What Were the Key Causes of the Russian Revolution?

Amy Irvine

Russian Revolution Twentieth Century
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

The Russian Revolution of 1917 marked the end of the 300-year Romanov dynasty and the start of a communist system of government. Rather than being triggered by one event, the Revolution was the result of a number of different economic, military and political factors that had been developing over decades.

Changes in society

For much of the 19th century, Russia remained relatively backward, with few roads and limited industrialisation, and a wide class divide. Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, agriculture remained in the hands of peasants and former landowners, relying predominantly on traditional methods.

Toward the end of the century, Russia experienced a large population increase, and its late and rapid industrialisation resulted in hundreds of thousands of people moving to urban areas out of financial necessity. This led to overcrowding and poor working conditions, with low wages, unsafe practices and few rights.

Nevertheless, acquiring new skills gave them a sense of self-respect and confidence, increasing expectations and exposing them to new ideas. After 1905’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, strikes and public disorder from this new proletariat rapidly increased, no longer seeing the Tsar as their champion.

British historian Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore joins Dan to chat about this Russian royal family.Listen Now

The Tsar’s incompetence

Tsar Nicholas II was a deeply conservative autocratic ruler. He believed he had been granted the power to rule by divine right and assumed this gave him the unquestioning loyalty of his people.

Detached from their plight, Nicholas refused to allow progressive reforms or accept any reduction in power. Religious faith was used as a means of political authority, exercised through the clergy and later through the Cossacks and secret police.

Tsar Nicholas II (Image Credit: Public Domain).

However, Bloody Sunday forced Nicholas to create the October Manifesto, making a number of concessions to decree limited civil rights and a democratically elected parliament, the Duma. Nevertheless, he worked to limit these to preserve his authority, dismissing the first two Dumas.

Nicholas was unprepared for the outbreak of World War One, but he was keen to restore Russia’s prestige after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904/5, and use the war to create national unity. However, he failed to choose skilled leaders, was disorganised in ensuring adequate supplies, and made poor strategic decisions throughout the war, leading to huge losses.

In Autumn 1915, Nicholas declared himself Commander in Chief of the army and departed for the Eastern Front, believing this would inspire the soldiers to fight with renewed vigour. By removing himself from a political role and now in sole command, he consequently bore more personal responsibility for any military failure. His absence also left a weakened government.

The Tsarina and the war

Nicholas’ departure left his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, in control. She wasn’t popular, and as a German princess, raised suspicions as to where her true loyalties lay.

Alexandra gained increasing influence over the appointment of ministers to the government and determined that no member should be in a strong enough position to challenge her husband’s authority. Consequently, the government tended to be filled with increasingly weak and incompetent men – leading to rumours she was a German collaborator.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna with Rasputin, her children and a governess.

Rasputin and his influence over the Tsarina

Alexandra became strongly influenced by a Siberian monk, Rasputin, who was a mystic and self-proclaimed holy man. Although infamous for his drunkenness and womanising, Rasputin also gained a reputation as a healer who could perform amazing feats.

Nicholas and Alexandra had 4 daughters and a son, Alexei, who had haemophilia. Rasputin was summoned by Alexandra to pray for Alexei after he had an internal haemorrhage in spring 1907. After Alexei recovered, Alexandra became convinced Rasputin could control Alexei’s illness, and his influence over the Tsarina became considerable, advising her on government appointments and important decisions.

Rasputin soon became a controversial figure, bringing ridicule on the royal family. He was accused by his enemies of religious heresy and rape, and was rumoured to be having an affair with the Tsarina.

After Rasputin’s murdered in December 1916 by Russian aristocrats, Alexandra’s behaviour became more erratic, and she failed to even attempt to address the challenges posed to government in Nicholas’ absence.

Frances Welch has written for the Sunday Telegraph, Granta, The Spectator and the Financial Times. She is author of Rasputin: A Short Life.Listen Now

Impact of the First World War

Instead of restoring Russia’s prestige, the First World War led to the deaths of almost 2 million Russian soldiers and multiple military defeats.

When Russia entered the war, it was distinctly less industrialized than its allies, with a weakened navy following the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. The addition of the Ottoman Empire to the Central Powers cut off essential trade routes, contributing to munition shortages. Military defeats such as the 1914 Battle of Tannenberg sapped morale, as did the superior German army’s shift of focus to the Eastern front in 1915.

As the war progressed, many officers loyal to the Tsar were killed and replaced by discontented conscripts, with little loyalty to the Tsar. Soldiers were ill-equipped and staggering losses increasingly led to mutinies and revolts.

Tsar Nicolas II reviewing Russian troops. When Russia entered World War One, its army was the largest, but least modern of the major European powers. (Image Credit: Everett Collection / Shuttershock).

Economic problems

The vast demand for factory production of war supplies and workers resulted in labour riots and strikes, as did conscription, which took skilled workers from the cities, replacing them with unskilled peasants.

Conscripted peasants were also a large part of the Russian army. This led to a shortage of farm workers, hugely impacting production. By the end of 1915, there were signs the economy was breaking down due to wartime demand. The government attempted to address this by printing more money, but this led to high inflation. Underdeveloped railway systems led to food shortages and rising prices, with workers increasingly abandoning cities to seek food.

The Tsarina failed to address strikes and protests in late 1916 and by the time revolution hit, Russia’s economy was near collapse.

Peasant and worker discontent

The scorched earth policy during the 1915 Russian army retreat destroyed large areas of peasant farmland, ruining their livelihoods. Meanwhile living conditions deteriorated, with shortages in shops and a severe lack of food. This was made worse by peasants hoarding grain for themselves, and the railways being committed to the war effort, unavailable to transport supplies to the cities.

These shortages exacerbated social unrest, creating a powder-keg of despair and anger. Revolutionary groups continued to attract support, aided by the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda. They believed a worker-run government should replace Tsarist rule, and the shortages provided the ideal opportunity to gain support.

In January 1917, to commemorate Bloody Sunday, thousands of workers went on strike in St Petersburg. In February, further rioting broke out, initially in response to an announcement on bread rationing. Strikers from the Putilov Engineering Plant joined the crowds at the celebration of International Women’s Day.

Meeting in the Putilov Works in Petrograd during the 1917 Russian Revolution. In February 1917 strikes at the factory contributed to the February Revolution. (Image Credit: Shuttershock).

As numbers increased, some of the Tsar’s forces opened fire. Angry protestors broke into the barracks of the city’s Pavlovsky Regiment, yet the Cossack soldiers refused orders to fire on the crowds, joining the protestors and mutinying against the Tsar.

Seize of Power

Dismissing this as short-lived, Nicholas attempted to return to St Petersburg to reclaim authority, but his train was diverted by revolutionaries to Pskov. Isolated and powerless, he was forced to abdicate.

A Provisional Government replaced Nicholas (after his brother refused the crown), but carried on fighting the war. Lenin claimed the government was imperialist in doing so, and undeserving of Socialist support. As the Provisional Government’s power waned, Bolshevik influence increased. As shortages and military defeats continued, Lenin and the Bolsheviks determined to seize power in the name of the Soviets.

Vladimir Lenin during the Russian Revolution of October 1917. (Image Credit: Alamy).

In October 1917 they stormed the Winter Palace, and arrested the Provisional Government, putting themselves in charge.

A year later the Tsar and his family were executed. Russia had changed forever.

In this exclusive piece Helen Rappaport reveals the untold story of modern Russia's obsession with the Romanov family and the place where they died.Watch Now

Amy Irvine