By Mike Kubic
Mike Kubic is a former correspondent of Newsweek magazine. In 1917, the nation of Russia erupted in a fervor
of revolution. This was not the first revolution it had seen in the 20th century, nor would it be the last, but it
certainly proved to be the most transforming. The Russian ruling class was overthrown and replaced with a
Communist state led by revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. As you read, take notes on the various causes of the 1917
Russian Revolution and how they collectively contributed to the overthrowing of the former Russian government.
“Revolution” is a term that’s often misused to lend the
appearance of popular support to the simple
overthrow of a government—an episode that can be
very short and have the support of no one except a
would-be strongman and a line of tanks outside the
This was emphatically not the case with the nationwide Russian revolution that in 1917 swept away the
country’s 304 year-old Romanov monarchy,1
ushered in a Communist2
regime with shattering
consequences for the whole world.
The path to the triumphant “Red October”3
than a quarter century long and so complex that it’s
easy to lose track of before reaching the climax.
What follows is an attempt to make the story more lucid4
by putting together the revolt’s anatomy.5
the main events that a century ago preceded6
one of the most dramatic and consequential upheavals in
- The Romanovs took power in 1613 as the ruling family of the Russian empire until 1917, when the last czar
Nicholas II gave up the throne due to pressure from civil unrest and the February Revolution.
- “Communism” is a political theory derived from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that advocates
class war, the rise of the working class, and a society in which all property is publicly, rather than
individually owned; in theory, under communism everyone works and is paid according to their abilities
- The term “Red October” refers to the 1917 October Revolution that ousted the provisional government set
in place after czar Nicholas II gave up the throne. The provisional government was taken over by the
Bolsheviks, the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) that was also known
as the “Reds,” especially during the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks were led by future Soviet dictator
- Lucid (adjective) expressed clearly; easy to understand
- a study of the structure or internal workings of something (such as the human body)
The Great Famine of 1891
In 2014 Orlando Figes, a leading British historian, published Revolutionary Russia, a book that attributes the start
of the collapse of the Russian monarchy to a brutally severe weather in 1890-91.
In southeast Russia, he wrote, “the seeds planted the previous autumn had barely time to germinate7
the frosts arrived. There had been little snow to protect the young plants during the severe winter. Spring
brought with it dusty winds that blew away the topsoil… There was no rain for 100 days. Wells and ponds dried
up… forests turned brown, and cattle died by the roadside.”
In an area twice as large as France, 36 million Russians were starving. They lived on bread made with rye husks
and bark of trees, and weakened by their diet, half a million of them died of typhus8
The czarist government’s first response was to warn the newspapers against describing the catastrophe as
“famine.” The eventual food deliveries were so slow and clumsy that millions of peasants lost their faith in their
unwritten bargain with the monarchy: The czars10 provided for their subjects’ most urgent needs, and the
subjects gave them their blind loyalty.11
It was this crisis, Figes wrote, that “set [the Russian people] for the first time on a collision course with the
In 1894, Czar Alexander III died of heart attack and was succeeded by his 26 year-old son, Nicholas II, who
proved to be totally incapable of ruling a continent-sized empire with 126 million people. Roy Medvedev, a
Russian historian, is one of several authors scathingly13 critical of the new czar. In his book The October
Revolution, he described him as “lazy, sluggish, unintelligent, distraught, and lacking in character and
- Precede (verb) to come before something in time
- Germinate (verb) (of a seed or spore) to begin to grow after a period of dormancy
- Typhus is an infectious disease characterized by a purple rash, headaches, fever, and delirium, and
historically a cause of high death rates during wars and famines; it is often transmitted by lice, ticks, mites,
and rat fleas.
- Cholera is an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine, typically contracted from
infected water supplies and causing severe vomiting and diarrhea.
