55 The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1905

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire, which included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies.

Learning Objectives

Outline the events of the 1905 Revolution, along with its successes and failures

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In January 1905, an incident known as “Bloody Sunday” occurred when Father Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the tsar.
  • When the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds.
  • The Russian masses were so aroused over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic, which marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905.
  • Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity.
  • In October 1905, Tsar Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature), as well as the right to vote, and affirmed that no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma.
  • The moderate groups were satisfied, but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organize new strikes.
  • By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar’s position was strengthened for the time being.

Key Terms

  • Russian Constitution of 1906: A major revision of the 1832 Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire, which transformed the formerly absolutist state into one in which the emperor agreed for the first time to share his autocratic power with a parliament. It was enacted on May 6, 1906, on the eve of the opening of the first State Duma.
  • State Duma: The Lower House of the legislative assembly in the late Russian Empire, which held its meetings in the Taurida Palace in St. Petersburg. It convened four times between April 1906 and the collapse of the Empire in February 1917. It was founded during the Russian Revolution of 1905 as the Tsar’s response to rebellion.
  • Russification: A form of cultural assimilation during which non-Russian communities, voluntarily or not, give up their culture and language in favor of the Russian one. In a historical sense, the term refers to both official and unofficial policies of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union with respect to their national constituents and to national minorities in Russia, aimed at Russian domination.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a wave of mass political and social unrest that spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire, some of which was directed at the government. It included worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies and led to constitutional reform, including the establishment of the State Duma, the multi-party system, and the Russian Constitution of 1906.

Causes of Unrest

According to Sidney Harcave, author of The Russian Revolution of 1905, four problems in Russian society contributed to the revolution. First, newly emancipated peasants earned too little and were not allowed to sell or mortgage their allotted land. Second, ethnic minorities resented the government because of its ” Russification,” discrimination, and repression, both social and formal, such as banning them from voting and serving in the Guard or Navy and limiting attendance in schools. Third, a nascent industrial working class resented the government for doing too little to protect them, by banning strikes and labor unions. Finally, the educated class fomented and spread radical ideas after a relaxing of discipline in universities allowed a new consciousness to grow among students.

Taken individually, these issues might not have affected the course of Russian history, but together they created the conditions for a potential revolution. Historian James Defronzo writes, “At the turn of the century, discontent with the Tsar’s dictatorship was manifested not only through the growth of political parties dedicated to the overthrow of the monarchy but also through industrial strikes for better wages and working conditions, protests and riots among peasants, university demonstrations, and the assassination of government officials, often done by Socialist Revolutionaries.”

Start of the Revolution

In December 1904, a strike occurred at the Putilov plant (a railway and artillery supplier) in St. Petersburg. Sympathy strikes in other parts of the city raised the number of strikers to 150,000 workers in 382 factories. By January 21, 1905, the city had no electricity and newspaper distribution was halted. All public areas were declared closed.

Controversial Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon, who headed a police-sponsored workers’ association, led a huge workers’ procession to the Winter Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar on Sunday, January 22, 1905. The troops guarding the palace were ordered to tell the demonstrators not to pass a certain point, according to Sergei Witte, and at some point, troops opened fire on the demonstrators, causing between 200 and 1,000 deaths. The event became known as Bloody Sunday and is considered by many scholars as the start of the active phase of the revolution.

The events in St. Petersburg provoked public indignation and a series of massive strikes that spread quickly throughout the industrial centers of the Russian Empire. Polish socialists called for a general strike. By the end of January 1905, over 400,000 workers in Russian Poland were on strike. Half of European Russia’s industrial workers went on strike in 1905, and 93.2% in Poland. There were also strikes in Finland and the Baltic coast.

Nationalist groups were angered by the Russification undertaken since Alexander II. The Poles, Finns, and Baltic provinces all sought autonomy and freedom to use their national languages and promote their own cultures. Muslim groups were also active — the First Congress of the Muslim Union took place in August 1905. Certain groups took the opportunity to settle differences with each other rather than the government. Some nationalists undertook anti-Jewish pogroms, possibly with government aid, and in total over 3,000 Jews were killed.

Height of the Revolution

Tsar Nicholas II agreed on February 18 to the creation of a State Duma of the Russian Empire with consultative powers only. When its slight powers and limits on the electorate were revealed, unrest redoubled. The Saint Petersburg Soviet was formed and called for a general strike in October, refusal to pay taxes, and the withdrawal of bank deposits.

In June and July 1905, there were many peasant uprisings in which peasants seized land and tools. Disturbances in the Russian-controlled Congress Poland culminated in June 1905 in the Łódź insurrection. Surprisingly, only one landlord was recorded as killed. Far more violence was inflicted on peasants outside the commune with 50 deaths recorded.

The October Manifesto, written by Sergei Witte and Alexis Obolenskii, was presented to the Tsar on October 14. It closely followed the demands of the Zemstvo Congress in September, granting basic civil rights, allowing the formation of political parties, extending the franchise towards universal suffrage, and establishing the Duma as the central legislative body. The Tsar waited and argued for three days, but finally signed the manifesto on October 30, 1905, citing his desire to avoid a massacre and his realization that insufficient military force was available to pursue alternate options. He regretted signing the document, saying that he felt “sick with shame at this betrayal of the dynasty… the betrayal was complete.”

When the manifesto was proclaimed, there were spontaneous demonstrations of support in all the major cities. The strikes in St. Petersburg and elsewhere officially ended or quickly collapsed. A political amnesty was also offered. The concessions came hand-in-hand with renewed, brutal action against the unrest. There was also a backlash from the conservative elements of society, with right-wing attacks on strikers, left-wingers, and Jews.

While the Russian liberals were satisfied by the October Manifesto and prepared for upcoming Duma elections, radical socialists and revolutionaries denounced the elections and called for an armed uprising to destroy the Empire.

