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Russia: Key Individuals

Discover more about some of the key individuals through Russian history, from Trotsky to Stalin to others.

Nicholas II

Nicholas II became the last tsar of Russia in 1894, following the unexpected death of his father, Alexander III. The previous tsar was a strong influence on his son and Nicholas II adopted his firm belief in autocracy and suspicion of Western, ‘modernising’ ideas. Russia had undergone significant reform during the reign of Nicholas’ grandfather, Alexander II, but by the early twentieth century there was much demand for further political and economic concessions that seemed to threaten what Nicholas perceived to be his divine right to rule autonomously. Although he was reluctant to share his power, Nicholas found it hard to assert his authority and was generally perceived as weak-willed and heavily controlled by his wife Alexandra and the holy mystic Rasputin, who was moved into the Winter Palace because he seemed able to improve the health of the heir to the throne Alexei (who suffered from haemophilia.) The tsar’s rash or ill-thought out actions contributed significantly to the crises of his reign; he narrowly survived the widespread rebellions of 1905 after his Cossacks fired on unarmed protestors in St Petersburg on Bloody Sunday and his decision to become Commander-in-Chief of the army during WW1 left a dangerous power vacuum in St Petersburg itself. When pushed by his advisors, Nicholas was willing to tolerate reform and it was during his reign that the Russia’s first parliament, the Duma, convened. Under the guidance of the Prime Minister, Piotr Stolypin, the tsar also agreed to the cancelling of peasants’ redemption payments and increased economic modernisation. Yet, by the time war broke out in 1914, Russia was noticeably less modernised than the other major European powers and the tsar was unable to respond effectively to the challenges presented by the conflict. When he abdicated in March 1917, he also abdicated on behalf of his son and the family were placed under armed guard in Ekaterinburg. After the October Revolution, Lenin became concerned that the tsar could become a focal point for opposition and the entire Romanov family was executed in 1918.

Alexander Kerensky

Kerensky was a member of the Social Revolutionary party who became the leader of the Provisional Government in July 1917 and was overthrown by the Bolsheviks when they seized power a few months later. After the tsar’s abdication, Kerensky held a unique political position in Russia because he was the only person to be a member of the Provisional Government but also the Petrograd Soviet (the council that represented the capital’s workers and soldiers). He therefore became a key figure during the uneasy period of ‘dual authority’ between the two political bodies, when the Provisional Government required the Soviet’s approval in order to guarantee the compliance of the army and proletariat. Before becoming Prime Minister, Kerensky served as Minister of Justice and later, as Minister of War. Whilst he was the latter, Russia suffered a significant defeat by German forces in the June Offensive and Kerensky attracted much of the blame because he had spent a great deal of time at the frontline prior to the battle, making charismatic speeches to convince the troops that this one final push would be enough to end the war. In the aftermath, the anti-war rhetoric of the Bolsheviks became increasingly appealing and Kerensky arrested many of their members during the protests known as the ‘July Days.’ This should have been enough to prevent revolution but instead, Kerensky took the ill-fated decision to release the Bolsheviks a month later because he believed that the capital was under threat from a dissatisfied army general, Lavr Kornilov. The Provisional Government’s unpopularity meant that Kerensky could not rally troops himself and so he relied on the Bolsheviks to defend the city. Although Kornilov’s threat never materialised, Kerensky did not attempt to re-arrest the Bolshevik leaders until October and by this point, they had gained significant control over the capital’s armed forces through the Soviet. By issuing warrants for the arrest of Lenin and his followers, Kerensky inadvertently triggered their insurrection and he was powerless to deal with the threat. Disguised in women’s clothing, Kerensky escaped from Petrograd in October 1917 and spent the rest of his life in the United States.