- an emperor of imperial Russia
- The Russian people viewed the czar as a fatherly or semi-godlike figure, whom they owed their loyalty and
- a system of government by one person with absolute power
- Scathingly (adverb) extremely critical or scornful
- Audacity (noun) willingness to take bold risks
Nicholas tried to hide his weakness by keeping aloof15 of his subjects and by being unflinchingly16 stern and
autocratic. As if that did not make him unpopular enough, he married Alexandra, a domineering German
princess who fell under the influence of a devious and dissolute17 monk called Grigori Rasputin.18
Absurd as it sounds, Rasputin became the imperial19 couple’s most influential adviser on how to rule Russia,
and even when to go to war. The monk, who was murdered in December 1916 by a group of nobles, was in
Medvedev’s judgment “a manifestation of the moral decay, mental degradation,20 and impotence”21 of Nicholas
and his court.
Ironically, the arch-conservative,22 inflexible Nicholas presided over more than two decades of remarkable
progress: increased social mobility,23 literacy and higher education in Russia.
Between 1860 and 1914, tens of thousands of freed Russian serfs24 fled their poverty by migrating to Russian
cities. Many of them became merchants and tradesmen, sent their children to school, and the results were
• The number of Russian university students—almost half of them women—had increased from 5,000
• The number of daily newspapers soared from 13 to 856;
• The number of public institutions—such as schools, public libraries, workers’ unions and
cooperatives—rose from 250 to over 16,000;
• And by 1914, literacy in Russia rose to 40 percent from 21 percent in 1897.
- Aloof (adjective) not friendly or forthcoming; cool and distant
- Unflinchingly (adverb) not showing fear or hesitation
- Dissolute (adjective) lax in morals; depraved
- Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a Russian mystic healer who had been brought into the inner circle of the
Romanov royal family because of his supposed ability to treat the czar’s only son’s hemophilia, or inability
to create blood clots.
- of or relating to an empire
- Degradation (noun) the condition or process of decay or breakdown
- Impotence (noun) inability to take effective action
- An “arch-conservative” is someone who is a strong supporter of conservatism, which describes any political
philosophy that favors tradition as opposed to radical, or even moderate social change. In other words,
Nicholas II favored established tradition, such as with religion, politics, and customs—but especially in
regards to the absolute power of the monarchy.
- Social mobility is a term that refers to the possibility for people to change their class or social status within
- an agricultural laborer bound under a feudal system to work on his or her lord’s estate
 According to Figes, it was during these years that Russian “intelligentsia” (writers, engineers and other educated
people) for the first time in the country’s history, “formed professional bodies and began to demand more
influence over public policies,” a prerogative25 that used to belong exclusively to the czars.
The Marxist Doctrine
Some of these political leaders and opinion makers embraced an illusory26 scheme set forth in The Communist
Manifesto, an 1848 pamphlet by German philosopher Karl Marx. It called for a global “class struggle” between
the poor and the wealthy, and as interpreted by Russian radicals,27 the establishment of the “dictatorship of a
This rule by ordinary workers, peasants, and soldiers was to become the first stage of a process that would
culminate in a nirvana29—a stateless world where “each person would work according to his ability and receive
according to his needs.”
In 1903, eight Russian proponents of this piece of fantasy, led by a brilliant and ruthless revolutionary named
Vladimir Lenin,30 founded a socialist party in Minsk31 that became known as the “Bolsheviks.”
Nicholas II’s Blunders
Liberal32 members of Russian nobility responded to the dramatically radicalizing political atmosphere by
repeatedly appealing to Nicholas to authorize some reforms and the formation of the Duma, an elected
parliament. His answer, time and again, was a flat “Nyet—No!”
 Totally convinced that his authority came directly from God, Nicholas continued to lose the much needed
support of the traditionally czarist allies: the peasants, who hated his oppression; the moderate33 elites, who
resented his rejection of the parliament; and even of some of his generals, who were critical of his blundering
into wars that revealed Russia’s weakness.
Thus in 1900, Nicholas quarreled34 with Japan over the control of Manchuria,35 a Chinese province, whereupon
- Prerogative (noun) a right or privilege exclusive to a particular individual or class
- Illusory (adjective) based on illusion or delusion; not real
- a person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or
part of a party pursuing such aims
- The “proletariat” refers to workers or working-class people, often in reference to Marxism.
- Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), was a Russian communist
leader, politician, and political theorist. He served as head of the Communist Party following the abdication
of Nicholas II and officially led the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1924. He developed a system of Marxism
known as Leninism.
- Minsk is the capital of and the largest city in Belarus, located in central Belarus.
- open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; political left
- of a person who holds middle-of-the-spectrum, or average, views, especially in politics
- Quarrel (verb) to fight or argue
Japan sank one of the imperial fleets and routed the Russian army.36 The ink on the embarrassing peace treaty
of 1905—negotiated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt—was still wet when Nicholas’ guards fired on a
peaceful procession37 in Petersburg pleading for a few modest reforms.
The “Black Sunday” massacre,38 as it came to be known, triggered a nation-wide uprising; confirmed the czar’s
reputation as “Bloody Nicholas”; and made him authorize the founding of the Duma – but he refused to give it
any real authority.
In 1914, Nicholas ordered the army to enter the First World War as an ally of Great Britain and France, but his
poorly equipped and demoralized39 troops suffered defeat after defeat.40
The czar’s final blunder was to take personal command of the soldiers, who by then were the prime target of
Lenin’s propaganda41 and mutinous,42 in 1916. Instead of fighting, tens of thousands of them joined the
revolutionary “Soviets” – Bolsheviks-led councils that were taking control of Russian towns and villages.
In February 1917, these rebels launched a week-long revolt in Petersburg that neither Nicholas, nor the Duma,
were able to stop.
On March 15, 1917, the czar abdicated43 his throne and was arrested—together with Alexandra,44 their five
children, their private physician and three servants—by the Provisional government elected by the Duma.
On July 21, 1917, Alexander Kerensky, a moderate politician, was elected chairman of the Duma-chosen
Provisional government. It was the last successful attempt to stop Lenin’s drive for power.
In November, the Provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks; Kerensky fled to exile; and at the
age of 89 died in New York. Nicholas and all ten members of his family and household were savagely45
murdered by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918.
- Manchuria is a mountainous region that forms a northeastern portion of China. Control over this region
would allow the Russian empire access to warm-water ports on the Pacific Ocean.
- a reference to the battle of Port Arthur
- a parade or march
- Also known as “Bloody Sunday,” this massacre of peaceful protesters, led by religious figure Father Gapon,
proved to be an inciting incident for the 1905 Revolution.
- Demoralized (adjective) having lost confidence or hope
- Russia suffered one of the highest death rates in WWI.
- information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political
cause or point of view
- Mutinous (adjective) refusing to obey the orders of an authority; willing to turn on or rebel against a
person of authority
- Abdicate (verb) to give up a title or resign from a position, often due to failure to uphold one’s duties
- Nicholas II’s wife and czarina of Russia
- Savagely (adverb) in a fierce, violent, and uncontrolled manner
Lenin and the Red October
Formally, Russia remained the ally of Britain and France until March 1918, when the Bolsheviks signed a peace
treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Until October 1922, in some parts of Russia there continued
scattered skirmishes between the “Whites” (a loose confederation46 of Anti-Communist forces and monarchy
supporters that fought the Bolsheviks), and the Bolshevik’s Red Army.
But what really mattered from 1917 on were Lenin’s frantic, furious, and successful efforts to make the vast
Russian empire an example of Marxist class struggle and dictatorship.
A fiery orator,47 masterful organizer and a prodigious48 writer of propaganda pamphlets, Lenin was born to a
wealthy family and as a child was a diligent student and obedient church goer. Unexpectedly, he grew into an
Alpha-male leader that dominated individuals and groups by the sheer force of his steely will, volcanic
emotions, and overbearing personality. A shadowy, friendless fanatic with no private life to interfere with his
work, Lenin rammed through and imposed his agenda on Russia with a total disregard for morality.
