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Russia Essays

One hundred years ago, the Romanov dynasty fell in the February Revolution of 1917. This centenary haunts Russia’s current government. “In the Kremlin,” wrote journalist Ben Judah in his important analysis of Vladimir Putin’s “Fragile Empire”, “they have nightmares about Nicholas II”.

In the middle of a terrible war with Germany, a revolutionary crisis had started in late February (according to the Julian calendar then in force in Russia). The Tsar, under pressure from the street, the parliamentary opposition, his own ministers, and the army command, abdicated on 2 March. A Provisional Government of liberals and moderate socialists took over the affairs of state and the war effort.

Eventually, the revolution radicalized in the Red October. Historians continue to debate if this uprising of the Bolshevik party was a “revolution” or a “coup.” The former interpretation stresses the fact that Lenin’s party had significant support among the working class, in particular among workers and soldiers of the capital, Petrograd (today St Petersburg).

The takeover of power was relatively unbloody, with only few victims initially. And Bolshevik slogans (land to the peasants, peace to the soldiers, and political power to the working class), were popular far beyond the immediate constituency of the party. At the same time, the Bolsheviks had little support among the peasantry, still the overwhelming majority of the population. The uprising was not spontaneous like its February equivalent, but planned by a small group of conspirators around Lenin. And once in power, the Bolsheviks built a one-party dictatorship, which quickly alienated even many of its initial followers. Lenin’s government had to fight armed resistance in what soon escalated into a complex but devastating civil war.

Together, the two revolutions of 1917 led to military defeat, the destruction of the state, and disintegration of the empire. Many non-Russian regions broke away, often forming precursors to nation states which would only come into their own after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nicholas II would not survive the incredibly brutal civil and international wars of succession that followed in 1918-22: the Bolsheviks executed him together with his family in 1918.

These high-profile executions were only the most prominent examples of the “Red Terror” Lenin unleashed to frighten his many enemies into submission. Members of the former upper classes, clergy, nationalists fighting for the independence of non-Russian successor states, and real or presumed defenders of the old regime (“Whites”) were singled out for imprisonment or execution.

In the end, by 1922, the Bolsheviks had won this many sided war, presiding over an exhausted and mutilated country set back for decades by the destruction of war, revolution, and civil war. Eventually, under the brutal leadership of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union would win the Second World War in Europe and establish itself as one of the two Superpowers to rule the world during the Cold War.

Putin’s dilemma

Putin’s government faces a dilemma regarding this past. The Revolution can neither be fully embraced nor fully disowned. Revolutions are anathema to Putin, who does not want to be swept away by a successful uprising similar to the Ukrainian Euromaidan in 2013-14. At the same time, Russia both legally and ideologically claims to be the successor state to the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union’s founding event happens to be a revolution. The centenary cannot be simply ignored.

History, in Putin’s Russia, is not a mere academic pursuit. It is part of what La Trobe political scientist Robert Horvath calls “preventive counter revolution”: an attempt to nip in the bud any potential for a popular uprising. The past which Putin and his Minister of Culture, the maverick historian Vladimir Medinsky, most frequently deploy to this end is the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany.

As I argue in an article forthcoming in the journal History & Memory, their self-confident, patriotic rendering of the Soviet Second World War serves as ideological glue attaching the population to the government.

Could one do the same with the Revolution: write it into a positive history of contemporary Russia? It would be possible to embrace the February revolution as a legitimate, potentially democratic uprising, which also freed the nations of the empire from imperial control: a decolonizing as well as democratizing event. The Bolshevik revolution could then become an illegitimate coup bringing a criminal regime to power, which re-erected by force of arms the old empire under a new guise.

Such a narrative de-legitimizes much of the Soviet period, while celebrating the breakdown of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states in 1991 as the historical fulfillment of the promises of February 1917.

Such a version of the past finds few enthusiasts in today’s Russia. As historian Geoffrey Hosking has written, most formerly Soviet peoples experienced 1991

as national liberation. For Russians, however, who had lived in all republics and thought of the Soviet Union as ‘their’ country, it was deprivation.

This perception “still rankles today” and “underlies the current Ukrainian crisis.”


Nostalgia for the good old Soviet times is better served by a different version of this past: the February revolution as treason. In such an alternative narrative, liberals and other elites were stabbing the legitimate government in the back at times of war. Imperial breakdown and defeat in war followed.

The Bolshevik revolution, then, was the start of a re-building of the state and the re-gathering of the empire. According to this way of telling the story, the Bolsheviks were state builders who fixed what others had broken. The Soviet Union was the legitimate successor of the Romanov empire and the 1991 breakdown a geopolitical catastrophe, another setback for “Russian statehood”.

