An Empire In Disarray – Russia Prior To The Bolshevik Revolution

Just as the Marxian theory and ideology must be understood as a product of its time – it was conceived in a time of upheaval that marked the beginning of the end of the monarchies of old Europe, and made use of the statist philosophy of one of these monarchies to establish its scientific credentials – so must the actual Bolshevik revolution be seen in the context of its time and place.


In hindsight, it almost strikes one as a deplorable 'accident of history', but if Lenin's Bolshevik party had not taken power on November 7 1917, it may well have happened at a later point in time. We will never know for certain, but it is quite clear that the preconditions that were in place at the time of the revolution were well suited for its success, even though the Bolsheviks' grip on power was tenuous in the first few years following the coup.

In order to understand how the Bolsheviks were able to take power, one must look at developments both within and without Russia that ultimately combined to create the ideal environment for the communist putsch. In the six decades preceding the revolution, the Russian empire became ever more unstable. Being the Czar of Russia meant that one was in one of the world's highest risk occupations – followed closely by the post of Russian minister of the interior, which was at least equally risky. Ironically, the seeds of revolution were initially sown by the enactment of long overdue political reforms – and a mistake by the czar's censors.


The Reformist Czar

In 1861, Czar Alexander II finally ends the serfdom of Russian peasants. This emancipation has long been planned by the counts Michail Speransky, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Kiselyov under Alexander I and Nikolai I's reigns, but is initially shelved in the 1830's due to the resistance of the land-owning nobility. Only Kiselyov lives to finally see it implemented. What impels Alexander II to  take this step is Russia's less than satisfactory performance in the Crimean war. The war brings the backwardness of what is then the last feudal system in Europe into sharp relief and Alexander hopes that the emancipation of the serfs will lead to the formation of a functioning market economy and more rapid economic development.

As it turns out, the legislation is deeply flawed. A compromise is struck that is designed to allow the nobility to retain its lavish and costly lifestyle. A complicated compensation scheme is established and the former serfs on private lands fail to gain enough land to escape their poverty; moreover, they have to repay the state for the compensation it has paid to landowners. In addition, communal land ownership is established among small peasants, as a result of which small farmers can not dispose of their own small parcels of land, keeping them tied to the land. They can not produce enough to be able to afford repayment of the loans received by the government. The nobles in turn have been paid in the form of bonds that soon lose much of their value. The lack of education of the rural population proves an additional obstacle to successful economic development. In the end, the reform fails to decisively mitigate the social and economic problems of the rural population. 

In 1872, the first foreign translation of Marx' work 'Das Kapital' appears – in Russia of all places. The czar's censors allow it to be published, as they regard it as a 'strictly scientific work'. They don't recognize its potential to foment resistance to the established power structures and further destabilize the political situation. Two years later the first socialist 'narodniky' – a movement  of  idealistic young people inspired by socialistic ideas – swarm from the cities to the rural areas to help educate the peasantry, which however does not understand their socialistic doctrines and has little use for them. Lenin will later publish a paper critical of the narodniky for their 'misguided romanticism'.

One of the founders of the short-lived Northern Russian Laborers Association (founded in 1878), the carpenter Stepan Khalturin, in 1880 becomes employed at the court of Alexander II. One year earlier, the NRLA has been disbanded by the authorities, upon which Khalturin joins the  Narodnaya Volya ('The People's Will'), an underground socialist terror organization. He plants a bomb below the dining room at the Winter Palace, and the czar and his family only escape because their guest for the evening happens to be late. Khalturin thereupon flees to Moscow and later Odessa.

Another assassination attempt on czar Alexander II by Narodnaya Volya follows in 1881, and this time it is successful. The czar sits in a bullet-proof carriage he has been given by Napoleon III and survives the bomb thrown by the first assassin, but there are altogether three assassins armed with bombs in the crowd and as the czar leaves his carriage, the second attempt succeeds.

Ironically, Khalturin is executed under orders of czar Alexander III only one year later, after his involvement in the assassination of a police general, without being identified. He gives his captors a fake name and they hang him not knowing that he is the man behind the 1880  assassination attempt on Alexander II. 

