Bolsheviks Revolution

1917 was a year of tumult in Russia's history. The year began with the Tsarist constitutional monarchy and ended with the Bolshevik Communist Party in power, rendering the future of Russian politics, society, and economy unrecognisable. The turning point was the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. Let's look at the build-up to the October Revolution, its causes and effects – the revolution will be memorised!

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Table of contents

    Origins of the Bolsheviks

    The Bolshevik Revolution had its origins with Russia's first Marxist political party, the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) which was founded by a collection of Social Democratic organisations in 1898.

    Bolshevik Revolution 1903 Second Congress of RSDWP StudySmarterFig. 1 - The 1903 Second Congress of the RSDWP saw the presence of Vladimir Lenin and Georgy Plekhanov (top row, second and third from left)

    In 1903, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were born after disagreements at the RSDWP Second Congress, but they did not formally split the party. The official split in the RSDWP came after the October Revolution in 1917, when Lenin led the Bolsheviks to control Russia. He formed a coalition soviet government with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, refusing cooperation with other parties. Once the coalition ended in March 1918 after disagreements over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks transformed into the Russian Communist Party.

    Did you know? The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party was known by a few names. You might also see RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party), the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDP) or the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP/SDs).

    Bolshevik Definition

    Let's first look at what 'Bolshevik' actually means.

    Bolshevik

    The term means “those of the majority” in Russian and refers to Lenin's faction within the RSDWP.

    Bolshevik Revolution Summary

    So now we know the origins of the Bolshevik party, let's look at a timeline of the key events of 1917.

    Bolshevik Revolution 1917 Timeline

    Below is a timeline of the Bolshevik revolution throughout the year 1917.

    1917Event
    FebruaryFebruary Revolution. The (mostly Liberal, bourgeois) Provisional Government (PG) assumed power.
    MarchTsar Nicholas II abdicated. Petrograd Soviet was established.
    AprilLenin returned to Petrograd and issued his April Theses.
    JulyThe July Days protests. Alexandr Kerensky takes office as Prime Minister of the (coalition of socialist and Liberals) Provisional Government.
    AugustThe Kornilov Revolt. The Petrograd Soviet's Red Guard was armed to protect the Provisional Government.
    SeptemberTrotsky became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, gaining a Bolshevik majority.
    OctoberBolshevik Revolution. Lenin became chairman of the Council of Peoples' Commissars (Sovnarkom), leading Russia's new Soviet Government.
    NovemberConstitutional Assembly elections. Russian Civil War began.
    DecemberFollowing internal pressure in the Sovnarkom, Lenin agreed to allow some Left-Socialist Revolutionaries into the Soviet Government. They later resigned in protest of the March 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

    Leader of Bolshevik Revolution

    Vladimir Lenin was the leading personality behind the Bolshevik Revolution, but he required assistance to successfully organise the takeover. Let's look at how Lenin and his party led the Bolshevik Revolution.

    Lenin

    Lenin had been the leader of the Bolshevik Party since the RSDWP started fracturing in 1903. He developed the ideology of Marxism-Leninism that he hoped would be a practical application of Marxist theory in Russia. However, due to his high profile as a revolutionary, he was rarely physically present in Russia, and so organised the Bolshevik party from abroad in Western Europe.

    Lenin's International Movements

    Lenin was arrested and exiled to Siberia in 1895 for creating the Social Democratic organisation the St Petersburg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class. This meant he had to send a delegate to the First Congress of the RSDWP in 1898. He returned to Pskov, Russia in 1900 as he was banned from St Petersburg, and created the Iskra, an RSDWP newspaper, with Georgy Plekhanov and Julius Martov.

    He moved around Western Europe after this, settling in Geneva after the RSDWP's Second Congress in 1903. Lenin returned briefly to Russia after Tsar Nicholas II agreed to the 1905 October Manifesto, but fled again in 1907, fearing arrest. Lenin moved around Europe during the First World War and finally returned to Russia in April 1917.

    After the 1917 February Revolution, Lenin organised safe passage with Russia's invaders, Germany, and travelled to Sweden and then to Petrograd in April 1917. Lenin's 1917 April Theses established the Bolshevik position. He urged another revolution that would overthrow the Provisional Government (PG), form a Soviet-led government, end Russia's involvement in WWI, and redistribute land to the peasantry.

