World History 2 188 - 11.5.2 Peace, Land, and Bread

Russia had significant difficulty achieving victories in World War I. Its armies were massive but also suffered enormous casualties, and millions were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, sometimes thanks to incompetent commanders and lack of supplies. Morale was low, and soldiers were aware that food shortages had caused long lines and even riots in the cities and towns they had left behind. Shortages of guns and other munitions further compromised the effectiveness of the military. The tsarist government did not seem up to the challenge of fighting the war.

Also undermining popular support for the monarchy was Tsarina Alexandra’s steady reliance on the advice of the monk Rasputin, who appeared able to relieve the suffering of her young son Alexei, who had hemophilia and was heir to the throne. The favor shown to Rasputin, along with rumors of his romantic exploits, made for many questions about his true relationship with Alexandra, who was German and whom the Russian people had never really liked. After the tsar went to the front to direct the fighting in the autumn of 1915, Russia’s losses could be attributed to him, and leaving Alexandra (and her adviser Rasputin) in charge of the country when the tsar was away was an unpopular decision that helped bring about the break between the Russian people and their “Little Father.”

The end of the tsarist government began with the February Revolution in 1917. In March (February under the Julian calendar used in Russia), close to 100,000 people went on strike in the capital of Petrograd (meaning “Peter’s City” in Russian and replacing the German name St. Petersburg after war with Germany began in 1914). The strike spread over the next several days as more workers took to the streets (Figure 11.19). The government tried to repress these protests and called out soldiers to disperse the crowds. While some soldiers fired on the workers, killing them, as the days passed, the soldiers’ sympathy with the workers grew, and they refused to fire. Their defection marked a turning point in the city.

The photograph shows a street is packed with people. Several protesters hold large banners.
Figure 11.19 This photo shows protesters and soldiers in the February Revolution in Petrograd in 1917. (credit: “Soldiers demonstration. February 1917” by socialist.memo.ru/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The soldiers formed the Petrograd Soviet (a council representing workers, soldiers, and peasants) to establish power in the city. A group of moderate politicians then established a new government for Russia under the auspices of the Duma. This provisional government was led by Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer who had become popular for assisting revolutionaries in the past. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, paving the way for the end of three hundred years of Romanov rule.

Kerensky was dedicated to continuing Russia’s participation in World War I, partly because he feared that aid he needed from the West to support Russia’s economy would be lost if he withdrew from the conflict. However, this position became increasingly unpopular with the Russian people. The provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet (which was becoming more anti-war) then vied for power in Russia.

Dueling Voices

The Provisional Government

Various political parties in Russia responded in their own ways to the abdication of the tsar and the creation of the provisional government. As you read these excerpts from several such statements, look for similarities and differences.

The task of the working class and the revolutionary army is to create a Provisional revolutionary government which will stand at the head of the new-born republican order. The Provisional revolutionary government must draw up temporary laws to defend the rights and liberties of the people, to confiscate church, landowners’, government and crown lands and transfer them to the people; to introduce the eight-hour working day, and to summon a Constituent Assembly on the basis of a suffrage which is universal, without regard to sex, nationality or religion, direct, equal and secret. . . .

Manifesto of the Central Committee of the Social Democrats, February 27, 1917

The conference considers that support for the Provisional Government is absolutely necessary whilst it carries out its declared programme: an amnesty, the granting of individual freedoms, the repeal of estate, religious and national restrictions, and preparation for the Constituent Assembly.

The conference reserves the right to change its attitude should the Provisional Government not adhere to the implementation of this programme. The conference also recognises that any attempts to undermine the work of the Provisional Government in the fulfilment of its programme must be combated.

Resolution of the Conference of the Petrograd Socialist-Revolutionaries, March 2, 1917

The old regime has gone. . . . All citizens should have confidence in their regime and should combine their efforts to allow the government created by the Duma to complete its great task of liberating Russia from the external enemy and establishing peace inside Russia, on the basis of law, equality and freedom. . . .

Forget all your party, class, estate and national differences! Each class, estate and nationality should be able to express its opinions and achieve its aims. The most important slogan now is ‘Organisation and Unity’, organisation and unity for victory over the external enemy, organisation and unity in internal construction.

—From the Central Committee of the Constitutional Democrat [Kadet] Party, March 3, 1917

All Russians should put aside their disagreements and should unite around the Provisional Government, now the sole legal authority in Russia, dedicated to defend order and the state system and to the successful conclusion of the war. . . . Each one of us should direct all our strength and actions to harmonious work with all devoted sons of our homeland.

—A Resolution of the Council of the United Nobility, March 10, 1917

  • What do these responses have in common? What are their key differences?
  • What do the responses reflect as a hope for Russia?

Germany saw an opportunity to take advantage of Russia’s disintegrating political situation. A young Russian named Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had supported the cause of revolution in his native country for many years. His older brother had been executed for involvement in an attempt to assassinate Alexander III, Nicholas II’s father. Lenin had then left Russia, branded a radical and forced into exile. Germany helped him return to Russia to energize the revolution there and undermine the tsarist government’s conduct of the war.

Lenin’s arrival in Russia was like a lightning bolt. He quickly became the leader of the revolutionary cause, and the group he led, the Bolsheviks, challenged Kerensky’s provisional government. In the October Revolution in 1917, Lenin led a coup and seized power from the other political factions in Petrograd. He spoke of creating a government in which the Soviets would hold power. Capitalizing on a campaign of “Peace, Land, Bread,” Lenin’s government moved to end the war with Germany. Germany was only too happy to work out an agreement that would allow it to focus solely on the war on its western front.

Lenin’s goal was to end the fighting as quickly as possible, so he agreed to terms that were fairly advantageous for Germany and the Central powers. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918. In it, Russia gave up significant territory to the Central powers, including areas of Poland and Ukraine, Finland, and the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), which gave Germany new ports (Figure 11.20). In return, Russia was able to end its participation in the war as Lenin focused on building a Communist state, the Soviet Union.

This is a map of Europe showing the territory impacted by the Central Powers after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. A line is labeled Limit of occupation under Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, March 1918. It runs from the eastern border of Estonia, going south and then turning east to cut through Ukraine and wrap around it to end at the Sea of Azov. Another line is labeled Line of the time of the Armistice, December 1917. It starts at the Baltic Sea, runs through the middle of Latvia, heading south and bulging out before ending at the Black Sea. Most of the area in between these two lines is shaded and labeled Area occupied by the Central Powers after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The southwestern corner of the area is not shaded and labeled Treaty of Bucharest May 1918.
Figure 11.20 This map shows the area affected by the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, including territory in what are now the states of Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Germany gained substantially from Russia, but the concessions were worth it to Lenin to extricate Russia from the war. (credit: modification of work “Europe 1920 simplyfied” by London Geographical Institute/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1918, after being held under house arrest for two years, the former tsar, his wife, and their five children were executed. A civil war broke out that year pitting the White Army, which opposed Lenin, against the Red Army, which supported the Bolshevik government. This conflict lasted until 1923, when the Red Army proved victorious.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax