War, Revolution, and the Sins of Nicholas II


The Russian Revolutions of 1917 lead to one of the most decisive events of the Twentieth Century for Russia and the international community as a whole. The Revolutions that occurred in February and October were a long time coming and fundamentally changed the social, political, and economic structures in a country that had spent hundreds of years thirsting for a change. The revolutions were complex, so to say that Russia’s involvement in World War I is the cause would be an egregious mistake. The revolutions had slightly different causes and totally different effects. The issues that Russia faced abroad were only part of list of long term domestic issues that the country was facing. A newcomer to Russian history can easily be confused as to how a three-hundred year old dynasty was replaced by the Bolsheviks in a matter of months. Admittedly, my first question was ‘Why now?’. My post this week aims to investigate that question. What was it about 1917 that allowed for a full and lasting change to be possible? Russia had be in devastating wars (Crimean War; Russo-Japanese War) before and the effects (massive reforms; 1905 Revolution) were not on the scale of 1917. The answer lies in Nicholas II’s inability to alleviate Russia’s long term struggles or provide any useful help in resolving its current struggles.

Russia’s long-term issues revolve around the autocracy, the peasants, and their lack of modernization. The end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth Century were spent constantly struggling with ways to solve these problems, but no lasting effect was ever reached. It seems as if every attempt to alleviate these struggles just simply caused more problems. For the peasants, they began as serfs who were tied to their land. The serf emancipation seemed as if their problems could very well be gone, however, this lead to more issues of land distribution and the question of how to pay for that land. Russia recognized its need to modernize, and many pushes for industrialization made it seem as if Russia could catch up to the West. Unfortunately their modernization attempts never seemed to be enough. In 1905, the October Manifesto and the creation of the Duma looked like the autocracy issue was beginning to be resolved, but Nicholas II had no intentions of loosening his power over the empire.


World War I occurred before any of the problems that had been blowing in the Russian storm were calmed. Russia was not ready for World War I and in hindsight the necessity of it’s entry is questionable. (For an interesting read, check out the correspondence between “Nicky” and Kaiser Wilhelm II before the war officially began.) During the course of the war, the long-term problems gave way to short term problems. This was the first modern war, and Russia’s lack of real industrialization meant that they could not handle “Total War”. Soldiers were missing essential tools needed to fight. In addition, the military structure was immature and many officials had little experience. Instead of helping these problems, Nicholas decided that he could lead Russia to victory.


Obviously, this was not successful. Nicholas leaving only made matters worse as the home-front became more vulnerable and had no legitimate leader. The Russian people may not have loved Nicholas, but that didn’t mean that he did not have supporters who at least believed in the existence of the monarchy. Nicholas’ lack of leadership really was the final straw for the Russian people. To quote our Freeze text, “Military defeat, political incompetence, personal stubbornness, and an adamant refusal to share political power or even consider the question negotiable- all this gradually dispelled the mystique of the Romanov dynasty and even fueled suspicions that Nicholas and Alexandra were traitors themselves” (271). In my opinion, despite the long standing domestic issues and the losing battle being fought, Nicholas II could have changed Russia’s path; he didn’t. The 1905 Revolution should have been a wake up call, but his denial or refusal was ultimately what ended his family’s triple century rule. Two short-term problems, food shortages and inflation, caused the first of the demonstrations in February 1917. The demonstrations were followed by a Volhynian fire on demonstrators, a general strike, and the arrest of Nicholas’ ministers. Instead of turning to the Duma for help, Nicholas dismissed them. Before the end of the month, Nicholas II abdicated. He requested his brother, Michael, to take his place, but Michael declined until, “a constituent assembly had defined the nature of the Russian state” (274). (I would say that Michael was the smart guy here for wanting political stability, but in reality he probably had no idea that the Russian state would enter a total revolution). The February Revolution, like the reforms and revolutions before it really only gave immediate changes with no long term answers. In the period following Nicholas’ abdication, Russia was governed by the “Duel Power” of the Liberal Provisional Government (pretty much the bourgeois Duma) and the socialist Petrogrd Soviet of Workers and Soldier Deputies (workers, farmers, solderers, and.. well everyone else). The Provisional Government was simply not effective. It is unfortunate, because they took on an extremely ambitious agenda that sought to use democratization to alleviate many of the long term issues. Unfortunately, the laws were rarely put into place and the Russian people were left still needing something more.

That something more came in the form of a sealed train (courtesy of Russia’s “friend”, Germany) carrying this revolutionary piece of cargo:


The hunger for political stability, hunger for the end of the war, hunger for land and actual hunger in general was promised to end in Vladimir Lenin’s April Theses. In this, Lenin promised, ‘Peace, Bread, Land, workers control, and all power to the soviets’. The problems that had not only not been alleviated, but rather exacerbated by Nicholas II paved the way for someone who truly believed in a revolutionary cause to rise up and win over the people. While there were other powers that could have stood in the way of the Bolsheviks (the Mensheviks or the socialist Provisional Government), public support remained with Lenin’s Bolsheviks (even during what could have been bad PR during the July Days). Eventually, by October, the Bolsheviks would begin to construct a new social order that would remain in Russia for nearly a century.

World War I is responsible for bringing both long term and short term issues to the forefront, but had Nicholas sought help from the government to fix some of the problems, it is possible that Lenin’s Revolution may never have happened at all. Today, a head of state who engages in wars that they cannot fight in, leaves his people hungry, and refuses to share any power is looked upon with disdain in the international community; Nicholas II is no different.


Much of the information for this post was gained from our textbook readings for Chapters 8 and 9 in, Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Also, I used http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/index.html for even more information.

The images used were from the following in the order in which they appear: