The background to Russia’s revolution

October 20, 2017
Vladimir Lenin.

The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the first socialist revolution in world history, is marked on October 25 — the date the Bolsheviks lead the revolutionary seizure of power by the soviets (councils of workers, peasants and soldiers).

Socialist activist and historian Paul Le Blanc has written a detailed overview of the revolution, from its background to its aftermath. Green Left Weekly is running it over four parts, with the first part below. The full piece can read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.


Two revolutions occurred in Russia in 1917. The first, in February, overthrew the Russian monarchy. The second revolution, in October, created the world’s first workers’ state.

The revolutions of 1917 involved a series of uprisings by workers and peasants throughout the country, and by soldiers, who were predominantly of peasant origin, in the Russian army.

Many of the uprisings were led by democratically-elected councils called soviets. The soviets originated as strike committees and were basically a form of local self-government.

The second revolution led to the rise of the modern Communist movement and to the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The goal of those who carried it out was creating social equality and economic democracy in Russia — socialism

However, the system eventually turned into a bureaucratic dictatorship, which lasted until 1991. 


At the start of the 20th century, Russia was an empire with an undemocratic system headed by an absolute monarch, the tsar, who ruled with an iron fist.

Maintaining the tsar’s power were a vast bureaucracy, an army and a repressive, ever-present political police force.

The tsarist system involved the repression of civil liberties, intellectual freedom and human rights. It persecuted various religious minorities.

The tsarist regime sought to expand its domination over neighbouring non-Russian peoples and secure its position as a major world power. It brutally subordinated many ethnic and national groups, becoming known as a “prison-house of nations”.

The royal family was at the top of a small but powerful layer of wealthy nobles, who owned most of the land. The nobility maintained itself in luxury at the expense of the great majority, who were mostly impoverished peasants. Peasants made up about 80% of the population in 1917.

The other social classes included capitalists, workers and professionals. These became an increasingly important part of Russian society in the 19th century.

To keep up economically and militarily with the other major world powers, the tsarist regime encouraged the development of industry in the later 19th century. One class to emerge from industrial development were the big capitalists. They were essential to Russian economic development, but had little political power under tsarism.

The development of industry created another major, and much larger, social class: the wage-earning working class, who made up slightly more than 10% of the population in 1917.

However, these workers lived in the large cities, many were literate, and they were receptive to a growing variety of new social and cultural influences. Moreover, their labour was essential in producing goods and services.

For these reasons, the working class was a major force for social change. In growing numbers, workers sought to organise trade unions to win better conditions. The tsarist regime and capitalists often repressed their efforts for reforms.

This repression, combined with poor working and living conditions, led many workers to become highly political and support revolutionary groups.

A smaller, but still important, social class comprised intermediate layers of small-business people and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and writers.

Some strove to achieve the “respectability” associated with the upper classes. Others sympathised or identified with the workers and peasants. A significant number were drawn to revolutionary politics.

Political ferment

Peasants, ethnic and national groups, and religious minorities had periodically revolted for centuries. However, in the 19th century a new kind of revolutionary movement developed — influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of democracy, equality and human rights.

In the mid-19th century, many intellectuals and students from the intermediate classes became increasingly discontented with Russia’s repressive regime and rigid society. They engaged in illegal political activity, forming discussion groups and distributing pamphlets.

Some embraced an idealistic political philosophy known as populism, advocating social changes to benefit the masses of Russia’s people, especially the peasants. Others became anarchists, opposing all forms of government.

However, many revolutionaries were increasingly influenced by a variety of socialist ideas.

Some socialist revolutionary groups focused their attention on the peasant majority. They hoped that terrorist actions — such as assassinating the tsar or tyrannical public officials — would help spark a revolutionary uprising. Such an uprising would make possible the creation of a new economy largely based on traditional peasant communes.

Those who held these ideas eventually formed the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party in 1901.

Other socialist revolutionaries identified with the ideas of Karl Marx. These Marxists believed that the working class — with its struggles to organise trade unions and win democratic political reforms — would be the main force for revolutionary change.

The Russian Marxists formed the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898. In 1903, however, the RSDLP split into two factions.

The “Bolsheviks” (Russian for majority) were led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin and favoured a more centralised and disciplined party. The “Mensheviks” (Russian for minority) were more loosely organised and included a less politically cohesive mixture of radicals and moderates.

Some non-socialists who favoured revolutionary change to get rid of tsarism formed a liberal party in 1905. They were known as the Constitutional Democrats (nicknamed the Cadets). This party represented primarily the educated and propertied classes.

Initially, all these political groups believed Russia needed a revolution to replace tsarism with a democratic republic. This would promote capitalist development, which would “modernise” Russia.

The liberals believed that democratic and capitalist development was itself the goal, while Marxists believed it would pave the way for socialism.

1905 Revolution

In 1905, it appeared such a democratic revolution had arrived. In January 1905, in the then-capital Saint Petersburg, the tsar’s imperial guard fired on a peaceful demonstration of workers and their families.

This massacre sparked a huge uprising. Strikes and insurgencies spread throughout the countryside, towns and cities. All revolutionary parties suddenly gained mass followings.

The tsarist regime offered a variety of concessions, including expanded civil liberties and the creation of an elected legislative body (with very limited powers) called the Duma.

In the unrest, workers established the first soviets in major cities.

Many Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike thought that revolution was at hand. Lenin envisioned what he called an “uninterrupted” revolution, involving a democratic revolution being pushed forward by a new workers’ and peasants’ government.

By the end of 1905, however, the tsarist regime reasserted its authority through military and paramilitary violence. It quelled peasant unrest, victimised non-Russian ethnic minorities and repressed workers’ groups — especially the soviets. The regime arrested or drove into exile thousands of revolutionaries.

But the experience of 1905 contributed to later revolutionary developments.

Compromise and struggle

As the tsarist regime re-established complete control over Russia, divisions among the revolutionaries deepened. The liberal Cadets made many compromises with the regime in a bid to enact reforms through the Duma. The SRs, on the other hand, tended towards resuming terrorist activities.

Within the RSDLP, the gap between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks became wider. For the most part, the Mensheviks sought to ally themselves politically with the reformers in the Duma who wanted to develop the capitalist economy. They also tended to focus more on legislative work rather than on traditional underground activity, such as publishing illegal newspapers and organising strikes.

The Bolsheviks insisted on building a more radical political alliance between the workers and peasants. Although the Bolsheviks sent deputies to the Duma and engaged in legislative work, they focused on developing their underground organisation.

In 1912, the Bolsheviks formally split from the Mensheviks to build their own separate party. This split coincided with further industrial development and an upsurge of working-class radicalisation. Consequently, the Bolsheviks dramatically increased their influence in Russia’s industrial centres until the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918).

World War I

The eruption of World War I in 1914 halted Russia’s political development. Russia joined with Britain, France, and other nations in waging war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The ruling elites in each nation were motivated by a desire to defend and extend their economic and political power.

In Russia, as elsewhere, enthusiasm for the war effort among the masses was whipped up under patriotic slogans of saving the nation from foreign aggressors. Opponents of the war were denounced as traitors and suppressed.

The pro-war patriotism swept up the Cadets, many Mensheviks, and even some SRs. Lenin’s Bolsheviks opposed the war, and faced isolation and repression — as did those Mensheviks who spoke out against the war.

The war was a disaster for the Russian people and the tsarist regime. Russian industry lacked the capacity to arm, equip and supply the 15 million men sent to fight. Repeated mobilisations, moreover, disrupted the already insufficient industrial and agricultural production.

The food supply fell and transport became disorganised. In the trenches, the soldiers went hungry and frequently lacked equipment. Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any army in any previous war.

Behind the front, goods became scarce and prices skyrocketed. By 1917, famine threatened the larger cities. Discontent became rife, and army morale plummeted, further undermined by a succession of military defeats.

As the war dragged on, misery in Russia’s cities grew. The major cities were also flooded with refugees from the front. Despite an outward calm, many felt that Russia would soon be confronted with a new revolutionary crisis.

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