2 – Russia
“I will not see the revolution in my lifetime”
Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, aka Lenin, Switzerland, January 1917
The second great revolution of the World War One era would be one that had a drastic effect on the conflict as it was taking place. The underpinning for the war had been the balance of alliances between the Entente Powers of Britain, France and Russia with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and the shock of revolution in Russia would throw the balance asunder, removing one of the key players from the table.
That the revolution was as a direct result of the war is unquestionable, but the circumstances that provided the impetus for it had existed far longer. The conditions in the areas that would make the revolution happen – the industrial cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg – were dire for the working classes, while all over the country, food insecurity, poverty, social divides and technological backwardness affected everyone that wasn’t a noble. Russia wasn’t ready for a modern war and, predictably, were absolutely terrible at it when it started.
The autocratic rule of the Tsar, Nicholas I, was hopelessly inadequate at organising the logistics that kept soldiers fed and clothed and even worse at providing them to those in the factories in the cities. When Nicholas took over the failing army in 1915, the situation went from bad to worse. Russians had already rose up against him in 1905 and gained significant concessions, but despite that and the ongoing food shortages, few expected the uprisings that characterised early 1917. Indeed, the quote above from Lenin is indicative of the way that the most dedicated revolutionaries thought.
At the beginning of 1917, the flimsy structure of the Tsar’s Russia fell apart. Soldiers mutinied and deserted against a war that they knew they were losing and refused to have any more part in. Industrial workers, well aware of the potential famine coming as a result of the poorly managed economy and infrastructure, struck against the government. Landless workers, a generation ago indentured serf slaves, took control of the land that they toiled and booted out their masters. In March, Nicholas I abdicated and ceded power to a Provisional Government based in Saint Petersburg.
The slogan of the Bolshevik Party, “Peace, Bread and Land”, was designed to appeal to these three groups. When Lenin, their leader, made his return to Russia in April, there was a situation of dual government between the Provisional Government on one hand, lead by bourgeois politicians, and the Petrograd Soviet, lead by the far left including the Bolsheviks. In July, huge protests, orchestrated by the Bolsheviks, almost resulted in another revolution. In August, a Tsarist general named Kornilov attempted to stage a coup, but the Bolsheviks used their control of trade unions to stop him literally in his tracks by organising a railway stoppage.
Come October, the Bolsheviks were politically the largest force. Their leaders, previously arrested, had largely been released. Their most militant members had been armed in the expectation that Kornilov would attempt to take Petrograd by force. Their time had come. The peace as promised in “Peace, Bread and Land” would soon follow, with Russia officially leaving the war in early 1918.