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Causes of the Russian Revolution

1: Long Term Causes


Causes of the Russian Revolution

Russia in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century was a massive empire, stretching from Poland to the Pacific, and home in 1914 to 165 million people of many languages religions and cultures. Ruling such a massive state was difficult, and the problems within Russia produced a revolution in 1917. which swept the old system away. Several key fault lines can be identified as long term causes, while the short term trigger is clearly World War 1.

Peasant Poverty

In 1916, a full three quarters of the Russian population were peasants who lived and farmed in small villages. In theory their life had improved in 1861, before which they were serfs who were owned and could be traded by their landowners. 1861 saw the serfs freed and issued with small amounts of land, but in return they had to pay back a sum to the government, and the result was a mass of small farms deeply in debt. The state of agriculture in central Russia was poor, using techniques deeply out of date and with little hope of improving thanks to widespread illiteracy and no capital to invest.

Families lived just above the subsistence level, and around 50% had a member who had left the village to find other work, often in the towns. As the central Russian population boomed, land became scarce. Their life was in sharp contrast to the rich landowners, who held 20% of the land in large estates and were often members of the Russian upper class. The western and southern reaches of the massive Russian Empire were slightly different, with a larger number of better off peasants and large commercial farms. The result was, by 1917, a central mass of disaffected peasants, angry at increased attempts to control them, and at people who profited from the land without directly working it. The common peasant mindset was firmly against developments outside the village, and desired autonomy.

A Growing and Politicised Urban Workforce

The industrial revolution came to Russia largely in the 1890s, with ironworks, factories and the associated elements of industrial society. While the development was neither as advanced nor as swift as in a country like Britain, Russia’s cities began to expand and large numbers of peasants moved to the cities to take up new jobs. By the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, millions were in these tightly packed and expanding urban areas, experiencing problems like poor and cramped housing, bad wages, and a lack of rights in their jobs. The government was afraid of the developing urban class, but more afraid of driving foreign investment away by supporting better wages, and the was a consequent lack of reforming legislation. The urban workforce often remained closely linked to the peasants, being a travelling worker or retaining land in the village.

These workers swiftly began to grow politicised and chaffed against government restrictions on their protests, forming a fertile ground for the socialist revolutionaries who moved between cities and exile in Siberia. In order to try and counter the spread of anti-Tsarist ideology, the government formed legal, but neutered, trade unions to take the place of the banned but powerful equivalents. In 1905, and 1917, heavily politicised socialist workers played a major role, although there were many different factions and beliefs under the umbrella of ‘socialism’.

Tsarist Autocracy and a Lack of Representation

Russia was ruled by an emperor called the Tsar, and for three centuries this position had been held by the Romanov family. They ruled alone, with no true representative bodies: even the Duma, an elected body created in 1905, could be completely ignored by the Tsar when he wished to, and he did. Freedom of expression was limited, with censorship of books and newspapers, while a secret police operated to crush dissent, frequently either executing people or sending them to exile in Siberia. The result was an autocratic regime under which republicans, democrats, revolutionaries, socialists and others both chaffed and were increasingly desperate for reform. Some wanted violent change, others peaceful, but as opposition to the Tsar was banned, opponents were increasingly driven to extreme measures.

The Tsar - Nicholas II - has sometimes been accused of lacking the will to govern. Historians like Figes have concluded that this wasn’t the case; the problem was that Nicholas was determined to govern while lacking any idea or ability to run an autocracy properly. That Nicholas’ answer to the crises facing the Russian regime – and the answer of his father - was to look back to the seventeenth century and try to resurrect an almost late-medieval system, instead of reforming and modernising Russia, was a major problem and source of discontent which directly led to the revolution.

There was a strong reforming – essentially westernizing – movement in Russia during the mid-nineteenth century under Alexander II, with elites split between reform and entrenchment. A constitution was being written when Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. His son, and his son in turn (Nicholas II), reacted against the reform, not only halting it but starting a counter reform of centralized, autocratic government.

Ineffective Government

The late Tsarist government wasn’t just autocratic, it simply wasn’t very good. There was a mass of competing bodies out of whose confusion law, judgement and government decisions appeared entirely arbitrary, random, or reliant on patronage. Indeed, historian’s like Figes have concluded that Russia was under governed, that the mass of peasant villages had little contact with the upper reaches of imperial government, as there was little in the way of local government. Government had to go through landed nobility, largely in the zemstovs, but after peasant emancipation these landholders declined and then turned on the government, demanding reform. In this way the bedrock of the old tsarist regime turned on the tsar. Furthermore, the rulers had little idea of the peasant view, and the mass of peasants had no engagement with the government; they had no worries about the wiping away of the whole Tsarist regime in 1917.

Alienated Military

The backward Russian military had created a mass of soldiers who, having been treated inhumanely and less than the common citizen, wanted some shred of dignity and better conditions. In 1917, the Bolsheviks would appear to offer this. In addition, the professional officer class was also alienated from the Tsar and his court over the question of modernizing. In had become apparent to the officers that war was changing, but the army remained mired in the past. These professionals turned to the Duma to try and force a solution.

Politicized Civil Society

By the 1890s, Russia had developed an educated, political culture among a group of people who were not yet numerous enough to truly be called a Middle Class, but who were forming between the aristocracy and the peasants / workers. This group were part of a ‘civil society’ which sent their youth to be students, read newspapers, and looked towards serving the public rather than the Tsar. Largely liberal, the events of a severe famine in the early 1890s both politicized and radicalized them, as their collective action outlined them to them both how ineffective the Tsarist government now was, and how much they could achieve if they were allowed to unite. The members of the zemstov’s were chief among these. As the Tsar refused to meet their demands, so many of this social sphere turned against him and his government.
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