Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The deprivation and turmoil caused by World War I made revolution almost inevitable in Russia, the only country in Europe without any form of representative government.

Summary of Event

Prior to 1900, Imperial Russia was largely a land of illiterate peasants controlled by the wealthy nobility. Life in the countryside was much like that of the sixteenth century feudal period in central Europe. On the large estates and in the cities, the aristocracy lived rich, wasteful lives. The beginning of the twentieth century saw a slow, subtle change in the conditions of the Russian people as industrialization developed, later than it had in the rest of Europe. In every country it had reached, industrialization had created changes in class structures; this had forced changes in government policies, usually in the form of creation of representative governments. Russian Revolution (1917) [kw]Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution (Mar.-Nov., 1917) [kw]Russian Revolution, Lenin Leads the (Mar.-Nov., 1917) [kw]Revolution, Lenin Leads the Russian (Mar.-Nov., 1917) Russian Revolution (1917) [g]Russia;Mar.-Nov., 1917: Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution[04220] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar.-Nov., 1917: Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution[04220] [c]Government and politics;Mar.-Nov., 1917: Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution[04220] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Russian Revolution Trotsky, Leon Nicholas II [p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];Russian Revolution Alexandra

In Russia, modernization in the industrial sense created an urban working class that was politically unrepresented and economically exploited. This new working class was a forced, artificial creation of the czar and had not evolved slowly, as it had elsewhere. No artisan or guild community had existed on which to draw, and one had to be created. Peasants were forced from the land into the cities to fill the positions created by new factories and service organizations. The Russian worker, in contrast with the conservative union member who evolved in other countries, was an illiterate, violent protester, given to revolutionary types of protest and rebellion that by their nature bordered on anarchy.

A revolution in 1905 led Czar Nicholas II to promise reform. The distrust that many workers held for him and his government, however, led to the establishment of secret revolutionary societies. It was during this time that several new types of leaders emerged. These men were professional revolutionists. Scholars as well as trained Marxists, they believed in the need to unite the world under socialism and that the violent overthrow of nations was the way to accomplish this. After the revolution in 1905, many new converts to revolutionary socialism developed in Russia.

One of these revolutionary leaders was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, more commonly known by his revolutionary pen name, Lenin. He became the head of an arm of the Russian Social Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party (Russia) the Bolsheviks. Bolshevik Party (Russia) The Bolsheviks gained their name, which can be translated as “those of the majority,” at the Congress of Brussels in 1903. The opponents of Lenin’s party, the Mensheviks Menshevik Party (Russia) (or minority party), were also present at the congress. Together, the parties planned changes in the Russian government. The Mensheviks favored strengthening the weak parliamentary arm of government, the Duma. The Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, called for revolutionary overthrow of the government.

In 1914, with the beginning of World War I, the talk of revolution died down. When the Austrian government declared war on Russia, the people rallied to the needs of the country and to their czar. The revolutionaries, with the exception of the Bolsheviks, vowed to put aside their demands for the duration of the conflict. Brave and patriotic peasants, under the guidance of often inferior generals and with outdated, often defective, weapons and other materials, were at first decidedly effective, advancing deep into Austrian territory. Germany changed the outcome, however, by coming to the assistance of Austria. Under the pressures of war, the Russian government began to fail miserably. Not only were the weapons inferior, but also ammunition was in short supply. Transportation was inadequate and at times nonexistent.

Between fourteen and fifteen million men were mobilized for the army. One-third to one-half of all peasant households were left without their primary workers. The fuel shortage caused by the war affected agricultural production and delivery. The threat of invasion, the disruption of all services, and the food shortages that grew with each year of the war left the countryside in a state of deprivation and panic. The attitudes of the czar’s court also fueled resentment among the people of Russia. Czarina Alexandra was German, and she and many of the court advisers and their families were often heard to make pro-German comments even as Russians died on the battlefields opposing German armies.

Trains were given over to support the war effort, but the strain was more than they could deal with adequately. Rumors began to circulate that speeding troop trains often shunted other trains onto sidetracks, where they stayed for days or forever in Russia’s vast wastelands. According to the rumors, the trains shunted aside were often hospital trains, and wounded soldiers were being left to die. Food that was being sent from central Russia to the cities was left to spoil on other trains.

The early part of 1917 saw a series of more than thirteen hundred strikes by more than six hundred thousand workers. On March 8, 1917, a riot that lasted for three days broke out spontaneously in the capital city of Petrograd because of bread and coal shortages. On March 10, reserve army troops were sent in to quell the riot, but the troops mutinied and joined the rioters. By March 12, a revolution had occurred. Czar Nicholas II abdicated on March 15, and the Duma established a provisional government the same day.

Immediately, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies established a shadow government that rivaled the provisional government of Russia and forced a partnership on all decisions. The initial revolution had lasted only days, but the question remained as to what form of government would be established and which political group would control it.

In the outlying areas of Russia, where transportation and communication were extremely poor, many of the peasants did not know for years that a revolution had taken place. In other areas, chaos and terror reigned. The land-hungry peasants of Russia saw the revolution as an opportunity to acquire the land for which they had always yearned. Mass murder and torture were not unusual tactics. Some land changed hands several times. The food shortages that were crippling the cities worsened as peasants turned to rebellion instead of farming.

By June, 1917, the outlying areas of Russia were also suffering from growing ethnic and nationalistic movements. In areas such as Georgia and the Caucasus, where Muslims and non-Russian ethnic groups had always suffered as second-class citizens under the Russian nobility, movements to separate from the Russian government grew. There were rumors of appeals by some to Germany and Austria for citizenship in return for aid and assistance in overthrowing their Russian masters.

