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The term Russian Revolution is used in different ways. It refers to varying events and time frames. Normally it means the major upheaval of 1917 that replaced the tsarist empire with Bolshevik rule. In this case the term can refer to either the demise of the monarchy in the so-called February Revolution (February 23 March 8 N. vs. to March 2 15) or to the overthrow of October 25–26 (November 7–8) when the Bolsheviks seized power in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. But ‘Russian Revolution’ is often extended to denote longer processes and obviously related sequences of events of the same type. In this case, the term encompasses the 1918–20 Civil War immediately following the October Revolution as well as the subsequent early Soviet period up to the Stalin Revolution of 1929–30 or—the widest deﬁnition—the entire transformation of Russia from the turn of the century and so-called First Revolution of 1905–6 all the way down to the Stalin Era. Looking at it this way, the ‘Russian Revolution’ covers Russia’s peculiar political and socioeconomic modernization crisis which ended in the establishment of the Soviet Communist developmental dictatorship (1900–1930).
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Substantive reasons and the question of research feasibility suggest narrowing this range of deﬁnitions somewhat. ‘Russian Revolution’ should be restricted to the convulsive transition from the Russian ancien regime to the Bolshevik form of government. The term properly denotes the two core events of the transfer of power: the overthrows of February and October and their consequences. However, there are valid reasons for including the Civil War because it was by nature the inevitable, belatedly-waged war of revolution. Both time frames (1917 and 1917–21) lend themselves to differentiation of processes into politics and power struggle, socioeconomic change, and cultural and nationalist developments.
1. The Political Constitution And System Of Government
Political change in 1917 consisted of the succession from the monarchy to the ‘emergency democracy’ (Geyer), the Provisional Government (March 2–15 to October 26–November 8), to the soviet-based rule of the Bolsheviks with the ‘Left Socialist Revolutionary Party’ as a junior partner. Neither the direction of change nor the options in the year of revolution can be understood without a look at preceding developments. By the same token, the consolidation and transformation of the outcome cannot be explained without reference to the Civil War. The impetus for criticism of the autocracy deﬁnitely came from circles just outside the seat of power. ‘Liberal’ forces in the aristocracy, the industrial-commercial upper class, which had developed a bourgeois self-image, and the recently established academic intelligentsia rallied to the cause of the constitutional restraint of the absolute monarch. But already during the grave State crisis of 1905–6 widely differing views were held on the extent of the say that parliament (the Duma) should get in government. Following the restabilization of tsarist rule only moderate demands were still voiced by the groups that were allowed to operate legally. Nonetheless the ‘revolution,’ a term which cannot withstand any close scrutiny, clearly engendered a new political system and apparently a new distribution of power, although opinion is divided on the latter claim. Its legacy included a parliament, a party spectrum (albeit an incomplete one) and a politically outspoken press. Moreover, regional self-government (zemst a) appeared alongside the central government. Provincial authorities gained more and more powers. World War I accelerated this shift. Ultimately the zemst a guaranteed the last remnants of public administration.
Only this background explains why a protest by workers’ wives against hunger and cold swelled to a mass uprising, which toppled the monarchy. The last week of the 300-year Romanov rule began with an International Women’s Day demonstration, which differed from numerous past rallies only in the number of participants. A repeat performance represented a new quality. In the next few days the movement escalated into a general strike of workers in the capital, and local military units joined the protest. The revolution, in the strict legal sense as a new edition of sovereignty, took place on February 28 when a Duma committee without authorization of the tsar appointed itself as the Provisional Committee for the Restoration of Public Order, thereby seizing power. At the same time the Workers’ Soviet, which had convened the day before on the lines of the autumn 1905 council, elected an analogous body. This established the two principal political institutions which constituted the so-called February Regime (‘dual power’) of the following year. They represented two different social classes, requiring mediation of their interests by the Provisional Government, ﬁrst formed by the Liberals (embodied by the Constitutional Democratic Party), after May 5–8 together with the moderate wings of the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik Social Democratic parties. The remarkable correspondence between social status and party orientation including institutional representation is indicative ﬁrst of the marked polarization in the society and second of the absolutely crucial requisite for survival of the February order: building a bridge between the two fronts.
