Socialism in Russia

Socialism in Russia emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as key opposition to the Tsarist regime and in particular support of the peasantry. The socialist movement in Russia focused on revolution to overthrow the Tsar and instate a new society. Let's look at the ideology and movement in Russia which resulted in the eventual deposition of the Tsar in 1917.

Socialism in Russia Socialism in Russia

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    A political and economic ideology which believes that the means of production and the distribution of goods should be owned by the whole community. In Russia, socialists prioritised the peasantry as the means for revolution as they were the largest demographic in the country and had nascent socialist systems already in place, such as agrarian communes.

    To clarify... In Karl Marx's works, he used the terms “socialism” and “communism” interchangeably and did not provide a clear distinction between the two terms. This article will examine socialist groups in Russia except Lenin's Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, the RSDWP, (which developed into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and then into the Russian Communist Party).

    History of Socialism in Russia

    Socialist groups were formed to protest the Tsar and advocate a revolution towards creating a Russian socialist state. Let's look at how socialism developed in Russia.

    Socialism in Russia Photograph of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels StudySmarterFig. 1 - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels devised a political and economic strategy of revolution to create a socialist state as a path to communism.

    Origins of Socialism

    Political thought similar to socialism has been around since the Ancient Greeks and has seen various forms throughout human history. It really began to gain traction in Russia after Karl Marx created his form of 'scientific socialism', describing the earlier works of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen as 'utopian socialism'.

    Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 which described the processes of revolution by peasants and then the proletariat to establish a modern socialist state which would organically become communist. As Marx's text was based on the progress of Britain, Russian political thinkers began to adapt the theory to their situation.

    Timeline of Socialism in Russia

    Below is a timeline of important events for the development of socialism in Russia.

    1861 –18901861 – Tsar Alexander II issued the Edict of Emancipation.
    1879 – The 'People's Will' party was founded.
    1881 – The “People's Will” successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II.
    1902The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were founded.
    1905First Russian Revolution.
    February SRs organised the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II's brother Grand Duke Sergei.
    October – Tsar Nicholas II signed the October Manifesto, instigating the elections for the First Duma.
    1906The SR faction of the Trudoviks was formed and stood in the Duma elections.
    Popular Socialists were founded as a faction of the SRs.
    1907The SRs stood in elections for Second Duma. The Trudoviks won a majority of seats, and the SRs made small gains.
    1907 1917The Third Duma (1907-1912) and Fourth Duma (1912-1917) were in session. The SRs boycotted these Dumas because Pyotr Stolypin had rigged the elections.
    1917FebruaryThe February Revolution saw the overthrow of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government. The Popular Socialists merged with the Trudoviks, securing some seats in parliament.
    March – the Tsar abdicated. The Fourth Duma created the Provisional Committee which elected the Provisional Government. Socialists such as Alexander Kerensky, Pavel Pereverzev, Victor Chernov, and Alexei Peshekhonov became ministers.
    July – the July Days protests saw the replacement of Prime Minister Prince Lvov by Alexander Kerensky, a Trudovik. Other socialists gained seats in the Government, replacing some Liberals.
    OctoberBolshevik Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and established a Soviet Government.
    1918January – The Constituent Assembly began its session. The Bolsheviks dissolved the Assembly after one day.
    March – The Bolsheviks agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Left SRs resigned their positions in protest.
    July – The Left SRs instigated an uprising against the Bolsheviks but were suppressed and declared illegal in February 1919.
    1921After the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, no other opposition party was allowed. The Bolsheviks' socialism became the only acceptable political position in Russia.

    Rise of Socialism in Russia

    Let's examine how socialism developed in Russia beginning with the end of the 19th century. Socialist sentiments had already erupted earlier in the 1800s with the Narodnik Movement after the 1861 Edict of Emancipation. Although this was suppressed, socialism continued with the rise of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).

    The Narodnik Movement

    The Narodnik Movement emerged in the mid-19th century as a socialist reaction to Tsar Alexander II's 1861 Edict of Emancipation. Although the new decree freed peasants from the oppression of serfdom, Narodniks argued that the peasantry was still oppressed by the new landowners, the bourgeoisie.


    In Marxism, the bourgeoisie is the middle class who own most of the means of production and wealth in a society.

    With the treatment of peasants at the root of the movement, the Narodniks used Marxist socialist theory to argue for the peasantry to revolt against the Tsarist regime and the Kulak class of wealthy peasants. Socialism would then be established based on the peasants' experience in the peasant communes. This was known as agrarian socialism and, when expanded to the whole economy, the community would own the means of production, distribution, and trade throughout Russia.

