7 Causes of the Russian Revolution

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution

Michelle Powell-Smith - February 1, 2017

The Russian Revolution dramatically changed Russia from an autocracy to a communist system of government. The Revolution started during World War I, and eventually the Soviet Union was formed. The Russian Revolution was, while a huge economic, social, and political change, the result of a number of different factors that built up over time, including economic, military, and political circumstances.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Russian soldiers in the trenches of World War I. Schmoop

Military Defeat in World War I

Russia entered World War I relatively underdeveloped. While the country had taken significant steps forward in the 20 years prior to the war, it was distinctly less industrialized than its allies. Russia’s navy had been decimated during a conflict with Japan in 1904 and 1905, as well as internal strife.

When World War I began in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II was surprisingly unprepared for the conflict. He knew his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, relatively well, and while he knew he was power-hungry, he did not expect all of Europe to erupt into war. Nicholas’ poor leadership led to significant wartime failures in Russia. First, he appointed his inexperienced cousin as commander-in-chief of the army, then he planned an invasion of East Prussia. Germany was expected to be largely involved in the invasion of France, as described in the Schlieffen Plan. The theory was, functionally, a good one; however, the leadership and implementation of the plan was poor. In August 1914, Russia suffered a massive defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg. In total, some 150,000 troops were lost in this single battle. Additional defeats followed.

In September 1915, Nicholas took command of the army himself. This decision would prove fatal during the Revolution. Earlier in the war, Nicholas’ distance from the front had provided him some protection. He was physically distant from the front lines of World War I. When he took command and went to the front, he lost that buffer zone of sorts, and bore a much more personal responsibility for the events that unfolded during World War I. Nicholas left his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, to govern. She was not well liked, and was German by birth.

By the end of 1916, Russia’s already limited resources were severely depleted by the war. Food, goods, and other essentials were scarce in Russian cities. Strikes and protests began in late 1916; however, the Tsarina failed to respond appropriately. She blamed the rebellions and strikes on undesirables, and failed to address the concerns of the people. When Nicholas attempted to return to Petrograd, he was faced with railway strikes, and was greeted by members of the military and Duma, Russia’s national parliament. He was forced to abdicate.

A provisional government replaced the autocratic government of the Tsar; however, the government did not immediately withdraw from the war. Food and fuel shortages continued throughout much of Russia. As military defeats continued, along with long lists of the war dead, negative feelings about the provisional government grew, paving the way for the Revolution.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Bloody Sunday. Weebly.com

Conditions for Peasants

Russia’s peasants remained in a state of near-slavery, called serfdom, for far longer than you might expect; serfdom was only ended under Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, in 1861. Serfdom tied the peasants to the land, or to industrial complexes, like mines. The 1861 emancipation of the serfs enabled those who worked the land to purchase property from landowners; household serfs received only their freedom. In some areas, emancipation came later, with state-owned serfs not receiving their freedom until 1866. While the end of serfdom should have, in theory, provided benefits to the serfs, many lost the only support and homes they had ever known.

The government provided loans that allowed the former serfs to purchase land; however, these loans were costly and the land sold by the landowners was quite poor. Many could not afford to make the payments on their land. Most had been charged significantly more than market rates for the land, in some cases as much as a third. When state-owned serfs were emancipated, the terms were somewhat more generous. A large number of former serfs sold their land back to the landowner to eliminate the payments, and moved away from the land.

In the years shortly after emancipation, the change helped to revitalize the Russian economy. New workers were available for factories, including managers, and agricultural production increased. This positive change did not continue over time, however, and eventually the Russian working population became increasingly dissatisfied. The institution of serfdom had also created a larger class divide than was present in many areas by the late 19th century. Russians were either very poor or very rich.