This became harder and harder to do from early summer on. Several factors contributed. With the government and the ruling parties it was a growing hardening of personal animosities and of positions on issues. But a more serious aggravation was the result of omissions and a bad decision. The Kerensky Offensive of June July, named after the premier, was a fatal error. It ended in a ﬁasco, which not only caused foreign policy damage. It also discredited the Provisional Government at home. Economic depression worsened simultaneously. Unemployment spread as more and more companies failed. Strikes and demonstrations proliferated, bringing the State to the brink of anarchy. The formation of new coalitions and two ‘Reconciliation Congresses’ (with different compositions) were unable to check the rapid erosion of authority of the February Regime.
This beneﬁted the Bolshevik Social Democratic Party, which declared an irreconcilable struggle with the ‘capitalist government’ when their undisputed leader, V. I. Lenin, returned to Petrograd from Swiss exile on April 3/16. They only had to channel the workers’ and soldiers’ misery and disenchantment over the failure of the new system. With all this grist for their mills, the Bolsheviks easily won great popularity. The spring splinter party was the strongest political force by the time the capital city councils were re-elected in September. What had happened and was about to happen was clearly evidenced by the dramatic change of leadership in the Petrograd Workers Soviet. The Bolshevik Trotzky replaced the Menshevik Chkheidze as chairman.
The ‘Red October’ (Daniels 1967) has produced much controversy. Soviet historiography, adhering to ideology, saw it as the investing of the ﬁrst socialist state in the history of the world by the power of the masses. Others insisted on interpreting it as a military coup. There is no question that the seizure of power in the city garrisons from October 22–November 4 was executed before everyone’s eyes by the Bolshevik- dominated Military Revolution Committee in defence of the Soviet. It is also undisputed that the Bolsheviks were able to obtain the support of a majority of delegates to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which convened on October 25. With this backing they managed to elect a presidium, more than half of whose members were their loyal supporters, while another third consisted of their Left Socialist Revolutionary sympathizers. To top it all off, the ‘Right’ Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks did them the favor of resigning their seats. Finally, the unchallenged occupation of strategic buildings and points in the city suggests that, (unlike in Moscow a little later) there was no resistance worth mentioning. However, it is equally obvious that armed force was used against a legitimate government that had become unpopular but had been elected by parliament. The storming of the Winter Palace and the arrest of ministers pointedly attests to the nature of the over- throw. The maneuver, accomplished by the Bolsheviks with the help of their Red Guard, was technically a military rebellion, and politically a coup d ’etat. But it was possible only because it was undergirded by the majority of the Soviet deputies and the tolerance, if not the sympathy, of the urban lower classes, and locally stationed soldiers in particular. Thus, the ‘art of insurrection’ preached and wholeheartedly practised by Lenin more or less boiled down to picking up the power that was lying in the street (N. Sukhanov).
The only question remaining was whether the Bolsheviks could maintain control. The wishes of the rebellious and potentially rebellious masses were quickly satisﬁed. Early on October 26, the Soviet Congress passed a Peace Decree and a Land Decree. The intention of obtaining an immediate ceaseﬁre secured the support of the soldiers for the overthrow. Distribution of large estates among village communes sanctioned transfers that had taken place much earlier and neutralized the peasantry. Overcoming the other parties and adherents of the ancien regime entailed a real struggle. It was inextricably tied to the independence movements of non-Russian nations and lasted until March 1921. Beginning in spring 1918 it escalated into the bloodiest war fought on Russian soil since the early seventeenth century. It actually started, still without recourse to weapons, right after the October coup. In the end the Bolsheviks maintained the upper hand so that they could begin the peaceful construction of ‘their’ State. However, at this juncture the fundamental decisions on its structure had already been made, and they were only superﬁcially and temporarily amended, if at all, by the proclamation of the New Economic Policy.
