The disastrous performance of the Russian armed forces in the Russo-Japanese War was a blow to the Russian State and increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as “Bloody Sunday (1905)” occurred when Father Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the tsar. When the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so aroused over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity.
Picture 1: Siege of Port Arthur, 1905
In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended, and no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied; but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organize new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar’s position was strengthened for the time being.
Bound by treaty, Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I to defend Serbia. At the opening of hostilities in August of 1914, the Russians took the offensive against both Germany and Austria-Hungary in support of France.
Later, military failures and bureaucratic ineptitude soon turned large segments of the population against the government. Control of the Baltic Sea by the German fleet, and of the Black Sea by combined German and Ottoman forces prevented Russia from importing supplies and exporting goods.
By the middle of 1915, the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties kept occurring, and inflation was mounting. Strikes increased among low-paid factory workers, and the peasants, who wanted land reforms, were restless. Meanwhile, public distrust of the regime was deepened by reports that a semiliterate mystic, Grigory Rasputin, had great political influence within the government. His assassination in late 1916 ended the scandal but did not restore the autocracy’s lost prestige.
The first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, The February Revolution took place March 8–12 [Feb. 24–28, old style], 1917. On March 3, 1917, a strike occurred in a factory in the capital Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg). On March 8 [February 23], 1917, International Women’s Day, thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd walked out of their factories protesting the lack of food and calling on other workers to join them. Within days, nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out. The tsar ordered the duma to disband, ordered strikers to return to work, and ordered troops to shoot at demonstrators in the streets, and thus triggered the February Revolution. Soldiers openly sided with the strikers.
On March 15 [2, old style], Nicholas II abdicated. To fill the vacuum of authority, the duma declared a provisional government, headed by Prince Lvov. Meanwhile, the socialists in Petrograd organized elections among workers and soldiers to form a soviet (council) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, to pressure the “bougeois” provisional government.
In July, following a series of crises that undermined their authority with the public, the head of the provisional government resigned and was succeeded by Alexander Kerensky, who was more progressive, but not radical enough for the Bolsheviks, or for many Russians discontented with the deepening economic crisis and the continuing war. While Kerensky’s government marked time, the socialist-led soviet in Petrograd joined with soviets throughout the country to create a national movement.
Picture 2: Lenin and the October Revolution, 1917
Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland with the help of Germany, which hoped that widespread strife would cause Russia to withdraw from the war. After many behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the soviets seized control of the government in November 1917, and drove Kerensky and his moderate provisional government into exile, in the events that would become known as the October Revolution.
When the national constituent assembly, elected in December 1917 and which met in January 1918, refused to become a rubber-stamp of the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s troops dissolved it, thus removing all vestiges of bourgeois democracy. Lenin was able to withdraw from the war by the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) with Germany, in which Russia lost Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, parts of the territories of Latvia and Belarus, and the territories captured from the Ottoman Empire during World War I.