USSR 101: The Fall of the Tsarist Empire & the Rise of Bolshevism


The USSR 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps which led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, while also analysing its relations with other countries and the factors that determined its collapse.

USSR 101 will be divided into the following chapters of content:

1. USSR 101: The Fall of the Tsarist Empire and the Rise of Bolshevism

2. USSR 101: The New Russia in Europe After the First World War

3. USSR 101: From Enemy to Ally of Nazi Germany

4. USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa: The Turning Point in 2WW

5. USSR 101: The Construction of the Eastern Bloc

6. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: The Fall of the Tsarist Empire and the Rise of Bolshevism

Russia was an economically and politically backward country throughout the nineteenth century. The Tsars ruled with absolute power, unchecked by any parliament. The aristocracy, army commanders, Orthodox Church leaders, and imperial bureaucracy constituted the society's elite, which accounted for 5% of the population. The commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, which was almost exclusively concentrated in Moscow and the Baltic ports, lacked political and economic clout. No dissent was tolerated in the nation until at least 1860. (CADTM, 2017)

Figure 1. Tsar Nicola II with his family [Photo] - The Boston globe
Figure 1. Tsar Nicola II with his family [Photo] - The Boston globe

Russia, like the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, was a multicultural state, with dozens of people speaking different languages and following diverse traditions: Russians made up about only 45 percent of the population (CADTM, 2017). Autonomy and independence were demanded by Finns, Poles, Georgians, Latvians, and Estonians, among others. The vast bulk of the inhabitants resided in the countryside, which was in backward conditions (Britannica, 2022). Churches, monasteries, and a few aristocratic families owned 90% of the land. Serfdom remained in place for the peasants, who barely had enough to eat. This circumstance culminated in a slew of revolts, all of which were violently suppressed (CADTM, 2017). Tsar Alexander II ascended to the throne in 1855 and embarked on a cautious reform strategy: the most significant action was the abolition of serfdom in 1861. In reality, the reform did not improve the living standards of the majority of peasants, who had to pay a ransom to the master in order to work the land on which they had been servants, however, only a handful were able to do so. Thus, this unequal situation led to the escalation of discontent (CADTM, 2017). Russia's backwardness in the industrial sector was also evident: the country exported raw materials and grains while importing machinery and industrial products. The process of Russian industrialisation only began in 1870, with the assistance of foreign capital and government support. Industrial production increased by 400 percent by the end of the century, concentrating on large urban areas such as Moscow's textile industry, Saint Petersburg's metallurgy, and Baku's oil sector (Owen, 1985).

The Russian intellectual class of the time was divided into two sides: the so-called Westernists, who believed that in order for Russia to develop it needed to follow the Western model, welcoming capitalism and democracy (Owen, 1985); and the Slavophiles, who, on the contrary, claimed that Russia had to take advantage of its "delay" in development in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes as the West, averting the failures of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism (Ibid.). The country's social and political development had to begin in the countryside: peasants had to be educated and made aware of their situation, and the state had to be demolished and replaced with a collection of agricultural communities. Populism was another name for this movement. Some populists advocated for the use of terrorism as a form of resistance: it was indeed a populist who assassinated Tsar Alexander in an attack in 1881. Populists were dubbed "social revolutionaries" in the twentieth century. With their theses on industrial progress and its social repercussions, in fact, Marxists attracted a number of Russian intellectuals (Ibid.).

Unlike populists, Marxists considered the urban proletariat, rather than the peasantry, as the class capable of leading the revolution. However, in backward Russia, the development of capitalism and, as a result, the bourgeois revolution (similar to the century-old French revolution), had to be promoted in order to lay the ground for the socialist revolution (Ibid.). The Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party was founded in 1898 by Socialists, and in 1903 it split into two opposing currents. The Bolsheviks, who represented the majority and were led by Vladimir Ulyanov (known as Lenin), believed that a small elite of intellectuals had to lead workers to the revolutionary seizure of power in order to achieve the abolition of private property and the pooling of the means of production. On the other hand, the Mensheviks, led by Martov, argued that political and social reforms could only be achieved through partnerships with the bourgeoisie and by the use of political elections to gain power.