    Socialism in Russia Drawing of Andrei Zhelyabov and Sofya Perovskaya during trial StudySmarterFig. 2 - This drawing was made during the trial of Andrei Zhelyabov and Sofya Perovskaya after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II

    The first Narodnik political group, the People's Will, was founded by Andrei Zhelyabov and Sofya Perovskaya in 1879. They helped to organise the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. This generated an anti-terrorist sentiment throughout Russia, and the group was dissolved in 1882.

    Socialist Revolutionaries Russia

    Tsar Alexander III succeeded Alexander II in 1881 and suppressed socialist movements in Russia. When he died in 1894, he left a rapidly deteriorating Russian economy to his successor Tsar Nicholas II, leading to a revival of socialist activity in the late 19th century. The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP) was founded in 1898 by Vladimir Lenin and advocated a proletarian revolution.


    A member of the proletariat, the working class of society.

    The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) were founded in 1902 in response, reviving Narodnik ideology to promote a peasant revolution. The SRs were a popular party because, unlike the RSDWP, they did not use complicated Marxist political theory. Rather, they presented a simple form of socialism which concerned only Russia and its people and used the existing peasant commune structure as a model for its proposed new Russian state.

    However, the broad spectrum and membership that the SRs attracted meant that there were often conflicting ideologies within the party. This created factions throughout its existence based on decisions regarding the Duma, the First World War, and the Provisional Government.

    Socialism in Russia post-1905

    So how did socialism in Russia look after the 1905 Russian Revolution?


    The Trudoviks were founded by Aleksei Aladin in 1906 after members of the SRs stood in the elections for the first Duma in spite of the boycott advocated by the main body of the SRs.

    • Trudoviks were known as agrarian socialists and won around 100 seats in the First and Second Dumas.

    • Alexander Kerensky was elected to the Fourth Duma in 1912 as a member of the Trudoviks. He was later elected to the Provisional Government in February 1917, whilst also standing in the Petrograd Soviet.

    • In July 1917, Kerensky became Prime Minister of the Provisional Government but his poor management of the Kornilov Affair eventually resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. He led a failed coup and went into exile.

    Socialism in Russia Photograph of Alexander Kerensky StudySmarterFig. 3 - Alexander Kerensky was Prime Minister of the Provisional Government in July 1917. His poor management of the Kornilov Revolt helped lead to the Bolshevik Revolution

    Popular Socialists

    The Popular Socialists were founded in 1906 by Nikolai Annensky because of disagreements with certain SR policies.

    • Annensky wanted to nationalise the land (turn it over to state control) rather than socialise it (turn it over to the peasants).

    • The Popular Socialists also disagreed with the SRs' terrorist activity before 1905, so created a more moderate socialist group.

    • Throughout the Dumas, the Popular Socialists aligned closely with the Trudoviks and the two parties merged after the 1917 February Revolution, securing their seats in the Provisional Government.

    • The Trudoviks and the merged Popular Socialists were dissolved by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918-21).

    Socialism in Russia 1917

    How did socialism develop in 1917, leading to two socialist revolutions in February and October?

    (Right) Socialist Revolutionaries

    The Right Socialist Revolutionaries (Right SRs) were considered the main body of the party as they held the most support through membership.

    • The core of the SRs was moderate and did not support terrorist action after 1905. This increased support from the middle classes, who opposed the violent activism associated with the SRs before 1905.

    • The SRs boycotted the First Duma elections but stood in the Second Duma, gaining 37 seats. After Pyotr Stolypin's rigging of the electorate, the SRs boycotted the Third and Fourth Duma elections.

    • After the 1917 February Revolution, the SRs split into the Left and Right, with the latter supporting the newly formed Provisional Government. Victor Chernov led the Right SR faction and became a minister of agriculture in the Provisional Government.

    • The Right SRs supported WWI and agreed to wait for an official Russian constitution before enacting the agrarian reform that the party wanted.

    • Chernov did not support the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917.

    • When elections were held for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, the SRs gained a majority of the seats. This meant that Chernov sat as the Chairman of the Assembly, which was dissolved by the Bolsheviks after its inauguration in January 1918.

    Left Socialist Revolutionaries

    The Left SRs were the radical faction that supported political terrorism which comprised some of the key players behind the SR's 2,000 assassinations between 1902-1905.

    Socialism in Russia Photograph of Maria Spiridonova StudySmarterFig. 4 - Maria Spiridonova became the leader of the Left SRs in October 1917. She was an infamous radical activist who assassinated a police inspector

    • The Left SR faction began to break away from the moderate Right SR core after the February Revolution. They did not support the Provisional Government and wanted to withdraw Russia from WWI and enact agrarian reform immediately.

