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The Russian Revolution of 1917

The Tsar's Secret Police

At the end of the 19th century big changes were sweeping across Mother Russia. The Industrial Revolution had finally arrived. Only, 100 years after it had begun in other European countries, but who’s counting? Thousands of poor peasants flocked to the cities in search of factory work. And, as in other industrializing countries, a new middle class of educated professionals began to emerge who saw Russia as a backward country hopelessly stuck in the middle ages.

These liberal thinkers, freshly educated from the top universities in Europe, were inspired by life in France, Germany, and Great Britain. When they returned home they formed secret political clubs, to discuss illegal topics such as democracy, socialism, labor unions, and freedom of the press, all the time aware that the Tsar’s dreaded secret police–The Okharna– could burst in at any moment and exile them to Siberia for treason.  In spite of this threat, or perhaps because of it, revolution was in the air at the turn of the 20th century. 

Operating secret printing presses, diverse revolutionary groups printed pamphlets about what they saw as the best future for Russia. Some of these groups pushed for moderate change that would turn Russia’s autocratic state into a softer gentler constitutional monarchy. Others held more radical views calling for socialism and a complete overthrow of the Tsar.  Some wanted to bring change peacefully, others used terrorism to spread their message. To Tsar Nicholas all of these groups were a threat to his Romanov Dynasty and the traditional ways of Russia.

Nicholas responded to any threat to his rule the same way his father Alexander III did- by putting the muscle on his opponents. Whenever workers went on strike to protest their miserable conditions the Tsar–egged on by his wife Alexandra– sent out the police to put down the strikers. Okhrana agents were sent out to root out the revolutionaries placing spies in the universities and coffee houses where these young liberals hung out.

But the reformers knew they couldn’t change Russia alone. The middle class was a new thing in Russia and only made up less than 5% of the population. The true power of Russia was with the more than 100 million peasants who toiled on small plots of land in abject poverty and misery. The problem was that most of these peasants were farmers who had no interest in politics, and being illiterate, couldn’t read the revolutionary literature even if they had wanted to. Liberals took to the countryside to teach the peasants to read and write, and educate them about how truly backward Russia really was. Most peasants had no clue about what life was like outside of Russia, most had never traveled outside of their villages- and up until the late 1800s it had been illegal to do so.

Meet the Peasants

Now back to Tsar Nicholas. Ol’ Nicki was an indecisive guy who listened to the advice of his strong-willed German wife-Tsarina Alexandra who urged him time and again to respond to protests with brute force. He also listened to the nobles who were pretty out of touch with the reality of everyday life in Russia. For example, in 1905, the country was experiencing some serious political protests.

95% of Russia's people were poor peasant farmers who owned no land but paid high rents to the country's landlords. Most of these landlords just happened to be members of the royal family. Life as a peasant was tough.Russian peasants lived in villages cut off from the rest of the world.The villages were not much more than a collection of mud huts lining the main road where illiterate peasants farmed the land to keep food on the table and pay the rent to wealthy landlords. Russia was a feudal laughing stock. While the rest of Europe had abandoned this medieval lifestyle long ago, Russia's leaders did little to try to bring the country into the 20th century.


Russian peasnts did have one other alternative to a misreable life of tenant farming. They also couldmove to the city to find work in one of the many miserable factories that were springing up all over Russia. The factory system had come to Russia 100 years later than anywhere else in Europe.


The hours were long. By Russia law workers couldn’t be forced to work more than 11 ½ hours in a day but most factory bosses ignored this and the police were easily bribed to look the other way. Wages were very low.


The factories were dirty, dark, and dangerous. Workers were given free housing but the conditions of these barracks were so terrible that they made a New York City tenement look like a room at the Ritz. Each room was nothing more than a long warehouse where each family stayed in a room divided by a shabby piece of cloth. Each “room” was only large enough to fit a bunk bed that often touched the one next to it.


