1917 discuss the anti-tsarist sentiment which saw the end


1917 was a tumultuous year for Russia. The year began with
an uprising which saw the end of over 300 years of the Romanov Dynasty, the
establishment of the Provisional Government which was designed to be an interim
solution whilst a new form of governance was set up. Command of the military was
lost with attempted yet unsuccessful coups. Support for the Bolshevik party
grew significantly throughout the year and was seen as the only party
interested in defending the nation and acting in its citizen’s interest. Lenin,
who was in exile in Switzerland, was returned by the Germans in an attempt to
further weaken the Russians yet his key policies of peace, bread and land were
favourable amongst the working classes and peasants giving hope of a better
life. Workers, soldier and sailors rose up together in support of the
Bolsheviks and saw the party gain control as the ruling party of Russia by the
end of October 1917.


There are many factors which not only facilitated the
ability of the people to rise up and take control but which also led the people
to resort to such action. The question posed cannot be answered with one simple
argument. Throughout this essay I will explore different aspects of 1917 Russia
highlighting how these paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution to begin. I
will discuss the anti-tsarist sentiment which saw the end of the Imperial
Russian monarchy, the failures of the Provisional Government and explore the
role the key actors in 1917 played favouring the environment for the Bolshevik
revolution. The Great War will be mentioned and the impact that had on morale
not only within the Russian military but also across the working classes of
Russian society. I will highlight events of the October Revolution which saw
the Bolshevik party come to power and finish by concluding why the Bolshevik
Revolution began in 1917.  

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Whilst it is possible to explore anti-tsarist sentiment
throughout the Romanov dynasty, I will focus on the period of Alexander III to
the end of monarchy for this I feel is most pertinent to the Bolshevik


At the time of Alexander’s succession in 1881, Russia’s
economy was in crisis. Foreign debt was high and corruption rife. A decade of
discontent created the first terrorists in Russia, Narodnaya Volya which was a
revolutionary political organisation that advocated socialism based upon the
Russian peasantry. This group was responsible for the assassination of
Alexander II and subsequently saw Alexander III succeed to the throne.

Alexander sought to unify the country through strong autocratic rule yet his political
ideal of a nation containing only one nationality, one language, one religion,
and one form of administration was dangerous and naïve. After all, the Russian
Empire occupied one sixth of the world’s landmass with a disparity of cultures,
ethnicities and identities. Imposing one identity on everyone was destined to
cause discontent. The Russian language and Russian schools were imposed on
German, Polish, and Finnish subjects, Orthodoxy fostered at the expense of
other confessions, Jews were persecuted, and remnants of German, Polish, and
Swedish institutions in the outlying provinces were destroyed. In the other
provinces he placed the autonomous administration of the peasant communes under
the supervision of landed proprietors appointed by the government. Already we
can see reasons for the rise of anti-tsarist sentiment across the population.


When Nicholas II succeeded his father in 1894, his reign was
believed by many to be cursed and full of bad omens. Having little experience
of government, when he married the German Princess Alexandra, she dominated the
relationship and encouraged Nicholas to follow autocratic tendencies. He had a
lack of trust in his ministers and felt strongly against giving away power to
elected representatives, as was the case in constitutional monarchies of the
time. Nicholas encouraged imperial expansion in Manchuria which led to a
disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese war that ensued in 1904. Opposition to
the Tsar grew with radical reforms demanded forcing Nicholas to grant a
constitution and establish a parliament, the Duma giving more people a voice in
government. Despite this, little changes materialised and opposition was
quashed by changes in the voting laws and the establishment of a secret police.


“War played a catalytic role in the Russian Revolution of
1917” with the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the disastrous consequences
of the Great War, hardship and losses left the Russian morale low and appetite
for continued engagement in armed conflict at an all time low. (Merriman, 2010,
pp928) The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 saw Russia allied with France and
Britain. Nicholas took the decision to directly command the Russian military
and subsequently every military failure was associated with him. During this
time Alexandra took advantage of his absence to play a more active role in
government, which saw a rise in discontent amongst the population not least due
to her association with Rasputin who was a significant source of influence. She
was also accused by many as acting on behalf of the Germans.