The most important trend reﬂected Lenin’s practical ‘interpretation’ of the slogan, ‘All Power to the Soviets,’ as ‘All Power to the Bolsheviks,’ which is what he had in mind in the ﬁrst place. This usurpation was gradual. The cooperation between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in the October night session became a formal coalition in mid- November. Even this collaboration was based on the exclusion of not only the Liberals, but also the Mensheviks and ‘Right’ Socialist Revolutionaries. This confrontation manifested itself in the alternative between the soviets and the Constituent Assembly. When the latter was forcibly dispersed on January 6–19, 1918, it was not only the ﬁnal curtain on the attempt to erect a democracy in post-tsarist Russia. It also dissolved most of the common ground between the coalition partners. The fate of the bipartisan government was sealed. All that was needed to precipitate its collapse was the separate peace treaty of Brest–Litovsk in March. Now one-party rule and the fusion of party and State began in earnest. The system which lasted until 1991 was established.
Moreover, at least three other features of the new government and political system had their roots in the post-October clashes. First, the life-and-death struggle fostered the emergence of extraordinary organs and extreme centralization of decision making. Both measures were only partially rescinded. The most important institutional legacy was the Cheka, which was soon an army of its own, operating in the hinterland and authorized to administer martial law. As a secret police, the Cheka later became a synonym for totalitarian rule because it was empowered to execute arbitrary force beyond and above the law and was only subordinated to the top Party leaders. A second fundamental decision was subjecting the economy to the control of the Party and the government. Starting in December 1917, the regime nationalized ﬁrst the banks and big industry; then, during the Civil War, commerce and small business as well. Officially control was assumed by a pyramid of economic councils; de facto, however, since the unions had been forced to march in step, by members of the only legal party. In addition, an increasing intolerance of intraparty criticism reinforced the concentration of power and authority. The relative laxness which the Civil War encouraged in 1919 yielded at the conclusion of hostilities to a ‘prohibition of factions’ (March 1921), which Stalin used as a decisive weapon in the power struggle for Lenin’s succession. Finally, the Red Army was created in the ﬁght for the spoils of the October Revolution. Even though its structure and personnel underwent several reshuffles, one birthmark was never effaced—its orientation on the regime and the Party.
2. Social Upheaval
The revolutionary movement united political and social objectives from the start. It laid its claims in the name of the lower classes, which it always viewed as exploited. The Socialist Revolutionaries acted on behalf of all the ‘enslaved,’ but primarily the peasants, while the Social Democrats marched in the name of the urban ‘proletariat.’ The Liberals, on the other hand, considered themselves to be ‘class neutral.’ But actually this camp had a social stratum of its own, ranging from the reform-oriented aristocracy and the intelligentsia to the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie. In the ﬁrst revolution these various tendencies underwent symbiosis. The nearly identical timing of the general strike in the capital and the peasants’ storming of the agricultural estates in the autumn of 1905 shocked the State to such an extent that it agreed to concessions to the democratic demands of the Liberals.
In February 1917 a similar convergence took place, with one fundamental difference. Instead of the pincer attack of workers and peasants, an alliance of workers and garrisoned (not frontline) soldiers led the assault. This time the peasants remained aloof. The agrarian revolution took place later, but more violently than ever before, after the collapse of the tsarist state and its rule by force in summer 1917. Later the rural population divorced itself from the urban revolutionary movement and went its own separate way until the autumn of 1918. The core signiﬁcance of the upheaval can be summed up with one result: the wildcat (i.e., spontaneous) redistribution of the property of the landed aristocracy. The peasants seized that which they had always believed to be their rightful possession. The predominant form of the operations was characteristic of the peasants’ ties to tradition. Most villages acted collectively and allotted the land to commune members according to the dictates of custom to be used for a certain length of time. Ownership remained in the hands of the obshchina, and private property came into de facto existence only because hardly any redistribution occurred thereafter. Following this, their revolution, the peasants were sated. Events and problems beyond their village left them cold. Since the New Economic Policy legalized the reform, they could perceive themselves as the winners of the revolution despite the horrors of the Civil War. However, this redistribution wreaked havoc on the economy. It abolished the large cultivated holdings which yielded the bulk of the farm produce sold elsewhere and reduced the average acreage to a level which hardly sufficed for efficient and stable production for the market. The outcome was a crisis-proneness that provided a convincing argument for a centrally planned economy.