Like any job, the type of boss you had could make all of the difference. Some factory owners were generous and provided hospitals and kitchens for their workers free of charge. But again, we’re talking about basic treatment here folks. These simple wooden facilities often gave basic care. The food barracks served simple stews and bread so plain that it would make you stand up cheer for more school cafeteria food.

The Revolution of 1905

Rather than trying to bring about the changes that the people were demanding Nicholas decided that what the country REALLY needed was a war to boost morale. So in 1905, in the midst of an economic crisis no less, Russia decided to go to war. By attacking Japan over some islands in the North Pacific the Tsar was counting on an easy victory. The conflict known as the Russo-Japanese War was, to everyone’s surprise, a humiliating blow for Russia.

The common folk, already in a bad mood, were now joined by the soldiers returning home in humiliation. Fed up by low wages, poor living conditions, and oppressive laws, factory workers went on strike. On a bitterly cold January morning in 1905 three hundred thousand protestors marched on the Winter Palace in the capital of St. Petersburg where they had been told the Tsar would hear their complaints. Led by Father Gapon, an Orthodox priest, the protestors carried portraits of the Tsar and chanted “God Save the Tsar”. The people believed that their Tsar loved them and simply did not know what was happening. The people were in for a bitter reality check.


Unknown to the protestors the royal family had fled to one of their other palaces and had given ordered to the police to disperse the marchers by force if necessary. However, some twitchy military officers got spooked when they saw the massive crowd of men, women, and children coming their way. The soldiers were ordered to open fire into the unarmed crowd who fled in terror. Father Gapon had made sure each protestor was searched for weapons beforehand. No one knows how many died on the day now known as Bloody Sunday. The government reports said 96; the revolutionaries claimed a figure closer to 1,000.

The Bloody Sunday Massacre 

The fallout from Bloody Sunday was huge. The people’s faith in their Tsar was finally shaken; “God Save the Tsar” gave way to angry cries of “The Tsar Will Not Help Us”. The number of terrorist attacks surged. In 1905, more than fifteen hundred government officials were assassinated. Lenin couldn’t have been more pleased at the news coming out of Russia. He urged his followers to step up the attacks. Even the soldiers began to sympathize with the people by joining in on the strikes. But this is only 1905; we still have twelve more years of strikes and protests before the real revolution begins.

The Bloody Sunday massacre created something of a public relations nightmare to say the least. The Tsar and the whole concept of absolute monarchy were falling faster than a snowstorm in Moscow. Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto where he agreed to Russia’s first written constitution and (begrudgingly) gave up some of his power to the Duma. He even agreed to ease up on restriction against speech, the press, and labor unions. The Duma was to be Russia’s version of Parliament with its members elected by the people. But the Duma was far from democratic. Most of its members came from the aristocracy and tended to make laws that favored their own wants and needs over the majority of the people.

But the Tsar had no intention of giving up any power to the people. He was an old fashioned kind of autocrat that honestly believed that God had put him in charge. No sooner had the protestors went back to work that Tsar Nicholas disbanded the Duma and refused to reform the hated censorship laws. Strike leaders–many of whom like Lenin and Trotsky who would play a part in the revolution of 1917– were rounded up, beaten, and exiled to Siberia.

The February Revolution

It all began on February 23rd, 1917 on International Women’s Day when 90,000 Petrograd textile workers walked off the job chanting “We Want Bread”. The next day other factory workers joined in the strike. Troops were called in to put down the strikes but the soldiers refused to obey orders and shoot at the crowd. The strikes continued to swell into the hundreds of thousands. Then three days in March would turn the strikes in a full-blown revolution.

On March 8 1917, tens of thousands marched through the streets of Petrograd shouting slogans of “give us bread” “down with the Tsar” and “down with the war”. By the next day the crowd had swelled to over one hundred thousand as workers, sailors, and soldiers joined in the demonstrations. Storefronts and bakeries were looted and a few policeman were attacked.