Early 1917 saw widespread demonstrations in Petrograd and
the start of the revolution. Nicholas’s ability to command the army diminished with
this order to disrupt the protests with force not being followed. It was
strongly believed that his abdication was necessary to avoid the collapse of
Russia to the Germans. The army was sympathising more with the revolutionaries.

Nicholas conceded, abdicating on March 2 after which he and his family were
sent away under house arrest until their eventual execution in July 1918.


The reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II demonstrated the
inability of the leader to relate to his people. Actions were taken which
rather than uniting the nation caused further divide and the rise of
anti-tsarist sentiment. The Russian people did not want to partake in war amid
the disastrous losses and consequences back home. More important issues such as
hunger and starvation were prevalent yet seemingly being ignored and any
attempt by the opposition to speak up for the majority was prevented. Simply
put, the people felt the Tsar was not interested in ordinary Russians.   


Revolution and establishment of the Provisional Government


February 1917 saw a spontaneous revolution ensue, its
outcome uncertain. “Socialist Revolutionary, Menshevik and Bolshevik activists
helped impart a sense of direction to the movement. Their goal, unlike the
liberals who only wanted reform, was the overthrow of the tsarist regime.” The
terrible conditions of war combined with the unpopularity of the officers, whom
many soldiers refused to obey, saw desertions increase in the first month of
the revolution. Collapse against German pressure seemed likely. (Merriman, 2010,
936) Food shortages were part of daily life, money had lost its value and the
Bolsheviks, despite being a minority party at the beginning of 1917, were
promising peace, food and land – three things which resonated with the majority
of the Russian population at the time.


Demonstrations in Petrograd saw factory workers go on strike
with the Petrograd garrison soon following suit. The people felt the Tsar was
not defending the nation and this revolution “sought to bring state and
national interests into alignment.” (Badcock, 2011, pp69) The abdication of
Nicholas led to the establishment of what was supposed to be an interim
Provisional Government, portraying itself as “defending national interests
through successful prosecution of the war, defending the working class and
their struggle with capital.” (Badcock, 2011, pp69) “The provisional
government’s goal was to hold the empire together until a constituent assembly
could be elected to establish the political basis of the new state.” (Merriman,
2010, pp936)


Self-appointed, the Provisional Government was seen as “a
bourgeois government” not representing the interest of the working class.

(Badcock, 2011, pp69) Having no electoral mandate, the Provisional Government
derived its authority from the former “Duma, the Army High Command and informal
agreements with public organisations like the Zemstvo League and the War
Industries Committee.” (Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp47) Fragile and lacking formal
legitimacy, the effectiveness of the transfer of power was questionable. (Fitzpatrick,
2017, pp47) The Provisional Government, led by Prince Georgii Lvov, included
Constitutional Democrats, who had desired that the Tsar initiate political
reforms rather than abdicate. (Merriman, 2010, pp935)


“The February Revolution had produced not one but two
self-constituted authorities aspiring to a national role.” (Fitzpatrick, 2017,
pp47) The Petrograd Soviet, formed on the model of the 1905 Petersburg Soviet, consisted
largely of workers, soldiers and socialist politicians who had helped overthrow
the tsar. (Merriman, 2010, pp935; Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp47) Despite perceiving
to have greater authority than the Provisional Government and commanding the
military to obey only the orders of the Soviet and not the Provisional
Government, the Petrograd Soviet was prevented from declaring itself the real
government by fear of provoking a conservative coup. This divide of power
between the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet emerged spontaneously
and yet the Provisional Government had no choice but accept it due to its
weakness and inability to act otherwise. (Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp47)


