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Russian Revolution 1: Origins - The February Revolution and its Background

In the case of Russia there has been less debate about the long term causes of the revolution and more about the actual immediate impulses behind collapse. By and large, there has been a consensus that, from the time of the emancipation of serfs (1861) onward the autocracy’s days were numbered. The survival of the traditional peasantry was deemed to be a major constraint on ‘modernisation’ so that the development of capitalism, industry, urbanisation and so on were being held back and Russia, compared to other great powers, was suffering from ‘backwardness’ in terms of economic, social, cultural and political development. In the eyes of most historians, it was, by 1900, an anachronism in Europe. The 1905 ‘revolution’ showed how deep and widespread opposition was, including, at some point, almost all social classes and groups in Russia including gentry, professionals, the intelligentsia, peasants and workers. While some ‘revisionists’ attempted to show that, after 1905, tsarism was on a reformist and economically upward path, most historians remained sceptical. Then came the war. Here, a ‘traditional’ interpretation suggested that Russian industry and society were simply too ‘backward’ to bear the burden of war and therefore the economy collapsed. This view was challenged in the 1970s by Norman Stone who argued Russia faced a crisis of rapid economic expansion resulting in corrosive inflation and its problems lay in antiquated state administrative practices (including in the military) rather than economic ‘backwardness.’ While Stone’s views reflected the emergence of ‘Thatcherite’ values at that time, later accounts, such as those by his doctoral student of the epoch, Peter Gattrell, have not directly followed Stone but have presented modified versions of his views. Finally, there have been a variety of views about the collapse in February, largely about whether the collapse was ‘spontaneous’ or the result of a conspiracy or conspiracies. These interpretations have also s become connected with analyses that connect the development of the revolution more closely with the events of the war.

Seminar Questions

  1. Compare long-term and short-term factors in the collapse of the autocracy.
  2. Was weakness in the Russian economy to blame for Russia’s performance in the war?
  3. Was Nicholas II the author of his own downfall?

Core Reading

  • L.Trotsky ‘Driving Forces of revolution’ in ­1905 pp.(Chapters 1-4 pp.10-40 on Marxist Internet Archive – MIA pdf version))
  • P.N.Durnovo ‘Memorandum to the Tsar: February 1914’ esp segments on ‘Main Burden of the War’; ‘Vital Interests’; ‘A Struggle between Russia and Germany’; ‘Russia will be Flung into Hopeless Anarchy’.

Further Reading

  • Waldron, Peter The End of Imperial Russia 1855-1917 Basingstoke 1997
  • Read, Christopher ‘In search of liberal Tsarism’ Historical Journal vol.45 no.1 (pp.195-210) 2000
  • Gatrell, Peter Russia’s First World War: A Social and Economic History London 2005
  • Katkov, G Russia 1917: the February Revolution Fontana London 1967
  • Read, Christopher War and Revolution in Russia 1914-22 Palgrave, London and New York, 2013 chs
  • Figes, O A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924 London 1996 chs