The next day the crowds got even bolder and government offices were targeted. On March 9th, Nicholas banned all public meetings or gatherings but with little effect. The President of the Duma sent a telegram to the Tsar urging immediate action. The Tsar responded with a simple message: dissolve the Duma! This time the Duma refused to be dissolved. After Russian soldiers refused to fire on the protestors it was clear that the Tsar had lost all control. Each day more and more protestors streamed into the streets of every major Russian city. Some looting was reported but surprisingly people went about their business going shopping or to work as if nothing was unusual.

On March 13th, thousands of common soldiers disobeyed orders and began joining the protesters in the streets. Later that day the red flag of revolution was flying over the winter palace. That day Nicholas II gave the word that had abdicated his throne. The 300 year reign of the Romanov’s was no more.  Throughout the country the people celebrated the revolution that had ended with so little bloodshed. Russians were hopeful that Russia could become a democratic country. Even President Woodrow Wilson of the United States greeted the news of the Russian revolution with enthusiasm. The ex-Tsar Nicholas II and his family made plans to head to England as ordinary citizens. However, they were place under house arrest by the revolutionaries.

The Tsar was gone but that didn’t solve the problems that mattered to the average Russian. Russia was still involved in the war and German armies were kicking butt. The German army had overrun Russian forces in the Ukraine and was marching on Petrograd. The Provisional Government was divided between too many opinions. The conservatives wanted to keep Russia as close to the old ways as possible. The liberals wanted to make Russia a democracy like the other European countries. The socialists like the Bolsheviks wanted to turn Russia into a communist utopia inspired by Karl Marx that would get rid of class systems and make everyone equal and free.

For the time being an awkward system was set up where the Provisional Government led by the Social Democrats ruled alongside the soviets who controlled the labor unions and many of the villages. Sort of like two siblings fighting over the use of a bedroom that are now forced to share it. Just to be clear on one thing, the word ‘soviet’ (little S) is Russian for assembly. The Soviet (big S) would refer to the Soviet Union that took power under the Bolsheviks in 1922.

Back to the story. Once the Tsar was gone many villages elected their own assemblies (soviets) to keep things running. Many factories–encouraged by the socialists–pushed out their owners and took control of the factory through elected councils. Even the army had its own soviets for a short time. Lenin and the socialists issued Order no. One which told soldiers to get rid of their tyrannical officers and elect trusted men to lead them. All across the country two government were competing for the hearts and minds of the people. The Social Democrats who wanted a representative democracy like the United States, and the Socialists who wanted to make Russia the world’s first communist utopia.

The Russian Civil War

In November 1917, the revolution became an all-out Civil War. The Bolsheviks were gaining support from across Russian society by promising land to the peasants, peace to the soldiers, and food to the workers. The Bolsheviks called their version of democracy the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Under Lenin’s vision the government would be necessary only until the people were ready to take control of their own lives. Private property that existed under the rich landowners who had greedily hogged so much at the expense of the poor would be swept away and replaced by peasants who owned land collectively. Under this new communist utopia the common soldiers would be given control of the military and workers would be given control of the factories, the peasants would own the fields. No one would be better than anyone else.

The Revolution that seemed to end so peacefully in the spring was turning into a nightmare by the winter. Russia was in open civil war from 1918-1922 as the Bolsheviks (“The Reds”) sought to extend their control over the entire country. Those who opposing the Bolshevik takeover were known as “The Whites”, although Whites could mean anyone from the Mensheviks or even those who supported a return to Tsarist rule. The only thing that the Whites had in common was that they hated the Bolsheviks. When the election results came in from the November elections, the Bolsheviks had won less than a 25% of the seats in the Duma.  Lenin, not letting a little thing like voting stand in the way, ordered the Red Guard to prevent the elected representatives from entering the Tauride Palace where the Duma met. Democracy in Russia only lasted one day and would not return until 1991.

Throughout 1918 until 1922 a reign of terror known as the Great Fear spread throughout Russia. The Red Army, led by Leon Trotsky, recruited workers and soldiers loyal to the communists to fight but it needed trained officers to whip this ragtag group into an effective fighting machine. Most of the generals were loyal to the whites and so Trotsky used kidnapping as a recruiting tool. Families of officers were held hostage to ensure that these men stayed loyal to the Red cause. Wherever the Reds won control they were followed by their army of secret police–the Cheka– which was more brutal than the Tsar’s police force had ever been.

