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The Russian Revolutions of 1917
The February Revolution - Causes and Events

Sakwa asserts that "Tsarism fell because of military reverses and war weariness, social strains sharpened by economic dislocation and incompetence, and the failure to create a government in which the Duma and the people could have faith." (Sakwa, 19)

Social dislocation caused by industrialisation. Sakwa believes this added social strain as it was a state-sponsored graft on to a peasant economy. (Sakwa, 5-6) However, he also emphasises that many commentators have overplayed the rôle of the state and underplayed that of the private sector and agriculture in Russia’s economic development.

Underdeveloped agricultural sector which led to precarious dependence on good harvests.

Most crucially, WW1 - huge defections of soldiers from the front. Also economic strains - mass inflation, deflection of industrial production to armaments, reducing consumer goods supplies, meant peasants had little incentive to sell and often hoarded, resulting in urban food shortages. Overloaded transport system also introduced economic friction. (Service, 28)

Many industrialists and military leaders felt that Russia’s war progress was impeded by Nicholas II. (Service, 30)

On 17 February, bread queues formed in St Petersburg. On 23 February, strikes backed by women demonstrating on International Women’s Day began. On 26 February, the army fired on protesters, but the next day refused to disperse protesting crowds, but rather joined them. By 3 March, Nicholas II abdicated: the era of autarchy was over.

Two interpretations of February revolution. The first, held by the bourgeois parties, Mensheviks and SRs, was that a bourgeois democratic republic had been set up, based on constitutionality and with respect for universal suffrage, private property and equality before the law. (Sakwa, 19)

The second view stressed the class nature of the revolution. Naturally this was held primarily by Bolsheviks. This stressed that the revolution had been brought about by action by the working classes on the streets. The Provisional Government remained out of step with the demands of the populace, and indeed became more so as time went on. From the beginning the bourgeois revolution had the potential to become a socialist revolution and in October, so it proved. (Sakwa, 20)

The Provisional Governments

The Provisional Government was set up by the Duma to control Russia in the period up until the possibility existed to hold free and fair elections.

The Provisional Governments were riddled with difficulties from the start. The revolution had had support from all elements in Russian society from Bolsheviks to Liberal Capitalists, and even some moderate Conservatives. Balancing these factions was always bound to be difficult. (M McAuley, 13)

As the Socialist parties did not wish to take part in government, it was dominated by the Kadets - with one exception, the surprise inclusion of SR Kerensky, and was headed by Prince Grigoriy Lvov, a non-party liberal.(McCauley, 7)


The basic problem was that power, from day one, had been bifurcated. (McCauley, 6) In addition to the provisional government, in many large cities, most notably the capital and Moscow, Soviets had been set up. These functioned as an alternative government, and inevitably strains over the degree of power exercised by each arose. By 2 March, the Temporary Committee, forerunner of the provisional government had distanced itself from the people by supporting the retention of the monarchy, albeit in a constitutional form. (McCauley, 7)


There were a number of key issues which divided the soviets from the Duma.

The continuation of the war was a key factor in the downfall of the Tsar. The liberals wished to continue prosecuting the war as withdrawing would have ramifications for Russia; future trustworthiness in international relations. Russia had also been promised the Bosphorous as part of a peace settlement. (McCauley, 8) The Provisional Government felt that the war was unpopular because it had been prosecuted badly by the Tsar, whereas they could lead the Russian army to success. However the Bolsheviks, with their belief in international brotherhood, saw the War as a war of capital and supported its abandonment, and urged foreign workers instead to overthrow their own governments. (McCauley, 7) Kerensky’s ill-advised offensive in July was the key error - "He [Kerensky] soon discovered that the concept of national defence was losing its meaning to hungry and exhausted workers and soldiers." (Sakwa, 20)

The War issue also raised the more crucial question of who should have control of the Army. The Petrograd Soviet’s first decision was to abolish draconian punishments and, more crucially, to set up soldiers’ councils, with all the implications this had for battlefield discipline. (Sakwa, 20) This forced a clash over the key issue of control of the Army: soviets, government, or the generals.(M McAuley, 14).

Another key flash point between the two instruments of power was the factories issue. (M McAuley, 14) The Soviets naturally supported whole-scale extension of workers’ control, while the bourgeois government naturally favoured retention of operative control in the hands of the owners.