This second narrative implies a neo-imperialist stance guaranteed to alienate Ukrainians or Latvians, or any other non-Russian successor nations to the Soviet Union. It will also prove unpopular with a significant minority of Russians at home and abroad: monarchists and those who embrace the anti-Bolshevik “White” movement as their historical ancestry. Hence, the government performs something of a fudging act: “reconciliation”.

“Reconciliation” implies that the warring sides in revolution and civil war can be remembered as parts of a positive history of the fatherland. This move requires reducing the revolutionary process to a “Russian” event.

Rather than multi-national wars of succession to the Romanov empire, what happened in the period 1917-1922 becomes a struggle between “White” and “Red” Russians. Ukrainian, Polish, Baltic, or Central Asian actors are either ignored, assigned to the one or the other side in this conflict, or declared pawns of foreign interventionists. Popular resistance to both Whites and Reds by Russian rebels in peasantry, army, and working class is waved away as an inconvenient complication.

Attempting to construct such a narrative has kept Putin’s history warrior Medinsky busy. In 2013, he stated that it was “meaningless” to decide which party of the civil war was “right” or who was “guilty.”

Instead, one needed to understand that both Reds and Whites “loved Russia.” Both sides had their own truth and were ready to die for it. “We have to approach this with respect,” he added. Monuments to Whites had the same legitimacy as monuments to Reds. They were both needed.

In 2015 Medinsky built on this beginning in a lecture to students of the elite Moscow State Institute for International Relations. We have two versions of what he said, both distributed through semi-official websites. Different in some details, they both make an attempt to come to terms with this revolution by taking a philosophical view of events.

Both Reds and Whites, Medinsky stated, were subjects of the same historical moment of catastrophic breakdown of “Russian statehood in the Romanov version” which led to a time of “troubles” . He lined up the Whites with the February revolution on the one end and liberal post-1991 Russia on the other – a breathtaking simplification, but a useful one, as we shall see.

The historical role of the Reds is central in Medinsky’s account. Independent of their own radical socialist motivations, they ended up re-building Russian statehood (and implicitly, the Russian empire). It was “the logic of history” which worked through the Bolsheviks, and led to the re-creation of “the united Russian state, which they started to call USSR.”

Thus, the real victor of the revolutionary upheavals was

a third force, which did not participate in the civil war: historical Russia, the same Russia which existed for a thousand years before the revolution and which will continue to exist in the future.

So far, so sophisticated: By declaring “Russia” the real subject of history and the human beings who fought over it the mere executors of a higher will they did not know themselves, Medinsky seems to have found a way out of the polarizing interpretations of the revolution.

Upon closer inspection, however, his is just a well-camouflaged version of the second interpretation outlined above: February as destruction, October as re-creation, the Bolsheviks the virtuous state builders implicitly linked to the current government. Medinsky’s fusion of the Whites with post-1991 liberalism is instructive. While the Bolsheviks re-built the Russian state in 1918-22, the liberals triggered, in 1991, the “destruction of the united historical-cultural and economic space… the breakdown of the Soviet Union.”

It appears to be this negative assessment of the Whites that has kept Vladimir Putin from fully embracing his Minister of Culture’s historical scheme. The President accepted reconciliation but rejected Medinsky’s supporting interpretation of events.

A divisive event for Russians

Putin’s reluctance could be seen as careful tactics in a historiographical minefield. The history of the revolution is much more divisive among Russians than the history of World War II.

As University of Sydney historian Sheila Fitzpatrick points out in a forthcoming essay, the “real problem” of the centenary for Putin’s government is the lack of consensus about the meaning of this event among the population of Russia.

Despite all its authoritarianism, the Putin regime is very alert to popular opinion, and given the divisiveness of the memory of 1917-22, the best possible solution is to fudge the issue. In his annual speech to Parliament on 1 December 2016, the President refused to take sides, asking his compatriots to let sleeping dogs lie. The “lessons of history” were needed:

first of all for reconciliation, for the strengthening of the social, political, and civil harmony we have achieved today. It is not permissible to drag the schisms, malice, insults and bitterness of the past into our contemporary life, to speculate on the tragedies which have engulfed practically every family in Russia, in order to advance one’s own political or other interests. It does not matter on what side of the barricades our ancestors found themselves. Let us remember: we are a united people, we are one people, and we have only one Russia.

