Examining 100 years since Russian revolt

Every once in a while, a perfect storm of events and circumstances come together to change history. So it was in 1917 with the Russian Revolution.

     The lead-up to the revolution, however, began long before 1917.

“There had been a very long tradition of revolutionary activity in Russia, going all the way back into the 1850s and even earlier,” Mark Mengerink, LU associate professor of history, said. “There were lots of revolutionaries from different parts of the political spectrum who were always kind of upset with the czarist regime, so that’s part of the background. Economically, Russia was not exactly in the greatest place leading up to the 1917 revolution, so there were also economic factors that were at play.”

These factors were further exacerbated by the impact of World War I, Mengerink said.

“The more short-term cause of the revolution was how badly the war was going for Russia,” he said. “The main thing was the distribution of food. What was happening was, most of the food was going to the front for the soldiers during the war, which left cities, but also the countryside, scarce of food. In early 1917, you start to see bread riots in the cities, and that’s how the czarist government is toppled, eventually. The soldiers who are sent out to stop the bread riots actually join in.”

Initially, Russia was ruled by a provisional government from Czar Nicholas II’s ouster in March to November 1917.

“A more moderate group of people step in once the Czar abdicates, led by a guy named Alexander Kerensky,” Mengerink said. “What Kerensky does, when he comes in, is that he makes three crucial mistakes: first of all, he keeps Russia in the war. The second mistake is that he wants writing the new constitution to take time. That doesn’t please a lot of people. The third thing is that he doesn’t find a solution to the food problem.”

Eventually the provisional government also fell, and Russia was taken over by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

“When (the Bolsheviks) realize that Kerensky is not going to move the revolution any further forward, they start agitating in the cities,” he said. “This entire time, Lenin is actually not in Russia. He’s in Switzerland. He had been exiled for his previous revolutionary activity. In order to undermine Russia’s war effort, Germany agrees to allow Lenin to travel across Germany by train.

“In March of 1917, when the revolution begins, you get a series of workers’ and soldiers’ councils that are set up throughout the country, mainly in the cities, and these councils are known as Soviets. They consist of lots of different political viewpoints. (Lenin) essentially gets some of the Soviets to support his coup. What happens in early November is the Bolsheviks, with the help of some army units and some of the Soviets, decide to overthrow Kerensky and the provisional government.”

Once the Bolsheviks were in power, one of their first actions was to pull Russia out of WWI, Mengerink said.

“They enter into negotiations with the Germans to end the war with Germany,” he said. “Lenin didn’t believe in the war at all, and the Bolsheviks didn’t believe in the war, so there wasn’t any way they were going to fight it. But they also believed that fighting the war was going to get in the way of creating socialism in Russia, so that’s why they ended it. In March of 1918, officially, the war between Russia and Germany ends. The Bolshevik government signs a treaty with Germany. Russia had to give up a lot — most of Ukraine, most of the industrialized sector of the Russian economy.”

However, the sudden changes in government in Russia led to armed conflict inside the country.

“Almost immediately after the Bolsheviks overthrow the provisional government, you essentially get a civil war inside of Russia,” Mengerink said. “The war lasts until 1921. It’s extremely brutal and involves not only issues of politics, but also ethnicity, because the Ukrainians (whose territory had been given back to Russia under the Treaty of Versailles) are trying to gain their independence and they don’t know whether they should go with the Bolsheviks, or if they should go with the Bolshevik opponents, who are known as the Whites. You’ve got the Poles in there — since the 1790s, their country disappeared from the map, so they want their independence. So it’s a political-ethnic civil war.”

The Bolsheviks eventually won, at which point Russia officially became the Soviet Union.

“The White forces, while they’re anti-Bolshevik, can’t get together on exactly what they want to replace the Bolsheviks with,” Mengerink said. “You’ve got some people who want the monarchy back, you have some people who want Kerensky back, and then you’ve got all those people in between who want all kinds of other things. It’s really difficult for them to agree on what they want, which impacts their ability to agree to coordinate their efforts against the Bolsheviks.

“Another reason the Bolsheviks win is that Lenin had kind of a secret weapon — it’s not so secret, but it’s a guy named (Leon) Trotsky, who early on had taken control of the Red Army. He whips it into shape, reorganizes it, retrains it — all in the midst of a civil war, and makes it into a very effective fighting force. A third reason is that the Bolsheviks realize if they lose the war, it’s over for them. They’ll never get another chance like this, so they’re highly motivated. By 1921-1922, Lenin is firmly in control of Russia. They then name it the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

The Russian Revolution ultimately impacted the world in several ways, including the outcome of WWI.

“If you look at the peace treaties that are signed after WWI, Russia is not involved in any of them,” Mengerink said. “They don’t get to participate in creating the new Europe that emerges.”

Mengerink also said that the Communist regime that arose out of the Russian Revolution had a detrimental effect on the people of the Soviet Union.

“If you want to look at it from a more negative view, certainly you can make the argument that Communism in Russia results in the deaths of millions of people,” he said. “Eventually what happens is (Josef) Stalin, when he gets into power, is using terror and violence to maintain, not just the party’s control, but his control.

“This has disastrous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union, especially the ethnic minorities on the borderlands of Russia proper, like Ukraine. Between 1928 and 1932, they lose several million people through a man-made famine. Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. (Stalin) was forcibly seizing the grain, and exporting it to raise money to industrialize the Soviet Union, and not allowing the Ukrainians to keep anything.”

The Russian Revolution also had a significant impact on the role Communism played in the 20th century.

“It’s the first Communist government, and that, in itself, is extremely significant,” he said. “It serves as an inspiration to other Communists around the world — China, with Mao Zedong, places like Cuba, other Communist insurgents after WWII, especially in Latin America. They’re looking at the Russian Revolution as a model, not only of how to get into power, but also what to do once you’re in power.”

The Russian Revolution also impacted American history, through the Cold War.

“Some people would say the Cold War began in 1917,” Mengerink said. “If you look at tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, the situation is very tense in 1917. Even during World War II, we were allies with the Soviet Union, but we weren’t necessarily friendly. Even most scholars would argue that the Cold War begins before 1945 — at least by 1942-1943. It just depends on how you want to define Cold War. If you just want to call the Cold War a serious tension that impacts the relations between the two countries, then you can certainly say that it begins in 1917.”

With the immense role that relations between the United States and Russia still play in world politics, and the massive impact that Communism had on the way in which the 20th century played out, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is an occasion to look back and realize how fundamentally one event can change the world.

Story by Caitlin McAlister, UP editor


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