Land, as in many societies, was particularly emotive in Russia. The peasants had been seizing and redistributing land almost from the day and hour the revolution took place. The Provisional Government, however, refused to legitimise any redistribution until after elections to a Constituent Assembly had taken place. This caused particular problems for the SRs, for whom land redistribution was a key platform, and this gave an opening for the Bolsheviks to outflank the SRs on the left. Land redistribution was happening anyway.

As Martin McCauley notes, the land and war questions were inextricably intertwined. "Who were the soldiers but peasants in uniform?"(10) Sakwa points out that from May 1917 soldiers, fearful of losing out in land redistribution in their home villages, left the front to join in the impromptu land seizures, (Sakwa, 21) adding to the disintegration of the Russian army at the front.

Rural society largely turned in on itself during 1917. People looked to the obshchina for authority and concentrated on survival. With the Provisional Government unwilling to legitimise the seizure of land, peasants did so anyway, and the consequent dislocation caused the interruption of food supplies to the cities. (Ponton, 22).


If a single personality ever changed the course of history, the arrival of Lenin in Petrograd in April 1917 must be the paradigm. In February 1917, Stalin and Kamenev, leading the Bolsheviks, agreed with the Menshevik line that the Provisional Government was a necessary interim stage of bourgeois government in the development of socialism. (M McAuley, 17) Lenin, on his return from Switzerland, was convinced that the right conditions could be created for the Bolsheviks to seize power. Trotsky’s entry into the party strengthened Lenin’s case. Geoffrey Ponton notes that not only were the Bolsheviks often in a minority vis a vis the Mensheviks, but so were the RSDLP vs. the SRs, and Lenin himself faced fierce opposition within Bolshevism. (Ponton, 22) That this unpromising situation was turned into a successful revolution must to a large degree be credited to Lenin’s force of personality.

The ideological impact of Lenin’s return is summed up by Service: "no Bolshevik had previously suggested that the ‘transition to socialism’ might be inaugurated instantly after the molnarchy’s removal." (Service, 47)


Increasingly these tensions between Government and Soviet fed into the pre-Revolutionary division in urban society between the nizi, the lower classes, and the verkhi, the well off. (M McAuley, 15) An increasingly militant working-class became resentful of the privileges held by the wealthy, and attacks on the better off became common as 1917 progressed. Some commentators dispute whether this can properly be termed a class conflict: the two groups were themselves divided between countless sub-groups, which on many occasions had conflicting interests. However, Mary McAuley (16) notes that a key factor in the clash was the much greater cohesion of interests among the poor as compared to the middle- and upper- classes.

The Kadets, intent on prosecuting the war succesfully, gradually shifted to the right and opposed both immediate land-redistribution and co-decision making in factories, at leas until the war was over. "as they observed a soicety riven between the wealthy élites and the millions of workers, chose to make common cause with the interests of wealth." (Service, 34)


The February Revolution, as with most others was accompanied by unrealistic demands. The Revolution had not brought about a revival of economic fortunes. Indeed, it snapped urban-rural relationships which in turn restricted food supplies. Martin McCauley notes that Petrograd only received 43.9% of its 1913 grain total by rail in 1917. (McCauley, 14) As the lot of the urban poor worsened during the Spring and Summer of 1917, and the situation on the Western Front became worse, the Bolshevik message of ‘peace, land and bread’ became more popular. (M McAuley, 16-7). Politics was in ferment in Russia during most of 1917. Parties were formed and collapsed; people developed views, then abandoned them almost on a daily basis. However, as summer progressed, the tide began to turn inexorably towards the left.


It was, however, the war issue, which brought down the Kadet government. After the leaking of a note which showed the Provisional Government’s intent to continue prosecuting the war, the Soviet organised demonstrations which overthrew Lvov. As a result a second Lvov government was formed, a coalition involving the SRs, this time formally, and the Mensheviks. This government too ran into problems over the war issue. As a result the moderate socialists too became discredited, opening the way for the Bolsheviks to increase their influence. For many, at least in the cities, the SRs were now lumped in with the Kadets. (McCauley, 10).

