Fall of Russian Empire

The last Tsar of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II, admitted that he 'knew nothing of the business of ruling' early on in his reign.1 This should have set alarm bells ringing for the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. His prediction would prove to be true and would result in the Fall of the Russian Empire.

Fall of Russian Empire Fall of Russian Empire

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Table of contents

    Fall of Russian Empire 1917

    Nicholas II inherited the throne in 1894 after his father Alexander III's sudden death. He had to unite a country in disarray, reeling from repression, economic turmoil, and a famine of 1891-2 that had killed 400,000.

    Constitutional monarchy

    A monarch that rules in tandem with the wishes of the democratically elected government.

    Duma

    An elected assembly in Russia that makes laws.

    Let's summarise his reign until 1917 before diving into the important events that led to his downfall.

    YearEvent
    1896Disaster struck at Nicholas II's coronation. What became known as the Khodynka Tragedy, began with promises of gifts for the population from the new Tsar and ended in a stampede when too many people turned up. Around 1,300 people were crushed to death, with many more injured.
    1904-5To distract from the difficulties at home and demonstrate Western superiority over Asians, Nicholas II entered the Russo-Japanese War. It proved disastrous and ended in a humiliating defeat and Russian withdrawal from the Far Eastern region of Manchuria.
    1905After several failed attempts at Revolution, Nicholas II introduced the October Manifesto with the promise of a constitutional monarchy, diversifying power to a State Duma.
    1906The May Fundamental Laws gave Nicholas the ability to override the Duma. The Dumas that followed were corrupt and ineffective.
    1911Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin who carried out Nicholas' bidding was finally successfully assassinated.
    1914Russia entered World War I in a campaign which proved to be a disaster. In 1915 Nicholas commanded the army, meaning that he bore the brunt of the blame for the failed war effort.
    1916 Believed to be controlling the Russian royal family, holy man Grigorii Rasputin became the latest casualty after his assassination. The war plunged the nation into further economic disrepute and inflation. In 1914, 10,000 workers went on strike, and by 1916 the number catapulted to 880,000!

    By 1917 the Empire was on the brink of extinction, but let's focus on that in more detail later!

    1905 Revolution

    If 1917 was the fall of the Russian Empire, the 1905 Revolution was a dress rehearsal. Reeling from defeat against Japan, the Revolution began when peasants peacefully requested improvements in their conditions outside the Tsar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Despite the validity of their request and restraint of their method, the royal troops opened fire, killing 130 in what became known as 'Bloody Sunday'.

    Fall of Russian Empire Makovsky Bloody Sunday StudySmarterFig. 1 - Vladimir Makovsky's 1907 depiction of Bloody Sunday

    Protestors reacted, killing the noble Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and more uprisings occurred, notably on the Battleship Potemkin, where the resulting mutiny caused 2,000 deaths.

    Nicholas quelled the descent in August 1905 by promising a State Duma and a constitutional monarchy. For the first time, political parties could legally exist in Tsarist Russia.

    Russian Ideologies

    Much of the politics at the time was a reaction against centuries of autocracy.

    Autocracy

    The concentration of power and decision-making in the hands of one monarch.

    Bourgeoisie

    A term used to describe the middle classes who owned much of the wealth in society.

    Here is a breakdown of a few important players beyond this new frontier of democracy that would prove to be a false dawn.

    PartyIdeology
    Kadets The Kadets or the Constitutional Democracy Party wanted a constitutional monarchy like the one in Great Britain and called for radical change, with a departure from Tsarist autocracy.
    Social Democratic Worker's PartyFormed in 1898, the future Communist Party that would rule after Nicholas II wanted a departure for working people in rural communities toward rapid industrialisation. There were two competing factions within it. The Bolshevik majority boycotted the Duma and would never work in conjunction with a system they despised. The Menshevik minority would work alongside the bourgeoisie initially, understanding that economic growth would be necessary for the smooth transition.
    OctobristsA conservative liberal party that based its policies on the 1905 October Manifesto. They had similar views to the Kadets but wanted to maintain Nicholas II's final say. The Octobrists would form a Progressive Bloc coalition with the Kadets and the Progressive Nationalists in 1915.
    Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR)The Socialist Revolutionary Party wanted widespread land reforms like the Social Democratic Worker's Party but was not interested in the worldwide Marxist revolution. By the 1905 Revolution, they were the biggest political force in Russia. They were behind approximately 2,000 assassinations including that of Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.