Putin’s position on the revolution, however, might be rooted in more than just tactics. During a meeting of the All-Russian People’s Front (an organization uniting the ruling party with selected pro-government NGOs), the President was asked for his opinion about Lenin, the Bolshevik leader during the Revolution and civil war, who led the Soviet Union until his death in 1924.

The question does not appear to have been scripted: it was so rambling that Putin needed to ask for clarification, and his answer was no less convoluted. It seemed improvised, ambiguous and contradictory.

First, the President recalled his past membership in the Communist Party and that he “liked and still like[s] communist and socialist ideas.” He listed the successes of the planned economy, most importantly the victory over Nazism in World War II.

At the same time he mentioned mass repressions under the Soviets. Did the children of the Tsar really have to be executed? Or the Romanovs’ family doctor? Why did the Soviets kill clergymen? And what about the role of the Bolsheviks in disorganizing the front in World War I? The revolution, in effect, made Russia lose the war to the losing side (Germany had to capitulate less than a year after the Bolsheviks signed a punishing peace treaty), “a unique event in history.” Clearly, the Bolsheviks’ role was not all positive.

Putin kept his most biting comments to the end of his monologue. By creating the Soviet Union as a federation made up of republics with the formal right to secession, Lenin (against the advice of Stalin) planted “a mine under the building of our state:” in 1991, the Soviet Union would break down along the borders of the republics. Ultimately, then, Lenin was responsible not only for the defeat of the Romanov empire in World War I, but also for the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1991 – hardly a positive evaluation.

These rambling remarks stand in sharp contrast to Putin’s well developed and unambiguous line on World War II as well as Medinsky’s sophisticated pro-Bolshevik dialectics. It appears that the President, like the country as a whole, is much more confused about what to make of the revolution. The President has much more time for the Whites than his Minister of Culture. In the memory wars, as elsewhere, he is an independent actor in a complex political game.

There is another interpretation of the dissonances between Medinsky and Putin, however. What better way to unify the country over this contentious past than to give slightly different emphases to the reconciliation message?

Effectively, the President appeals to monarchists and White forces while his Minister of Culture caters to Red nostalgia.

We shall see throughout the centenary year, if this division of labour continues or if the one or the other line will prevail. The first test will be if and how the anniversary of the February Revolution will be commemorated; the second will be what public events will mark October. By the time of writing, it is unclear what these events will look like. It will be fascinating to watch.

La Trobe University’s Ideas & Society Program will host a conversation between historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s leading historians of the Soviet Union, and Mark Edele on February 23 at 6:15 pm. Their conversation will concern the role the Russian Revolution of 1917 played in shaping the history of the 20th century. It will be live streamed here

These Russian Revolution essay questions have been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History:

Russia before 1905

1. Explain the challenges and difficulties faced by the tsarist government of Russia between the mid-1800s and 1905. How did tsarism respond to these challenges?

2. Discuss the relationship between the tsarist hierarchy, the Russian nobility and the powerful land-owning class. How did the actions of these groups contribute to the development of revolutionary sentiment?

3. On what basis did tsarism claim authority to rule Russia? What people or groups both reinforced and disseminated the idea of tsarist authority?

4. According to historian Orlando Figes, tsarism was held up by “unstable pillars”. Discuss the meaning and the validity of Figes’ analogy.

5. Compare Russia’s economy in the late 1800s to the economies of Britain, France and Germany. Why did Russia’s economic development fail to match that of her powerful European neighbours?

6. To what extent did the leadership and policies of Tsar Alexander III lay the groundwork for revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917?

7. Discuss the ideas, composition and methods of revolutionary movements in late 19th century Russia. To what extent were these movements able to reform or moderate tsarism?

8. Many writers considered Russia’s peasantry to be the most logical source of revolutionary energy. To what extent was this true? What obstacles were there to a ‘peasant revolution’ in Russia?

9. Explain how the program of economic modernisation championed by Sergei Witte contributed to revolutionary sentiment in Russia.

10. Evaluate Nicholas II’s fitness to rule as tsar, giving close attention to this personal qualities and his political and religious beliefs.

Revolutionary and reform movements

1. Describe the ideas and methods adopted by Russian revolutionary movements in the 50 years prior to 1905.

2. With reference to three specific groups, explain why 19th century Russian revolutionary groups were unable to overthrow, reform or moderate tsarism.

3. Why did the Russian Social Democratic Party (or SDs) split in 1903? What were the short-term and long-term ramifications of this split, both for the party and for Russia?

4. According to Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), what were the requirements for a successful revolutionary and a successful revolutionary party?

