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The Key Causes of the Russian Revolution: A Historian‘s Perspective

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a watershed event that reshaped Russia and the world in the 20th century. The revolution ended centuries of imperial rule and set the stage for the rise of the Soviet Union as a global superpower. Historians have grappled with understanding the complex web of causes that led to this seismic political and social upheaval. In this article, we‘ll dive deep into the key factors that fueled the Russian Revolution, drawing upon economic data, primary sources, and the analyses of leading historians.

The Crumbling Economic Foundation

The Russian economy of the early 20th century was a stark study in inequality and contradiction. On the surface, Russia was a major industrializing power, with a rapidly growing population and expanding production in heavy industries like coal, iron, and steel. Between 1890 and 1913, Russia‘s industrial output quadrupled and the total length of its railroads tripled.[^1]

However, this industrial growth was highly uneven and failed to translate into better living standards for the vast majority of Russians. In 1914, Russia‘s per capita income was just $1,488 (in 1990 international dollars), compared to $3,648 in Germany, $4,921 in England, and $5,301 in the United States.[^2] Over 80% of Russians were peasants engaged in small-scale agriculture, often under the thumb of wealthy landowning nobles.[^3]

Conditions for industrial workers were scarcely better. Russia‘s factories were notorious for their long hours, dangerous conditions, and low wages. In 1900, the average Russian industrial worker earned about 20 rubles per month, just a third of what skilled British workers earned.[^4] Moreover, most Russian cities lacked adequate housing, sanitation, and public health services to cope with the influx of new factory workers. As the historian Orlando Figes writes:

The squalor and overcrowding of the workers‘ housing created a sense of desperation… Disease was rife because of the lack of sanitation. Cholera, typhus, and smallpox epidemics regularly swept through the slums.[^5]

The deep inequality and poverty of Tsarist Russia created fertile ground for revolutionary agitation. For many workers and peasants, the revolution promised an end to exploitation and the hope for a better life.

Political Stagnation and Repression

If Russia‘s economy was a tinderbox, its political system was an autocratic regime increasingly out of step with changing times. Tsar Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 until his forced abdication in 1917, was an ineffectual and indecisive leader who resisted calls for reform.

Russia‘s political order was shaken by the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the ensuing Revolution of 1905. Nicholas was forced to make political concessions, most notably establishing an elected parliament (the Duma) and promising new civil liberties in the October Manifesto.[^6] However, the Tsar soon reneged on many of these commitments and worked to undermine the power of the Duma.

Repression was the order of the day. The Tsarist secret police (the Okhrana) hunted down and imprisoned radicals. Censorship of the press was strict and pervasive. Jews faced waves of pogroms and discriminatory laws. As the historian Richard Pipes argues, the Tsarist regime‘s heavy-handed repression backfired:

The government‘s reliance on coercion to control the population… tended in the long run to be counterproductive, because the application of force drove the opposition into increasingly radical positions.[^7]

Indeed, repression failed to quell opposition to Tsarist rule – it only radicalized it. A variety of socialist, anarchist and communist groups flourished as part of Russia‘s revolutionary underground, including the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin. These groups saw increasingly little hope for reform within the Tsarist system and instead plotted its violent overthrow.

War and Revolution

If any single event pushed Russia over the edge into revolution, it was World War I. The war placed immense strain on Russia‘s economy and society, exacerbating all the underlying problems that had been festering for decades.

Russia suffered staggering losses in the war, both in terms of human life and territory. From 1914 to 1917, Russia endured over 1.5 million combat deaths and over 5 million wounded – more than any other Allied power.[^8] Much of the western part of the Russian Empire was occupied by German forces.