Figure 2. Russian population manifesting after the defeat in the war against Japan [Image] - Thinking Faith
Figure 2. Russian population manifesting after the defeat in the war against Japan [Image] - Thinking Faith

In 1905, Russia fought and lost a war with Japan. The conflict exacerbated the proletariat's and peasantry's already precarious living conditions by denying them any legal means of expressing themselves (Alphahistory, 2020). On January 9, 1905, 140,000 people marched peacefully to the Winter Palace, the Tsar's palace, in Saint Petersburg to ask for his assistance and protection. A thousand people were killed when the army opened fire on the mob. Bloody Sunday, as the awful day was dubbed, sparked nationwide strikes and riots in industry and rural areas. Even the monarchy's typically faithful army revolted: in June, the battleship Potemkin rebelled, and the men dispatched to quell the uprising refused to fire on the rioters. Tsar Nicholas II promised political liberties and the election of a parliament, the Duma, to placate the uprising. In reality, the Dumes elected between 1906 and 1917 had no actual power: anytime they adopted critical statements against Tsarism, they were disbanded. This, combined with the government's incapacity to address the needs of the poorer masses, heightened internal tensions in the country, strengthening socialists, particularly the Mensheviks (Alphahistory, 2020).

The lesson of the Russo-Japanese War, with all that the First Revolution of 1905 entailed for the Russian Empire, showed the Russian Empire's military disadvantages, particularly because of the Russian fleet's embargo on passage through the straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus. The Russian navy, in fact, took a while to arrive in the Tsushima Strait after passing via the Baltic, prompting Russian Foreign Minister Izvolsky to re-examine the issue of traversing straits. To do so, an agreement had to be achieved with the great nations to alter the article of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 that prohibited military vessels from passing through the Straits. The goal was to use diplomacy to address the issue, widening the scope of international politics in order to persuade other big nations to amend the rules of the straits (Figes, 2021). Izvolsky's program largely succeeded and an agreement with the United Kingdom was signed in August 1907, including a convention of the great powers to change the controversial paragraph of the Berlin Treaty. This agreement was the first step in setting the base for the Triple Entente, founded on December 5, 1914.

Figure 3. A Chat at Tsargrad [Image] - Design curial
Figure 3. A Chat at Tsargrad [Image] - Design curial

The First World War exacerbated Russia's already dire economic situation, where grain production collapsed and prices soared, while the Russian army experienced a severe military collapse as a result of the war's harshness and the primitive nature of its weapons (Holquist, 2017). Consequently, the public, who had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the war, reacted with a wave of strikes. Workers in Petrograd, the old capital of the Tsarist empire, rose in force in February 1917. The monarch ordered the military to disperse the demonstrators, but they refused, igniting the February Revolution, which quickly spread to Moscow. Fair land distribution to peasants and democracy were the watchwords. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to resign due to his inability to control the situation, and the Republic was created in March 1917. A provisional government with legal authority was established. In the meantime, the Petrograd Soviet, a "council of workers' and soldiers' deputies" (National Geographic Society, 2017) was also constituted: it comprised elected members from factories and the army, which progressively took over political direction tasks.

With the demise of Tsarism, greater freedom of expression and organisation spread (Nota, 2011): factory workers began to gather and carry out their demands: more humane working conditions, decent wages, and an 8-hour workday. The troops began to transmit their requests to the Petrograd Soviet, the only entity allowing them to express themselves: they complained about the officers' authoritarianism, demanded a raise in salary, and promised support for their families if they became unsuitable for work due to combat injuries (Figes, 2021). In the meantime, Lenin, the Bolshevik movement's leader who was in exile in Switzerland after the failed revolution of 1905, returned to Russia in April 1917. The so-called April Theses, a political program explaining the immediate tasks to be carried out, were presented to Lenin's party comrades: he demanded to overthrow the provisional government and entrust all power to the soviets, bring Russia out of the war immediately, and confiscate lands making them available to the local Soviets for distribution to the peasants.

Meanwhile, the First World War continued to be a disaster: in June, troops that had not been properly prepared for the action refused to fight. Petrograd workers and soldiers came to the streets in July to protest the deployment of fresh troops to the front lines. Such protests, however, were put down by ex government-aligned soldiers. Lenin had to flee when certain Bolshevik leaders were imprisoned. With the help of peasants, workers, and Bolsheviks, a coup attempt at toppling the Republican government was stopped in September. The Bolsheviks' popularity grew as a result (National Geographic Society, 2014), and they obtained a majority in Petrograd's Soviets.