    Bolshevik Revolution Lenin April Theses Speech StudySmarterFig. 2 - Lenin delivered a speech when he returned to Petrograd in April 1917. He later summarised the speech into a document which became known as the April Theses

    Lenin fled to Finland after the July Days (1917) as new prime minister Alexandr Kerensky had claimed he was a German agent. Whilst in Finland, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to stage a revolution, but failed to get support. He travelled back to Russia in October and eventually persuaded the party.

    Trotsky immediately began preparing the Red Guard to revolt and staged the successful Bolshevik Revolution. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was held and established the new Soviet government, the Council of People's Commissars (a.k.a. the Sovnarkom), with Lenin elected as the chairman.

    Trotsky

    Trotsky played an integral role in the Bolshevik Revolution; however, he was only a recent convert to the Bolshevik cause. After the 1903 Second Congress of the RSDWP, Trotsky supported the Mensheviks against Lenin.

    However, Trotsky left the Mensheviks after they agreed to collaborate with Liberal politicians after the 1905 Russian Revolution. He then developed a theory of “permanent revolution”.

    Trotsky's "Permanent Revolution"

    Trotsky stated that once the working class began to seek democratic rights, they would not settle for a bourgeois government and would continue to revolt until socialism was established. This would then spread to other countries.

    Bolshevik Revolution Trotsky and Red Guard StudySmarterFig. 3 - Trotsky led the Soviet Government's military and helped the Bolsheviks win the Russian Civil War.

    Trotsky was in New York at the beginning of 1917 but travelled to Petrograd after news of the February Revolution. He arrived in May and was soon arrested after the July Days protests. Whilst in jail, he joined the Bolshevik party and was elected to its Central Committee in August 1917. Trotsky was released in September, and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies elected him chairman. This gave Trotsky de facto control of the Red Guard.

    Trotsky led the Red Guard to support the Bolsheviks' rise to power during the Revolution. There was little resistance when the Red Guard arrived at the Winter Palace to depose the PG, but there followed a series of uprisings against the Soviet Government.

    The Red Guard

    Workers' Militias were voluntary military organisations within factories throughout Russia's major cities. The Militias professed to “protect soviet power”. During the February Revolution, the Petrograd Soviet was reformed and supported the PG. This was because the Soviet consisted of many Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks who believed that a bourgeois government was a necessary revolutionary stage before socialism. As the PG continued with WWI and failed to act on the Soviet's interests, workers grew discontent.

    Lenin's April Theses demanded the soviets assume control of Russia, gaining Bolshevik support from workers. The July Days protests were conducted by workers but used Bolshevik slogans. Alexandr Kerensky called on the Soviet to protect the government against the military coup d'état threat of General Kornilov in August 1917 and proceeded to arm the Red Guard from the government barracks. Once Trotsky became the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, the Bolsheviks held a majority and could direct the Red Guard to stage the Bolshevik Revolution with military force.

    Causes of the Bolshevik Revolution

    There were a series of causes for the Bolshevik Revolution, which, as we have examined, were capably taken advantage of by the Bolsheviks to secure their leadership of the country. Let's look at some long and short-term causes.

    Long-term causes

    There were three main long-term causes for the Bolshevik Revolution: the Tsarist autocracy, the failed Dumas, and Imperial Russia's involvement in warfare.

    The Tsar

    The Tsarist regime was by far the most deep-rooted cause of the Bolshevik Revolution. Socialism began to gain popularity throughout the 19th century and was exacerbated by the arrival of the more radical Marxist groups who opposed Tsarism. Once Lenin had established Marxism-Leninism as a strategy to overthrow the Tsar and establish socialism, the Bolshevik cause grew in popularity, climaxing in the 1917 Revolution.

    Did you know? The Romanov Dynasty maintained its autocratic control of Russia for just over 300 years!

    The Duma

    After the 1905 Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II allowed the creation of the Duma, the first elected and representative governmental body. However, he limited the Duma's power with his 1906 Fundamental Laws and allowed Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin to rig the third and fourth Duma elections to reduce socialist representation.

