedom of speech, religion, and universal suffrage. While this sounds all well and good from our perspective, the reality was that on overwhelming majority of Russians were not middle class but rather peasants or labourers. Mikhail Dmitri Rastovkin argues that the largely illiterate working class of Russia did not appreciate these reforms. How could you appreciate being able to write or read anything you want if you cannot read? How can you appreciate being able to practice any religion you wanted if all you knew was the Russian Orthodox Church? How could you appreciate being in a position to participate in politics when you have had no experience with it? To the peasants, the only reform that mattered was land reform, something that was at odds with the liberal stance of the Duma, which believed in private ownership. It was both that and the continuation of the war, which led to public support turning against the Duma and turning towards Lenin and his radical Bolsheviks. Far from offering intangible ideologically based handouts Lenin promised peace, bread, and land.  Far from the spontaneous outbursts of disorder present in the February Revolution, the October Revolution was premeditated every step of the way by Lenin. By October, he had managed to organize the seizer of government posts all over Russia culminating in the dramatic storming of the Winter Palace, which had been abandoned by all save the Women Shock Brigade of Death. Ironic to think that the February Revolution started with women on International Women’s Day and ended with an all female paramilitary formation being its final line of defence.                

The main difference between the causes of the two revelations was that the one in February happened by chance and was a product of more widespread discontent while the one in October was the result of meticulous planning by one man and his lieutenants. The main difference in nature of the two was that in February the people were demanding the removal of a government while in October the people were demanding replacing it with a specific type of government.