Some of the November uprising of 1905 in Sevastopol, headed by retired naval Lieutenant Pyotr Schmidt, was directed against the government, while some was undirected. It included terrorism, worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies, and was only suppressed after a fierce battle. The Trans-Baikal railroad fell into the hands of striker committees and demobilized soldiers returning from Manchuria after the Russo–Japanese War. The Tsar had to send a special detachment of loyal troops along the Trans-Siberian Railway to restore order.

Between December 5 and 7, there was another general strike by Russian workers. The government sent troops on December 7, and a bitter street-by-street fight began. A week later, the Semyonovsky Regiment was deployed and used artillery to break up demonstrations and shell workers’ districts. On December 18, with around a thousand people dead and parts of the city in ruins, the workers surrendered. After a final spasm in Moscow, the uprisings ended.

A locomotive overturned by striking workers at the main railway depot in Tiflis in 1905
Russian Revolution of 1905: A locomotive overturned by striking workers at the main railway depot in Tiflis in 1905.


According to figures presented in the Duma by Professor Maksim Kovalevsky, by April 1906, more than 14,000 people had been executed and 75,000 imprisoned.

Following the Revolution of 1905, the Tsar made last attempts to save his regime and offered reforms similar to those of most rulers pressured by a revolutionary movement. The military remained loyal throughout the Revolution of 1905, as shown by their shooting of revolutionaries when ordered by the Tsar, making overthrow difficult. These reforms were outlined in a precursor to the Constitution of 1906 known as the October Manifesto which created the Imperial Duma. The Russian Constitution of 1906, also known as the Fundamental Laws, set up a multiparty system and a limited constitutional monarchy. The revolutionaries were quelled and satisfied with the reforms, but it was not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that would later topple the Tsar’s regime.

Rising Discontent in Russia

Under Tsar Nicholas II (reigned 1894–1917), the Russian Empire slowly industrialized amidst increased discontent and dissent among the lower classes. This only increased during World War I, leading to the utter collapse of the Tsarist régime in 1917 and an era of civil war.

Learning Objectives

Name a few reasons the Russian populace was discontented with its leadership

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the 1890s, Russia’s industrial development led to a large increase in the size of the urban middle-class and working class, which gave rise to a more dynamic political atmosphere and the development of radical parties.
  • During the 1890s and early 1900s, bad living and working conditions, high taxes, and land hunger gave rise to more frequent strikes and agrarian disorders.
  • Russia’s backwards systems for agricultural production, the worst in Europe at the time, influenced the attitudes of peasants and other social groups to reform against the government and promote social changes.
  • The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a major factor of the February Revolutions of 1917, unleashing a steady current of worker unrest and increased political agitation.
  • The onset of World War I exposed the weakness of Nicholas II’s government.
  • A show of national unity had accompanied Russia’s entrance into the war, with defense of the Slavic Serbs the main battle cry, but by 1915, the strain of the war began to cause popular unrest, with high food prices and fuel shortages causing strikes in some cities.

Key Terms

  • Bolshevik party: Literally meaning “one of the majority,” this party was a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) which split from the Menshevik faction at the Second Party Congress in 1903. They ultimately became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
  • St. Petersburg Soviet: A workers’ council or soviet circa 1905. The idea of a soviet as an organ to coordinate workers’ strike activities arose during the January–February 1905 meetings of workers at the apartment of Voline (later a famous anarchist) during the abortive revolution of 1905. However, its activities were quickly repressed by the government. The model would later become central to the communists during the Revolution of 1917.
  • Tsar Nicholas II: The last Emperor of Russia, ruling from November 1894 until his forced abdication on March 15, 1917. His reign saw the fall of the Russian Empire from one of the foremost great powers of the world to economic and military collapse. Due to the Khodynka Tragedy, anti-Semitic pogroms, Bloody Sunday, the violent suppression of the 1905 Revolution, the execution of political opponents, and his perceived responsibility for the Russo-Japanese War, he was given the nickname Nicholas the Bloody by his political adversaries.

Under Tsar Nicholas II (reigned 1894–1917), the Russian Empire slowly industrialized while repressing political opposition in the center and on the far left. It recklessly entered wars with Japan (1904) and with Germany and Austria (1914) for which it was very poorly prepared, leading to the utter collapse of the old régime in 1917 and an era of civil war.

During the 1890s, Russia’s industrial development led to a large increase in the size of the urban middle-class and orking class, which gave rise to a more dynamic political atmosphere and the development of radical parties. Because the state and foreigners owned much of Russia’s industry, the Russian working class was comparatively stronger and the Russian bourgeoisie comparatively weaker than in the West. The working class and peasants became the first to establish political parties in Russia because the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie were politically timid. During the 1890s and early 1900s, bad living and working  conditions, high taxes, and land hunger gave rise to more frequent strikes and agrarian disorders. These activities prompted the bourgeoisie of various nationalities in the Russian Empire to develop a host of parties, both liberal and conservative.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a major factor in the February Revolutions of 1917. The events of Bloody Sunday triggered a line of protests. A council of workers called the St. Petersburg Soviet was created in all this chaos, beginning the era of communist political protest.

Agrarian Backwardness

Russia’s systems for agricultural production influenced peasants and other social groups to reform against the government and promote social changes. Historians George Jackson and Robert Devlin write, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, agriculture constituted the single largest sector of the Russian economy, producing approximately one-half of the national income and employing two-thirds of Russia’s population.” This illustrates the tremendous role peasants played economically, making them detrimental to the revolutionary ideology of the populist and social democrats. At the end of the 19th century, Russian agriculture as a whole was the worst in Europe. The Russian system of agriculture lacked capital investment and technological advancement. Livestock productivity was notoriously backwards and the lack of grazing land such as meadows forced livestock to graze in fallow uncultivated land. Both the crop and livestock system failed to withstand the Russian winters. During the Tsarist rule, the agricultural economy diverged from subsistence production to production directly for the market. Along with the agricultural failures, Russia had rapid population growth, railroads expanded across farmland, and inflation attacked the price of commodities. Restrictions were placed on the distribution of food and ultimately led to famines. Agricultural difficulties in Russia limited the economy, influencing social reforms and assisting the rise of the Bolshevik party.

Worker Discontent

The social causes of the Russian Revolution mainly came from centuries of oppression of the lower classes by the Tsarist regime and Nicholas’s failures in World War I. While rural agrarian peasants had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861, they still resented paying redemption payments to the state, and demanded communal tender of the land they worked. The problem was further compounded by the failure of Sergei Witte’s land reforms of the early 20th century. Increasing peasant disturbances and sometimes actual revolts occurred, with the goal of securing ownership of the land they worked. Russia consisted mainly of poor farming peasants, with 1.5% of the population owning 25% of the land.

Workers had good reasons for discontent: overcrowded housing with often deplorable sanitary conditions; long hours at work (on the eve of the war, a 10-hour workday six days a week was the average and many were working 11–12 hours a day by 1916); constant risk of injury and death from poor safety and sanitary conditions; harsh discipline (not only rules and fines, but foremen’s fists); and inadequate wages (made worse after 1914 by steep wartime increases in the cost of living). At the same time, urban industrial life was full of benefits, though these could be just as dangerous, from the point of view of social and political stability, as the hardships. There were many encouragements to expect more from life. Acquiring new skills gave many workers a sense of self-respect and confidence, heightening expectations and desires. Living in cities, workers encountered material goods they had never seen in villages. Most importantly, they were exposed to new ideas about the social and political order.

The rapid industrialization of Russia also resulted in urban overcrowding. Between 1890 and 1910, the population of the capital, Saint Petersburg, swelled from 1,033,600 to 1,905,600, with Moscow experiencing similar growth. This created a new proletariat that due to being crowded together in the cities was much more likely to protest and go on strike than the peasantry had been in previous eras. In one 1904 survey, it was found that an average of sixteen people shared each apartment in Saint Petersburg with six people per room. There was no running water, and piles of human waste were a threat to the health of the workers. The poor conditions only aggravated the situation, with the number of strikes and incidents of public disorder rapidly increasing in the years shortly before World War I. Because of late industrialization, Russia’s workers were highly concentrated.

World War I

Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I with enthusiasm and patriotism, with the defense of Russia’s fellow Orthodox Slavs, the Serbs, as the main battle cry. In August 1914, the Russian army invaded Germany’s province of East Prussia and occupied a significant portion of Austrian-controlled Galicia in support of the Serbs and their allies – the French and British. Military reversals and shortages among the civilian population, however, soon soured much of the population. German control of the Baltic Sea and German-Ottoman control of the Black Sea severed Russia from most of its foreign supplies and potential markets.

By the middle of 1915, the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties were increasing, and inflation was mounting. Strikes rose among low-paid factory workers, and there were reports that peasants, who wanted reforms of land ownership, were restless. The tsar eventually decided to take personal command of the army and moved to the front, leaving Alexandra in charge in the capital.

By its end, World War I prompted a Russian outcry directed at Tsar Nicholas II. It was another major factor contributing to the retaliation of the Russian Communists against their royal opponents. After the entry of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914, Russia was deprived of a major trade route through Ottoman Empire, which followed with a minor economic crisis in which Russia became incapable of providing munitions to its army in the years leading to 1917. However, the problems were merely administrative and not industrial, as Germany was producing great amounts of munitions whilst constantly fighting on two major battlefronts.

The war also developed a weariness in the city, owing to a lack of food in response to the disruption of agriculture. Food scarcity had become a considerable problem in Russia, but the cause did not lie in any failure of the harvests, which had not been significantly altered during wartime. The indirect reason was that the government, in order to finance the war, had been printing millions of ruble notes, and by 1917 inflation increased prices up to four times what they had been in 1914. The peasantry were consequently faced with the higher cost of purchases, but made no corresponding gain in the sale of their own produce, since this was largely taken by the middlemen on whom they depended. As a result, they tended to hoard their grain and to revert to subsistence farming, so the cities were constantly short of food. At the same time rising prices led to demands for higher wages in the factories, and in January and February 1916 revolutionary propaganda aided by German funds led to widespread strikes. Heavy losses during the war also strengthened thoughts that Tsar Nicholas II was unfit to rule.

Photo of a large number of Russian soldiers marching in the street of Petrograd in February 1917
Discontent Leading up the Russian Revolution: Russian soldiers marching in Petrograd in February 1917.

The Provisional Government

The Russian Empire collapsed with the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II during the February Revolution. The old regime was replaced by a politically moderate provisional government that struggled for power with the socialist-led worker councils (soviets).

Learning Objectives

Detail the workings of Russia’s provisional government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The February Revolution of 1917 was focused around Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), then capital of Russia.
  • The army leadership felt they did not have the means to suppress the revolution, resulting in Tsar Nicholas’s abdication and soon after, the end of the Tsarist regime altogether.
  • To fill the vacuum of authority, the Duma (legislature) declared a provisional government headed by Prince Lvov, collectively known as the Russian Republic.
  • Meanwhile, the socialists in Petrograd organized elections among workers and soldiers to form a soviet (council) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies as an organ of popular power that could pressure the “bourgeois” provisional government.
  • The Soviets initially permitted the provisional government to rule, but insisted on a prerogative to influence decisions and control various militias.
  • A period of dual power ensued during which the provisional government held state power while the national network of soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left.
  • During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests, and strikes, such as the July Days.
  • The period of competition for authority ended in late October 1917 when Bolsheviks routed the ministers of the Provisional Government in the events known as the October Revolution and placed power in the hands of the soviets, which had given their support to the Bolsheviks.

Key Terms

  • Russian Provisional Government: A provisional government of the Russian Republic established immediately following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of the Russian Empire on 2 March.
  • February Revolution: The first of two Russian revolutions in 1917. It involved mass demonstrations and armed clashes with police and gendarmes, the last loyal forces of the Russian monarchy. On March 12, mutinous Russian Army forces sided with the revolutionaries. Three days later, the result was the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of the Romanov dynasty, and the end of the Russian Empire.
  • Soviet: Political organizations and governmental bodies, essentially workers’ councils, primarily associated with the Russian Revolutions and the history of the Soviet Union, that gave the name to the latter state.
  • July Days: Events in 1917 that took place in Petrograd, Russia, between July 3 and 7 when soldiers and industrial workers engaged in spontaneous armed demonstrations against the Russian Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks initially attempted to prevent the demonstrations and then decided to support them.

Background: February Revolution

At the beginning of February 1917, Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) workers began several strikes and demonstrations. On March 7, workers at Putilov, Petrograd’s largest industrial plant, announced a strike.

The next day, a series of meetings and rallies were held for International Women’s Day, which gradually turned into economic and political gatherings. Demonstrations were organized to demand bread, supported by the industrial working force who considered them a reason to continue the strikes. The women workers marched to nearby factories, bringing out over 50,000 workers on strike. By March 10, virtually every industrial enterprise in Petrograd had been shut down along with many commercial and service enterprises. Students, white-collar workers, and teachers joined the workers in the streets and at public meetings.

To quell the riots, the Tsar looked to the army. At least 180,000 troops were available in the capital, but most were either untrained or injured. Historian Ian Beckett suggests around 12,000 could be regarded as reliable, but even these proved reluctant to move in on the crowd since it included so many women. For this reason, on March 11 when the Tsar ordered the army to suppress the rioting by force, troops began to mutiny. Although few actively joined the rioting, many officers were either shot or went into hiding; the ability of the garrison to hold back the protests was all but nullified, symbols of the Tsarist regime were rapidly torn down, and governmental authority in the capital collapsed – not helped by the fact that Nicholas had suspended the Duma (legislature) that morning, leaving it with no legal authority to act. The response of the Duma, urged on by the liberal bloc, was to establish a temporary committee to restore law and order; meanwhile, the socialist parties established the Petrograd Soviet to represent workers and soldiers. The remaining loyal units switched allegiance the next day.

The Tsar directed the royal train,  stopped on March 14 by a group of revolutionaries at Malaya Vishera, back to Petrograd. When the Tsar finally arrived at in Pskov, the Army Chief Ruzsky and the Duma deputees Guchkov and Shulgin suggested in unison that he abdicate the throne. He did so on March on behalf of both himself and his son, the Tsarevich. Nicholas nominated his brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, to succeed him, but the Grand Duke realized that he would have little support as ruler. He declined the crown on March 16, stating that he would take it only as the consensus of democratic action.

The immediate effect of the February Revolution was a widespread atmosphere of elation and excitement in Petrograd. On March 16, the provisional government was announced. The center-left was well represented, and the government was initially chaired by a liberal aristocrat, Prince Georgy Yevgenievich Lvov, a member of the Constitutional Democratic party (KD). The socialists had formed their rival body, the Petrograd Soviet (or workers’ council) four days earlier. The Petrograd Soviet and the provisional government competed for power over Russia.

Reign of the Provisional Government

The Russian Provisional Government was a provisional government of the Russian Republic established immediately following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of the Russian Empire on March 2, 1917. It was intended to organize elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly and its convention.

Despite its short reign of power and implementation shortcomings, the provisional government passed very progressive legislation. The policies enacted by this moderate government (by 1917 Russian standards) represented arguably the most liberal legislation in Europe at the time. It abolished capital punishment, declared the independence of Poland, redistributed wealth in the countryside, restored the constitution of Finland, established local government on a universal suffrage basis, separated church and state, conceded language rights to all the nationalities, and confirmed liberty of speech, liberty of the Press, and liberty of assembly.

The provisional government lasted approximately eight months, ceasing when the Bolsheviks seized power after the October Revolution in October 1917. According to Harold Whitmore Williams, the eight months during which Russia was ruled by the provisional government was characterized by the steady and systematic disorganization of the army.

The provisional government was unable to make decisive policy decisions due to political factionalism and a breakdown of state structures. This weakness left the government open to strong challenges from both the right and the left. Its chief adversary on the left was the Petrograd Soviet, which tentatively cooperated with the government at first but then gradually gained control of the army, factories, and railways. While the Provisional Government retained the formal authority to rule over Russia, the Petrograd Soviet maintained actual power. With its control over the army and the railroads, the Petrograd Soviet had the means to enforce policies. The provisional government lacked the ability to administer its policies. In fact, local soviets, political organizations mostly of socialists, often maintained discretion when deciding whether or not to implement the provisional government’s laws.

A period of dual power ensued during which the provisional government held state power while the national network of soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left. During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests, and strikes. When the provisional government chose to continue fighting the war with Germany, the Bolsheviks and other socialist factions campaigned for stopping the conflict. The Bolsheviks turned workers’ militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army), over which they exerted substantial control.

In July, following a series of crises known as the July Days (strikes by soldiers and industrial workers) that undermined its authority with the public, the head of the provisional government resigned and was succeeded by Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky was more progressive than his predecessor but not radical enough for the Bolsheviks or many Russians discontented with the deepening economic crisis and the continuation of the war. While Kerensky’s government marked time, the socialist-led soviet in Petrograd joined with soviets (workers’ councils) that formed throughout the country to create a national movement.

The period of competition for authority ended in late October 1917 when Bolsheviks routed the ministers of the provisional government in the events known as the October Revolution and placed power in the hands of the soviets, which had given their support to the Bolsheviks.

Photo shows people strewn across a large open street, some running, some injured or dead.
July Days: Street demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd just after troops of the Provisional Government opened fire in the July Days.

The October Revolution

On October 25, 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin led his leftist revolutionaries in a successful revolt against the ineffective provisional government, an event known as the October Revolution.

Learning Objectives

Explain the events of the October Revolution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the workers’ soviets overthrew the Russian Provisional Government in Petrograd.
  • The Bolsheviks appointed themselves as leaders of various government ministries and seized control of the countryside, establishing the Cheka to quash dissent.
  • The October Revolution ended the phase of the revolution instigated in February, replacing Russia’s short-lived provisional parliamentary government with government by soviets, local councils elected by bodies of workers and peasants.
  • To end Russia’s participation in the First World War, the Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918.
  • Soviet membership was initially freely elected, but many members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, anarchists, and other leftists created opposition to the Bolsheviks through the soviets themselves.
  • When it became clear that the Bolsheviks had little support outside of the industrialized areas of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, they simply barred non-Bolsheviks from membership in the soviets.
  • The new government soon passed the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land, the latter of which redistributed land and wealth to peasants throughout Russia.
  • A coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups attempted to unseat the new government in the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1922.

Key Terms

  • Vladimir Lenin: A Russian communist revolutionary, politician, and political theorist. He served as head of government of the Russian Republic from 1917 to 1918, of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic from 1918 to 1924, and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. Under his administration, Russia and then the wider Soviet Union became a one-party socialist state governed by the Russian Communist Party. Ideologically a Marxist, he developed political theories known as Leninism.
  • Marxism–Leninism: A political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of Classical Marxism and Leninism that seeks to establish socialist states and develop them further. They espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of Marxism and Leninism, but generally support the idea of a vanguard party, one-party state, proletarian state-dominance over the economy, internationalism, opposition to bourgeois democracy, and opposition to capitalism. It remains the official ideology of the ruling parties of China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, a number of Indian states, and certain governed Russian oblasts such as Irkutsk. It was the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the other ruling parties that made up the Eastern Bloc.
  • October Revolution: A seizure of state power by the Bolshevik Party instrumental in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place with an armed insurrection in Petrograd on October 25, 1917. It followed and capitalized on the February Revolution of the same year.
  • Decree on Land: Written by Vladimir Lenin, this law was passed by the Second Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies on October 26, 1917, following the success of the October Revolution. It decreed an abolition of private property and the redistribution of the landed estates among the peasantry.

The October Revolution, commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising, or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a seizure of state power instrumental in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place with an armed insurrection in Petrograd on October 25, 1917.

It followed and capitalized on the February Revolution of the same year, which overthrew the Tsarist autocracy and resulted in a provisional government after a transfer of power proclaimed by Grand Duke Michael, brother of Tsar Nicolas II, who declined to take power after the Tsar stepped down. During this time, urban workers began to organize into councils (Russian: Soviet) wherein revolutionaries criticized the provisional government and its actions. The October Revolution in Petrograd overthrew the provisional government and gave the power to the local soviets. The Bolshevik party was heavily supported by the soviets. After the Congress of Soviets, now the governing body, had its second session, it elected members of the Bolsheviks and other leftist groups such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to key positions within the new state of affairs. This immediately initiated the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist state.

The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, who used their influence in the Petrograd Soviet to organize the armed forces. Bolshevik Red Guards forces under the Military Revolutionary Committee began the takeover of government buildings on October 24, 1917. The following day, the Winter Palace (the seat of the Provisional government located in Petrograd, then capital of Russia), was captured.

The long-awaited Constituent Assembly elections were held on November 12, 1917. The Bolsheviks only won 175 seats in the 715-seat legislative body, coming in second behind the Socialist Revolutionary party, which won 370 seats. The Constituent Assembly was to first meet on November 28, 1917, but its convocation was delayed until January 5, 1918, by the Bolsheviks. On its first and only day in session, the body rejected Soviet decrees on peace and land, and was dissolved the next day by order of the Congress of Soviets.

As the revolution was not universally recognized, there followed the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1917–22) and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.

Leadership and Ideology

The October Revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin and was based upon Lenin’s writing on the ideas of Karl Marx, a political ideology often known as Marxism-Leninism. Marxist-Leninists espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of Marxism and Leninism, but generally support the idea of a vanguard party, one-party state, proletarian state-dominance over the economy, internationalism, opposition to bourgeois democracy, and opposition to capitalism. The October Revolution marked the beginning of the spread of communism in the 20th century. It was far less sporadic than the revolution of February and came about as the result of deliberate planning and coordinated activity to that end.

Though Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik Party, it has been argued that since Lenin was not present during the actual takeover of the Winter Palace, it was really Trotsky’s organization and direction that led the revolution, merely spurred by the motivation Lenin instigated within his party. Critics on the right have long argued that the financial and logistical assistance of German intelligence via agent Alexander Parvus was a key component as well, though historians are divided since there is little evidence supporting that claim.


The Second Congress of Soviets consisted of 670 elected delegates; 300 were Bolshevik and nearly a hundred were Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who also supported the overthrow of the Alexander Kerensky Government. When the fall of the Winter Palace was announced, the Congress adopted a decree transferring power to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, thus ratifying the Revolution.

The transfer of power was not without disagreement. The center and right wings of the Socialist Revolutionaries as well as the Mensheviks believed that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had illegally seized power and walked out before the resolution was passed. As they exited, they were taunted by Leon Trotsky who told them “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!”

The following day, October 26, the Congress elected a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) with Lenin as leader as the basis of a new Soviet Government, pending the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, and passed the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land. This new government was also officially called “provisional” until the Assembly was dissolved. The Council of People’s Commissars now began to arrest the leaders of opposition parties. Dozens of Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadet) leaders and members of the Constituent Assembly were imprisoned in The Peter and Paul Fortress. These would be followed by the arrests of Socialist Revolutionary Party and Menshevik leaders. Posters were pinned on walls and fences by the Socialist-Revolutionaries, describing the takeover as a “crime against the motherland and revolution.” There was also strong anti-Bolshevik opposition within Petrograd. All in all, the transfer of power was complex and replete with conflict within the revolutionaries.

The Decree on Land ratified the actions of the peasants who throughout Russia seized private land and redistributed it among themselves. The Bolsheviks viewed themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants and memorialized that understanding with the hammer and sickle on the flag and coat of arms of the Soviet Union. Other decrees:

  • All private property was seized by the state.
  • All Russian banks were nationalized.
  • Private bank accounts were confiscated.
  • The Church’s properties (including bank accounts) were seized.
  • All foreign debts were repudiated.
  • Control of the factories was given to the soviets.
  • Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war, and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced.

The success of the October Revolution transformed the Russian state into a soviet republic. A coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups attempted to unseat the new government in the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1922.

Photo of Vladimir Lenin speaking at a raised podium to a crowd of people.
Lenin and Trotsky, Russian Revolutionaries: Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, speaking at a meeting in Sverdlov Square in Moscow, with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev adjacent to the right of the podium.

The Russian Civil War

The Russian Civil War, which broke out in 1918 shortly after the October Revolution, was fought mainly between the “Reds,” led by the Bolsheviks, and the “Whites,” a politically-diverse coalition of anti-Bolsheviks.

Learning Objectives

Describe the various parties that participated in the Russian Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Russian Civil War, which broke out in 1918 shortly after the revolution, brought death and suffering to millions of people regardless of their political orientation.
  • The war was fought mainly between the “Reds,” consisting of the uprising majority led by the Bolshevik minority, and the “Whites,” army officers and cossacks, the “bourgeoisie,” and political groups ranging from the far right to the Socialist revolutionaries who opposed the drastic restructuring championed by the Bolsheviks following the collapse of the Russian Provisional Government to the soviets (under clear Bolshevik dominance).
  • The Whites had backing from Great Britain, France, the U.S., and Japan, while the Reds possessed internal support which proved to be much more effective.
  • Though the Allied nations, using external interference, provided substantial military aid to the loosely knit anti-Bolshevik forces, they were ultimately defeated.
  • By 1921, the Reds defeated their internal enemies and brought most of the newly independent states under their control, with the exception of Finland, the Baltic States, the Moldavian Democratic Republic (which joined Romania), and Poland (with whom they had fought the Polish–Soviet War).

Key Terms

  • Red Army: The army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and after 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The army was established immediately after the 1917 October Revolution.
  • White Army: A loose confederation of Anti-Communist forces that fought the Bolsheviks, also known as the Reds, in the Russian Civil War (1917–1923) and, to a lesser extent, continued operating as militarized associations both outside and within Russian borders until roughly World War II.
  • Cheka: The first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created on December 20, 1917, after a decree issued by Vladimir Lenin, and was subsequently led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat turned communist. These troops policed labor camps; ran the Gulag system; conducted requisitions of food; subjected political opponents to secret arrest, detention, torture, and summary execution; and put down rebellions and riots by workers or peasants, and mutinies in the desertion-plagued Red Army.

The Russian Civil War (November 1917 – October 1922) was a multi-party war in the former Russian Empire immediately after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, as many factions vied to determine Russia’s political future. The two largest combatant groups were the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik form of socialism, and the loosely allied forces known as the White Army, which included diverse interests respectively favoring monarchism, capitalism, and alternative forms of socialism, each with democratic and antidemocratic variants. In addition, rival militant socialists and non-ideological Green armies fought against both the Bolsheviks and the Whites. The Whites had backing from Great Britain, France, the U.S., and Japan, while the Reds possessed internal support which proved much more effective.

The Red Army defeated the White Armed Forces of South Russia in Ukraine and the army led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak in Siberia in 1919. The remains of the White forces commanded by Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel were beaten in Crimea and evacuated in late 1920. Lesser battles of the war continued on the periphery for two more years, and minor skirmishes with the remnants of the White forces in the Far East continued well into 1923. Armed national resistance in Central Asia was not completely crushed until 1934. There were an estimated 7-12 million casualties during the war, mostly civilians. The Russian Civil War has been described by some as the greatest national catastrophe that Europe had yet seen.

Many pro-independence movements emerged after the break-up of the Russian Empire and fought in the war. Several parts of the former Russian Empire—Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—were established as sovereign states, with their own civil wars and wars of independence. The rest of the former Russian Empire was consolidated into the Soviet Union shortly afterwards.

British historian Orlando Figes has contended that the root of the Whites’ defeat was their inability to dispel the popular image that they were associated with Tsarist Russia and supportive of a Tsarist restoration.

Clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White Russian infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav by Austro-Hungarian troups, April 1918.
Russian Civil War: Clockwise from top: Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White Russian infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav by Austro-Hungarian troups, April 1918.

The Red Army

In the wake of the October Revolution, the old Russian Imperial Army had been demobilized; the volunteer-based Red Guard was the Bolsheviks’ main military force, augmented by an armed military component of the Cheka, the Bolshevik state security apparatus. In January, after significant reverses in combat, War Commissar Leon Trotsky headed the reorganization of the Red Guard into a Workers’ and Peasants ‘ Red Army to create a more professional fighting force. Political commissars were appointed to each unit of the army to maintain morale and ensure loyalty.

In June 1918, when it became apparent that a revolutionary army composed solely of workers would be far too small, Trotsky instituted mandatory conscription of the rural peasantry into the Red Army. Opposition of rural Russians to Red Army conscription units was overcome by taking hostages and shooting them when necessary in order to force compliance, the same practices used by the White Army officers. Former Tsarist officers were utilized as “military specialists,” and sometimes their families were taken hostage in order to ensure their loyalty.

The White Army

While resistance to the Red Guard began on the day after the Bolshevik uprising, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the political ban became a catalyst for the formation of anti-Bolshevik groups both inside and outside Russia, pushing them into action against the new regime.

A loose confederation of anti-Bolshevik forces aligned against the Communist government, including landowners, republicans, conservatives, middle-class citizens, reactionaries, pro-monarchists, liberals, army generals, non-Bolshevik socialists who still had grievances, and democratic reformists voluntarily united only in their opposition to Bolshevik rule. Their military forces, bolstered by forced conscriptions and terror and by foreign influence and led by Gen. Yudenich, Adm. Kolchak, and Gen. Denikin, became known as the White movement (sometimes referred to as the “White Army”) and controlled significant parts of the former Russian Empire for most of the war.

The Western Allies armed and supported opponents of the Bolsheviks. They were worried about (1) a possible Russo-German alliance, (2) the prospect of the Bolsheviks making good on their threats to default on Imperial Russia’s massive foreign loans and (3) that the Communist revolutionary ideas would spread (a concern shared by many Central Powers). Hence, many of these countries expressed their support for the Whites, including the provision of troops and supplies. Winston Churchill declared that Bolshevism must be “strangled in its cradle.” The British and French had supported Russia during World War I on a massive scale with war materials. After the treaty, it looked like much of that material would fall into the hands of the Germans. Under this pretext, the Allies intervened in the Russian Civil War, with the United Kingdom and France sending troops into Russian ports. There were violent clashes with troops loyal to the Bolsheviks.


The results of the civil war were momentous. Soviet demographer Boris Urlanis estimated the total number of men killed in action in the Civil War and Polish-Soviet War at 300,000 (125,000 in the Red Army, 175,500 White armies and Poles) and the total number of military personnel dead from disease (on both sides) as 450,000. During the Red Terror the Cheka carried out at least 250,000 summary executions of “enemies of the people” with estimates reaching above a million.

At the end of the Civil War the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was exhausted and near ruin. The droughts of 1920 and 1921, as well as the 1921 famine, worsened the disaster still further. Disease had reached pandemic proportions, with 3 million dying of typhus alone in 1920. Millions more also died of widespread starvation, wholesale massacres by both sides, and pogroms against Jews in Ukraine and southern Russia. By 1922 there were at least 7 million street children in Russia as a result of nearly ten years of devastation from the Great War and the civil war.

Another one to two million people, known as the White émigrés, fled Russia, many with Gen. Wrangel—some through the Far East, others west into the newly independent Baltic countries. These émigrés included a large percentage of the educated and skilled population of Russia.

The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded, and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third.

War Communism saved the Soviet government during the Civil War, but much of the Russian economy had ground to a standstill. The peasants responded to requisitions by refusing to till the land. By 1921 cultivated land had shrunk to 62% of the pre-war area, and the harvest yield was only about 37% of normal.

Formation of the Soviet Union

The government of the Soviet Union, formed in 1922 with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics, was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks), who increasingly developed a totalitarian regime, especially during the reign of Joseph Stalin.

Learning Objectives

Assess the reasons for creating the Soviet Union

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Soviet Union had its roots in the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Provisional Government that had replaced Tsar Nicholas II. However, it only officially consolidated as the new government of Russia after the defeat of the White Army during the Russian Civil War in 1922.
  • At that time, the new nation included four constituent republics: the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Belarusian SSR, and the Transcaucasian SFSR.
  • The period from the consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1921 is known as the period of war communism, in which land, all industry, and small businesses were nationalized and the economy was restricted.
  • The constitution, adopted in 1924, established a federal system of government based on a succession of soviets set up in villages, factories, and cities in larger regions, which culminated in the All-Union Congress of Soviets.
  • However, while it appeared that the congress exercised sovereign power, this body was actually governed by the Communist Party, which in turn was controlled by the Politburo from Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.
  • Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a collective leadership ( troika ), and a brief power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s and established a repressive totalitarian regime.

Key Terms

  • Joseph Stalin: The leader of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Holding the post of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was effectively the dictator of the state.
  • First Five-Year Plan: A list of economic goals created by General Secretary Joseph Stalin and based on his policy of Socialism in One Country, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In 1929, Stalin edited the plan to include the creation of collective farming systems that stretched over thousands of acres of land and had hundreds of peasants working on them.
  • Great Purge: A campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of peasants and the Red Army leadership, and widespread police surveillance, suspicion of “saboteurs,” imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.
  • Karl Marx: A German-born scientist, philosopher, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His theories about society, economics, and politics—collectively understood as Marxism—hold that human societies develop through class struggle; in capitalism, this manifests itself in the conflict between the ruling classes (known as the bourgeoisie) that control the means of production and working classes (known as the proletariat) that enable these means by selling their labor for wages. Through his theories of alienation, value, commodity fetishism, and surplus value, he argued that capitalism facilitated social relations and ideology through commodification, inequality, and the exploitation of labor.

The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was a socialist state in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. It was nominally a supranational union of national republics, but its government and economy were highly centralized in a state that was unitary in most respects. The Union’s capital was Moscow.

The Soviet Union had its roots in the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Russian Provisional Government that had replaced Tsar Nicholas II. This established the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (Russian SFSR) and started the Russian Civil War between the revolutionary “Reds” and the counter-revolutionary “Whites.” The Red Army entered several territories of the former Russian Empire and helped local communists take power through workers’ councils called “soviets,” which nominally acted on behalf of workers and peasants.

