Unit 6: The Russian Empire and Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and Their Legacy
The Russian revolution had a profound impact on the world stage. It involved a complete transformation from a monarchical to a communist system and led to socialist movements in Cuba, North Korea, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
In this unit, we investigate the Russian Empire, the cultures and religions that shaped Russian society, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and the formation of the Soviet Union. As you progress through the unit, think about how the Industrial Revolution and the ideals of the Enlightenment influenced communism. World War I also influenced the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.
6.1: A Brief History of Russia
For most of the premodern period, Russia was composed of pre-Christian tribal societies. These "Russian aborigines" were primarily nomadic, traversing the arctic tundra driving large herds of reindeer. In 750, Scandinavian conquerors established a settlement of Kievan Rus, where three brothers (Rurik, Sineus, and Truvor) created communities in Novgorod, Sineus, and Izborsk. Two of the brothers died, and Rurik became the sole ruler of the territory and progenitor of the Rurik Dynasty, which lasted from 862 to 1598. The Romanovs succeeded it in 1613 after the Time of Troubles (1598–1613).
Prince Oleg (c. 845–912), the second ruler of Novgorod, established diplomatic relations with Byzantium. In 988, Vladimir the Great (956–1015) converted to Christianity through his alliance with Byzantium and constructed several churches, including St. Sophia Cathedral in 1045. In Russia, the Eastern Orthodox Church later evolved into the Russian Orthodox Church.
During the crusades, Russia provided reinforcements to Byzantium to defend against the European crusaders, but political stability weakened Novogrod, and it broke into smaller principalities. In 1219, Mongolian armies invaded and conquered most of Russia to establish the Golden Horde, which maintained its power until 1502. However, by this time, the Golden Horde itself was falling apart. Ivan III Vasilyevich (1440–1505), also known as Ivan the Great, consolidated control and ascend the throne in 1462 as part of the Rurik Dynasty. In 1547, his successor Ivan IV Vasilyevich (1530–1584), also known as Ivan the Terrible due to his autocratic and despotic rule, declared himself Tsar, which means "Caesar". He styled his absolute monarchy after Byzantium and claimed he was the direct continuation of the Roman Empire. Ivan IV had eight wives – he married Anastasia Romanovna in 1547, the great aunt of the future Tsar who would found the Romanov dynasty, which lasted until 1917.
Ivan IV had created an absolute monarchy. The serfs (or peasants) were essentially enslaved and did not have any rights or protections. While the government united the principalities of Russia into one system, they oppressed the citizenry, which would eventually lead to its downfall. After 15 years of conflict, Mikhail Romanov (1596–1645) was crowned Tsar in 1613 after successfully deposing the Rurik Dynasty. The Romanov Dynasty lasted 300 years and included the monarchs Peter I the Great (1672–1725) and Catherine the Great (1729–1796). The Romanovs continued the tradition of absolute monarchy, while Peter forced the people to adopt cultural reform and restricted the power of the nobility. The royal family had great wealth and power, which also rendered them responsible for major decisions and the direction of government policy.
Political instability began to set in during the reign of Tsar Alexander III (1845–1894). His son Nicholas II (1868–1918), the last Tsar of Russia, was highly regarded as weak and ineffectual. The Russian people lost faith in the Tsar's ability to govern due to his poor handling of the Russo-Japanese War and the ascension of Grigori Rasputin (1869–1916), a religious zealot who served as a healer and spiritual advisor to the royal family.
6.2: Origins of Revolution
During their massive effort to modernize and industrialize their country, the Tsarist regime instituted unpopular policies that caused deep resentment among the Russian peasants and workers who lived in the urban centers. As in France and Mexico, the lower classes suffered from low pay, food shortages, and poor living and working conditions. At the same time, the government and wealthy classes insisted they pay increasingly more taxes to support their expensive military campaigns and extravagant lifestyle. As in Mexico, the Tsarist leaders encouraged foreign investment to achieve rapid industrialization. Their reliance on outside funding eventually created anti-foreign sentiment and promoted radical nationalism.
6.3: The Manifesto of the Communist PartyAs with the other revolutions we have studied, the Russian revolutionaries discussed, defended, and revised their ideas through the documents they wrote and shared with their compatriots.
Their premise for revolution lay in the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engles argued that class struggle was the basis of human existence and that socialism (and eventually communism) would surpass capitalist society, which would naturally collapse or implode.
As we discussed in Unit 1, Marx and Engels advocated for creating a more equitable society with the rise of the proletariat (the laborers or working class) against the bourgeoisie (the wealthy owners of the means of production). This new communist society would support a progressive income tax, abolish inheritances and private property, abolish child labor, support free public education, nationalize transport and communication systems, centralize credit via a national bank, and expand publicly-owned land. Eventually, the state would wither away and lead to creating a stateless and classless society.
Lenin, who came to lead the Bolshevik party, wrote the April Theses (1917), an indictment of the Russian provisional government which had taken control after the 1905 revolution. Marx articulated communist theory in terms of a series of historical stages: from feudalism to the "withering away" of the state. He argued that human society had moved beyond the feudal stage to a period when the bourgeoisie was exploiting the proletariat, controlling the means of production, and paying workers less than their labor was worth. The bourgeoisie would attempt to thwart a worker uprising by pitting different worker groups against each other, using differences in religion, nationality, language, industry, race, and other elements, to prevent the proletariat from seeing their commonality as an oppressed underclass.
6.4: Revolutionary Legacies
In November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, took advantage of the power vacuum and assumed control of Petrograd with the slogan of peace, land for the peasants, and bread. A civil war followed between the communist Red Guard, led by the Bolsheviks, Lenin and Leon Trotsky, and the White Army, a disorganized mix of forces with disparate goals, including those who wanted to restore the Tsarist regime and support from foreign countries that opposed communism.
Unit 6 Assessment
- Receive a grade