    Although the Duma was supposed to change Russia into a constitutional monarchy, the Tsar still held autocratic power. The failure to establish democratic systems in Russia lent support to the Bolshevik's proposals of a dictatorship of the proletariat and the overthrow of the Tsar.

    Constitutional Monarchy

    A system of government whereby the monarch (in this case the Tsar) remains the head of state but their powers are limited by a constitution and they share control of the state with a government.

    Warfare

    After Tsar Nicholas II took power, he had plans for imperialist expansion. He provoked the unpopular Russo-Japanese War in 1904 which led to Russia's embarrassing defeat and the 1905 Russian Revolution. When the Tsar engaged Russia in the First World War, he gained more unpopularity as Russia's Imperial Army suffered the heaviest losses of any other belligerent country.

    Bolshevik Revolution Tsar Nicholas II painting StudySmarterFig. 4 - Tsar Nicholas II led Russia's Imperial Army in WWI despite not having adequate knowledge or experience

    As the working class grew discontent with Russia's involvement, the Bolsheviks gained support due to their strong denouncement of WWI.

    Short-term causes

    The short-term causes began with the February Revolution in 1917 and can be summarised by the Provisional Government's poor leadership. Initially, they had the Petrograd Soviet's support. As the Petrograd Soviet consisted of Mensheviks and SRs, they believed that the bourgeois PG was necessary to develop industrialisation and capitalism before a second revolution could instate socialism. Let's look at how the Provisional Government dealt with the challenges of 1917, leading to further revolution.

    First World War

    Once the PG assumed leadership of Russia after the Tsar's abdication in March 1918, the first major issue to deal with was WWI. As the proletariat was at the centre of the Petrograd Soviet's concerns, they did not support the war and expected the PG to negotiate Russia's withdrawal. In May 1917, a telegram to the Allies was leaked that stated the PG's foreign minister Pavel Milyukov's intent to continue Russia's involvement in WWI. This sparked outrage in the Petrograd Soviet, who demanded socialist representation in the PG, and demonstrated the first of many incompetences of the PG.

    July Days Protests

    A group of workers took arms and began to lead protests against the PG in July, demanding that the Petrograd Soviet take control of the country instead. The workers were quoting Bolshevik slogans inspired by Lenin's April Theses. The protests were violent and getting out of control but demonstrated the increasing support for the Bolsheviks.

    Furthering support for the Bolsheviks: The July Days

    The PG could not control the July Days protests, and the Petrograd Soviet refused to heed the protesters' demands and take sole control of Russia. Although the Bolsheviks reluctantly began to support the protesters with a peaceful demonstration, they were not prepared to stage a revolution. Without the strategic means of the Bolsheviks or the political backing of the Soviet, the protest eventually de-escalated in a matter of days.

    The PG reorganised again and placed Alexandr Kerensky as prime minister. To reduce the support of the dangerously revolutionary Bolsheviks, Kerensky issued the arrests of many radicals, including Trotsky, and outed Lenin as a German agent. Although Lenin fled into hiding, the arrests showed how the PG was now counter-revolutionary and therefore not striving for socialism, adding grist to the Bolshevik cause.

    Kornilov Revolt

    General Kornilov was a loyal Tsarist general of the Russian Army and began marching on Petrograd in August 1917. He defected against Prime Minister Kerensky and appeared to be preparing a coup d'état against the PG. Kerensky asked the Soviet to defend the PG, arming the Red Guard. It was a major embarrassment for the PG and showed their ineffective leadership.

    Bolshevik Revolution General Lavr Kornilov StudySmarterFig. 5 - Although General Kornilov was a volatile commander of the Russian Army, he was well respected and an effective leader. Kerensky appointed him in July 1917 and dismissed him the following month fearing a coup d'etat

    In September 1917, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet and, with the Red Guard armed after the Kornilov revolt, paved the way for a swift Bolshevik Revolution in October. The PG barely resisted the armed Red Guard when they stormed the Winter Palace, and the Revolution itself was relatively bloodless. However, what followed saw significant bloodshed.

    Effects of the Bolshevik Revolution

    After the Bolsheviks seized power, there were many discontented parties. Other socialist groups protested the all-Bolshevik government, demanding a combination of socialist representation. Lenin eventually conceded to allow some Left SRs into the Sovnarkom in December 1917. However, they eventually resigned in March 1918 after Lenin's crushing concessions in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to withdraw Russia from WWI.

