Chapter 23 Revolution, Depression, and the Rise of Totalitarianism

Section 1 Revolution in Russia 

The trauma of total war during World War I laid bare the weaknesses of czarist rule in the tottering Russian Empire. As casualties from the Great War mounted and people throughout Russia suffered hunger and deprivation, in 1917 workers and other ordinary Russians finally rebelled against the czar, forcing him to abdicate the throne. Shortly thereafter, an even more radical group of Marxist revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, seized power and established their own authoritarian socialist regime throughout the Russian Empire, reorganizing it as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. Few events have had as much influence on world history in the 20th century as the Russian Revolution.

The Roots of Revolution  

In 1914 Russia was the most backward of the major European countries. Most of the peasantry still remained in poverty. The Industrial Revolution had arrived late in Russia, and only in the last few decades had the country begun to enter the age of the machine. In 1905 a short-lived revolution, precipitated by the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war, had swept through Russia's major cities. Confronted with the depth of discontent among the entire Russian population, Czar Nicholas II had been forced to accept some constitutional reforms. Workers were allowed to form unions and councils, called soviets, to express their grievances. Still opposed to liberal democratic ideals, however, Nicholas soon backtracked on many of the reforms and reverted to an essentially autocratic rule, harshly repressing potential revolutionaries and reformers with his hated and feared secret police.

With the outbreak of World War I, Nicholas became even more concerned with fighting battles than with responding to the complaints and problems of his people. The government's mismanagement of the war, however, only highlighted the corrupt nature of czarist rule and caused even greater discontent. Russian soldiers often went into battle with no weapons and few supplies. By 1917 Russia had suffered over 8 million casualties – soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. Meanwhile, the demands of the war effort also caused tremendous shortages of foodstuffs and other essentials among the civilian population. In the face of mounting casualties and growing hunger, the Russian people began to lose all faith in their government.

The conduct of the imperial family itself made matters even worse. When Nicholas decided to take personal command of his troops, he left the government in the hands of his wife, Czarina Alexandra. Already suspect in many Russians’ eyes because of her German birth, Alexandra’s behavior further alienated people from the monarchy. She chose the eccentric monk Grigory Rasputin as her advisor because of his ability to stop the bleeding of her son Alexis, who suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin’s reputation, however, particularly where women were concerned, was unsavory to say the least. Rasputin's favored position at Court was also difficult for most people to understand since the truth about the czarevitch's medical condition was not generally known. Soon rumors of misconduct and scandals surrounded the Russian court. In addition, many high-ranking Russians viewed his vocal opposition to the war as treason. Eventually, in 1916 a small group of Russian noblemen murdered Rasputin in an effort to restore the credibility and authority of the czarist government. 

The “February” Revolution. Rasputin’s assassination, however, did little to stop the slide into virtual anarchy. In January 1917 the situation was so chaotic that the French ambassador wrote to his own government: “I am obliged to report that at the present moment the Russian Empire is run by lunatics.” Russia's problems continued to worsen during the first months of 1917 as defeats on the battlefield and ever-increasing food shortages provoked mutinies among the soldiers and strikes on the home front.

On March 8th all the tensions finally came to a head. Unable to buy bread to feed their hungry families, angry women factory workers in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) walked off the job and staged protest strikes. As they called on other workers and the soviets to join them, by the end of the day thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets of Petrograd. One woman described the scene:                          

“The streets were full of people. The trams weren't running. Overturned cars lay across the tracks. I did not know then, I did not understand what was happening. I yelled along with everyone, 'Down with the czar!' . . , I yelled again and again. . . . I felt that all of my familiar life was falling apart and I rejoiced in its destruction.” 

The protests continued for several days until finally, on March 11th, imperial troops were sent to put them down. Instead of firing on the protesters, however, the troops instead joined them. Thus began the February Revolution (so-called because according to the Orthodox Christian calendar used in Russia the month was actually February) – the opening phase of the Russian Revolution. As the rioting spread, the czar left the front and hurried back to the capital by train. With no support from either the military or the people, however, on March 15th Nicholas was forced to abdicate his throne. The Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for over 300 years was at an end.

In an effort to restore some semblance of order, Russian leaders appointed a group of moderate reformers to set up a provisional government, which was ultimately headed by Alexander Kerensky. From the beginning, the new government faced overwhelming problems, many of its own making. Despite calls for peace, for example, Kerensky decided that Russia must remain in the war. Without peace, however, there was no way to stop the continuing food shortages, and prices continued to rise. Still unable to afford food and other basic necessities for their survival, the workers soon lost faith in the provisional government as they had lost faith in the czar. As events moved beyond Kerensky's control over the summer and early fall, he and the provisional government found themselves increasingly attacked as defenders of the old order. No one attacked them more successfully than Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. 

Lenin and the “October” Revolution. Lenin was born in 1870 in the town of Simbirsk. In 1887, his older brother Alexander was executed for taking part in a plot to assassinate the czar. From that point on, Lenin devoted his life to promoting revolution against the monarchy. At university he absorbed the communist doctrines of Karl Marx and as a young man he was exiled to Siberia for spreading Marxist materials among workers.

