History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: The Great War and Russian Revolution

Revolutions of 1917 click here for audio

March: Provisional Government

In March of 1917, the Tsar was overthrown in what Marx would have considered a liberal or beourgeois revolution. At the time, most Russian men were at the front, and the cold and hungry women of Petrograd (St. Petersburg renamed to sound Russian instead of German) rebelled. When troops were sent to control the riots, the troops were persuaded to join the rebellion. Thus the Romanovs were placed under house arrest, and a new government was established.

The Provisional Government (until an election could take place) was Kerenskyunder the control of socialist Alexander Kerensky, who had emphasized unity with the liberal cause. He lifted decades of political oppression by freeing political prisoners and instituting freedom of speech and the press. In doing so, he sowed his own destruction, because Lenin came back from exile and the Bolsheviks were free to plot socialist revolution. In fact, Lenin was escorted through enemy territory by Germany, because they knew he'd cause trouble in Russia.

You see, Kerensky had made another fatal mistake, in insisting that Russia should continue in the war. Millions had died, and morale was terrible, but Kerensky wanted Russia to be a full participant in European affairs. If they did not hold up their end in the war, Kerensky feared rejection by the international community when the war was over. Russians tired of war and poverty were, however, prepared to support the Bolshevik cause if it meant an end to the war.

November: Bolshevik Revolution

The elections took place on November 6. 62% voted for moderate socialists like Kerensky. But it didn't matter, because on November 22 the Bolsheviks quietly took over the seats of government throughout the country.

The charismatic Lenin

They were excellent organizers, and had spent their time talking persuasively to factory workers and winning support with the slogan "Peace, Bread and Land". Having taken over power, they created a new political structure with the Communist Party at the top. The Bolshevik "vanguard" pledged to lead Russia to communism, a term at first synonymous with Marxist socialism. They created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union), the Soviets having been the workers' councils in the cities. The first task was Civil War, as the Reds (communists) fought against the Whites (tsarists, anti-communists, liberals) from 1918-1920. The peasants were crucial in this war, because the Whites expected peasant support but the Reds didn't, and neither side got any. The Romanovs were executed. Lenin organized the economy with his New Economic Program of 1921. This included some private ownership, a gradual path toward communal ownership which was quite successful. But Lenin died in 1923, and the power struggle that ensued led to Stalin becoming a communist dictator.

Women's status

Since socialists had been promising women's equality, it is instructive to look at the early years of the Soviet Union. Lenin was committed to the educational, economic, legal and political liberation of women. He even was against the enslavement of women to housework, which he called "barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery" (I love this guy). New laws allowed women into all Russian universities. They could keep their name and their status even if married, could divorce and inherit property. He legalized abortion, and outlawed prostitution. Women's groups tried to set up communes to share childrearing, and some, like Alexandra KollontaiAlexandra Kollontai, promoted sexual liberation. See one of her essays -- here's a quotation about the exclusivity of beourgeois marriage:

The claims we make on our “contracted partner” are absolute and undivided. We are unable to follow the simplest rule of love — that another person should be treated with great consideration. New concepts of the relationships between the sexes are already being outlined. They will teach us to achieve relationships based on the unfamiliar ideas of complete freedom, equality and genuine friendship.

It wasn't perfect and didn't last. Many of the advances ended with Stalin, whose superindustrialization program of the 1930s used women as workers, but accorded them higher status as mothers of children (they even got "maternity medals" for having lots of kids).

Art of the Revolution

Futurism, from Italy, came to Russia before World War I. It was a literary and artistic movement that tried to break with the past. Futurism celebrated modern technology, dynamism and power. The work tended to be abstract in form, but became public art in the early years of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks rejected "idle picture painting". They sanctioned art which glorifed the proletariat, the peasants and the revolution. Murals on railroad cars spread the message of the revolution. Art forms created a vision of an egalitarian future, which the Soviet Union represented to the world.

Art of the Western World:
Russian Revolution

The new art form, rather than distancing Russia from the rest of the world, actually brought it closer to the rest of Europe. The Bolshevik capital at Moscow became as much of a cultural center as Paris. Once Russia was culturally and industrially "caught up" with Western Europe, it became impossible to keep Russia out of European affairs.