Why was there a revolution in March 1917?

Russia was a very backward country compared with the other European countries. There were few factories before 1890 and there had been little industrial development in Russia. By 1990, however, many peasants were leaving the countryside to work in the towns and industry made twice as much in 1990 as in 1890. This meant that towns like Moscow and StPetersburg grew up quickly. In these towns grew slums where the working class, that had previously not existed at all, lived.
The increased population of the towns meant there was more pressure on Russia’s farmers to produce more food, which could not be done with the medieval farming methods still in use. In other words Russia was in the middle of an industrial revolution when the Tsar was forced to abdicate in 1917. All other European countries had been through the same process, but without such a drastic side effect. Whereas in England and France the government had changed to accommodate the needs of the new social order, in Russia these changes had been used as an excuse to get rid of the Tsar.
Therefore, it was largely the Tsar’s inadequacy as a ruler and the mistakes he made that led to a revolution in 1917. Tsar Nicholas was not a strong ruler and was out of touch with the needs and realities of his country. He himself was extremely wealthy and surrounded by only the good things in life, and associated only with the aristocracy. He ruled as an autocrat, unaided by any parliament. Nicholas succeeded in keeping power by the secret police, the Okhrana, military power and censorship of the press. Nicholas believed he was chosen by God.

Influenced by one of his ministers, Pobedonostev, he forced the Russian Orthodox religion on other ethnic groups, especially the Jews, and on the people in schools, the army and work places. This made him even more unpopular than before, with his use of terror to oppress his people. In 1905, there was nearly another revolution. The causes of that demonstrated the bad feeling against the Tsar, as did the number of anti-government publications when censorship was relaxed in 1903, and the strikes and demands when the Tsar tried to set up government-approved unions.
In 1904 Tsar Nicholas tried to unite his country by going to war with Japan over parts of the crumbling Chinese Empire. This led to many humiliating defeats and a display of Russian incompetence in organisation. This further increased the bad feeling towards the Tsar. All these, coupled with failed harvests and low wages, resulted in a peaceful protest on 22 January 1905, which was led by Father Gapon. Father Gapon organised a strike and a petition that requested better working conditions, an elected parliament and an end to war.
He marched with the workers to present the petition to the Tsar at the winter palace, not knowing that he had left the day before. When they arrived at the palace, the soldiers turned on the crowd and started firing. That day became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. In the same year, the Tsar’s uncle was shot, there was an increase in peasant riots, there was mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, printers went on strike and there was a general strike where practically everything closed down towards the end of the year.
Tsar Nicholas survived the events of 1905 because then and afterwards the army supported him, and made sure that by March 1906 all revolution was crushed and its leaders were either dead, exiled or in hiding. Nicholas was lucky in that the great massof peasants blamed the land owners and not himself, and that censorship of the newspapers was still in place. He also protected himself by agreeing to the October Manifesto. This was a list of promises given by the Tsar that was drawn up by Witte. Included in it were promises for a Duma or parliament elected by the people, civil rights, uncensored press and the right to form political parties.
This was successful in taking pressure off the Tsar and secured the middle class’s support of the government. It did not, however, satisfy the revolutionaries and later on it appeared that they were right in regarding the Manifesto with suspicion. Although there was freedom of expression, newspapers were fined if they printed anything offending the Tsar, and the Duma was so limited that it was virtually ineffective. In it the proletariat and the peasants were highly under-represented. Even so the Tsar failed to accept it as a governing body and it was only by the time of the fourth Duma that he begun to work with it.
After 1905, life did begin to change in Russia and a key figure responsible for these changes was Stolypin, the Prime Minister appointed by the Tsar. He used the army to exert the Tsar’s power in the countryside by setting up military courts that could sentence and hang a person on the spot. The hangman’s noose became known as Stolypin’s necktie. The terror this caused was heightened by the still-active Okhrana that had many informers. People were required to carry internal passports and travellers to register with the police of the area they were staying in.
In 1911, Stolypin affected changes in the countryside to make agriculture more productive. Peasants could buy land from their neighbours with money borrowed from a peasant’s bank set up by Stolypin. The aim in this was to create a wealthy class of peasants loyal to the government, kulaks. 15% took up this offer and Stolypin’s theory appeared to have worked with record harvests in 1913. The poorer peasants became labourers or factory workers. Four million were encouraged to cultivate land along the Trans-Siberian railway but found that it was already taken by rich land speculators.
They then returned, angry, to European Russia. In the towns there was an industrial boom that meant production increased by 100% between 1906 and 1914. The workers, however, did not benefit from this increase with the average wage being under what it was in 1903. In 1912, an important strike took place in the Lena goldfields in Siberia that led to 170 dead workers and 375 wounded. This had a similar effect to Bloody Sunday and gave way to many workers’ protests. These changes affected some, even if very little, improvements in Russia and would have led to more had had they not been interrupted by the First World War.
The war meant that the fourth Duma had to be dismissed, just when the Tsar had begun accepting it. However, at first the war seemed good for Russia; initially there were successes and the people supported the Tsar but even at first the similarities to the Russo-Japanese war were obvious, except that the effects would be far worse as it would be a far longer war, giving the Tsar more time to make mistakes. The early enthusiasm for the war dwindled quickly as losses mounted high. The soldiers went to the front without proper warfare or equipment as basic as boots for the cold and wet.
They blamed their officers for their ill organisation. Life was hard in the towns also. There was little food and what there was, was sent to the soldiers but often did not get to them. People were starving in the cities and there were huge bread queues. Prices went up as there was a shortage of nearly everything but the workers’ wages did not. Coal was unavailable and as the factories closed. People were hungry, cold and unemployed. Morale also dropped as stories from the front told of misery and defeat. In September 1915 Tsar Nicholas made a great mistake by taking over the running of the war.
This was such a massive error because the people now blamed him for the suffering brought about by the war. It also meant that he left Russia in the hands of Rasputin and Alexandra. The Tsarina was not popular as she was thought to be a German spy and Rasputin was infamous fir his behaviour. Together they replaced the able ministers of the Duma with favourites or men that would do as they were told. The Tsar lost support continually until March 1917 as he was held responsible for the war and things it had caused.
By March 1917 the proletariat did not only want their physical needs satisfied but they also wanted political change. On the seventh forty thousand workers from the Putilov engineering works went on strike in Petrograd. The next day they were joined in their demonstrations by thousands of women. Over the next few days men and women demanded food, fuel and better conditions together. On the twelfth soldiers joined the strikers and marched with them to the Duma. Instead of shooting at the crowds, they shot at their officers. The Tsar had lost the support of the army. The Tsar could not survive revolution this time.
He had lost the support of the army that had been very important to him in keeping control by suppressing any opposition. Underneath him the people had always been divided into different political factions but this time only a portion of the aristocracy supported him. On 15 March, the railway workers did not allow the Tsar’s train into Petrograd. Certain army officials entered the Tsar’s compartment to ask him to abdicate but the Tsar had already decided to do this in favour of his brother as his son’s medical condition meant that there would be added difficulty to his ruling. However, Russia had had enough of the Tsars.
Some people think that abdication was the biggest mistake of all as it meant certain ruination for the Romanovs. The 1917 revolution was the result of a combination of factors. In the short term, the First World War was an important cause, but there was a growing dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime and the economic and social hardships it caused, that nearly boiled over in 1905. Everything that ever happened or did not happen in Russia could be shown as a reason for it but what made it so significant was what happened after the overthrowing of the Tsar with the Provisional Government and Lenin.

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