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Russia: Key debates
How did the rule of Nicholas II give way to a Communist Revolution and change Russia forever? Read our analysis of some of the key debates surrounding Russian History here.
Why did Nicholas II survive the 1905 revolution?
Of the three revolutions that occurred in Russia between 1905 and 1917, the first was the most violent and widespread, involving far more Russia citizens than the events of 1917. However, it is debatable whether it should be termed a ‘revolution’ at all because it did not actually result in regime change. Explanations for Nicholas’ survival partly lie in his own actions but also in the weaknesses of the opposition he faced, despite the numbers involved. Rebellion and protest was seen at almost all levels of society, with worker demonstrations being supported by liberal intellectuals and large amounts of peasant disorder in the countryside. There was even a naval mutiny over conditions on the Battleship Potemkin. However, the revolution lacked leadership and no single group or individual emerged to co-ordinate the disturbance. The protestors also had widely differing aims and this enabled the tsar to appease them more easily. Whilst the educated middle classes were calling for democratic reform and an end to censorship, workers tended to focus on conditions and wages and peasants were preoccupied with the redemption payments that had crippled them with debt since emancipation. By agreeing to the October Manifesto written by his minister, Sergei Witte, the tsar was able to pacify the middle classes by promising a state duma and a relaxation in government control. He also used harsh repression to control the protests, with brutal attacks on rioting peasants throughout the year and attacks on workers in Moscow in December 1905. It was crucial that the army remained overwhelmingly loyal to the tsar; without this, it would have been impossible for him to reassert his authority. To some extent, the promises of the October Manifesto implied the end of autocracy anyway but once the tsar had regained control by 1906, he simply reaffirmed his divine right to rule in the Fundamental Laws. The state duma did operate in the decade before World War One but the tsar’s insistence on approving any decisions and his ability to dissolve it at will prevented real revolutionary change until 1917.
Why was Nicholas II forced to abdicate in March 1917?
To some extent, Nicholas II was a victim of circumstance, but he also contributed to his own downfall. Although he may have appeared popular as crowds gathered outside the Winter Palace to show their approval for the declaration of war in 1914, there were many who felt aggrieved by the tsar before the conflict broke out. His determination to still rule as an autocrat, despite the promises made in the October Manifesto, meant that he stifled much of the potential economic innovation and progressive change that may have strengthened Russia and equipped it to cope with the challenges presented by World War One. Instead, Nicholas became an obvious focus for blame and seemed increasingly out of touch with the needs of his people. His reputation was further damaged by his decision to become Commander in Chief of the armed forces; he lacked military experience and was also attempting to lead an army that was woefully underprepared and ill-equipped. Some Russian units had one rifle between ten soldiers and many were sent into battle without winter coats and boots. As conditions at the front deteriorated and desertions increased, the tsar’s popularity plummeted and he lost the loyalty of the armed forces themselves. This meant that when protests about food shortages broke out in Petrograd in February 1917, the city’s garrison refused to fire on protestors and there was no easy way to end the threat. Although he rushed back to the city, the tsar was advised by his own ministers and army generals to surrender; this demonstrates that even his natural supporters had lost faith in him by this point. However, it is possible that tsarism would have toppled in 1917 regardless of who was on the throne. It could be argued that the system of autocracy itself was incompatible with the demands of the twentieth century world and the context must also be considered. World War One was the first ‘total war’ that any of the European nations had experienced, with all resources having to be focused on a long and bloody conflict. Without the pressure on food supplies, the transport system and industrial production, Nicholas II may well have continued to rule until he met a more natural demise. Yet by 1917, Russia’s infrastructure and economy was buckling under the tremendous pressure of war and it was these circumstances that sparked the protests in February 1917.
Why did a communist revolution occur in Russia in 1917?