Conflicts between
the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet


Member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Alexander Kerensky
held positions in both the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet and was
largely seen as playing a key role in trying to smooth relations between the
two parties. (Merriman, 2010, pp935) The socialists of the Soviet sought to
protect the interest of the working class, “acting as watchdogs over the
Provisional Government”. (Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp48) Disagreements arose between
the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet. Conflicts on labour
policy, peasant land claims and Russia’s continued participation in the war were
recurrent issues. Whilst the Provisional Government favoured continued
engagement in the war, the Soviet took a more “defensist approach, favouring
continuation of the war as long as Russian territory was under attack.”
(Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp49) The mood amongst the population however was clear –
they wanted an end to the fighting, withdrawal from the war and bringing of
troops home. The Bolsheviks also demanded an end to the war with Germany, which
they opposed viewing it as “a struggle between capitalist powers in which
workers were but pawns.” (Merriman, 2010, pp928) However, their demand was
defeated by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, formed at the end of March
1917 in Petrograd bringing together representatives from other soviets,
transforming the Petrograd Soviet into a national body with a central executive
committee dominated by members of the Petrograd Soviet. (Merriman, 2010, pp938)


By 1917, 15 million men had been drafted into the army, the
vast majority of whom were poor peasants, ill equipped for life on the front
line resulting in staggering losses. (Merriman, 2010, pp929) The Provisional
Government’s inefficient prosecution of World War One provided the challenge
the old regime could not meet. Ill equipped and poorly led, Russian armies
suffered catastrophic losses in campaign after campaign against the German
armies. The war made revolution inevitable through showing Russia was no longer
a military match for the nations of Central and Western Europe and it
hopelessly disrupted the economy. (Britannica)
“A groundswell of opposition to Russia’s continued participation in the war
gradually drove a wedge between workers and soldiers and the provisional
government.” (Merriman, 2010, pp938) “The provisional government faced
increasing pressure from the soviet for economic and social reforms, above all,
land reforms.” (Merriman, 2010, pp938) Conditions for many workers worsened
leading them to become radicalised and peasants who worked the land seized it
sometimes killing the landlords. (Merriman, 2010, pp938) “The failure of the
Provisional government to provide peace or land undermined its support amongst
peasants.” (Merriman, 2010, pp939)


Return of Lenin


With the majority of Bolshevik leaders in exile or emigrated
outside of Russia, Germany expedited Lenin’s return from Switzerland in April hoping
the leader’s return might exert more pressure on the Provisional Government to
seek a peace deal, thus allowing the Germans to concentrate on the Western Front.

(Merriman, 2010, pp939) Upon his return he gained the support of the party with
the proposals of Russia leaving the war; calling for revolution in other European
countries and seizing of large estates by the peasantry. (Merriman, 2010,
pp939) He argued that during the course of war the proletariat and bourgeoisie
had merged in a short space of time resulting in the demise of autocracy and a
weakened bourgeoisie. Therefore it was perfectly possible for the Provisional
Government to be overthrown by the proletariat, supported by the poorest
peasants leading to a system in which workers, soldiers and peasants through
the soviets under Bolshevik Party guidance hold local power. (Merriman, 2010,
pp939) With the weakening and increasingly unpopular Provisional Government,
“Bolshevik support grew particularly among factory committees, Red Guards,
sailors at Kronstadt and soldiers within the Petrograd garrison.” (Merriman,
2010, pp939) 


Encouraged by increased popularity among workers, the
Bolsheviks rose in insurrection on 3rd July with almost 100,000
soldiers joining in. Attempts to call it off fearing defeat saw the
insurrection fail, Bolshevik leaders arrested and the party headquarters closed
down. Kerensky rose to become Prime Minister of the coalition government and
Lenin fled to Finland leaving the Provisional Government to believe the
Bolsheviks were finished. (Merriman, 2010, pp940)


The Kornilov


At a Moscow State Conference, organised by Kerensky, most
delegates believed the only way to save Russia from the soviets and pulling out
of the war would be to establish a military dictatorship. Kerensky wanted
General Kornilov, Commander in Chief of the army, to form a military government.