Altogether four assassination attempts were made on Alexander II during his reign, the first one in 1866 by the revolutionary Dimitry Karakozov of the Ishutin Society (so named after its founder Nikolai Ishutin, Karakozov's cousin) and the second one in 1879 by Alexander Soloviev, a former student. The czar's was fortunate as Soloviev proved very inept at handling a gun, missing in spite of getting off five shots.

 


 

Reformist Czar Alexander II in 1870, the prime of his life. He emancipated the serfs, but his land reform failed to alleviate the economic misery of the peasants. He survived three attempts on his life, but the forth one in 1881 succeeds.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 



Lenin would incidentally later prove a big fan of Khalturin, hanging his photograph next to that of Karl Marx in his office. In 1887, a fateful assassination plot on Alexander II's successor czar Alexander III is foiled. One of the five conspirators executed for it is Lenin's then 21 year old elder brother Alexander Ulyanov.  It seems highly likely that Lenin regarded his brother as a role model.

Alexander III, a reactionary anti-semitic autocrat, surprisingly manages to die in his bed in 1894, and reportedly asks his son and successor czar Nikolai II to swear that he will retain the Russian monarchy's absolutism.

 


 


 

 

Early socialist revolutionary Stepan Khalturin in the late 1870's, about whom Soviet director Alexander Ivanovsky made a propaganda movie in 1925.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 


 

The Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905

Throughout 1903, Russia and Japan are negotiating over the status of Korea and Manchuria. Russia has leased Port Arthur, Talienwan and the surrounding waters from China to gain a warm water Pacific port, as Vladivostok can not be used during the winter. Meanwhile, Russian troops sent to Manchuria during the Boxer rebellion to ostensibly protect railway construction there, are kept hanging around. Japan wants to preserve its influence over Korea, regarding it as a vital security buffer zone. Initially it seems that the two sides should be able to negotiate a settlement, as their positions are not very far apart – Russia is to retain its Manchurian presence, while Korea is to essentially become a Japanese protectorate – there are only differences over details.  However, Czar Nikolai II (whose official title is 'Emperor and Autocrat over all the Russians') believes that by delaying the negotiations and driving Japan to declare war, he may be able to create an upsurge of Russian patriotism and nationalism in an effort to suppress the increasingly evident revolutionary tendencies. Nikolai reportedly at first does not even expect Japan to attack – and in the event of such an attack, he is convinced that Russia will prevail. Both notions prove to be grave miscalculations. For one thing, Nikolai underestimates the logistical difficulties of waging war in the Russian far East, especially as the Trans-Siberian railway has yet to be finished. Secondly, in a twist that foreshadows the difficulties Russia will face in World War I, the Russian people turn out to be not exactly supportive of war. On the contrary, the war – and the fact that Russia is losing it –  provokes an uprising.

Nikolai is suddenly faced with a rising tide of demands for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. In 1901, the  Socialist Revolutionary Party is established as the formal successor of the Narodniky movement, uniting a number of smaller parties and movements that have sprung up during the industrialization of Russia, with the so-called 'Neo-Narodniky' updating the movement's principles by incorporating Marxist concepts in the party's program. Despite its for modern ears somewhat radical sounding name, the party is essentially a democratic socialist party. Three years earlier, in 1898, the less radically named Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party has been founded, alas, this is the party that will later split into the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions and is from the beginning a revolutionary Marxist movement opposed to the democratic socialism represented by the Narodniky. This party is banned from the day of its founding, and all nine delegates present at its first congress are immediately arrested by the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police.

In late 1904, during the war with Japan, a revolution begins with a number of strikes that soon mushroom. A huge demonstration of workers (an estimated 300,000 people),  led by a certain Father Gapon (murdered by his comrades in 1906 under suspicion of working for the Okhrana), who presides over a police-approved worker's organization, marches on the Winter Palace on January 22 1905 to deliver a petition to the czar (the petition demands better conditions for workers, an end to the war with Japan and universal suffrage). The soldiers guarding the palace open fire on the demonstrators, resulting in hundreds of deaths (the exact number is disputed, ranging from the officially admitted 96 dead to the 4,000 claimed by the demonstrators, but several hundred up to 1,000 seem likely). This event becomes known as 'Bloody Sunday'.