5. Discuss how the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties each attempted to foment change between 1905 and February 1917. Which group was more successful and why?

6. Discuss the size, composition and policy platform of the Socialist Revolutionary party. What role did this party play in opposing tsarism before and during the 1905 Revolution?

7. Examine the composition and policy positions of the liberal movement in early 1900s Russia. Who belonged to liberal groups and what system of government did they desire?

8. How did the formation, expansion and treatment of Russia’s industrial workforce contribute to a growth in revolutionary sentiment?

9. Evaluate the role played by the Bolshevik party and its individual members in both the 1905 and February 1917 revolutions.

10. It is often said that the Bolsheviks were a party formed in Lenin’s own image. To what extent is this statement true?

The 1905 Revolution

1. Explain how the tsar’s commitment to a war with Japan in 1904 would eventually weaken his authority and threaten his regime.

2. Was the petition drafted by Georgi Gapon and the Putilov workers in early 1905 a simple list of grievances about working conditions? Or was it an incitement to political revolution?

3. Explain the impact of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings of 1905, both on public perceptions of tsarism and on the revolutionary movement in Russia.

4. One historian described the 1905 Revolution as “a revolution with five arms but no head”. To what extent was this true and how did it affect the outcomes of the revolution?

5. Examine the tsar’s responses to the 1905 Revolution and the growing demands for an elected Duma. What do they reveal about his commitment to reform?

6. What was contained in the October Manifesto and what impact did this document have on the progress of the 1905 Revolution?

7. Compare and evaluate the contribution of the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries to the 1905 Revolution.

8. Leon Trotsky described the events of 1905 as a “dress rehearsal” for the revolutions of 1917. What lessons do you think were learned by the Russian revolutionaries from 1905?

9. Explain how tsarist chief minister Piotr Stolypin responded to the events of 1905. How successful were these responses in reestablishing tsarist authority?

10. Explore the activities and the role of the first three Dumas between 1906 and 1912. To what extent were these bodies effective or influential?

The February Revolution

1. Examine the effectiveness and popularity of the tsarist government between 1912 and 1914. How and why did the outbreak of World War I impact on tsarist authority?

2. Discuss the actions of Grigori Rasputin between 1905 and 1916. How did Rasputin contribute to revolutionary sentiment in the build-up to February 1917?

3. Discuss the role played by the fourth Duma and its Provisional Committee in the development of the February Revolution and the overthrow of tsarism.

4. To what extent was Russia’s entry into World War I a product of tsarist mismanagement? Did Nicholas II contribute to his own doom – or was he a victim of circumstance?

5. Evaluate the argument that the tsar’s decision to take personal command of the army in 1915 marked the beginning of the end for his regime.

6. Describe the political, economic and social impact that World War I had on Russia and its people, with a particular focus on the year 1916.

7. Explain how errors of judgement and mismanagement by the tsar and tsarina in February 1917 contributed to the overthrow of tsarism.

8. Discuss the role of propaganda and public perception in bringing down tsarism in February 1917. Refer to at least three specific pieces of propaganda.

9. The February Revolution is often described as a “leaderless” revolution. Was this really the case? Which people and groups were responsible for the revolution?

10. According to one historian, “tsarism collapsed with a whimper”. Evaluate this statement, referring specifically to the actions of the tsar and his advisors.

The Provisional Government and October Revolution

1. Discuss the composition, support and political legitimacy of the Provisional Government in March 1917. Did this government have a greater mandate to rule than the tsarist regime it replaced?

2. Examine the political career and rise to prominence of Alexander Kerensky. To what extent was Kerensky a socialist, both before 1917 and during his service in the Provisional Government?

3. What challenge did the formation of the Petrograd Soviet and the issuing of its Order Number One pose to the Provisional Government?

4. Explain how and why the German government backed Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917. How was this perceived by Lenin’s opponents?

5. How did Lenin’s April 1917 speech at Finland Stand and the publication of his April Thesis shortly after radically transform the situation in Russia?

6. Give reasons for the political instability of the Provisional Government through the middle of 1917. What were the eventual outcomes of this instability?

7. Referring to specific conditions, policies and events, explain Kerensky’s statement that the Provisional Government had “authority without power” while the Petrograd Soviet had “power without authority”.

8. Explain how the ‘July Days’ and the Kornilov affair each affected the Bolsheviks and their position.

9. Describe the role of the Military Revolutionary Committee in overthrowing the Provisional Government.

10. Evaluate the ideas and actions of Leon Trotsky in 1917, comparing Trotsky’s contribution to the October Revolution with that of Lenin.