If communist propaganda is to be believed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a wave of popular support from the masses, with this revolutionary zeal culminating in the Red Army’s storming of the Winter Palace. Whilst the popularity of the Bolsheviks had grown significantly following Lenin’s return to Russia in the April of 1917, it is inaccurate to attribute Bolshevik success to this alone. Indeed, when elections for the Constituent Assembly were held a month after the revolution had occurred, the Bolsheviks received only a quarter of the votes and were forced to shut down the parliament to prevent the Social Revolutionaries taking control. To a large extent, the communist revolution occurred because of Provisional Government weakness. Unelected and unable to instantly organise an election, it lacked a mandate to rule and was reliant on the support of the Petrograd Soviet to control both the army and the workers. Trotsky was able to exploit this by increasing Bolshevik influence within the Soviet and this not only provided the Bolsheviks with an armed force, but also prevented Kerensky from calling upon the capital’s troops to defend it against the communist threat. Despite a series of liberal reforms in the Spring of 1917, the Provisional Government ultimately failed to gain support because they could not deliver the people’s most pressing needs; it seemed impossible to withdraw from the war without surrendering to Germany and land reform could not be carried out while the conflict continued, for fear of triggering mass desertion from the frontline. Through their opposition to World War One and their promises of ‘peace, land and bread’, the Bolsheviks emerged as the only alternative to the Provisional Government’s policies and Kerensky undoubtedly strengthened their hand by releasing them from jail and rearming them in August, 1917 (owing to the perceived threat from General Kornilov). The lack of armed resistance to the revolution proves how easy the Provisional Government was to overthrow but it still required key individuals to seize the moment; Lenin, Trotksy and the other Bolsheviks proved worthy of the challenge.
Do the achievements of Stalinism justify the excesses of his methods?
For decades before Stalin came to power, there had been numerous attempts to modernise the Soviet Union by increasing its industrial capacities. Sergei Witte had overseen the extension of railways and factories in the ‘Great Spurt’ of the 1890s, Piotr Stolypin had hoped that his land reforms would create a more efficient agricultural system and Lenin’s NEP had allowed gradual economic recovery. However, by 1927 Russia was only just returning to pre-war levels of production and it was still essentially an inefficient, agrarian economy that did not produce enough of its main commodity (grain) to create a surplus that could be exported to kickstart industrialisation. Stalin’s policies transformed the Soviet Union into a highly industrialised nation, which emerged as one of only two remaining superpowers by the end of World War Two and was capable of producing an atomic weapon by 1949. The scale of progress was undeniably impressive; coal production rose from 36m tonnes/ p.a. in 1928 to 130m tonnes/p.a by 1937 and electrical output rose from 5,000m kilowatts p.a. to 36,000m in the same time period. Huge industrial centres were built incredibly quickly with the main steel production site, Magnitogorsk, becoming the largest in the world by the mid-1930s; it hadn’t even existed ten years earlier. Yet, the Russian people paid a heavy price for such a rapid transformation. Although grain was exported abroad to fuel industrialisation, the collectivisation of agriculture did not improve its efficiency as Stalin had predicted it would. Instead, dekulakisation (political repression), peasant resistance and a lack of agricultural expertise from Soviet officials meant that harvests fell during the 1930s after the peasantry were forced into large-scale Kolkhozy (collective farms). The increased requisitioning of grain therefore caused a famine in the Ukraine, with millions starving by 1934. For historians such as Robert Conquest, this should be considered as a genocide against the Ukrainian people and even if the tragedy is seen as an unintentional by-product rather than as the aim of Stalinist policy, the famine was still caused by government policy. Conditions in urban areas and large industrial centres were also appalling, with many relying on slave labour from gulag victims and all workers being subjected to dangerous conditions and a lack of rights in order to meet the impossibly high targets set by Gosplan. Production statistics alone cannot be used to judge success since much that was manufactured was of poor quality and the top-down planning system resulted in huge amounts of waste. Stalinism certainly enabled the Soviet Union to industrialise but whether it was the only viable method remains highly debatable.