Thousands were rounded up and shot if they were even suspected of being loyal to the Whites. Some estimates put the number of people murdered during the civil war by the Cheka at 50,000. Property and food was confiscated for the use of the Red Army which led to mass starvation. This time became known as the Red Terror. But, it was equally as bad as the White Terror which was being carried out by the White Army who did the same things to suspected communists. One of the most chilling examples of White brutality was against the Jews. Russia has had a pathetic record for tolerance of its religious minorities and Jewish communities have fared the worst. Many of the communists were also Jews and so Jewish towns were terrorized by the Whites who stereotyped all Jews as being communists. Ironically, the communists under Josef Stalin would target the Jews for terror.

"Situation serious. Anarchy in the capital. Government paralyzed. Transport of food and fuel in full disorder. Popular discontent growing. Disorderly firing in the streets. Some military units fire on one another, Essential immediately to order persons having the confidence of the country to form new government. Delay impossible. Any delay deadly. I pray to God that in this hour the blame does not fall on the crown."

Tsar Nicholas under arrest. 1917

Russian "Whites" pose for a quick photo over the bodies of executed communist "Reds"
Execution of the Romanovs

On March 22, 1917 Tsar Nicholas II became just Nicholas Alexandrovich, an average Russian citizen. He and his family were placed under house arrest at the Alexander Palace where they continued to live a life of comfort with most their servants still on staff to attend to their needs. (prison life can be so hard). In August, the ex-royal family was moved to the former governor’s mansion to keep them safe from the rising tide of Bolsheviks. But when the Bolshevik’s took control of Petrograd and Moscow in October 1917 they took over care for their Romanov prisoners.


The pampered patriarchs were moved to a more modest location (known as the House for Special Purpose) just east of the Ural Mountains to the city of Yketerainberg. Most of their servants (except for their doctor, cook, and personal maid) were dismissed and the family was now expected to eat on rationed food like the rest of Russia.


Under the watch of the Red Guard the Romanovs were taunted. Some soldiers even drew lewd pictures on the fences to embarrass them. The plan was to put the Tsar on trial for crimes against humanity. But things didn’t work out that way.


The White Army, with their allied Czech Legion, were closing in on the town. Artillery fire could be heard pounding the Red Army stationed nearby. A hasty decision was made by Soviet commanders in Moscow to execute the family rather than to allow them to fall into enemy hands. Little did the Reds know that the Romanov’s were not the reason for the Whites being in Yekaterainberg but rather their mission was to secure control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Nevertheless, the recapture of the Romanovs would have been a disaster for the Reds. The royal family might have boosted morale for the Whites but even worse they might have been able to convince other European countries to join the war against the communists. At this point, no one was quite sure what had become of them.

Around midnight on July 16, 1918 the family doctor was ordered to rouse the Romanovs and move them into the cellar “for better safety”. The family of seven along with three servants and the family dog, Jemmy, was herded into a small cell and told to wait. A short while later the commander of the house entered and read a pronouncement:

‘Nikolai Aleksandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you..’

​Nevertheless, the recapture of the Romanovs would have been a The Tsar said his final words “what?” and was executed. He, his wife, son, and the servants died instantly from a bullet to the heart. This was done to prevent the loss of too much blood. The four Romanov daughters: Tatiana, Olga, Maria, and Anastasia did not fall. In fact, the bullets bounced off them in sparks. The soldiers were confused but kept shooting until the girls finally fell. Sewn into their dresses were over a pound of gems that protected them from the first round of gunfire. Even the bodies were viciously stabbed with bayonets to be sure everyone was dead. Even the dog was stabbed to death.

The bodies were then loaded onto a truck and taken miles into the Siberian forest along the Koptyaki Road. The corpses were doused with acid to disfigure them. Burned and then buried in an unmarked grave. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the bodies were exhumed and made reburied at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.



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