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10-08-2015, 16:35

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The armistice of 1918 brought no peace in Russia. During the early years of the twentieth century, Russia entered the Industrial Revolution. As elsewhere, it was a wrenching experience, marked by rapid social change and political unrest. Demonstrations during the Russo- Japanese War of 1904 –1905 forced the tsar to agree to political reforms (including the creation of Russia’s first legislative assembly, the Duma) that for the first time limited his supreme authority. For a brief time, radicals harbored hopes that revolution was imminent, but the monarchy survived, though shaken, and the nation entered a brief period of relative stability. Marxism made its first appearance in the Russian environment in the 1880s. Early Marxists were aware of the primitive conditions in their country and asked Karl Marx himself for advice. The Russian proletariat was oppressed— indeed, brutalized—but small in numbers and unsophisticated. Could agrarian Russia make the transition to socialism without an intervening stage of capitalism? Marx, who always showed more flexibility than the rigid determinism of his system suggested, replied that it was possible that Russia could avoid the capitalist stage by building on the communal traditions of the Russian village, known as the mir. But as Russian Marxism evolved, its leaders turned more toward Marxist orthodoxy. Founding member George Plekhanov saw signs in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution that Russia would follow the classic pattern. He predicted, however, that the weak Russian bourgeoisie would be unable to consolidate its power, thus opening the door for a rapid advance from the capitalist to the socialist stage of the revolution. In 1898, Plekhanov’s Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) held its first congress. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, a new force entered the Russian Marxist movement in the figure of Vladimir Ulyanov, later to be known as Lenin. Initially radicalized by the execution of his older brother for terrorism in 1886, he became a revolutionary and a member of Plekhanov’s RSDLP. Like Plekhanov, Lenin believed in the revolution, but he was a man in a hurry. Whereas Plekhanov wanted to prepare patiently for revolution by education and mass work, Lenin wanted to build up the party rapidly as a vanguard instrument to galvanize the masses and spur the workers to revolt. In a pamphlet titled “What Is to Be Done?” he proposed the transformation of the RSDLP into a compact and highly disciplined group of professional revolutionaries that would not merely ride the crest of the revolutionary wave but would unleash the storm clouds of revolt. At the Second National Congress of the RSDLP, held in 1903 in Brussels and London, Lenin’s ideas were supported by a majority of the delegates (thus the historical term Bolsheviks, or “majorityites,” for his followers). His victory was short-lived, however, and for the next decade, Lenin, living in exile, was a brooding figure on the fringe of the Russian revolutionary movement, which was now dominated by the Mensheviks (“minorityites”), who opposed Lenin’s single-minded pursuit of violent revolution. World War I broke the trajectory of Russia’s economic growth and laid the foundation for the collapse of the old order. There is a supreme irony in this fact, for Tsar Nicholas II appeared almost to welcome war with Germany as a means of uniting the people behind their sovereign. In fact, war often erodes the underpinnings of a declining political system and hastens its demise. This was certainly the case with Russia. After stirring victories in the early stages of the war, news from the battlefield turned increasingly grim as poorly armed Russian soldiers were slaughtered by the modern armies of the kaiser. The conscription of peasants from the countryside caused food prices to rise and led, by late 1916, to periodic bread shortages in the major cities. Workers grew increasingly restive at the wartime schedule of long hours with low pay and joined army deserters in angry marches through the capital of Saint Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd). It was a classic scenario for revolution—discontent in the big cities fueled by mutinous troops streaming home from the battlefield and a rising level of lawlessness in rural areas as angry peasants seized land and burned the manor houses of the wealthy. Even the urban middle class, always a bellwether on the political scene, grew impatient with the economic crisis and the bad news from the front and began to question the competence of the tsar and his advisers. In late February 1917, government troops fired at demonstrators in the streets of the capital and killed several. An angry mob marched to the Duma, where restive delegates demanded the resignation of the tsar’s cabinet. Nicholas II had never wanted to share the supreme power he had inherited with the throne. After a brief period of hesitation, he abdicated, leaving a vacuum that was quickly seized by leading elements in the Duma, who formed a provisional government to steer Russia through the crisis. On the left, reformist and radical political parties— including the Social Revolutionaries (the legal successors of the outlawed terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya) and the two wings of the RSDLP, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks—cooperated in creating a shadow government called the Saint Petersburg Soviet. This shadow government supported the provisional government in pursuing the war but attempted to compel it to grant economic and social reforms that would benefit the masses. The so-called February Revolution of 1917 had forced the collapse of the monarchy, but it showed little promise of solving the deeper problems that had led Russia to the brink of civil war. Finally convinced that a real social revolution was at hand, Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April and, on his arrival in Petrograd, laid out a program for his followers: all power to the soviets (locally elected government councils), an end to the war, and the distribution of land to poor peasants. But Lenin’s April Theses were too radical even for his fellow Bolsheviks, and his demands were ignored by other leaders, who continued to cooperate with the provisional government while attempting to push it to the left.

 

 

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