Frustrated with lack of progress, the Kronstadt soldiers came to Petrograd to demand that the Soviet took power on 3-5 July. (M McAuley, 19). This it refused to do, after Kerensky played on Lenin’s deal with Berlin and accused him of being a Soviet spy. The public mood turned sharply against the Bolsheviks, Pravda had its presses smashed up, and many Bolshevik leaders were imprisoned. (McCauley, 11)

As a consequence, the first coalition government collapsed also. Kerensky now header the second coalition government. Kornilov was to destroy its credibility in short order also.

Mary McAuley claims that General Kornilov marched on Petrograd to either replace Kerensky or to ensure that his rule became more authoritarian, in response to widespread rural outrages against the wealthy.(M McAuley, 19), However, Martin McCauley notes that Kerensky reached a deal with Commander in Chief Kornilov, that General Krymov was to take Petrograd and disarm the Soviet; at the last minute Kerensky changed his mind and asked Kornilov to resign, and in any case the railway workers did not let Kornilov’s men through. (McCauley, 11) Service points out that it was Kerensky’s reversal of his previous order to Kornilov which convionce the latter that Kerenski must go. (Service, 54)

All three writers agree that this was to prove fatal. Kerensky armed the factory workers, creating the Red Guards, who would turn against him a few short months later. His unpopularity also led to the Bolsheviks obtaining majorities in the Soviets of both Moscow and St. Petersburg in September.

In conclusion, Martin McCauley notes that "all parties which participated in the government between February and October moved to the right, while the masses moved to the left." (McCauley, 13) This created a vacuum into which the Bolsheviks stepped. Despite this, the SRs remained the most popular party, and even in many cities the Mensheviks were clearly more popular than the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks squandered support by not responding to changes of mood among the urban populace. (Ponton, 23) However, the Bolsheviks controlled the key metropoli and were able to frustrate the Government enough to create the conditions for revolution. As Geoffrey Ponton says, "The Bolsheviks emerged as the only group with confidence enough to create a viable government." (Ponton, 22)

The Provisional Government - Legitimacy

The legitimacy of the provisional government is one of the key questions of 1917. Initially, the left had supported a Kadet-led government in taking power, due, in no small measure, to their ideological belief that a period of liberal capitalism was a necessary step on the path to socialism. As politicians of the right began to withdraw support from the Provisional Government, those on the left - Mensheviks and SRs - were drawn into the system. The sheer political turbulence of the period make any claims of legitimacy difficult to assess, as political loyalties among the population shifted so rapidly. Moreover, the bifurcation of power meant that the power of the Provisional Government was highly constrained. The Soviets ran many of the major cities, while much of the countryside was in virtual anarchy.

The Constituent Assembly elections of October are perhaps the only guide to legitimacy we have. The SRs won by a handsome majority, cleaning up the peasant vote which accounted for 80% of the population. The Bolshevik’s won only in Moscow, Petrograd and some other cities. Despite the split in the SRs, with the left SRs supporting the Bolshevik seizure, a majority were clearly opposed to it. Mary McAuley argues that "there was no way the Bolsheviks could claim a victory"(22) in the Assembly elections. However, the votes of peasants were irrelevant in Lenin’s ideology. When it met early in 1918, the Bolsheviks closed it, claiming that "The possessed a higher authority, they claimed, which stemmed from their ability, as a party of the working class, to realize the interests of all the poor."(22)

The October Revolution - Events

In September, Lenin, in hiding, began to urge the Central Committee with greater and greater vigour to seize the opportunity for revolution which he saw was opening. He was opposed by a number of senior Bolsheviks, most notably Kamenev and Zinoviev, who published their disaffection in the press. (M McAuley, 21) In October, however, as delegates began to arrive for the Second Congress of Soviets, of which an increasing number were in the control of the Bolsheviks, tension began to rise. Kerensky panicked and sent troops to close a Bolshevik printing press. This gave Trotsky, chairman of the Military Council of the Petrograd Soviet, and firmly within the activist tendency of Bolshevism, the chance to act. (M McAuley, 21). On 25 October/7 November, the Bolsheviks, through the Petrograd Soviet, seized power and ordered the arrest of all members of the Provisional Government. Kerensky fled.