During the latter part of the 19th century, Russia experienced a massive population increase. Feeding a larger population proved onerous for the agricultural community. The risk of starvation increased in a relatively famine-prone region, particularly due to poor administration and organization. Large parts of Russia had short growing seasons and long, harsh winters; however, Russia had very large amounts of land, enabling more land investment in agriculture.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Protesters marching in Petrograd. Socialist Worker

Workers’ Rights Issues

The emancipation of the serfs led to a dramatic increase in population in Russian cities, as people moved away from the countryside to urban areas. The industrial revolution reached Russia significantly later than the rest of Europe. The period after emancipation was the first time the lower classes of Russia had been free to leave the land on which they were born. Many left the land not by choice, but out of financial necessity—they were in need of work, and lacked the ability to support themselves on the land.

Factories in Russian cities paid low wages, lower than in western Europe, and offered no protections for workers. The government was reluctant to implement even the most minimal of regulations, like a ban on children working at night. Eventually, a ban was put in place limiting night work for women and children, and the workday was limited to no more than 11 ½ hours.

Smaller workshops were entirely exempt from these regulations. These workshops employed the majority of Russian workers, particularly Russian women. These smaller employers could continue to opt for abusive labor policies.

There were serious safety issues at many factories. Machinery and work conditions were unsafe. There was no insurance to protect against injuries or accidental death, and workers lacked the right to strike over working conditions. Workers in late 19th and early 20th century Russia were largely treated like serfs, with few rights and little control over their own work environments.

In 1905, after Bloody Sunday, trade unions were legalized. Workers began to strike frequently, looking for better conditions. Workers in Russia became more likely to strike and were more effective with their labor resistance than anywhere else in Europe. The railroad strike in 1917 was critical to the abdication of Nicholas II.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Food lines in Russia. Histclo

Economic Collapse

By the early 20th century, following the 1905 rebellion and the establishment of the Duma, efforts were made to dismantle the traditional organizational structure of peasant communities, the commune. Communes organized serf communities, but remained after emancipation. These provided both social support and a sort of welfare net; the community could look after its own. While the peasants resisted, these efforts were relatively successful, but the period of economic growth that followed was brief and ended with the beginning of World War I.

By the time of the Revolution, Russia was in a state of economic collapse, driven by the costs of war and poor administration and management. As with other economic struggles, the greatest burden of this fell on the shoulders of the poor Russians, including both the peasants and the urban working poor.

The addition of the Ottoman Empire to the Central Powers of World War I in 1914 cut off essential trade routes for Russia. This led to munition shortages for the Russian army. Other countries, including Germany, were able to produce adequate munitions, so Russia’s failure was the result of inadequate organization, administration, and infrastructure.

As with the munitions shortages, food shortages were less an issue of agricultural production, and more an issue of poor management and administration. Small Russian farmers lacked modern equipment and still relied upon traditional farming techniques, with lower production output. In addition, a population explosion in the second half of the 19th century led to increased demands for food. Even so, in the early 20th century, Russia was the largest exporter of food in the world. People simply couldn’t afford to buy food, or food was not reaching the cities. This led to additional strife, and growing support for rebellion.

The Russian government had attempted to address the economic crisis by printing more money. This, of course, failed, resulting in high inflation. Inflation increased the cost of basic commodities, like food and fuel. The lack of funds for food and fuel limited access to these resources.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Nicholas II. Pravda

Dissatisfaction with the Tsar

Nicholas II inherited a country with severe problems, largely unprepared for a newly industrializing world. Nicholas II believed in the power of the Russian autocracy; however, he was unable to maintain the traditional power of the Tsar during his reign. As a young man, he was largely interested in his military career, rather than the political operations of the government. Around the time of his coronation, he told a friend he never wanted to be Tsar. He married and produced children; however, his only son had hemophilia. His other children were all daughters.

In 1905, Nicholas faced revolution in Russia for the first time. Before 1905, Nicholas II was, at least, tolerated by his people. On January 22, 1905, 150,000 people gathered to ask Nicholas II for his support and assistance. In their petition, they called themselves oppressed, and said they were looked on as slaves. They wanted relief, but not rebellion. The people marched peacefully, heading toward the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but were, for an unknown reason, fired upon by Russian troops. Several hundred of the peasants died that day; the government claimed around 100 dead, but those in opposition claimed a much higher number. The day was soon dubbed Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday led, nearly immediately, to widespread rebellion. This involved around 400,000 peasants throughout Russia. There were assassinations, mutinies, and attacks on the homes of the wealthy. Widespread general strikes followed, and Nicholas II made a number of concessions to appease the rebels.

