On the Causes of the March Russian Revolution of 1917
The twentieth century was one filled with significant change within the European
continent, including the Russian Revolution of 1917, which consisted of two pivotal rebellions in March and November of that year. (1) While the latter November Revolution led to the rise of a group of communists known as the Bolsheviks to power, it was the initial March Revolution that ended centuries of imperial rule in Russia. Though several distinct causes precipitated the spring revolution, it was the economic and social structure of the country and the effects of World War I that terminated the Romanov dynasty, instituted a democratic republic, and launched a civil war. The uprising is understood by analyzing events and conditions holistically to supplement the master narrative.
Traditionally, Russia and its European counterparts favored the aristocracy. Making up only 1.5 percent of the Russian population, this group not only owned the majority of the country's land, but controlled the government, military, and overall society. The upper class enjoyed little to no income taxes, were extremely rich (with the richest five percent of
households in all of advanced Europe receiving 33 percent of the national income), and were
generally born into their wealth, having time for leisure activities. The middle class, which can be said to be perhaps the most diverse of the various levels of class, accounted for less than 20 percent of the population. (2)
Different degrees of social status could be found within this middle class: the “upper
middle,” “middle middle,” and “lower middle.” The first level benefited from modern industry and progress, gaining income, household servants, and private coaches. Once embraced by the old nobility, these people “lost any trace of radical socialism [desired by the lower classes] as they were drawn to an aristocratic lifestyle.” (2) The second level consisted of moderately successful industrialists, merchants, physicians, attorneys, and the like that lived comfortably but that lacked the “immense wealth” of the upper crust. Finally, the lower level were white collar employees and small businessmen that made no more than their blue-collar counterparts and owned no property, but who ensured there remained a distinction between themselves and lower classes.
The humblest class – the working class – was also partitioned into several sub-groups: the
highly skilled, the semi-skilled, and the unskilled. Collectively, these people comprised 80
percent of the population; yet most of them did not own the property they worked and received less income than the upper and middle class combined. (2) These individuals typically worked from sun up to sun down for meager wages to get by and made less than eight times what the average American made at the time. (3) Even more, there was a growing minority of working-class industrial laborers that increasingly faced impoverishment as well. Industrialization, especially as necessitated by the Great War, “rested on the achievements of urban workers who toiled for long hours in terrible conditions.” (3) The situation was made worse by the fact that wages were low, taxes were high, and trade unions and strikes were completely prohibited – though the 1861 abolishment of serfdom gave peasants the freedom to organize in some sense, directly influencing the events of the March Revolution. (4)
Earlier attempts at social reformation, especially after an economic slump between 1900
and 1906, resulted in the revision of the 1832 Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire. Brought on by the Revolution of 1905, the Russian Constitution of 1906 guaranteed basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, press, and religion; universal male suffrage; and the right to form unions. (5) However, the new electoral system of the constitutional monarchy was unequal, with a nobleman’s vote being equivalent to those of 15 peasants and 45 workers. Additionally, Tsar Nicholas II could veto any legislation or even dissolve the Parliament entirely. (3) As such, this pseudo policy of appeasement did not completely satisfy those looking for change.
The advent of the First World War only worsened the oppressive living conditions in
Russia and hastened the need for a national transformation. The Russian economy was not strong enough to handle three major enemies – Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire – on a vast front and a modern war. In order to fund the war, the government printed more money, which led to a decline in the value of the ruble and subsequently, inflation. In Petrograd (formerly, and currently, St. Petersburg), between 1913 and 1916, the price of flour rose by 99 percent, meat by 232 percent, butter by 124 percent, and salt by 483 percent. (6)
Additionally, resources, particularly food and fuel, were diverted to the war effort while
rations were put into effect in the cities. Thus, by 1916, areas like Petrograd and Moscow were receiving only one third of their food and fuel requirements. (7) This shortage regressed further with the collapse of the Russian railway system. Trains piled up, food rotted, and deliveries were delayed, all while people starved. Moreover, low morale (both on the front and at home), disloyal recruits, and incredible casualties at the hands of Germans bred hostility and dissidence in the country. (3)
By the beginning of 1917, the better part of the Russian population had had enough. On
March 8, the revolution began in the streets of Petrograd when, among several factors,
demonstrators demanded bread and workers from the local industrial plant went on strike for better wages. The existing social imbalance and economic issues, coupled with the effects of the Great War, explicitly caused the March Revolution of 1917 that led to the abdication of Nicholas II and the establishment, albeit temporary, of a democracy.
(1) The March and November Revolutions of 1917 may also be referred to as the February and October Revolutions of 1917 due to Russia’s use of the Julian calendar until February 1918.
(2) Larry E. Gates, Jr.,ed., “Rich, Poor, and Middle Class Life,” in Advanced Placement European History,
(3) “The Russian Revolution,” in 7.2.1: The Russian Revolution, 1917, 7.2: Russia, Unit 7: The Rise of Totalitarian States in the 20 th Century, HIST 103: World History in the Early Modern and Modern Eras (1600-Present) (Washington, D.C.: Saylor Foundation, 2014): 1,
(4) Susan P. McCaffray, “Confronting Serfdom in the Age of Revolution: Projects for Serf Reform in the Time of Alexander I,” The Russian Review 64, no. 1 (January 2005): 1-21,
(5) Scott J. Seregny, “A Different Type of Peasant Movement: The Peasant Unions in the Russian Revolution of 1905,” Slavic Review 47, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 51-67, doi: 10.2307/2498838.
(6) R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer, A History of the Modern World, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill College, 2007).
(7) Michael Lynch, Access to History: Reaction and Revolution: Russia 1894-1924, 4th ed. (London: Hodder Education, 2015).