Figure 4. Manifest of the Russian revolution [Image] - Jacobin
Figure 4. Manifest of the Russian revolution [Image] - Jacobin

The Bolsheviks were able to topple the Provisional Government through military defeat and by exploiting unemployment, widespread misery, and popular backing (Holquist, 2017). The Red Guard, a military force, was established for this purpose. The Red Guards took the vital areas of the capital without bloodshed on October 24th, 1917. The Soviet commands would be carried out from that point forward. The Petrograd military garrison, which declared itself neutral, also contributed to the Bolshevik revolution's triumph (Britannica, 2022). The Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, on October 25th. The Pan-Russian Congress of Soviets convened immediately, passing two decrees as its first acts: the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land (Mieville, 2018). The belligerent states were invited to an immediate peace without territorial annexation, according to the peace decree. The land edict, on the other hand, called for the eradication of private property and the confiscation of vast estates. Lenin presided over a new revolutionary administration, the Council of People's Commissars, which was entirely constituted by Bolsheviks, while the industries were given over to the workers.

In November, elections for the Constituent Assembly were held, with the Bolsheviks winning only 25 percent of votes to the Social Revolutionaries' 58 percent. The assembly's work lasted only a day because the Bolshevik leadership quickly disbanded it after witnessing the animosity with the opposite party. The Bolshevik Party centralized all power in its hands, with an unprecedented act of force that significantly limited the function of the Soviets itself (National Geographic Society, 2017). This action alienated the Bolsheviks from the sympathy of a large section of the population. Many Russian nobles and intellectuals fled the country.

Figure 5. People demonstrating in Moscow in favor of the October revolution [Photo] - Hurriyet Daily News
Figure 5. People demonstrating in Moscow in favor of the October revolution [Photo] - Hurriyet Daily News

In March 1918, the Bolshevik government faced a difficult peace with the Germans in Brest-Litovsk, which caused Russia to relinquish agricultural, populous, and mineral-rich lands: Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and other regions were forced out of Russia's orbit. The Entente powers decided to intervene against the Bolshevik State in order to rebuild a democratic republic that would continue the war against the Central Powers, while also eradicating a dangerous example of a revolutionary government that could incite socialist opposition in Western states (CADTM, 2017). The Entente troops then invaded Russian territory, backing the anti-Bolshevik forces' armies. The Mensheviks - also known as the Whites - were challenged by the Red Force, Leon Trotsky's Bolshevik army. The civil war lasted until 1920 and caused the deaths of 3 million people, including the Tsar and his family, who were executed for fear that they would be liberated by counterrevolutionaries. The Bolsheviks' victory was aided by the support of peasants, who felt that if the Whites won, they would lose the little they had achieved (Britannica, 2022).

The victory of the Bolsheviks in the civil war gave birth to a new federal state: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the interim, the Bolsheviks had emphasized the authoritarian characteristics of their administration due to the war with the Entente and the Whites. All opponents were proscribed, including Mensheviks and social revolutionaries, the death sentence which was reinstated after being repealed during the October Revolution, and the Ceka, a political police force known for its ruthless and arbitrary techniques, which was established. The Tsarist empire had finally fallen apart, giving place to a new state structure that would define the coming years.



  • A. (2020, March 10). The 1905 Revolution. Russian Revolution.

  • Figes, O. (2021, May 3). From Tsar to U.S.S.R.: Russia’s Chaotic Year of Revolution. History.

  • From Tsarist Russia to the 1917 revolution and the repudiation of debt –. (2017, September 20). CADTM.

  • Holquist, P. (2017, January 1). The Russian Revolution as Continuum and Context and Yes,—as Revolution. OpenEdition Journal.

  • Learn about the mighty tsarist rule of the vast Russian Empire covering one-sixth of Earth’s surface area. (2022). Encyclopedia Britannica.

  • Miéville, C. (2018, February 22). Why does the Russian revolution matter? The Guardian.

  • National Geographic Society. (2014, September 25). Nov 7, 1917 CE: October Revolution.

  • Noga, M. (2011, December 1). Comparing the Tsarist Russian and Soviet Empires. Inquiries Journal.

  • Owen, T. C. (1985). The Russian Industrial Society and Tsarist Economic Policy, 1867-1905. The Journal of Economic History, 45(3), 587–606.

  • Soviet Union - The Russian Revolution. (2022). Encyclopedia Britannica.

Image References

  • Figure 1. Tsar Nicola II with his family [Photo] - The Boston globe.

  • Figure 2. Russian population manifesting after the defeat in the war against Japan [Image] - Thinking Faith.

  • Figure 3. A Chat at Tsargrad [Image] - Design curial.

  • Figure 4. Manifest of the Russian revolution [Image] - Jacobin.

  • Figure 5. People demonstrating in Moscow in favor of the October revolution [Photo] - Hurriyet Daily News

Author Photo

Federica Panico

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