Some Russian socialists felt that the Russian peasant tradition of sharing the land according to commune (mir) made them natural socialists. They felt that peasants, rather than workers, would be the main force behind the revolution. They felt that Russia could become socialist more quickly than other countries.
Socialists were active in the countryside through the late nineteenth century. The Socialist Revolutionary Party was formed in 1900. This party demanded that land of the nobles should be transferred to peasants.
Social Democrats did not agree with Socialist Revolutionaries about peasants’ rights. Lenin thought that peasants were not one united group and hence they could all be part of a socialist movement.
Lenin thought that the party should be disciplined and should control the number and quality of its members. Others (Mensheviks) thought that the party should be open to all; as in Germany.
The Tsar was not answerable to parliament. The liberals in Russia; along with the Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries; worked with peasants and workers during the revolution of 1905 to demand a constitution. They were also supported in the empire by nationalists and by jadidists (in Muslim dominated areas). The jadidists wanted modernized Islam in their lives.
1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods arose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 percent. The membership of workers’ associations increased dramatically. The Assembly of Russian Workers was formed in 1904. When four of its members were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, there was a call for industrial action. Over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went on strike within a few days. They were demanding an eight hour work-schedule, increase in wages and improved working conditions.
BLOODY SUNDAY: Father Gapon led the procession of workers. When the procession reached the Winter Palace, it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and 300 injured. This incident is known as Bloody Sunday. It started a serried of events which came to be known as the 1905 Revolution.
Strikes took place all over the country. Student bodies staged walkouts and universities were closed down. Lawyers, doctors, engineers and other middle-class workers formed the Union of Unions. They demanded a constituent assembly.
CREATION OF DUMA: The Tsar allowed the creation of an elected consultative Parliament (Duma). Most of the committees and unions which were formed during this period were declared illegal after 1905 and hence many of them continued to work unofficially.
The Tsar imposed several restrictions on political activity. The first Duma was dismissed within 75 day and the re-elected second Duma was dismissed within three months. The Tsar then changed the voting laws and the third Duma was packed with conservative politicians.
The War was initially popular and people rallied around Tsar Nicholas II. But the Tsar refused to consult the main parties in the Duma; when the war continued. This led to reduced support for the Tsar.
Defeat of Russian Army: The War on the ‘eastern front’ was different from the War on the ‘western front’. The armies fought from trenches along the eastern France; in the west. On the other hand, the armies moved a good deal on the east and fought battles. Casualties were high on the eastern front. Russia’s armies lost badly in Germany and Austria between 1914 and 1916. By 1917, over 7 million people died in the battle.
The retreating Russian army destroyed crops and buildings. The destruction of crops and buildings resulted in 3 million refugees in Russia. This development tarnished the image of the Tsar. Soldiers did not wish to fight such a war.
Effect on Industry: Industry was also badly affected by the war. German control of the Baltic Sea resulted in supplies being cut off to Russia. Due to this, industrial equipments disintegrated more rapidly in Russia than anywhere else in Europe. Railway lines began to break down by 1916. There was shortage of labour because the able-bodied men had been called for the war duty. This led to small workshops being shut and resulted in shortage of essential items. Large supplies of grains were sent to feed the army. Riots at bread shops were a common sight by the winter of 1916.
In the winter of 1917, conditions in the capital, Petrograd, were grim. Food shortages were severe in the workers’ quarters. The winter was very cold; accompanied by frost and heavy snow.
On 22 February, a lockout took place at a factory on the right bank of the Neva river. On the next day, workers in fifty factories went on strike to show solidarity. Women led the way to strikes in many factories.
The demonstrators crossed from the factory quarters to the centre of the capital; the Nevskii Prospekt. The movement was not being actively organized by any political party. The government imposed a curfew and the demonstrators dispersed by the evening. But they came back on the 24th and 25th. Cavalry and police were called to keep a watch on the demonstrators.
The government suspended the Duma on 25th February. Demonstrators returned in larger number to the streets of the left bank on the 26th February. The Police Headquarters were ransacked on 27th February.
The government once again called out the cavalry to control the situation. But the cavalry refused to fire on the demonstrators. An officer of a regiment was shot at and three other regiments mutinied to join the striking workers.
By the evening of 27th February, soldiers and striking workers gathered to form a ‘soviet’ or ‘council’ in the same building as the Duma met. This was the Petrograd Soviet.
A delegation went to see the Tsar on 28th February. The Tsar abdicated on 2nd March; on the advice of the military.
A provisional government was formed by the Soviet Leaders and the Duma leaders. Thus the February Revolution of 1917 brought down the monarchy in Russia.
The Provisional Government took steps towards an elected government. Restrictions on public meetings and associations were removed. ‘Soviets’ were set up everywhere, though no common system of election was followed.
Return of Lenin: The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin returned from exile in April 1917. He made three demands which were known as ‘April Theses’. He declared an end to the war, transfer of land to the peasants and nationalization of banks. He proposed renaming of the Bolshevik Party as the Communist Party; to indicate its new radical aims.
Most others in the Bolshevik Party thought that the time was not ripe for socialist revolution. They wanted the Provisional Government to continue for some time. But various developments in the subsequent months changed their mindset.
The workers’ movement spread through the summer. Trade unions grew in number; in industrial areas. Soldiers’ committees were formed in the army. In the month of June, about 500 Soviets sent representatives to an All Russian Congress of Soviets.
The provisional government viewed these developments are an erosion in its powers and as growing influence of Bolshevik. The Provisional Government decided to take stern measures. The demonstrations by the Bolsheviks in July 1917 were sternly repressed. Many Bolshevik leaders had to go hiding. Many of them fled as well.
The peasants and their Socialist Revolutionary leaders demanded a redistribution of land. The peasants seized land between July and September 1917.
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