The collapse of Tsarism was the result of a crisis deep within the Russian State. It was caused by three factors: the incapacity of the Tsarist economy to deal with modern industrial war, the organization of the mass army drawn from the peasantry and working class, and a growing hatred of the war amongst those who bore the brunt of it. These general processes culminated in the contrast between the paralysis of the ruling class and the high temper, discipline, and intelligence of the industrial workers of St. Petersburg, steeped in revolutionary agitation for a generation and trained by the revolution of 1905. Thesis, The causes of the Russian Revolution 1917 can be explained as a combination of political, social, and economic factors and the incapacity of the government and Tsar to introduce radical reforms and fundamental changes.
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At the beginning of the XX century, Russia was the only country in Europe ruled by a monarch. An inefficient system of government weakened the position of Tsar and resulted in the growth of political consciousness. Liberal ideas from Europe penetrated the country and resulted in new social and cultural values and norms. Service (1999) underlines that Tsarist’ stagnancy’ and ‘oppression’ have been widely exaggerated. Russian pre-revolutionary development was active, the play of ideas was extraordinarily free, and the industrial proletariat had congregated in enterprises that were larger than anywhere else in the world. Ideas of Karl Marx and Marxism penetrated Russia and were borrowed and transformed by Lenin. Following Karl Marx, political activists believed that industrial progress intensified and sharpened the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, an antagonism that would in the future explodes in a violent revolution. Marx thought that the Industrial Revolution, and the concomitant rule of the bourgeoisie, promoted the unification of the world and obliterated national differences. Communism, he thought, would abolish nations themselves.
Other political discrepancies were caused by the collapse of Tsarism, so unexpected and so complete that all political groups were catapulted into a scramble for power. The sovereignty formerly embodied in the Russian monarchy and its parliamentary system, the State Duma, remained dissolved while the capital was plunged into the anarchy caused by the undirected mass movement. Before the revolution, there was no substantial theoretical disagreement between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: they both thought Russia was too backward for a Socialist revolution headed by the industrial proletariat, and consequently would have to have a ‘bourgeois’ revolution first. Also, “Britain and the United States were reluctant to support groups they considered to be supporters of the autocratic Tsar” . That is, it was thought the Russian bourgeoisie would have to eliminate the feudal heritage of Tsarism and lay the foundation for a capitalist economy in which the productive forces of the country as a whole would be multiplied, while the proletariat would develop concomitantly to the point of being able to carry out later its own revolution for the construction of Socialism.
Social causes took their roots in political and economic instability of country and inability of Tsarism to adapt to the new global economy. Culturally and intellectually Russia was a country which presented two different faces to the world. The two decades or so before 1917 have been described as the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian culture, the ‘Russian Renaissance’, and similar expressions which emphasize the innovative nature and high aesthetic quality of its artistic and literary achievements. Indeed, many of Russia’s poets, painters and musicians formed the avant-garde of contemporary European culture. The achievements are undeniable, but they were, of course, the exclusive preserve of the educated upper classes and intellectual elite. By contemporary western standards, levels of popular education and literacy in Russia were distressingly low. The majority of the peasant population was still illiterate, and in any case had far more urgent problems of sheer day-to-day survival to struggle with. Once again we are faced with a contradiction: that of a country whose brilliant artistic, scientific and literary.
Ethic composition of the population also influenced ideas and new values of people. For instance, in 1917, Russians accounted for only 40 per cent of the total. The rest was composed of a huge heterogeneous and multi-lingual collection of national minorities of widely differing size and levels of civilization. Throughout the history of the Empire these had periodically expressed their discontent at their subject status and at continuing Russian domination. This manifested itself in many forms, from acts of individual protest and civil disobedience to full-scale and fully armed national insurrections calling for separation and autonomy.
In global context, Russia represented a low developed countries faced by inadequate economic system and social inequalities. Russia’s industrial backwardness in comparison with the other major European powers had been exposed and highlighted by its defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56). Consequently, although not immediately, the government embarked on an intensive program of industrialization at the turn of the century which catapulted Russia from being one of the least economically developed countries in Europe to one of the world’s leading industrial producers. In the process, Russia rapidly took on all the appearance and substance of a modern capitalist economy. For the first time in its history the country developed a large industrial labor force, or proletariat, and an economically powerful middle class of businessmen, bankers, lawyers, financiers and factory-owners. At the same time, the great majority of the population, about 80 per cent, was still made up of communally organized peasants, working and living in their villages in conditions which had altered little since the eighteenth century. Russia was still an overwhelmingly agrarian society. Following Darby (1997): “Resistance to popular demands was impossible in the climate o 1917. In the absence of coercion the peasants, workers and soldiers could simply disobey landlords, managers and officers, thereby destroying the authority of the politicians in government” . This existence of a modern, industrial society with a large peasantry whose economic interests were long neglected by the government is a key factor and cause of the 1917 Revolution.
One of the minor causes was involvement of Russia in WWI. Thus, historians (Smith 2002; Shukman, 1987) question the impact of this cause the Russian Revolution. The paradox was that Russia had a great imperial power with formidable military resources at its disposal, but, on the other hand, its army seemed increasingly incapable of fulfilling its tasks, either of waging victorious war or of containing the internecine forces of civil unrest.
It is possible to say that the Russian Revolution was a consequence of European movement and the wave of revolutions caused by new industrial and class relations. It was Russian socio-economic backwardness as a whole that subjected the entire society to unprecedented events, aggravated by the war and political ideas of Marxism. The Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century contained a mixture of wealth and grinding poverty; power and debility; backwardness and modernity; despotism and urgent demand for change. This is not a situation which is historically peculiar to Russia found in many underdeveloped or developing societies throughout the world today.
- [Service, R. The Russian Revolution, 1900-27 (3rd edn), London: Macmillan, 1999): 34.
- Acton, Edward, Vladimir Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds. A Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921. (Bloomington, 1997): 6.
- Ibid., 9
- Smith, S.A. The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 38.
- Anderson, P. Why Did the Bolsheviks Win the Russian Civil War? Peter Anderson Compares the Tactics and Resources of the Two Sides. History Review (2002): 22.
- Shukman, H. (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).72.
- Ibid, 87.
- Ibid, 88.
- Acton, Edward, Vladimir Cherniaev, and William G. Rosenberg, eds. A Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914–1921. (Bloomington, 1997): 76.
- Smith, S.A. The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 71.
- Ibid., 73.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ibid., 86.
- Darby, G. The October Revolution. History Review 1, no. 28 (1997): 33.
- Smith, S.A. The Russian Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002): 62.
Shlapentokh, D. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Journal article by Dmitry; The Historian, 67 no. 1 (2005): 169.