A misconstrued conversation between the two leaders led to Kerensky demanding
Kornilov’s resignation. Kornilov attempted to take control of Petrograd in
August and wipe out the soviet, issuing an ultimatum to the Provision Government
calling “upon all Russians to come to the aid of the dying motherland.”
Bolsheviks were prepared in anticipation of a military coup yet no such coup
took place however their commitment to defend the nation saw the Bolsheviks “as
the only possible saviors of the Revolution.” (Merriman, 2010, pp941) Being the
only party not associated with the bourgeoisie and the February regime in
addition to them being firmly identified with the ideas of workers’ power and
armed uprising, gave the Bolsheviks great strength. (Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp62) Following
the Kornilov affair, the moderates lost control and the Bolsheviks gained a
majority in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.


October Revolution


Weakened and increasingly unpopular, the Provisional
Government was unwilling to withdraw Russia from the war and appeared incapable
of solving the worsening economic crisis. Armed and organised, the demands of
the Petrograd workers was increasing. (Merriman, 2010, pp941) Lenin urged the
Bolshevik party to prepare for an armed insurrection from his hiding place in
Finland. Believing the revolutionary moment had come, he felt they should seize
the opportunity before it was too late. (Fitzpatrick, 2017, pp63) To Lenin’s
frustration his party members were not so convinced particularly when Lenin was
still hiding despite the Provisional Government having released the left
politicians and the Bolsheviks controlling a majority.


Upon his return to Petrograd Lenin was successful in
convincing the central committee that a second insurrection could succeed.

Keresnky was aware an uprising was imminent yet failed to appreciate the
party’s influence with the Petrograd workers, the soviets and some army units. The
Bolsheviks, led by Leon Trotsky, sent troops to take over key communications
and transportation points in Petrograd. Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to press
ahead and overthrow the Provisional Government which they did on 26 Oct.

Keresnky fled Petrograd and the remaining members of the Provisional Government
surrendered. An almost bloodless siege led Lenin to proclaim that power had
been passed to the Soviets. (https://www.britannica.com/place/Russia/Soviet-Russia#ref422154; Merriman, 2010, pp942)




The Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party committed to the
ideas of Karl Marx believing the working classes would liberate themselves from
economic and political control of ruling classes leading to a genuine socialist
society based on equality. Formed and led by Lenin, they decided the conditions
in 1917 Russia were ripe for revolution. After three centuries of autocracy,
the Russian anti-tsarist sentiment saw the overthrowing of the monarchy paving
the way for a revolution which was unplanned and unorganised. The outcomes of
this revolution saw a dividing of power between the bourgeoisie dominated
Provisional Government and the more proletarian Petrograd Soviet. At the time
the Bolsheviks were still a minority yet over the following six months support
for the party grew significantly to the point they became the ruling party of


The Provisional Government was supposed to be temporary.

They had little success in dealing with problems. They took the decision to
remain in the Great War despite the general population’s desire for a
withdrawal. The Provisional Government grew increasingly unpopular with the
military shifting its loyalty to the Soviet. Famine was rife and peasants who
worked the land felt they should have rights to ownership, reforms of which
were postponed by the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks had a core belief
in providing peace, bread and land and gave hope to the working class and
peasantry. At the prospect of a military coup the Bolsheviks prepared with arms
ready to defend the motherland. This bolstered admiration and support for the
party. The Bolsheviks appealed to the common soldier and the working class. In
October 1917, the Provisional Government was weak and Lenin saw an opportunity
to launch the successful insurrection the Bolsheviks had been hoping for and
had attempted a few months earlier. This time however support for the
Bolsheviks was high as was the will of the people for change. They believed the
Bolsheviks could deliver what they promised which was so desperately sought. Many
factors allowed this revolution to begin in 1917. The result was the Bolshevik
Revolution was a success. The Bolsheviks sought to unify
national interest and state interests in a way that the Provisional Government
had failed to do. (Badcock, 2011, pp84)