In 1900 Russia was the last remaining absolute autocracy out of the great powers of Europe. Approximately eighty four per cent of Russians were peasants, lead by an over privileged upper class who had enslaved them for centuries. There existed a total lack of understanding or sympathy between the workers/peasants and their ruling class, who cared little about their responsibility and obligation to care for the welfare of their people. By the turn of the century many voices emerged in hope to see reforms of their backward nation. For many years there had been desire for reform, but not until the layer upon layer of revolutionary pressure in the precondition phase did it blatantly warn of change, which Tsar Nicholas 2nd attempted to ignore and oppress. However, his oppression only fueled the fire of revolutionary minds and hearts, who despite superficial concessions by the Tsar in 1905 strived to see a permanent transformation of their great yet backward nation. From the period 1900-1917 the events such as Bloody Sunday, the great strikes, famines and war would confront and enchant the Russian people and eventually leaders to revolution and an end to a 300 year dynasty.
The Tsar Nicholas the 2nd was a man who’s ignorance of his people’s hardships combined with his resistance to any political reform tragically led to his abdication and eventual assassination. He and all those loyal to him believed that he had a divine right from God to be the absolute ruler of Russia, therefore any attempt to undermine his power such as the formation of a constitutional monarchy was believed to be against the will of God. Nicholas 2nd was greatly out of touch with his people, and only received censored reports from the ministers he personally appointed. The many strikes from 1899 to 1903 were crushed with the force of his army, forbidding the population to have any alternate political voice. The peaceful protest of January 1905 lead by father Giorgi Gapon, was responded to with the brutal forces which had oppressed the majority of the Russian people for centuries. Any alternate political voice was outlawed, resulting in the execution, imprisonment or exile of identified revolutionaries. Core to the Tsar’s belief was absolute power, or none, and it was this resilience which would lead to his abdication, his inability to accept and compromise power over the Russian people whom he had little in common.
The upper class of Russian society had little to complain about in the beginning of the century, the many parties, picnics and concerts gave them little to complain about. Controlling most of the wealth of Russia, the upper-class nobles had no desire for change to their luxurious and decadent lifestyle. They had little will to help the starving and toiling masses, and chose to merely accept that it was God’s intention for those to be poor. The wealthy were so out of touch with the majority of Russian society that they did not at first take seriously the signs of revolution around them; the many emerging political parties, the growing amount of strikes and assassinations, and the increasing incidences of violence in the countryside. This ruling class supported the autocracy and had no intention to change Russia in the preconditions to the revolution.
Russia’s middle class had varying views upon the leadership of their country. The rich middle class had a healthy and relatively easy lifestyle and therefore little desire for change. However it was the middle class which fostered the intelligentsia who were the minds that fueled the revolution. As the working and peasant classes were without education, it was the well educated yet not overtly wealthy section of the middle class who developed revolutionary ideas, writings and underground political discussions. The Liberal party was supported by the educated and middle classes, which believed that Russia should become a constitutional monarchy with free democratic elections and that people should be granted civil liberties such as freedom of speech, association and worship. This group of people would in 1905 form the party named the Cadets. In addition the “father” of the revolution, Lenin, was raised in a middle class family with an excellent education at primary, secondary and tertiary level. The middle class who supported change provided the educated few who would provide leadership to the dissatisfied masses.
The Russian Orthodox Church created and supported the core belief that the Tsar was the only fit ruler of Russia. The power of the church, like it had been for centuries in many other countries, taught its followers to accept hardship, and believe that it was always God’s intention. It encouraged the people to believe that the Tsar was chosen by God to rule and protect them, and mislead them to believe that he had their best interests at mind. However, the people eventually realized that their “little father” had no interest in their welfare, and hence revolutionary groups condemned religion and the Orthodox Church which made people accept their unjustifiable hardships.
There also existed supporters outside of Russia who had an opinion of the ruling of Russia, especially during the Second World War. Allies of Russia, France and Britain, believed that any revolution in Russia during the First World War would lead to their retreat from the war and henceforth allow Germany and its allies to concentrate its army on the western front. Without Russia in the war its Allies would be in great vulnerability to the forces of Germany and Austria Hungary, giving them every reason to resist change until revolution inevitably broke out. It was Russia’s enemy Germany who provided a sealed train through the battlefields in 1917, containing approximately 30 revolutionaries. One of these was Lenin. It was in Germany’s best interests that they send people to Russia who would hopefully stir it up, as a revolution at the time would almost grant them victors.