Vladimir Lenin

As leader of the Bolshevik party and head of the world’s first communist state, Vladimir Lenin had a profound impact on both Russian and international history. As was the case with many revolutionaries, ‘Lenin’ was a pseudonym used to conceal his true identity from the Russian authorities. His real name was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov and he had a bourgeois background that enabled him to receive an education to university level. He developed radical political views during his studies and he was also greatly influenced by the beliefs of his older brother, who was executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Alexander III. After having read Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’, Lenin became convinced of the need for a proletariat revolution in Russia which would sweep away the established political order and enable a communist utopia to be founded in its place. However, rather than waiting for economic forces to create the conditions for such a revolution, Lenin saw the Bolshevik party as the ‘vanguard’ of the proletariat, capable of carrying out the revolution on behalf of the workers (who were too few in number and too uneducated to take the opportunities presented by the Provisional Government’s weakness in 1917). After he returned to Russia in April of that year, Lenin proclaimed the ‘April Theses’ which promised to address the general population’s desperate desire for ‘peace, land and bread.’ Although this message resulted in a surge in Bolshevik popularity over the following few months, they were still a relatively small party at the time they seized power, particularly in rural areas. Lenin was forced to use violence, intimidation and censorship to maintain and extend Bolshevik power during his reign and instead of handing power to the workers, it became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Bolshevik party itself. Once internal security was achieved by 1921, there was some relaxation in government control, with the New Economic Policy allowing more economic freedom. However, this was not accompanied by political democratisation; Lenin was insistent that the Soviet Union remain a one-party state bolstered by a secret police force (the CHEKA) and increasing centralisation. After surviving an assassination attempt in 1918, Lenin’s health began to decline from 1922 and he died without naming a successor in 1924.

Leon Trotsky

Trotsky’s real name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein and he was a prominent member of the Bolshevik party, regarded by many as Lenin’s heir-apparent. Instead, he was side-lined during the power struggle that followed Lenin’s death and expelled from the Bolshevik party on Stalin’s orders in 1927. Trotsky came from a wealthy Jewish farming family and he first became interested in radicalised politics during his teenage years, prompting him to join the communist Social Democrat party. When the party split into Menshevik and Bolshevik factions in 1903, Trotsky joined the former and did not switch to Lenin’s party until 1917 (when it became apparent that they were the only party offering real resistance to the Provisional Government). Within a few months, Trotsky became invaluable to Lenin and by becoming the chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky was able to organise the Red Army forces that were used to threaten Kerensky’s regime in October. During the civil war that followed, Trotsky first negotiated peace with Germany and then commanded the Red Army to victory against its internal and external enemies by 1920. Although the Treaty of Brest Litovsk has been criticised for the damage it did to Russia, Trotsky was under clear instructions that Russia must withdraw from the war so his ability to achieve a favourable settlement was limited. His success was far more obvious as Commander of the Red Army, when a mix of harsh authoritarianism and fanatical energy proved effective in co-ordinating millions of Red Army troops. Trotsky’s failure to succeed Lenin was perhaps reflective of his unwillingness to alter his ideological stance to please his comrades. He remained wedded to a belief in the need to focus on exporting communism abroad in ‘Permanent Revolution’ and he was critical of the capitalist leanings of the NEP, despite the positive impact it had on economic recovery. After Stalin sealed his downfall, he spent the rest of his life abroad before being assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940.

Josef Stalin

Stalin is one of the most controversial figures of world history and he ruled the Soviet Union from 1927 until his death in 1953. His real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili and his adopted revolutionary name meant ‘Man of Steel.’ He hailed from Georgian peasant origins and was therefore often viewed as more in touch with the needs and desires of the Russian people that some of the other leading Bolsheviks, who had bourgeois, intellectual backgrounds. Although he was a member of the Bolshevik party from 1903, his significance did not become apparent until after Lenin’s death when he used his position as Party Secretary to create shifting alliances that enabled him to triumph over both the left and right wing elements of the Politburo and emerge as leader by 1927. In the decades that followed, he created a personal dictatorship that relied on an unprecedented amount of terror. In 1934, Stalin felt threatened by the popularity of Leningrad party boss, Kirov, and used his subsequent assassination as an excuse to begin purging the Bolshevik party of enemies and saboteurs. Estimates vary for the numbers that fell victim to Stalin’s purges but even cautionary historians put overall figures well into the millions. The secret police force, the NKVD, targeted anyone who was seen to be an enemy of the revolution with no requirement for evidence or judicial procedure. Millions were shot and even more were sent to vast gulags (concentration camps) in Siberia, with Stalin targeting both high ranking Bolsheviks and also ordinary citizens and their families, who were often judged guilty by association. Yet, Stalin also oversaw the transformation of the Soviet Union from an agrarian society to a modern, industrial one that was able to withstand Nazi invasion during World War Two. Although his Five Year Plans were riddled with inefficiencies and chaos, huge industrial centres like Magnitogorsk transformed both the landscape and the production capacity of the Soviet Union. However, the twin policy of collectivisation never produced the surplus of grain that should have been exported to fund industrialisation. Instead, the Russian peasantry paid a tragic price for progress, as the state requisitioned more grain than could be spared and the Ukraine in particular was hit by widespread famine.