July 16-18, 1917, saw the Bolsheviks make their early and abortive attempts to take over the government. The provisional government had failed to accomplish the two major demands of the revolutionaries, the end of the war and land reform. Bolsheviks, soldiers, sailors, and mobs of civilians attempted to take Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), against Lenin’s advice. Lenin knew that the time was not right and that the Bolsheviks were not organized enough to pull off a coup, so he joined forces with the popular Leon Trotsky to gain strength. The coup attempt failed, and Lenin and several other leaders fled to Finland to escape execution.

Lenin began to call for a second revolution, one of the proletariat, or workers. He stated that the original revolution had been one of the bourgeois or middle class and that it obviously was going to maintain the status quo of exploiting the workers. A trained Marxist, Lenin knew that Russia was not really ready for a proletariat revolution. Karl Marx had outlined a plan for socialist revolution that required a secure and effective capitalist economy to ensure success. Active, violent revolution was not a necessary ingredient in Marx’s plan, but successful economics was. Russia did not have any of the necessary ingredients: The economy was not based on capitalism, it was not successful, and it did not possess an established, organized labor class. Lenin was determined to push through a revolution that would attain the ends he believed would lead Russia and, by example, the rest of the world into a Marxist socialistic utopia.

Lenin’s attempt came on November 7, 1917. Trotsky helped to organize the Red Army, Red Army which was highly trained and in possession of military technology as advanced as Trotsky could obtain. The Bolsheviks took control of the provisional government, but the revolution was not over. From November 7, 1917, until 1921, civil war would rage in Russia. It took three years for Lenin and Trotsky to pull the country together under the leadership of the socialists.


The Russian people, particularly the peasants, had never known freedom. In 1917 they were ripe for any political idea that promised them a measure of input and self-determination. The revolutionary groups in Russia made these promises, and Bolshevism offered the most. Tired of working land that they could never own, going hungry while their masters ate unsparingly of the food they had produced, the peasants were the most exploited class. They would, however, continue to be exploited: Under the new regime of Communism, the land for which the peasants fought was taken from them and managed by the state.

Lenin viewed the peasants as a great body of uneducated, unthinking, animalistic creatures, much like the farm animals they raised. The proletariat, or urban labor class, was the group that was to be freed, trained, and utilized to create the new society that Russia was to become, and would set an example for the rest of the workers of the world.

Many socialists in other countries of Europe staged small uprisings in sympathy with the Russian Revolution. The country most affected was Germany. At one point there was fear that the German government was in danger of being overthrown, but nationalism prevailed. The industrialized nations of Europe had evolved a sense of self and identity that was lacking in Russia, an unindustrialized, feudalistic society. Lenin did not understand the impact that nationalism would have on the socialists of Europe. They were in most cases German, Italian, and French first, and socialists second.

Undaunted by the failure of the rest of Europe to follow Russia’s lead, Lenin continued to consolidate his power and to reform Russia into the communist state that he was sure would eventually be emulated by the rest of Europe and then the world. In 1921, when the civil war in Russia finally ended, Lenin began an era of forced collectivization of land and dictatorial control of peasant labor. The peasants continued to be hungry as they toiled in their fields in an effort to produce the food needed in war-torn and devastated Russian cities.

The urban labor force was regimented into labor battalions. Laborers’ dream of worker-owned factories ended with takeovers by the government. This was followed by a reign of terror ordered by Lenin to remove any dissent or opposition to the government. Minorities were killed when any discussion of nationalistic movements reached governmental agencies. Religious affiliation was outlawed, as Lenin perceived it as a source of antigovernment agitation.

When Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin, Stalin, Joseph not Trotsky, took control after a brief power struggle. Trotsky remained head of the Red Army but was eventually discredited by Stalin, who saw him as a possible threat to his own power.

The Russian Revolution produced a global reaction as countries lined up to join with or to fight against the communists. The history of much of the twentieth century was influenced by opposition to communism as well as by nations’ adoption of communist or socialist systems, as in the case of China and many parts of the developing world. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the final decades of the twentieth century, given communism’s earlier successes, stands as one of the most important, and perhaps most unexpected, events of the twentieth century. Russian Revolution (1917)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Arthur E., ed. The Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Victory: Why and How. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1960. A collection of essays, mostly by Russian writers, that shed light on the causes and the personalities of the Russian Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Anthony Cave, and Charles B. MacDonald. On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War II. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Provides information on Russian history from 1917 to 1939 and goes into great depth concerning the revolution itself and its impact on Russia’s development. Gives very little consideration to earlier Russian history in explaining the conditions of the country or government. Includes index and excellent map showing the placement and areas of intervention of the British, German, Austrian, Japanese, and American troops after 1918.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution, 1825-1917. 1976. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. Examines the czarist government’s attitudes and concerns. Some mention of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin and the personalities of the court officials. Includes maps, bibliographic notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindemann, Albert S. A History of European Socialism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Discusses the Russian Revolution only as an outcome of the socialist movement. Invaluable to an understanding of the political movements engendered by the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Includes reading guide, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A broad overview of Russian history from its beginnings through the end of the twentieth century. Includes maps, photographs, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000. Authoritative and well-rounded biography uses information recently available from Soviet archives to shed new light on Lenin. Includes illustrations, map, glossary of names, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, James, and H. Stuart Hughes. Contemporary Europe: A History. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. An overview of European history from 1914 through the end of the twentieth century. Addresses the effects of the Russian Revolution on the rest of Europe. Good source of information on the political decisions made by European leaders in their dealings with the Russian governments. Includes excellent illustrations, maps, and index.

Bloody Sunday

October Manifesto

Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives

Categories: History