Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Russian Revolution

One of the most important and dramatic events of recent decades was the Russian Revolution. In its results upon the war itself and upon conditions after the war in Europe it was one of the most significant events of a complex period. While we do not at present know with certainty much about it, we know enough to say that its causes were varied. We are really dealing with three revolutions, all simultaneous.

The internal condition of Russia had been for generations extremely bad and the government was still tyrannical, unjust, cruel, and oppressive. The conditions of life were hard. It was extremely difficult to make a living. Sweeping reforms had been put on paper but were still awaiting execution, so that, despite decrees, the peasants rarely owned the land on which they worked. They were bound to pay heavy taxes, heavy rents, and suffered greatly from the oppression and injustice of the proprietors, the local nobles, the local officials and clergy. They formed the overwhelming majority of the population and their dissatisfaction had been growing in recent years in intensity and readiness of expression.

Russian bolsheviks


These conditions had produced definite movements in Russia for reform. Various parties were organized to oppose or destroy the Tsar's government. The laws, however, were strict against holding meetings without permission or publishing criticisms of the government in books or newspapers. Secret societies became, therefore, the only way in which reform movements could be organized. To ferret these out was the work of the secret police, which became in Russia an exceedingly powerful organization. The penalty for opposition even in small things was exile to Siberia, where the most terrible suffering was experienced by political prisoners. Only by the use of the army, the officials, and secret police had the Tsar's government kept itself in power so long. Revolts had been planned in 1913 and 1914, but the outbreak of the war postponed them and united Russia for the time against the Germans.

There came to be an almost universal belief in Russia that the defeats in the field and the death of nearly four millions of soldiers were due to treason. The generals and officials were pro-German, had sold the nation to the enemy, and were sacrificing the army in the field. They prevented sufficient food from reaching the troops, failed to send the necessary ammunition, or ordered the men to make attacks prearranged with the Germans so as to insure the destruction of the regiments.

An economic crisis also developed as the war proceeded, due not so much to the Tsar's government as to the inability of the railroads to do the work required, but the result in the large cities was a great scarcity of bread and the possibility of famine. Reforms had been promised before the war, and, while some had been granted, the more important changes had not been made. As the war progressed more reforms were asked for by the Russian National Assembly, the Duma, but were again refused. In fact measures were taken by the government in the large cities to deal severely with any opposition.

This brought to a head simultaneously three independent attempts to overthrow the Tsar's government. There was first a strong body of Russian Liberals, headed by Milukoff and Prince Lvoff. The former was a college professor, an extremely well-educated and intelligent man, who had lived in America and had come to know much of our notions of government. He had long been the leader of the Intellectuals in Russia. Prince Lvoff, also an extremely intelligent and well-educated man, had embraced the cause of the peasants and had organized them so as to create better conditions and to prevent their oppression by the officials. His peasant organization had rendered great service to the government in feeding the army. These Liberals were in control of the Duma, wished to depose the Tsar, and frame a new constitution. They did not, however, propose to go beyond political reform and would have been entirely content to have the son of the Tsar as monarch.

A considerable portion, though by no means a majority of the population, had been organized in various groups called Socialists, Anarchists, Nihilists, who had long been anxious to overthrow the Tsar's government. They were radical thinkers and wished for something more than a mere reform of the political machinery or a change of the people who did the governing. They wished a complete social revolution which should shake society from top to bottom, and affect not merely the government but the ownership of property. It should put the control of the new state into the hands of the laboring people. This party controlled the army and comprised the majority of workmen in Petrograd and other large cities.

There was a third party hostile to the Tsar's government. The Germans were anxious to put Russia out of the war for good. They had beaten the army, but so long as it existed they must still keep a million or more Germans on the lines in Poland, whom they needed to win the war in France. Once overthrow the Tsar, the Russian army would be disbanded and they could then throw their entire strength against the British and French. They also foresaw that they might secure control of the new Russia and set up a government there in the hands of Germans, or of Russians in German pay, who would organize the country in German interests and make it a German colony.



When, therefore, on March 5, 1917, food riots broke out in Petrograd, there occurred at the same time movements against the Tsar's government in the Duma and in the army. For three days the rioting in Petrograd went on. The police and the army were ordered to put it down, but the army joined the rioters who took possession of the imperial palace and most of the government buildings. With some few exceptions the whole city fell into their hands on March 11. The fact was that the Tsar himself was very weak as a sovereign, the government had no real roots, and was nothing better than a sort of block balanced on top of a pyramid; a very small push was sufficient to knock it off.

By March 15, the Revolution had been successful in Petrograd, Moscow, and Odessa. A provisional government was set up by the Duma in the hands of Milukoff, Lvoff, and others, although the city was practically already in the hands of the Soviets. The truth was that all these parties had acted together without knowing it and each apparently believed that the others were acting in cooperation with it, a fact which they all soon realized was untrue. They were all agreed in putting down the Tsar. They were by no means agreed upon the reasons for which they wanted to get rid of him or upon the situation they proposed to create when he was gone.