These military losses dealt a severe blow to the legitimacy and prestige of the Tsarist regime. As the historian S.A. Smith notes:

By 1917 the overwhelming majority of ordinary Russians had lost faith in the Tsarist regime. They blamed it for recklessly entering the war and then mismanaging it. They blamed it for food shortages and rocketing prices.[^9]

The war also deepened Russia‘s economic crisis. The conscription of millions of peasants disrupted food production, while the diversion of resources to the front led to widespread shortages of fuel and consumer goods in the cities. By 1917, the year of the revolution, grain production was down 40% from prewar levels and the typical urban Russian survived on a diet of around 1,600 calories per day.[^10]

This toxic combination of military defeat, economic collapse, and political discontent made the Tsarist regime fundamentally vulnerable to revolutionary challenge. When the February Revolution broke out in Petrograd in 1917, the regime quickly crumbled, setting the stage for the Bolsheviks‘ seizure of power later that year.

A Perfect Storm

Stepping back, what‘s clear is that no single cause can explain the Russian Revolution. Rather, it resulted from a perfect storm of long-term structural factors and short-term crises and contingencies.

Over the long run, Russia‘s economic backwardness, entrenched social inequality, and repressive political system made the country ripe for revolutionary ferment. Key here is the paradox, highlighted by many historians, between Russia‘s rapid industrialization and urbanization on the one hand and the persistent poverty and exclusion of workers and peasants on the other.[^11] This "uneven and combined development," in Leon Trotsky‘s famous phrase, generated the social tensions that exploded in 1917.[^12]

In the short-run, the First World War massively exacerbated these preexisting tensions and conflicts. The war‘s immense human and economic costs undermined the already fragile legitimacy of the Tsarist regime and created an opening for revolutionary challenges. The historian Laura Engelstein captures it well:

The strains of World War I exposed the rottenness at the core of the tsarist system… In the end, the tsarist regime fell not so much because it was opposed as because it was, in a profound sense, abandoned.[^13]

Echoes of Revolution

Today, over a century after the Russian Revolution, its legacy continues to reverberate. The revolution played a pivotal role in shaping the global political landscape of the 20th century. It fueled the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power and gave inspiration to communist revolutionaries and movements around the globe. At the same time, the revolution‘s mixed outcomes – and the dark chapter of Stalinist repression that followed – raised enduring questions about the possibilities and perils of radical social change.

Moreover, the Russian Revolution was hardly unique. It took place alongside a wave of uprisings and revolts in the early 20th century, from Mexico to China. In each case, a combination of social inequality, political repression, and external shocks (like global war or economic crisis) created the conditions for revolutionary mobilization and the collapse of long-standing regimes.[^14]

As historians continue to grapple with the Russian Revolution, these global comparisons provide essential context. Situating the Russian Revolution in the broader landscape of early 20th century upheavals can yield new insights into its causes, dynamics, and historical significance.

Ultimately, studying the Russian Revolution isn‘t just about understanding the past. It‘s also about drawing lessons for the present and future. In an era of resurgent authoritarianism, widening inequality, and looming climate crisis, the conditions that bred the Russian Revolution are perhaps not as distant as we might think. The revolution‘s complex legacy continues to raise urgent questions about democracy, social justice, and the possibilities for systemic change. Grappling with these questions requires a clear understanding of the revolution‘s causes, course, and consequences.

[^1]: Peter Gatrell, The Tsarist Economy, 1850-1917 (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1986), 132.
[^2]: Angus Maddison, The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Paris: OECD, 2003), 100-101.
[^3]: David Longley, "Divisions and Discontent in the Bolshevik Party in March 1917," Soviet Studies 34, no. 1 (1982): 22.
[^4]: Gatrell, The Tsarist Economy, 165.
[^5]: Orlando Figes, A People‘s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924 (New York: Penguin, 1996), 80.
[^6]: Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: A Short History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 5-7.
[^7]: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 121.
[^8]: Gatrell, Russia‘s First World War: A Social and Economic History (New York: Routledge, 2005), 150-151.
[^9]: S.A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 102.
[^10]: Lars T. Lih, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 44.
[^11]: Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 119-151.
[^12]: Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 5.
[^13]: Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 10.
[^14]: Nader Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1-19.