Dmitri Volkogonov, a Russian historian and former Red Army general wrote in Lenin, his exhaustive biography,
that despite his access to Kremlin’s49 secret archives, he was unable to resolve mysteries that shrouded50
Lenin’s life. For example, there were no records of who financed Lenin’s 17 years when he lived in European
exile; presided over Bolshevik congresses; organized hundreds of Russian “Soviets” and, after the German
government sent him to Russia in April 1917 in a sealed train coach, toured the front lines to harangue51 the
remaining army units to mutiny.
What is amply documented in scores of Lenin’s letters were his vicious orders aimed at spreading the
“dictatorship of the proletariat” throughout Russia and beyond. For example, he urged one of his Soviets:
“Comrades! …Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks [well-off
farmers], rich men, bloodsuckers…Take all their grain away from them… Do this so that for hundreds of
miles around people can see, tremble, know and cry: ‘they are killing and will go on killing the
bloodsucking kulaks.’ Cable that you have received this and carried out [instructions].”
What is also well known are the results of Lenin’s brutal leadership. According to Medvedev, by October 24,
1917, the Winter Palace headquarters of the Provisional government had no more than 3,000 defenders, and
the fight they put up against the attacking 20,000 Red Guards, sailors and soldiers was so halfhearted that there
were no more than 15 fighters killed on both sides, and 60 were wounded.
“During these critical hours,” Medvedev wrote, “…Petrograd52 continued on the whole to go about its normal
- Confederation (noun) an organization that consists of a number of allied parties
- a public speaker
- Prodigious (adjective) remarkably or impressively great in extent, size, or degree
- The Kremlin refers to the Moscow Kremlin, in which Russian government is based.
- Shroud (verb) to cover or envelop
- Harangue (verb) to lecture at length in an aggressive and critical manner
- St. Petersburg was renamed “Petrograd” in 1914 at the beginning of WWI because it sounded less German.
business. Most of the soldiers remained in their barracks, the plants and factories continued to operate, and in
the schools none of their classes were interrupted. There were no strikes or demonstrations…”
Until his death of brain hemorrhage in 1924, Lenin had the power and fervent53 following that no czar had
achieved. He launched a Communist system that created the totalitarian54 USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics), enslaved Baltic states and Eastern Europe,55 and for seven decades kept the world in fear of World
And yet, in Volkogonov’s opinion, Lenin’s life ended in failure. His dream of a global revolution—“an instant
onslaught on the capitalist57 citadels,” as the historian wrote—never came near to reality, and collapsed totally
by the end of the Cold War.
In a competition with Marxism and class warfare, free votes and exchange of political ideas emerged far more
powerful than brutality and empty promises of a paradise.
© 2016. The Russian Revolution by CommonLit is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
It was renamed again in 1924 to Leningrad, following the death of Lenin. In 1991, the city was once again
called St. Petersburg.
- Fervent (adjective) passionate, intense
- of or relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete
subservience to the state
- The Soviet Union (also known as the USSR) was a one-party federation, governed by the Communist Party
in Moscow, that existed from 1922 to 1991. It was composed of the Soviet Russia and many Soviet satellite
states (Eastern and Central European countries brought under Soviet control).
- The Cold War describes the period of prolonged political tension between Western and Eastern Europe, as
well as the United States and the Soviet Union. It is typically measured as having lasted from 1947 to 1991.
- Capitalism is the economic and political system in which a country’s trade, industry, and market are
controlled by private owners rather than by the state. In this way, it is very different, if not the opposite of
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to share
your original ideas in a class discussion.
- Based on your reading of the text, how could the Russian Revolution have been avoided? What
factors could have been changed that might have stemmed the call for revolution? Or was it
- Who would you rather live under, Nicholas or Lenin? Whose leadership style was more dangerous?
- Based on your reading and your knowledge or experience, provide your own definition of a
“revolution.” How does the Russian Revolution of 1917 fit this definition?
- In the context of this article, how do people create change? Were the methods by which change
was created in the 1917 Russian Revolution right? Is there a way to morally incite a revolution? Cite
evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.