On March 15, certain generals visited the Tsar on his special train. He had been with the army at the time the revolt broke out and was journeying back to Petrograd. They stopped his train out in the country, there informed him of the situation, and requested him to abdicate. The scene was tense but very quiet, much like an ordinary conversation between men in a small room. The Tsar was very composed and abdicated in favor of his brother in order that he might keep his son with him. Two days later he was arrested and brought to Petrograd as a prisoner, whence he was sent to southern Russia and finally to Siberia. There he is said to have been shot by official order, though his family are still supposed to be alive.

The provisional government at once declared in favor of a constitution, assured the Allies of the loyalty of Russia, announced liberal reforms, and called for a constitutional convention. Meanwhile, certain committees had been organized in Petrograd of workmen and soldiers, calling themselves Soviets. These then elected delegates to larger committees, and proposed in this way to establish a government for Russia by electing these committees in all parts of the country. There were now really two governments in Petrograd. Neither of them was as yet assured of support from the country at large, nor was it clear that the Revolution would not be confined to a few large cities. The Soviets in Petrograd promptly refused to accept the platform announced by the Liberals, and for two months active disagreement continued in Petrograd while the organization of Soviets went on in other parts of Russia.

On May 15, a coalition was formed, headed by Prince Lvoff, the result of a compromise between the Liberals and the Soviets. The new government now proposed that all the Allies should sign a peace with the Germans upon the basis of no annexations or indemnities. Inasmuch as this would have left the French and Belgians in the same danger at the end of the war which had all but destroyed them at its beginning, they could not consider any such terms. This was fatal to the Liberals and during the next month a great shift took place in the parties in Petrograd, for this revolution seems to have taken place chiefly in a single city. At any rate, what happened in Petrograd seems to have settled the issue for the whole of Russia. It became presently clear that the majority of the Soviets in Petrograd were radicals, not moderates, and these larger groups came to be called presently the Bolsheviki, which is a Russian word meaning majority. Although only a very small party when the Revolution first broke out, they gained strength steadily in Petrograd.

Russian mob, 1917


In July some hope was held out still of creating a government which should represent more than one Russian party. The Liberals now withdrew and Kerensky, the leader of the Moderate Socialists, became head of the state and admitted into the government a number of radicals, including some of the Bolsheviki. Attempts were made to hold national conferences which should secure the support of all Russia for this government, and Kerensky undertook to restore the discipline of the army. But the Allies refused to recognize him, knowing the extent of the pro-German interests and afraid therefore to recognize a government which might result in putting Russia into German hands. Kerensky seems not to have been pro-German and the result was exactly what the Allies had been most anxious to avoid. The pro-Germans came into control in the person of the most radical of all the Russian parties, the Bolsheviki.

The latter accepted the aid of the Germans, took German money, and possibly had the aid of German soldiers as well, upset the coalition government, and installed themselves in control in Petrograd. The two leaders were Lenine and Trotsky. Neither of these names are their true names and both had been professional agitators before the war. Lenine was about forty-seven years old, had been a student and had been exiled to Siberia for his socialistic ideas; his brother had been executed for them; and he grew up hating the Tsar. When released, he went to Switzerland, where he became a leader of the socialistic agitation. Trotsky lived a long time in New York, where he published a Socialist paper. While it is probable that these men accepted German aid merely to get themselves into power, with the full intention of getting rid of the Germans as soon as they could, the result was entirely favorable to the latter.

The Bolshevists proceeded to negotiate with the Central Powers, and signed, in February, 1918, the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which they yielded to the Germans a great deal of territory in western Russia, and perhaps received a promise of German money and support necessary to continue their own authority over Russia. They were an insignificant minority of the Russian people and could hope to control only by reason of the fact that the vast majority were densely ignorant and were scattered over so vast a country that they could not organize effective opposition. Russia had always been governed from Petrograd, and the control of Petrograd continued to carry with it a nominal right to govern Russia. Nevertheless the Bolsheviki must get support. They distributed the land to the peasants, gave the factories to the workmen, abolished all private property, and proposed that every one in Russia should work with his hands. In order to destroy the educated and proprietor class, they began a series of murders and massacres which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

Russia, however, is a very large country and many parts of it refused in 1918 to be governed from Petrograd. A separate state called the Ukraine was organized in southern Russia, a separate government was organized for Siberia, and still others in the Caucasus, in Finland, and in Poland. The Germans themselves organized new governments along the Baltic coast in Lithuania. At the time this is written Russia is divided into several states, of which the Bolsheviki control only one, which contains, however, Petrograd, Moscow, and the largest part of the old Russia.