The October Revolution

Bolshevik, a 1920 work by Boris Kustodiev. The imagery embodies the Bolshevik idea that the masses had to be lead effectively in order to channel their energies into productive action. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On November 7th, 1917 the October Revolution began in Petrograd, Russia. An armed uprising lead by the Bolshevik Party helped kick off the greater Russian Revolution, one of the most important events in human history. Several months prior in February 1917, the Tsar (leader of Russia) had been overthrown by a general revolt and replaced by a provisional (temporary) government under the Grand Duke Michael. The Bolsheviks – a socialist group led by Vladimir Lenin – were unsatisfied with the provisional government, and galvanized similar leftist groups into actions. Armed fighters of the paramilitary Red Guard seized government buildings and established temporary governments. The Winter Palace – residence of the Tsarist monarchy – was quickly taken by force in a symbolic victory for the Bolsheviks.

ASAP: Lenin helped kick off a revolution in Russia, but his Bolshevik idealism came into harsh conflict with reality. Stalinist terror ensued.

Read on for details!
Vladimir Lenin (right), with Joseph Stalin (left). Stalin was forced to respect Lenin’s legacy as one of the leading forces behind the Revolution, but secretly resented him. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1902’s What is to be Done?, the Bolshevik Lenin expressed his belief that any sort of general uprising of the people had to be lead by one or more revolutionaries who would guide the efforts of the lower class. Lenin feared that any movement without leadership would devolve into a sort of anarchic mob and not adhere to socialist ideals – perhaps a more realistic evolution of Marxist thought. Lenin’s ideal revolutionary leaders would cede power once the uprising was complete and the people would lead themselves, forming a socialist utopia. The problem for Lenin was that die-hard Marxists rejected any sort of leadership as anti-socialist.

The masses take to the streets during the October Revolution. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lenin would die in 1924 without seeing his dream of a leader-less socialist utopia come true; as it would turn out, the leadership of the USSR would only truly dissolve in 1991 with the demise of the Union. Like many idealistic thinkers of the time, Lenin’s utopian vision seems at odds with reality; but his optimism makes sense in the context of the seemingly endless possibilities brought about by revolution.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the main points on this topic.

  • Russians were upset at the Tsarist royalty who had lead their country for many years and kept the majority of the country in underdeveloped poverty. A series of uprisings in the early 1900s led to a new “provisional government” in February 1917.
  • The new government wasn’t good enough, so Bolsheviks organized by Vladimir Lenin staged the October Revolution. They seized the Winter Palace and established new rules.
  • Lenin had published What is to be Done?, a manifesto in which he argued that revolutionary leadership should step aside and give power solely to the people once the fighting was over. This dream never comes to life.
  • The broader Russian Revolution gave birth to Stalinism, one of the bloodiest forms of governance Russia had ever seen. The new Soviet Union (USSR) became the greatest threat to Western superpowers and remained that way throughout the Cold War.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Did the October Revolution go according to plan?
  • In what ways did the ensuing Russian Revolution diverge from Communist (or Socialist, or Marxist, or Bolshevik) thought on how a revolution should be carried out?
  • Was the Russian Revolution inevitable? If so, how? Point to some of the warning signs/indicators.
  • Many of the participating socialist factions were written out of the history books. What were some of these groups, and why did ensuing Soviet leaders suppress their accomplishments?
  • Could another sort of radical political ideology (like Fascism) have taken hold on Russian society? Or was Russia uniquely ready for Communism?
  • What would Russia – and the world at large – have looked like if the USSR had developed according the Lenin’s wishes?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Jones, David R. “The Officers and the October Revolution.” Soviet Studies 28, no. 2 (1976): 207-23.
  • Corney, Frederick C. “Rethinking a Great Event: The October Revolution as Memory Project.” Social Science History 22, no. 4 (1998): 389-414. 
  • Tirado, Isabel A. “Russia after Lenin: Politics, Culture, and Society, 1921-1929. By Vladimir Brovkin. London: Routledge, 1998. 
  • USSR: questions and answers. 1975. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

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