His decisions during World War I were almost all remarkably bad. He failed to choose skilled leaders for his military, and made poor strategic decisions throughout the war. Russia suffered horrific military losses, costing both significant resources and massive numbers of human lives. When Nicholas II chose to take direct control of the army as commander-in-chief, he removed himself from a political role. He was, however, no better a commander than a Tsar. His choices throughout the war years condemned him to his final end.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Tsarina Alexandra, circa 1914. The Romanov Family

Tsarina Alexandra and the Government

Tsarina Alexandra was never popular with the people of Russia, even early in her marriage to Nicholas II. Alexandra was the granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Well-educated and often at her grandmother’s court, she was described as quite strong-willed. She married rather old, having already refused a marriage to Britain’s crown prince favored by her grandmother. She was expected to potentially carry hemophilia, a disease associated with excess bleeding and considered fatal. This illness had killed her brother as a young boy.

The Russian people and Nicholas II’s father, Tsar Alexander III, largely disapproved of the marriage, but it was a rare love match, rather than a relationship arranged for political motivations. Alexandra, called Alix, also faced family opposition to the match. Nicholas II and Alexandra persisted and were eventually married. The couple had four daughters, followed by a failed pregnancy, and then a son, Alexei. Alexei was soon diagnosed with hemophilia. Alexandra’s behavior became more erratic, and her relationship with Rasputin, the mystic, grew closer.

When Nicholas II left for the front in World War I, he left the German Tsarina Alexandra in charge of the government. She was already unpopular; however, this just made her much more so. She was German, and Russia was at war with Germany. She was strongly influenced by Rasputin and, once she was in power, began firing competent government officials and replacing them with her own. In many cases, these individuals were unqualified or even incompetent. As Russia continued to face defeats in war, rumors began that she was a German collaborator.

Following Rasputin’s December 1916 assassination, the Tsarina’s behavior became increasingly erratic. She was unable to manage the government in her husband’s absence and was faced with progressively greater challenges. She failed to even attempt to address those challenges, including the needs of the Russian peasantry.

7 Causes of the Russian Revolution
Grigori Rasputin. Telegraph

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin was a mystical advisor and key figure in the court of Nicholas II, and he had a particularly close relationship with Tsarina Alexandra. Rasputin, as he’s commonly called, was born into a poor family in Siberia. He attempted to become a monk, but failed. He did not, as a boy, learn to read or write. When he left the monastery, he married and traveled, visiting modern-day Israel several times.

Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg in 1903. He had already gained a reputation as a mystic and healer. He met the royal family two years later, and was embraced by the Tsarina, who believed he could cure her hemophiliac son, Alexei. The press soon began to report on his influence over the Tsarina, calling him the Mad Monk; however, there is little evidence that he played any such significant role. In fact, his influence was largely limited to the care and health of the child. Regardless of the limits of his actual influence, Tsarina Alexandra routinely defended him, even to her own detriment.

Rasputin predicted Russian failure in World War I, and became even more hated during 1915 and 1916. In December 1916, Rasputin was first (perhaps) poisoned, then shot three times, wrapped in a rug, and thrown in the river. Not long before his death, in a letter to Nicholas II, he predicted that his own death would lead to the deaths of the entire royal family. Nicholas II and his entire family were, of course, killed during the Revolution in 1918.

Rasputin has, over time, gained a particularly bad reputation. This reputation was a contemporary one, and almost certainly contributed to the widespread hatred of Tsarina Alexandra. His reputation was not an entirely fair one. In fact, Rasputin encouraged Alexandra to address the food shortages in Petrograd during the war, aware of the suffering of the peasants.