Shortly thereafter Nikolai's uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei Alekandrovich is assassinated, and the czar finally takes steps in early February of 1905 to pacify some of the demands for more representation, dismissing the minister of the interior Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirskii (both of whose predecessors, Spyagin and von Plehve have been assassinated by socialist revolutionaries, thus our contention that this too was a high risk post in the Russian empire at the time), loosening censorship laws and acceding to the formation of the Duma (the Russian parliament), which however is at first only intended to function as an advisory body.

When it becomes known how little ground the czar has given in negotiations, even more unrest breaks out. There are peasant uprisings, strikes of workers and mutinies of soldiers all over the empire. Armed suppression of uprisings in places as far apart as Poland, Lithuania, Finland, the Muslim South and a mutiny of navy personnel in the Black Sea (the famous Potemkin mutiny) bring about many more deaths.

In St. Petersburg, the first Worker's Soviet (the term 'soviet' can be loosely translated as 'board' or 'advisory board') is founded, led by none other than Lev Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky, and organizes strikes in hundreds of factories. The Russian empire finds itself in a deep crisis.

At that point, the former Russian director of railway affairs in the ministry of finance, and freshly invested count Sergei Witte, who has been Russia's negotiator with Japan following the Russo-Japanese war and who is widely admired for having successfully navigated these negotiations in Russia's favor (in essence, in spite of losing the war, Russia makes almost no concessions to gain the peace), is appointed chairman of the Council of Minsters. He presents the czar with the 'October manifesto', which demands much more far-reaching concessions (freedom of religion, speech, association and assembly, formation of political parties, universal male suffrage and a more powerful State Duma). The czar accedes to these demands after mulling them over for three days, upon realizing that political concessions are necessary if he wants to bring the unrest under control. Nonetheless, uprisings and strikes continue throughout the empire until December of 1905, but the remaining outbreaks of resistance are brutally suppressed by military means.

The Duma is constituted as a legislative and advisory body with oversight powers, but Nikolai stops well short of instituting a full constitutional monarchy. Just as he has promised to his father, he is not willing to give up his function as 'emperor and autocrat' – in fact, in 1906 the so-called 'Fundamental Law' inter alia bestows upon him the new title of 'Supreme Autocrat' (presumably so as to dispel all doubts about who is who in the zoo), giving him full control over foreign policy, the executive, the church and the armed forces.

The Duma becomes the lower house of parliament, with the State Council the upper house (half of the State Council's members are appointed by the czar, the other half elected from various regions and sections of societies all of which have a fixed number of seats they may elect). Legislation has to be approved by both chambers and the czar, who retains the 'final word'.

The Imperial Duma goes through four iterations, the first two of which the czar dissolves. The first election is boycotted by the Socialist parties, but they abandon the boycott and gain seats in the second Duma. Under prime minister Piotr Stolypin, the second Duma is dissolved after he accuses the socialist parties of planning an armed revolution and demands the expulsion of their deputies – a demand which the Duma refuses to bow to. The third Duma then sees a change in electoral law with the votes of landowners and nobility getting more weight over the votes of peasantry and workers. It is widely known as the 'Duma of Lords and Lackeys', but lasts a full term. The fourth Duma at first dissolves itself with the advent of World War I, but unhappy with Nikolai's conduct of the war, demands reinstatement in 1915, which the czar grants. The so-called 'Progressivist Bloc' of several parties is formed, a staunchly pro-war faction.

Stolypin's house is firebombed in 1906 and he is assassinated in 1911 in the Kiev opera house, proving that the post of prime minister is also fraught with considerable risk.