In 1900 Lenin left Russia to live abroad, where he might more safely continue to work for the international worker’s revolution that he believed to be inevitable. In exile, he added his own analysis to Marx’s work, publishing numerous tracts and pamphlets. One of his most influential contributions to Marxist thought was his treatise on imperialism, which he defined as “the highest stage of capitalism.” During the years immediately before World War I, Lenin was among those socialists who called on the workers of all countries to recognize their common interests and to reject any idea of fighting one another in a “capitalist war.”

When revolution did finally break out in Russia in 1917, Lenin, who was living in Switzerland, saw it as the great opportunity for which he had been waiting. Desperately, he began to look for some way to return home to join the struggle. Ironically, he soon found help from the German Kaiser. Hopeful that Lenin would aid their own war effort by fomenting revolution in Russia, German agents arranged for a special train to carry him across Europe. Like the Russian czar, however, Wilhelm II was wary of revolution in his own dominions; consequently, the train was sealed as it sped through Germany so that Lenin could not spread revolutionary socialist ideas along the way.

Arriving in Petrograd in April 1917, Lenin immediately assumed leadership of a group of revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks. Unlike the Mensheviks, who hoped to achieve socialist reforms through a democratically elected parliament, the Bolsheviks were Marxian socialists committed to the idea that only armed struggle and violent revolution would overthrow the capitalist class. They also believed that only an elite group of properly indoctrinated, ideologically committed revolutionary leaders – the Communist Party - could effectively guide and instruct workers in their own best interests, and eventually establish the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In order to take power, however, Lenin also realized that he must gain the support of the masses of ordinary Russians, both industrial workers and peasants, by offering them what they wanted above all else – an end to the war, food to eat, and some sense of security for their future. As soon as he arrived, therefore, he began to challenge the provisional government, accusing them of being little more than tools of the capitalists and liberals, and promising the people that the Bolsheviks would bring them "Peace, Land and Bread."

In November 1917 (October by the Russian calendar) the Bolsheviks violently took power in what became known as the October Revolution. Under the skillful leadership of Leon Trotsky, Lenin's right-hand man, Bolshevik military units, including the workers' Red Guards, stormed government offices in Petrograd and Moscow. The provisional government was arrested at its headquarters in the Winter Palace. Lenin addressed the Russian people: 

 “with all my might I urge comrades to realize that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by Conferences or congresses, . . .but exclusively by peoples; by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people.” 

The Bolshevik coup succeeded. Russia was now under the dictatorial control of Lenin. The Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party. In 1918, true to Lenin’s promises to both the Kaiser and the Russian workers, the Communists concluded a separate peace with Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germany agreed to end hostilities – but only in exchange for a considerable portion of Russian territory. The war abroad was finally over, but the war at home was about to begin.                         

The Civil War

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk angered many Russians who considered it a betrayal of the sacrifices made by the Motherland in the war. In addition, despite the czar’s forced abdication, many Russians, particularly devout adherents of the Russian Orthodox faith, remained loyal to the dynasty and the concept of monarchy. Not least, liberals and other constitutionalists feared the radical socialist aims of the Communists. Soon, former army officers and others, like the Cossacks, began to organize military units to fight the Bolsheviks. Collectively known as ‘the Whites,’ these disparate, and often competing, anti-revolutionary forces hoped to drive the Bolsheviks from power. Between 1918 and 1920, a brutal and bloody civil war tore Russia apart as White forces fought the Bolshevik Red Army under Leon Trotsky.

Hoping to keep Russia as an ally and to keep vital war materials from falling into German hands, the Allied Powers sent military supplies and troops to help the White forces in their struggle. Even with this outside help, however, the Whites were too disorganized and uncoordinated to fight the Red Army effectively. Reflecting their own different agendas, some White forces actually fought each other. Eventually, after three years of bloody fighting, the Bolsheviks defeated the last of the White armies and consolidated their control throughout Russia. Meanwhile, however, the civil war had resulted in enormous losses for the country. Over 800,000 soldiers had been killed in the fighting, and 2 million civilians had died from warfare and disease. The war had also provided an excuse for the Bolsheviks to form their own secret police force, the Cheka, to suppress all dissent.                         

Russia Under Lenin

As soon as the Communists seized power in 1917, they reorganized Russia's government. They moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow. Retaining his leadership of the Communist Party, Lenin also became the head of the cabinet, the Council of People's Commissars. The Communists gave official powers to the Congress of Soviets, a legislative body controlled by the party. To ensure the end of the Romanov monarchy, in 1918 the Communists ordered the execution of the former czar and all of his family. In 1922 the Communist leaders renamed Russia and the territories under its control the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Between 1918 and 1921 the nation followed an economic program later known as War Communism. The state virtually abolished private property and nationalized all industries. By the early 1920s, however, such measures had left the economy in a shambles. In the face of growing popular discontent, in 1921 Lenin announced a New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed individuals to buy and sell some products and encouraged investment of foreign capital. In agriculture the government encouraged peasants to form collective farms – vast areas of land on which many people shared the work. Most peasants, however, preferred to keep the small plots of land that their families had farmed for centuries. Although Lenin believed the NEP would lead the Soviet Union to economic recovery, not all of the new Communist leaders agreed. When Lenin suffered a debilitating stroke in 1922, and later died in 1924, the future economic prosperity and the leadership of the new nation remained in question.