    • Maria Spiridonova led the Left SR faction, which officially split from the core SRs during the 1917 October Revolution.

    • The Left SRs supported the Bolsheviks during the revolution and helped to overthrow the Provisional Government.

    • Lenin proposed a coalition but the Left SRs initially declined as they wanted a Soviet Government. They later formed a coalition in December 1917.

    • Relations were tense between the Left SRs and Bolsheviks as Lenin disregarded agrarian socialism and controversially dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

    • When Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Left SRs left the coalition but remained in the Congress of Soviets.

    • The Left SRs revolted against the Bolsheviks in what they called the Third Revolution in July 1918. The Bolsheviks suppressed the revolt and declared the party illegal in February 1919.

    Russian Provisional Government

    After the 1917 February Revolution, Prince Georgy Lvov, a Liberal politician, became the first prime minister of the Provisional Government. Some Popular Socialists and SRs sat in the initial government. After Lvov's failure with the 1917 July Days uprising, he was replaced by Alexander Kerensky, a Trudovik socialist. Kerensky reordered the Government to include more SRs, Popular Socialists, and Mensheviks.

    The socialist representation in the Provisional Government was mostly the Right SRs, who supported Russia's involvement in WWI and were slow to enact the SR's agrarian reforms. Despite the socialist intentions of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks and Left SRs wanted a further revolution that would skip the capitalist stage that the Liberal-SR government was seemingly creating. This led to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and a new Soviet Government.

    As the SRs were the most popular party at the time, even after the Bolshevik Revolution, they still held the governmental positions that they had achieved democratically. The opposition to the Bolsheviks started the Russian Civil War, where the SRs supported the Whites to remove Lenin. The Bolsheviks won the conflict and created an authoritarian state, outlawing political opposition to their communist party.

    Socialism in Russia - Key takeaways

    • Socialism began to gain popularity during the 19th century as revolutionaries used Marxist ideology to protest against the Tsarist regime and peasant oppression under the bourgeoisie. This was known as the Nardonik movement.
    • The Socialist Revolutionaries were formed in 1902 as a reaction to the Marxist-Leninism political group The Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party. They argued that a peasant revolution in Russia could create a modern socialist state that would undergo industrialisation without capitalism. This was known as agrarian socialism.
    • The SRs in Russia were popular for their broad policies, but this brought many factions to the party such as the Trudoviks and Popular Socialists in 1906, and the Left and Right SRs after the 1917 October Revolution.
    • Socialists were present in the State Dumas and gained seats in the Provisional Government. In July 1917, the Trudovik Alexander Kerensky became Prime Minister.
    • The SR's version of socialism was quashed by the Bolsheviks, even when the Left SRs formed a coalition with Lenin after the October Revolution. After the Bolsheviks were victorious after the Russian Civil War, they established an authoritarian state and outlawed all political opposition.


    1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'The Communist Manifesto', 1848.
    2. Hannah Dalton, 'Tsarist and Communist Russia, 1855-1964', 2015.
    3. John Gooding, 'Socialism in Russia: Lenin and His Legacy, 1890-1991', 2002.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Socialism in Russia

    When did socialism end in Russia? 

    The Socialist Revolutionary interpretation of socialism ended when the Bolsheviks outlawed political opposition to their communist party in 1918. This was solidified after the Bolsheviks' victory during the Russian Civil War and the establishment of a Soviet Government.
    The Soviet Government was officially leading a "socialist state advised by communist ideology", but this was not democratic socialism but authoritarian.

    When did Russia become a socialist country? 

    After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 they established a Soviet Government which established Russia as a socialist country advised by communist ideology. 

    Why did the socialist system collapse in Russia? 

    The Bolsheviks' communist interpretation of socialism had outlawed political opposition. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he introduced the multi-party state and free elections, which allowed non-socialist opposition to weaken the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991.

    Is Russia socialist? 

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia turned from a socialist to a capitalist state.

    What kind of country is Russia today? 

    Today, Russia is officially a democratic federal republic which adopted a capitalist system after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In practice, Russia's president Vladimir Putin rules effectively by an authoritarian dictatorship and regularly contravenes human rights laws and disregards democracy.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "Socialism is both a political and economic ideology which believes that the means of production, its distribution, and its exchange should be owned by...?"

    Which two political philosophers are attributed with creating "utopian socialism" according to Karl Marx?

    When did Tsar Alexander II issue the Edict of Emancipation, sparking socialist responses?


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