    The Bolshevik consolidation of power after their Revolution took the form of the Russian Civil War. The White Army (any anti-Bolshevik groups such as Tsarists or other socialists) fought against the Bolshevik's newly formed Red Army throughout Russia. The Bolsheviks initiated the Red Terror to persecute any domestic political dissent from anti-Bolshevik individuals.

    Following the Russian Civil War, Lenin issued his 1921 Decree Against Factionalism, which prohibited defection from the Bolshevik party line – this outlawed all political opposition and placed the Bolsheviks, now the Russian Communist Party, as the sole leaders of Russia.

    Did you know? Having consolidated power, in 1922, Lenin founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as the first socialist state guided by a communist ideology.

    Bolsheviks Revolution - Key takeaways

    • The Bolsheviks were Lenin's faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) which informally split with the Mensheviks in 1903.
    • For the majority of Russia's revolutionary activity, Lenin was in exile or evading arrest in Western Europe. He returned to Petrograd in April 1917 to issue his April Theses, which gathered support for the Bolsheviks amongst the proletariat against the Provisional Government.
    • Trotsky became the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet in September 1917. This gave him control of the Red Guard which he used to aid the Bolshevik Revolution in October.
    • The long-term causes of the Bolshevik Revolution included the atmosphere in Russia under the Tsarist autocracy and the failure at progress in the Dumas or in international warfare.
    • The short-term causes included the PG's continuation of WWI, the growing support for the Bolsheviks demonstrated by the July Days, and the embarrassing episode of the Kornilov Revolt.
    • After the Bolsheviks came to power, the Russian Civil War raged against them. They consolidated power with the successes of the Red Army and the work of the Red Terror. Lenin formed the USSR in 1922, confirming Russia's commitment to communism.

    References

    1. Ian D. Thatcher, 'The First Histories of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, 1904-06', The Slavonic and East European Review, 2007.
    2. 'Bolshevik Revolution: 1917', The Westport Library, 2022.
    3. Hannah Dalton, 'Tsarist and Communist Russia, 1855-1964', 2015.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Bolsheviks Revolution

    What did the Bolsheviks want?

    The key objectives of the Bolsheviks were to have an exclusive central committee of professional revolutionaries and to use a revolution to bring Russia from feudalism to socialism.

    What were the 3 main causes of the Russian Revolution?

    There were many causes of the Russian Revolution. The long term causes mostly involved the growing discontent with the condition of Russia under the Tsarist autocracy.

    Two significant short-term causes were the failures of the Provisional Government to withdraw Russia from WWI and the Kornilov Revolt, which armed the Red Guard so they could stage the Bolshevik Revolution.

    What happened in the Russian Revolution in 1917?

    After the Red Guard had been armed to put down the Kornilov Revolt, Trotsky became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet and so held a Bolshevik majority. With Lenin as leader, the Bolsheviks and Red Guard stormed the Winter Palace and deposed the Provisional Government to take control of Russia. The Provisional Government did not resist, and so the revolution itself was relatively bloodless.

    What caused the Russian Revolution?

    There are a myriad of causes for the Russian Revolution in October 1917. The long-term causes include the conditions of Russia under Tsarist autocracy which became increasingly worse for the working classes. Even after the democratically elected Duma was put in place in 1905, the Tsar made efforts to limit its power and continue his autocracy.

    In the short-term, the events of 1917 created the perfect storm for the Bolshevik revolution. The Provisional Government continued Russia's involvement in WWI and exposed their weaknesses with the Kornilov Revolt. The Bolsheviks gained support and took advantage of the incompetent Provisional Government to take power in October 1917.

    Why is the Russian Revolution important?

    The Russian Revolution marked the world's first ever established communist state under Vladimir Lenin. Russia had transformed from a Tsarist autocracy to socialism after the Revolution. The following industrialisation and economic growth meant that throughout the 20th century, Russia became a leading world superpower.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) hold their fateful Second Congress, signalling the unofficial ideological split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks?

    What two key objectives distinguished the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks?

    When did Lenin first return to Petrograd after the 1917 February Revolution?

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