Major Causes of the Russian Revolution and Civil War

The Russian Revolution was arguably the single most significant occurrence that jump-started the evolution of Russia into the modern state we know today. The revolution began in 1917 and went on to last until around 1923. It consisted of a series of events which culminated in the replacement of the long-standing tsarist regime (led by Tsar Nicholas II) with a soviet communist union.

The happenings that led up to the revolution are diverse and multi-faceted. It occurred in a period when the entire continent of Europe was going through major transformation, which had been triggered by the unparalleled turmoil and violence unleashed by World War I (1914-1918).

Russian Revolution Causes


Only a century prior to the revolution, regular citizens of Russia were mostly serfs. A serf was a type of slave who belonged to the owner of the land which they tilled, generation after generation. These landowners were known as feudal lords. Feudal lords held land given to them by the Tsar – the Russian Monarch – in exchange for their service in the royal courts or in the military. A relatively tiny class of feudal lords, legitimized by the Imperial ruler, owned and controlled a large Russian citizenry of mostly land-working serfs. This kind of politico-economic system is known as Feudalism.

At the time, Russia was enormous in land size, much larger than it is today. Russia in fact covered most of Europe and Asia.

Social Evolution

Russian Revolutionaries protesting in February 1917

In 1861, a Russian tsar Alexander II introduced an unprecedented reform to emancipate all serfs, albeit with a condition; to pay their former feudal lords exorbitant taxes on a regular basis. This decision showed to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it empowered serfs across the country significantly; they were not slaves any more, but peasants. On the other hand, the draconian taxes kept these peasants poor and there was growing resentment towards the nobles and the crown.

Empowered by their emancipation and embittered by unfair taxes, these peasants would later become a force to reckon with.

Economic Evolution

Several decades down the line, a new tsar and grandson of Alexander II – Nicholas II – embarked on a radical industrialization drive at the advice of a royal advisor. A number of factories were built, which changed the social fabric of the Russian civilization significantly. A consequence of this move was the advent of a new class in the Russian society, the upper-middle working class – made up primarily of factory workers. Despite the many positives industrialization brought to the Russian economy, the standard of living of its factory workers was relatively woeful. Crowded workspaces, long working hours, unsafe work environments and meagre compensations, left the factory workers frustrated and resentful of the ruling class. They wanted more compensation for their work and better working conditions.

Political Oppression – “Bloody Sunday”

Protestors fired at by gunmen during the July Days in Petrograd, 17 July 1917

In early 1905, factory workers – led by a lowly priest, Georgy Gapon – embarked on a peaceful March to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, home of Tsar Nicholas II, to voice out their grievances over their awful working conditions. Instead of the Tsar, they were welcomed by a column of rifle-wielding imperial soldiers who opened fire at the peaceful protestors without any known provocation. About two hundred people died that day, and over 800 others were wounded. Though the Tsar did not expressly order “open fire!”, many Russians believed that buck stopped with him since he was the commander-in-chief of the military and leader of the nation.

The 1905 Revolution

The massacre sparked a public uproar. The factory workers were furious; they went on strike and demanded even better conditions than before. Political liberals, who were hitherto on the peripheries, became louder – they demanded greater recognition. Peasants demanded more land and less taxes. Civilian workers in the military launched a mutiny. A revolution seemed inevitable.

The Tsar, with help from his imperial advisors, came up with innovative ways to quash these revolts. Chief among them was that – he drew up a manifesto which proposed to build for the liberals an elected assembly to check the Tsar’s immoderations. They called it the Duma; it was essentially the first Russian parliament. For the revolting factory workers and the peasants, they were given some of their demands. The imperial army however was unleashed to crack down on rebellious activity, silence dissenting views and prevent another revolution.

And thus, the revolution was successfully repressed – for the time.

Devastating Wars – Poverty and Austerity

Though Russia had had a considerably strong army, it had lost a major battle in that same year, 1905, against a much smaller but powerful nation, Japan, in the expansionary Russo-Japan War. The people’s confidence in Russia’s military prowess was at an all-time low. Each time there was a war, the sufferings of civilians intensified significantly – increased taxes, longer working hours and a general situation of scarcity and austerity. It did not help the nation’s morale when after long and unpleasant years of sacrifice, their army returned having faced an embarrassing defeat.

About a decade after its humiliation at the hands of Japan, Russia joined the first World War  in support of their allies; Serbia, and backed by France and Britain. To many Russians at the time, history was simply repeating itself. There was a shortage of food that necessitated food rationing; inflation had risen steeply; war casualties were astronomical – both military and civilian; and the German army was unrelenting, seizing some Russian territories.

Saying that Tsar Nicholas II’s government mismanaged the war effort will be understatement. Russian bemoaned the severe hardship that was caused by an inefficient administration.

Russian troops, who in all accounts were determined and loyal fighters, lacked the necessary provisions and weapons to fight effectively during World War I. Similar to the Russo-Japanese War, World War. Image: Russian troops in trenches awaiting a German attack

The 1917 Revolution

By 1917, the Russian military for some time had been trying to hold back the German army from advancing through their western flank.  Tsar Nicholas II had left St. Petersburg to take command of the Russian army at the war front, leaving authority to his wife Tsarina Alexandra – an unpopular queen of German lineage. The queen in turn was hugely influenced by a contentious imperial advisor called Rasputin, who claimed to  have magical powers. The duo effectively disintegrated the economic fabric of the Russian society and smeared the reputation of the crown simultaneously in only a few years. A group of Russian nobles eventually plotted and assassinated Rasputin. By this time, the economic situation in Russia, impacted by the war and poor management, was so deplorable that people began to take to the streets, protesting the absence of the basic necessities of a modern society.