    A new, democratic Russia seemed possible. However, when Nicholas II introduced the Fundamental Laws in May 1906 it was evident that he was unwilling to relinquish any of his power.

    Did you know? The Fundamental Laws undid any power that the Duma gained from the October Manifesto. Now, the Tsar could convene and dissolve the Duma as he wished, demonstrating that it was merely a construction to halt the Revolution.

    The Dumas

    Let's explore the defining characteristics of each Duma before the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.

    The First Duma (April 1906 - July 1906)

    Perhaps understandably radical, the First Duma lasted for 73 days. Dubbed, the 'Duma of the people's anger', there was a large Kadet and Socialist Revolutionary presence. The council sought land reform and demanded the release of political prisoners. Loathe to grant such extreme measures, Nicholas II swiftly dissolved it.

    The Second Duma (February 1907 - July 1907)

    The Kadets wrote the highly-critical Vyborg Appeal in the wake of the First Duma, so their votes were forbidden. Thus, the Second Duma consisted of Octobrists, SRs, Bolsheviks, and Mensheviks. When they attempted to infect the army with revolutionary fervour, the Tsar exercised his Fundamental Laws to dismantle it.

    The Third Duma (November 1907 - June 1912)

    After the opposition that was present in the first couple of Dumas, only the wealthiest members of society could vote in the Third Duma. Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin took advantage of the exclusion of the major parties to implement his land reforms. He became an extension of the Tsar's autocracy and eventually lost his life because of it!

    Fall of Russian Empire Stolypin memorial StudySmarterFig. 2 - Memorial to Pyotr Stolypin at the site of his assassination in St Petersburg

    The Fourth Duma (November 1912 - October 1917)

    The Final Duma's meetings became less and less relevant, marred by the involvement of Russia in World War I.

    Nicholas II: War Commander?

    The blissful arrogance of Nicholas II during World War I helped precipitate the end of the Russian Empire. Despite his lack of military expertise, he assumed the position of Supreme Commander of the Russian Forces. He was out of his depth, meaning that the blame for military failure lay firmly at his door.

    Nicholas II viewed the world through the prism of a myth that presented him as a national ruler who would restore a regime of personal patriarchal power.2

    - Richard Wortman, 'Russian Monarchy: Representation and Rule', 2013.

    So when the Russian public began striking in earnest during the conflict due to awful working conditions and food shortages, Nicholas II continued to follow the courage of his convictions.

    Meanwhile, scandals hit the royal family in the form of Rasputin. The Russians also believed that the German Tsarina, Nicholas' wife, was deliberately sabotaging their campaign.

    Throughout this period, it was difficult to come to any consensus as membership included mainly Octobrists and Socialists. Also, the vacuum for executive decision-making left by Stolypin's death was never truly filled.

    Did you know? During World War I, the Russians renamed their capital St Petersburg to Petrograd in a bid to sound less German!

    February Revolution 1917

    By 1917, everything had reached a breaking point for the Russian Empire.

    Republic

    Governance whereby rulers are state-elected officials, not monarchs.

    Here is a timeline detailing its downfall, beginning in February 1917.

    DateEvent
    23 FebruaryOn International Women's Day a group of 200,000, predominantly women who bore the brunt of the male absence on the farms, descended on Petrograd to protest food shortages and war. The strikes lasted two days and spread across the city. Nicholas II's royal troops joined the protest.
    15 MarchAccepting that he no longer had control of the military, Nicholas II abdicated while aboard his train. He also relinquished his brother's right to succession. In the following weeks, he permitted a Provisional Government to be set up, with Kadet Georgy Lvov as the first leader.
    April Bolshevik leader Lenin returned from his exile in Europe, sensing that the moment for Revolution had come. The Bolsheviks gained support after the Mensheviks joined the Provisional Government.
    AugustArmy commander Lavr Kornilov sent troops to Petrograd to halt the Bolshevik Revolution. The new leader of the Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky, who had already listed a warrant for Lenin, smeared Kornilov but indirectly created more support for the Bolsheviks by arming the Bolshevik Red Guard to defend Petrograd.
    1 SeptemberThe declaration of Russia as a republic signified the official fall of the Russian Empire.
    25 OctoberThe armed Bolshevik Red Guard stormed the Winter Palace and enacted the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks now had control of Russian governance, but would continue to fight for dominance in the ensuring Russian Civil War.
    2 DecemberRussia signed a cease-fire to stop its participation in World War I.