In 1922, the communists (Reds) were victorious, forming the Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics. Under the control of the party, all politics and attitudes that were not strictly of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) were suppressed, under the premise that the RCP represented the proletariat and all activities contrary to the party’s beliefs were “counterrevolutionary” or “anti-socialist.” Eventually crushing all opponents, the RCP spread soviet-style rule quickly and established itself through all of Russia.

The original ideology of the state was primarily based on the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In its essence, Marx’s theory stated that economic and political systems went through an inevitable evolution in form by which the current capitalist system would be replaced by a Socialist state before achieving international cooperation and peace in a “Workers’ Paradise,” creating a system directed by, what Marx called, “Pure Communism.”

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a collective leadership (troika), and a brief power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin suppressed all political opposition to his rule, committed the state ideology to Marxism–Leninism (which he created), and initiated a centrally planned command economy. As a result, the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization and collectivization which laid the foundation for its victory in World War II and postwar dominance of Eastern Europe. Stalin also fomented political paranoia and conducted the Great Purge to remove opponents of his from the Communist Party through the mass arbitrary arrest of many people (military leaders, Communist Party members, and ordinary citizens alike) who were then sent to correctional labor camps ( gulags ) or sentenced to death.

Creation of the USSR and Early Years

On December 29, 1922, a conference of plenipotentiary delegations from the Russian SFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, and the Byelorussian SSR approved the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. These documents were confirmed by the 1st Congress of Soviets of the USSR and signed by heads of delegations.

On February 1, 1924, the USSR was recognized by the British Empire. The same year, a Soviet Constitution was approved, legitimizing the December 1922 union.

An intensive restructuring of the economy, industry and politics of the country began in the early days of Soviet power in 1917. A large part of this was done according to the Bolshevik Initial Decrees, government documents signed by Vladimir Lenin. One of the most prominent breakthroughs was the GOELRO plan, which envisioned a major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification of the country. The plan was developed in 1920 and covered a 10- to 15-year period. It included construction of a network of 30 regional power stations, including ten large hydroelectric power plants and numerous electric-powered large industrial enterprises. The plan became the prototype for subsequent Five-Year Plans and was fulfilled by 1931.

During the Civil War (1917–21), the Bolsheviks adopted war communism, which entailed the breakup of the landed estates and the forcible seizure of agricultural surpluses. In the cities there were intense food shortages and a breakdown in the money system (at the time many Bolsheviks argued that ending money’s role as a transmitter of “value” was a sign of the rapidly approaching communist epoch). Many city dwellers fled to the countryside, often to tend the land that the Bolshevik breakup of the landed estates had transferred to the peasants. Even small-scale “capitalist” production was suppressed.

Strong opposition soon developed. The peasants wanted cash payments for their products and resented having to surrender their surplus grain to the government as a part of its civil war policies. Confronted with peasant opposition, Lenin began a strategic retreat from war communism known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The peasants were freed from wholesale levies of grain and allowed to sell their surplus produce in the open market. Commerce was stimulated by permitting private retail trading. The state continued to be responsible for banking, transportation, heavy industry, and public utilities.

Although the left opposition among the Communists criticized the rich peasants, or kulaks, who benefited from the NEP, the program proved highly beneficial and the economy revived. The NEP would later come under increasing opposition from within the party following Lenin’s death in early 1924.

The Death of Lenin and the Rise of Stalin

Following Lenin’s third stroke, a troika made up of Grigory Zinoviev of the Ukrainian SSR, Lev Kamenev of the Russian SFSR, and Joseph Stalin of the Transcaucasian SFSR emerged to take day-to-day leadership of the party and the country and block Trotsky from taking power. Lenin, however, became increasingly anxious about Stalin and following his December 1922 stroke, dictated a letter (known as Lenin’s Testament) to the party criticizing him and urging his removal as general secretary, a position which was becoming the most powerful in the party. Stalin was aware of Lenin’s Testament and acted to keep Lenin in isolation for health reasons and increase his control over the party apparatus.

Photo of Lenin and Stalin seated outdoors.
Lenin and Stalin (1922): Toward the end of his life, Lenin became increasingly anxious about Stalin and began criticizing him and urging his removal as general secretary. Despite these misgivings, Stalin eventually replaced Lenin as the leader of the USSR.

Zinoviev and Bukharin became concerned about Stalin’s increasing power and proposed that the Orgburo which Stalin headed be abolished and Zinoviev and Trotsky be added to the party secretariat, thus diminishing Stalin’s role as general secretary. Stalin reacted furiously and the Orgburo was retained, but Bukharin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev were added to the body.

On April 3, 1922, Stalin was named the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lenin had appointed Stalin the head of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, which gave Stalin considerable power. By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating and outmaneuvering his rivals within the party, Stalin became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union and, by the end of the 1920s, established totalitarian rule.

Lenin died in January 1924 and in May his Testament was read aloud at the Central Committee, but Zinoviev and Kamenev argued that Lenin’s objections had proven groundless and that Stalin should remain General Secretary. The Central Committee decided not to publish the testament.

In October 1927, Grigory Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky were expelled from the Central Committee and forced into exile.

In 1928, Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In place of the internationalism expressed by Lenin throughout the Revolution, it aimed to build Socialism in One Country. In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization. In agriculture, rather than adhering to the “lead by example” policy advocated by Lenin, forced collectivization of farms was implemented all over the country.

Famines ensued, causing millions of deaths; surviving kulaks were persecuted and many sent to Gulags to do forced labor. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Stalin’s Great Purge resulted in the execution or detainment of many “Old Bolsheviks” who had participated in the October Revolution with Lenin. According to declassified Soviet archives, in 1937 and 1938 the NKVD arrested more than 1.5 million people, of whom 681,692 were shot. Over two years, that averages to over one thousand executions a day. According to historian Geoffrey Hosking, “…excess deaths during the 1930s as a whole were in the range of 10–11 million.” Yet despite the turmoil of the mid-to-late 1930s, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.


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