11. Was the overthrow of the Provisional Government in October 1917 a Bolshevik-engineered coup or a popular revolution?

12. Why has the Bolshevik capture of the Winter Palace become an iconic moment of the Russian Revolution? Is the significance of this event justified?

The Bolsheviks in power

1. To what extent was the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 supported by non-Bolshevik socialists and ordinary Russians?

2. Describe the system of government developed in the weeks following the October Revolution. To what extent did the Bolsheviks honour Lenin’s demand for “all power to the Soviets”?

3. Explain the policy of “state capitalism”, articulated by Lenin during the first months of Bolshevik rule. What was this policy intended to achieve?

4. Referring to specific Bolshevik policies from 1917 and 1918, evaluate the extent to which Lenin and his government were able to deliver “peace, bread and land” to the Russian people.

5. Discuss the formation, sitting and closure of the Constituent Assembly in December 1917 and January 1918. Why did Lenin permit elections for this body, only to close it almost immediately?

6. Was the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk a victory or a defeat for the Bolshevik government? What were the short-term and long-term impacts of this treaty, both for the Bolshevik movement and for the Russian people>

7. Describe the Bolshevik policy of war communism. What was it intended to achieve and how successful was it?

8. Explain the conditions and causes that led to the Red Terror of 1918. Was the Terror a response to circumstances – or were the Bolsheviks destined to call on terror as a means of ruling Russia?

9. Why was Trotsky’s leadership as war commissar critical to the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War? Identify and discuss five major contributions Trotsky made to the war effort.

10. Which groups or regions opposed the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War? Compare their political objectives, as well as their success in opposing the Bolshevik regime.

Crisis and consolidation

1. To what extent was the Great Famine of 1921 caused by Bolshevik policies? How did the Bolshevik regime respond to this catastrophe?

2. Discuss reasons for the formation and activities of the Workers’ Opposition. How did Lenin and the Bolshevik hierarchy respond to factionalism in the party?

3. Explain the reasons for the outbreak of the anti-Bolshevik uprising at Kronstadt in early 1921. What impact did this rebellion have on the Bolshevik regime?

4. Was the New Economic Policy, passed by Lenin and his government in 1921, a “strategic retreat” – or a sign that their revolution had failed?

5. In 1921 Lenin called for party unity and an end to factionalism. Discuss the impact that events like Kronstadt and the NEP had on unity within the Bolshevik movement.

6. “The Bolsheviks were successful revolutionaries but failures at political leadership and economic management.” Discuss the validity of this statement.

7. Lenin once likened revolutions to locomotives that must be driven fast but kept “on the rails”. Did the Bolshevik revolution lose direction because it attempted to move too quickly?

8. How did the Bolsheviks respond to Lenin’s withdrawal from public life in 1922-23? Why was there a crisis of leadership in the party during this period?

9. Many considered Leon Trotsky to be Lenin’s natural successor as leader of the party and the Soviet Union. Discuss at least three reasons why Trotsky did not assume the party leadership.

10. Explain Joseph Stalin’s career and contribution to the revolution up to and including 1922. How did Stalin ascend to the leadership of the party?

Evaluating the revolution

1. According to some historians, in any revolution the revolutionaries always resort to the same ideas and methods as the old regime. To what extent is this true of the Russian Revolution>

2. Discuss three reasons why democratic government failed to take root in Russia between 1905 and 1918.

3. “War made revolution possible but made rebuilding society impossible”. Referring to three different wars, discuss the relationship between war and revolution in Russia between 1905 and 1921.

4. “Women played an essential role in both the revolutions of 1917 and the development of the new Soviet state.” To what extent is this statement true?

5. The historian Orlando Figes called one of his Russian Revolution text A People’s Tragedy. How and why was the revolution a “tragedy” for the people of Russia?

6. The Russian peasantry was an “immovable mountain” when it came to change, claimed one writer. How did Russia’s peasants respond – or fail to respond – to reform and revolution?

7. “The Russian Revolution transformed Russia from a backward agrarian empire into a modern industrial state.” To what extent is this statement correct?

8. Was the Russian Revolution evidence that communism does not work in practice? Or did the Russian context make socialism impossible to achieve? Discuss.

9. What were the implications of Stalin’s leadership for the people of Russia? How did Stalin transform the Soviet Union in the first decade of his rule?

10. How different were Stalin’s ideology and methods from those of Lenin? Did Stalin take the Communist Party down a new path – or did he continue and expand what Lenin had started?

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