    What followed would be a bitter struggle for supremacy between the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks, where the latter would eventually emerge victorious after years of war to cement their dominance.

    Fall of Russian Empire Vladimir Lenin StudySmarterFig. 3 - Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1915

    Nicholas II and his family would be tracked down and killed in Siberia in 1918, the final nail in the coffin of a crumbled Russian Empire.

    Russian Empire 1917

    By the end of 1917, the Russian Empire had significantly shrunk in terms of territory due to its failures in World War I. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, these immense losses were formalised, including:

    one-third of the old empire’s population, one-third of its railway network, half its industry, three-quarters of its supplies of iron ore, nine-tenths of its coal resources and much of its food supplies.3

    - British Library, 'Timeline of the Russian Revolution'.

    Whilst much of this would be overshadowed after the defeat of Germany and the Treaty of Versailles (1919), it did demonstrate the dwindling power of Russia on a global stage that had contributed to the Revolution.

    Russian Empire Map 1917

    Before concluding, let's get an idea of the changes in the Russian Empire by examining a map charting these from 1905 until 1922. Many of these changes occurred as a direct result of the 1917 Revolutions.

    Fall of Russian Empire Legacy

    The fall of the Russian Empire and the eventual consolidation of a Communist government sent reverberations around the world. In her musings about the 1917 Revolution, 100 years on, Mary Neuburger suggests we look at the foreign impact of the Revolution, acknowledging the:

    remarkable fact that the Revolution not only succeeded but also spread so far from the streets of Petrograd.4

    - Mary Neuburger, 'The 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution', 2017.

    This blueprint for Revolution that became the Communist cause inspired a new wave of political thought, which resulted in countless similar Revolutions across the globe.

    Fall of Russian Empire - Key takeaways

    • There were huge economic and political issues in Russia when Tsar Nicholas II assumed the throne in 1894.
    • These came to a head after the loss of the Russo-Japanese War and the subsequent 1905 Revolution.
    • Nicholas II quashed the Revolution with his introduction of the State Duma in the October Manifesto. This introduced political parties however, he retained ultimate control due to the Fundamental Laws.
    • In 1917, after a catastrophic performance in World War I, protests forced Nicholas II to abdicate. He left the chasm for the Bolsheviks to seize power and the Russian Empire fell.

    References

    1. Richard Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy : From Alexander II to the Abdication of Nicholas II (2000), pp. 341.
    2. Richard Wortman, 'Nicholas II and the Revolution of 1905', Russian Monarchy: Representation and Rule (2013), pp. 199-218.
    3. British Library, 'Timeline of the Russian Revolution' (https://www.bl.uk/russian-revolution/articles/timeline-of-the-russian-revolution#Brest-Litovsk%20Treaty)
    4. Mary Neuburger, 'The 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution: Introduction', Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 52, No. 4 (October 2017), pp. 807-815.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Fall of Russian Empire

    Why did the Russian Empire fall?

    The Russian Empire fell because of poor leadership, economic and social unrest and failure in war.

    What event ended the Russian Empire?

    The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 ended the Russian Empire.

    Why did Russia turn against Nicholas II?

    Nicholas' unwillingness to grant a constitutional monarchy after the October Manifesto in 1905, the economic situation and the failure in warfare all contributed to Russians turning against him.

    What was the impact of the 1905 Revolution?

    State Dumas were created in the wake of the 1905 Revolution, with political participation. However, parties had minimal impact due to the Fundamental Laws.

    What were the causes and outcomes of the February Revolution in 1917?

    Worker's protests were joined by the tsar's troops in Petrograd. The result of this was the tsar's abdication and the creation of the Provisional Government.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who initially started the protest on the 23rd of February 1917? 

    What was the Provisional Government? 

    What was the purpose of the Provisional Government?

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