When the Russian Congress of Soviets met later that evening (10.40pm), the Bolsheviks proposed a Bolshevik dominated Presidium. At this point the Mensheviks, Rights SRs and Menshevik Internationalists withdrew. (McCauley, 16). This proved to be a major tactical error, with Trotsky perceptively shouting "Go where you belong, to the dustbin of history." The decision seems particularly foolish in the light of the fact that only 300 of the 670 delegates to the Congress were Bolsheviks. (Service, 65)

One key factor in Bolshevik success was their willingness to use Soviet power. While Mensheviks and SRs had power in the Soviets, they would not use it as they considered it undemocratic. They were also prisoners of their belief in a purely Marxist scenario of revolution which did not allow them to adapt to circumstances. "Their ideological dogmatism confined them to the prearranged scenario that capitalist development and bourgeois revolution must precede socialism." (Sakwa, 23) "They did not regard Soviet power as legitimate since they thought that soviets represented classes and not the nation." (McCauley, 13)

The October Revolution - Interpretations

The Marxist/Class Interpretation: The class conflict is inherent in any society in which the means of production and exchange are in the hands of a few. The War, and increasing Tsarist repression increased these strains to breaking point. The Bolsheviks were not only acting on behalf of Russia’s poor: they were agents of an inevitable historical process in which capitalism gives way to socialism. They were the vanguard of a world Communist revolution. (M McAuley, 13) The revolution "is an event explained by the contradictions of capitalism and the logic of history" (Ponton, 28). However, "Only a relatively tiny number of people were involved in the fighting; the rest of the population looked on passively." (Sakwa, 23)

The Liberal/Constitutional Interpretation: Russia was leaving its backward past behind, with an emerging proletariat and urban intelligentsia. Russia could have made the transition to a liberal capitalist society with the right political leadership. However, the Bolshevik revolution prevented this outcome. (M McAuley, 13)

The Revisionist Interpretation: This emerged in the West as a consequence of decolonialisation. Despite being given liberal constitutions and parliaments by the departing colonial powers, many developing world countries soon descended into dictatorship and repression. Therefore many Western analysts contended that Russia could hardly have avoided descending into repression, as all underdeveloped, rural, societies, have difficulty sustaining democracy. (M McAuley, 22).

Less fashionable since re-emergence of parliamentary democracy in Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa. Sakwa also notes that consumer goods production in Russia in the decade after 1905 was higher than in Germany over the same period, and that the industrial sector was an organic part rather than an enclave of the economy, in contrast to modern developing countries. (Sakwa, 7) Therefore it is misleading to take the comparisons too far.

The Nationalist/Cultural Interpretation: Russia had a unique economic, social and cultural system. Russia is constantly seeking for a form of government which will give expression to these values. Both Marxism and constitutional democracy were attempts to give Western European solutions to Russian problems; therefore they inevitably ended in disaster. (M McAuley, 13)

The Libertarian Interpretation: Older interpretations stress the importance of superior Bolshevik discipline in the period leading up to 1917 (Ponton, 28), which gave it the crucial force of purpose in 1917. More recent interpretations place more emphasis on the internal divisions within Bolshevism. However, they agree that the October revolution had a large degree of support both over the war issue and that by October 1917 the Russian public increasingly supported radical change. The Soviets became seen by many as the embodiment of the popular will. The lack of a significant middle class led the intellectual élite to support the Bolsheviks. (Ponton, 28-9)

Continuity Interpretation: This argued that the Bolshevik regime was merely a throwback to the Tsarist regime, with its obscene bits of madness like internal passports and secret police (see Starworld, by Harry Harrison). (M McAuley, 23). Richard Pipes (Ponton, 20) sees the rôle of the peasantry and intellectuals, both in many senses outsiders to society, as crucial in preventing the modernisation of both Tsarist and Soviet Russia. Sakwa notes seven features which linked Tsarism to post-revolutionary Russia - "a distinctive religion [Orthodoxy/Marxism-Leninism], isolation and invasion, a strong state [what Weber would call patrimonialism], an expansionist drive, the dialectic between backwardness and modernisation further stimulating the dominance of the state, the weak development of representative institutions and society, and the bureaucratic attempt to replace politics by administration." (3)

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