The consequences of the February 1917 general strike of the Petrograd workers were more complicated. From the standpoint of the protagonists, the medium-term ramiﬁcations were negative. The rebels managed to obtain their demands only in the short run. Wages increased substantially, and working hours were reduced, even though the principal demand, a law stipulating an eight-hour workday, was not achieved. Personal and social security were markedly improved. But the galloping inﬂation and unemployment following the economic collapse offset these beneﬁts from early summer on. This setback made it possible for the syndical factory committee movement to extend the say in management it had gained in Petrograd in March to full control. Its victory was hollow because the victors inherited the administration of the bankruptcy. To add insult to injury, the expectations it cherished after the October overthrow were completely dashed. If the Bolsheviks had a typical way of dealing with ‘their’ constituency, it was revealed in their relations with the factory committees. Before the overthrow they adopted the demands of the committees; after the Bolsheviks seized power, they also succeeded in gaining control of these organs. At the beginning of the year the ‘anarchistic-decentralized’ factory committees were muzzled by the unions, which were themselves on the way to becoming a ‘transmission belt’ (Lenin) of the Party. All that remained was the disappointment over unkept promises, which triggered spreading strikes, the rebellion of Kronstadt sailors and intraparty criticism (‘Workers’ Opposition’). All this dissidence was suppressed by spring 1921, in many cases with extreme brutality.
3. Disintegration Of The Empire And National Independence Movements
Liberal political and sociological views of the Russian Revolution have overlooked too much evidence that it was also a national movement. Incipient emancipation campaigns were exhibited in the ﬁrst ‘crisis of authority’ in 1905–06. Social unrest in the Baltic provinces and in Poland were particularly violent. Both there and in the Caucasus it expressed a desire for autonomy. The ﬁrst authentically freely elected State Duma had several national factions and a total of about 45 percent non-Russian deputies. Following the ‘prewar’ and war period, which gave these movements an enormous boost, and the collapse of the tsarist empire, the national outbursts ﬂared up as attempts to secede by force. Favored by the ‘an-archy’ in the literal sense created by the power vacuum, the ‘old’ nations like Poland and Finland and non-Slavic Baltic and Caucasian regions declared independence from the Petrograd central government. Nuclei of the old empire such as Ukraine joined the breakaway trend. It was not without cause that the June 1917 resolution of the Ukrainian Rada (Council) declaring it would act as a formally independent body plunged the Provisional Government into an extremely severe crisis. The Bolsheviks supported this national emancipation only verbally and for tactical reasons. Prior to their power seizure and during the Civil War in the peripheral areas of the empire, they espoused the doctrine that nation states had to reclaim their historical rights in the ‘bourgeois phase’ of the revolution. However, the stronger the socialist self-awareness of the new regime became, the more it again embraced the necessity for a unitary state. In fact, the Red Army acted from the beginning as an arm and an instrument of Great Russian centralism which regained control of the old empire—with the exception of Finland, Poland, and the new Baltic republics—by the end of the Civil War. If one looks very closely, this resulted inevitably from the political foundations of the new State. Since only one political force was legal, it had to be centralist. Therefore the Soviet Union established in 1922 was only formally a federal system. In truth it was an anachronistic multinational empire in a postwar world organized into nation states and dominated by nationalisms.
Last but not least, scholars have recently remembered to highlight the extremely radical cultural upheaval the Russian Revolution entailed. In the ﬁrst place, it had a salient ‘ideocratic’ dimension. The Leninist version of radical Marxism was an ideology with the political power to stake a claim to shaping all sectors of public life, and ultimately also of all private life of the people under its sway, from work to education, according to fundamentally new, theoretically preconceived principles. The October overthrow ushered in the ﬁrst regime in modern history to make a speciﬁed interpretation of world history and destiny, including a programmatic, militant atheism, obligatory. The radical Bolshevik Revolution unleashed an unprecedented outburst of all kinds of ‘anti-establishment’ movements, almost entirely borrowed from Western European modernism. They were of a sociopolitical (women’s liberation), intellectual-aesthetic (abstract art, ‘Proletkult’) and pedagogical nature (polytechnic education, public health). Even though this experimental exuberance was a source of aggravation to the Party and government leadership and its wings were gradually clipped after the conclusion of the Civil War, it survived in isolated pockets until deﬁnitively forced into submission by Stalin. In the aesthetic sector, the ‘revolutionary culture’ is universally credited with signiﬁcant achievements.
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