The Russian population was weary of sacrificing so much in favor of a perceived losing battle. Couple that with having to put up with the excesses and indiscretions of the monarchy, and you had a boiling cauldron ready to implode. And implode, it did.

An Ambitious Bourgeois Class

Members of the Duma, which had been dissolved and reconstituted severally and unilaterally by the crown and was reduced to a rubber-stamp institution by the same, took advantage of the situation and galvanized the people to push for the overthrow of the monarchy. Fortunately for them, many high-level military personnel and several members of the imperial guard were equally frustrated with the monarchy and were open to their proposals.

Russian soldiers fighting in World War I were loyal alright; however, a depleted weaponry, food shortages, absence of medical care and provisions made the soldiers tacitly approve the removal of Tsar Nicholas II from power.

The rebelling members of the Duma constantly tried to undermine the support the Tsar had. They did this by pointing out to the monarch’s inability to properly manage the millions of refugees and wounded people World War I was creating.

Amidst all of that, civilian organizations known as Zemstovs had to step into areas that Russian government had abandoned. Those local organizations would go on to have a huge say in the Revolution.

The February Revolution and the abdication of Nicholas II

About a year after abdicating the Russian throne, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on July 17, 1918.

The Tsar, whose incompetency at the battlefront was blatantly obvious, learnt of the uprisings and hurried back home to try and suppress them. Nicholas II was met by a delegation of liberals and army generals. He was forced to abdicate the throne and was exiled along with the imperial family to a remote Russian town called Yekaterinburg. Thus, ended the rule of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty and close to 2000 years of Russian imperialism.

The liberals quickly put together a provisional government led by a young liberal Russian lawyer –Alexander Kerensky. The provisional government followed that up by rolling out a liberal program which gave a lot more power to the people.

Alexander Kerensky led the short-lived Russian Provisional Government that was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks were led by Vladimir Lenin.

The political revolution had been successful. However, Russia’s ongoing involvement in the war prevented an accompanying economic revolution. Funding the on-going war further devastated the economy and the Russian society was at the brink of famine. A few months later, there was another public revolt.

An Organized Communist Party

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) led the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution and Civil War

Behind the scenes all this while was a growing clique of leftist revolutionary scholars and politicians who were in favor of a much more radical alternative political system than what the liberals were offering. The group had grown tired the bickering and power struggles that had engulfed the provisional government and political system, which by the way was made up of monarchists, conservatives, socialists and anarchists.

Owing to the power gap that had been created following the fall of the Russian monarchy, those factions fought among themselves for administrative supremacy. Chaos spread like wildfire all across Russia, and the political and cultural hub of Russia, St. Petersburg, was not sparred. Peaceful protests soon turned bloody, as soldiers opened fire. Opponents of the government were also rounded up, locked up and in some cases killed.

Russian Revolution Causes

The leftist group were strong advocates for a communist government which would be ruled by consortiums of workers, peasants and soldiers – rather than by the group of rich and sophisticated bourgeois that the liberals were. They subscribed to communist ideologies; a school of thought popularized by Karl Marx half a century prior. Most influential among them was a character called Vladimir Lenin, who was mostly away in Germany prior to these happenings, but keeping a close eye on goings-on back in Russia.

The October Revolution – The Bolshevik Revolution

Bolshevik Leaders of the Russian Revolution – Image (Left to Right) – Trotsky, Lenin and Lev Kamenev

Having returned to Russia at the toppling of the Tsarist Regime, Lenin and his well-organized group of radical revolutionists – some of who were already part of the Russian Duma – rallied support for their cause within and outside the Duma; declared themselves the Duma’s majority party – “Bolshevik” in Russian; declared the liberals the minority party – “Menshevik” in Russian. Inspired by Lenin’s speeches and activities, an almost bloodless coup was launched against Kerensky and his league of liberals, who were much less radical and eschewed violent revolution.

Lenin believed that the Russian Revolution should be spearheaded by an elite group of leaders instead of the working class as proposed by Marx. He promised to bring peace, tackle food shortages and restore all the lands Russia lost during World War I. And so, on that message, Lenin managed to successfully replace Kerensky’s provisional government only six months after the coup against Nicholas II.

Trotsky collaborated with Lenin to establish a communist Russia. The Russian-Ukrainian Marxist thinker and politician was instrumental in helping the Red Army secure victory over the White Army during the five-year bloody Russian Civil War (1917-1922)

Aftermath and the Russian Civil War (1917-1922)

This was not the last of it. The Bolshevik Revolution marked the advent of a six-year civil war in Russia; with the militia of the communist Bolsheviks – the red army — on one side, and a counter-revolutionary army formed by loosely allied factions, comprising of; liberals in favor of democratic socialism, loyalists to the fallen monarchy; and subscribers to western capitalism – the white army – on the other side.

The Russian civil war ended with the red army claiming victory and the establishment of the Soviet Union by Lenin and his Bolshevik communist party, that included lieutenants like Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Following the death of Lenin in 1924, Stalin maneuvered his way and got rid of Trotsky; thereby introducing several brutal and horrific years of a Stalin-led Soviet Union.

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