The peasantry of Russia from 1860 had seen little real change in their living and working conditions, allowing continuous discontent due to their economic hardships and a harsh unsympathizing leader. Despite freedom from serfdom and the availability of government loans to buy land in 1861, they were in reality still enslaved by the wealthy landowners to whom they were indebted. In addition to this crushing debt, the peasantry would still use backward, inefficient agricultural methods using small strips of land. There was hardly enough land in comparison to the amount of peasants and mouths to feed, resulting in widespread famine. The government charged incredibly heavy taxes on grain and other produce, as well as every day items such as wheat and alcohol. There were poor harvests in 1900 and 1902 creating great famines and mass starvation in the country side. Such poor conditions and a series of harsh seasons led to outbreaks of violence against local landlords, burning their houses and seizing land for themselves. In reality, the uneducated masses of peasants would most probably have support a revolution which would allow them to own their own land without debts and fair taxes. The complaints of the peasants remained unheard by the leaders until certain political parties would rally to them in order to gain mass support for their causes. The assassinations of landlords and taking over of land did little in the long run other than to show signs of discontent; it was not until they could be organized and united by a strong leader would their complaints be listened to.
The Stolypin reforms resulted in more discontent as the most efficient peasants, which consisted of only around 15%, were allowed to buy land of those who were less enterprising, however this resulted in many losing their land without anything to feed their families on. Some would go to the cities and join the working class; others would roam the country side for work. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of peasantry would see an improvement in their living conditions upon the outbreak of the First World War, resulting in the increased pressure for revolution.
The working class of the relatively new industrial centers went through waves of discontent from 1900 to the offset of the revolution. Terribly poor working, sanitary and living conditions caused the workers to itch for reform, firstly by means of peaceful protest, then repeated strikes and acts of violence. After 1900, workers wages rose little, especially in comparison to inflation. In 1902 an industrial slump caused thousands of workers to lose their jobs. This created conditions for an outbreak of strikes, acts of violence and assassinations. The low wages, increasing food prices and declining working conditions only fuelled the industrial unrest which was crushed by the Tsar’s forces, killing thousands of protesting workers.
By 1917 there had been formed many parties which initially developed in the underground. The beliefs of Populism had influenced the socialist revolutionaries whose primary motivation for reform was the program of the “communization of the land”, where peasant life would be centered on the village, freed from the oppression of rural master, civil and personal liberties would be granted and everybody would have a right to education. Like most other revolutionary parties, they believed in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime and its replacement with a democratic, representative government. The socialist revolutionaries were mostly supported by the peasants, hence the occasional referral to them as the “Peasant’s Party”.
The Social Democratic Workers Party closely followed Marxist principles, believing that the road to a communist revolution was through different phases, including a intermediate capitalist stage. They believed that the working class would eventually rise up against their oppressive capitalist employers (the dictatorship of the proletariat), and create a system where there would be no rankings and all citizens would be treated equally no matter what their occupation would be. At the congress of this party in 1903 there were recognized two different groups which would split the party. The Bolsheviks, or majority, headed by Lenin, believed that the masses should be led by and elite party to which membership should be exclusive. In contrast, the Mensheviks, or minority led by Martov, believed that all people should be able to become members of the party. This main ideological difference separated the party at the only time when Lenin’s fraction would actually be in majority. Even when sent to prison and exiled to Siberia for being a revolutionary, this vivacious leader would still write about the collapse of the regime which killed his older brother and which was still oppressing him. Lenin’s beliefs became too extreme for many, as he specifically believed in the violent and bloody overthrow of the autocracy, and even challenged Marxism by preferring to rush through the supposedly lengthily capitalist phase of a country’s development into a communist state. He stressed the importance of the correct time to ignite revolution, and it was upon his return to Russia in 1917 that he knew the starved, war-torn and disillusioned country would be at boiling point in readiness to change.
Until 1917 the Russian armed forces had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats leading to outbreaks of mutiny and abandonment. The Russo-Japanese war saw the sound defeat of Russia’s aspirations to establish a naval base in Korea and Port Arthur. The sailors of the battleship Potemkin mutinied in 1905 and the losses of Russia’s Baltic Fleet and Far Eastern Army were demoralizing and deplorable. In 1914 the initial enthusiasm for Russia’s participation in the First World War quickly waned. The decisive defeats of the poorly organized Russian army against the Germans at Tannenberh and the Masurian lakes killed, wounded or took prisoner 8 million soldiers by 1917. Desertions began to be commonplace, the incompetent and ineffective officers allowed men to perish without ammunition or weapons, in the freezing cold without adequate weather protection. Upon return to their home towns or cities, the key force to change or its resistance was willing to support those revolutionaries who would end the war and slaughter of their comrades.
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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?