Sergei Witte, who is forced to resign from his post of chairman of the Council of Ministers when the implementation of the October Manifesto fails to immediately end the unrest, continues to work as a member of the State Council. On the eve of World War I, he warns that Russia must stay out of the conflict and predicts a great calamity if it doesn't. His warnings remain unheeded and he dies shortly thereafter on 13 March 1915.

Witte and Stolypin are nowadays widely credited as the architects of Russia's economic revival both prior (in the 1890's) and following the 1905 revolution. Witte was a specialist for industrial development and Stolypin replaced the failed land reforms begun under Alexander II with a far more workable solution, finally alleviating some of the poverty of the rural masses.

 



The unlucky last Czar of the Russian Empire, Nikolai II, the 'Supreme Autocrat'. Today he is considered a 'passion-bearer' by the Orthodox church, a kind of lower level saint/martyr.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)




Count Sergei Witte, director of the Russian railway administration in the 1890's, later successful negotiator at the peace conference in Portsmouth with Japan and appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers in 1905, when he presents the 'October Manifesto' to the czar. He played an important part in the early efforts at industrialization of Russia.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 



Imperial Russia's third prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin. He quells unrest and opposition with an iron fist, but also succeeds in promoting agrarian reform by consolidating plots and arranging for banking facilities for peasants. In 1911, he is assassinated during an opera performance in Kiev at age 49.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 


 

 

 

A picture of the first Worker's Soviet in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1905. Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known under his alias Leo Trotsky, is forth from the left in the middle row. He is arrested and put on trial in 1906.

 

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 




Trotsky in 1905, awaiting trial for instigating strikes in St. Petersburg.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 


 

The End of Nikolai II's Reign

Russia's entrance into World War I did indeed bring the country to grief, just as Witte predicted. Unfortunately for Russia, the German generals on the Eastern Front prove more adept than their colleagues engaging in trench warfare in France. Russia loses a number of decisive battles, and soon war-weariness spreads among both soldiers and private citizens. In the spring of 1917, another revolution rocks the nation, this time involving the mutiny of soldiers on a far grander scale than in 1905. In early March it becomes clear that Nikolai no longer possesses any authority. A harsh winter and food shortages brought on by the war (many peasants have been drafted as soldiers) produce chaotic conditions in Petrograd (the renamed St. Petersburg), with vast crowds of demonstrators and looters roaming the streets. 

Nikolai, who is at the front, is informed that things are unruly, but essentially under control and orders that the demonstrators be harshly dealt with. The badly equipped Petrograd garrison, consisting mainly of untrained peasants and wounded officers returned from the front, initially fires at the crowds, managing to disperse them after an estimated 200 people have been killed. Then however one regiment after another mutinies and the situation can no longer be controlled. Members of the Duma form a provisional government, but likewise fail to restore order. It is decided that Nikolai has to abdicate – faced with the risk of civil war, the czar gives in and his rule ends. Since his son Alexei is stricken with hemophilia, he decides to abdicate in favor of his brother Grand Duke Michail, who in turn refuses to accede to the throne prior to the election of a constitutional assembly and a referendum over the future of the monarchy – evidently the job of Russian czar has become quite a hot potato at that point. 

The provisional government under Kerensky then rules until the advent of the Bolshevik revolution in November of 1917 (it is known as the 'October revolution' due to the use of the Julian instead of the Gregorian calendar in Russia at the time – in the modern calendar, 7 November 1917 is the correct date of the communist putsch). The Kerensky government's biggest mistake is that it wants to continue the war. The Russian people are war-weary, and the Bolsheviks are the only major political faction to demand an immediate end to Russia's participation in World War I. This central demand brings them not only widespread support in Russia, but also financial and logistical help from the government of German emperor Wilhelm. Lenin's revolution is in large part made possible by the Germans, who want to be able to withdraw their troops from the Eastern front to deploy them in the war theater in France. The German attempt to help along the victory of the Bolsheviks eventually succeeds beyond the Germans' wildest imaginations. They probably don't fully realize what they are helping to spawn.

 

Next: Lenin returns to Russia, and the Bolshevik revolution begins.



 

 

 

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