Blood on the snow: a century since Russia’s revolution

Famine, bloodshed, dynastic overthrow and political upheaval. Russia’s revolution is as brutal and painful a subject now as it was then, writes Ollie Heppenstall.

In 1917, one of modern history’s watershed moments brought a country to its knees, an empire crashing down, and sent shockwaves through Europe’s ruling elite. Imperial Russia, an empire that had stood for over 300 years, and ruled by one of the most famous royal families in history, the Romanov dynasty, was plunged into the chaos of a revolution and civil war that would last for 6 long, painful years.

Feature assessment photo
Power to the people: the streets of Russia, circa 1917

Russia’s revolution was not unexpected. After suffering for years under repressive, reactionary rule by the Romanov family under the last Tsar, Nicholas the second, and his father Alexander the third, alongside a distinct lack of social reforms and the curtailing by Nicholas of the parliament introduced in 1905, coupled with disaster after disaster in the First World War at the hands of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, the mood on the streets of St Petersburg and Moscow was one of bitterness, grief and fury.

After a revolution in February of 1917, which had resulted in a provisional government being formed in the wake of Nicholas’ abdication, the situation once again came to a head in October of 1917. With Vladimir Lenin having returned from exile in Switzerland, and with a swell in his Bolshevik faction’s membership from a little over 20,000 to over 200,000, Russia’s Communist revolution began in earnest. Despite divisions within the Bolsheviks, the revolution was successful and St Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, became the new temporary seat of Communist government within Russia.

Craig Palfrey, a historical reenactor and researcher in the 1914-21 society, said: “the most obvious short-term effect of the revolution was Russia pulling out of the First World War – putting a significantly greater strain on the allies and arguably prolonging the war. There are also more domestic effects, such as economic instability for the duration of the civil war, food shortages such as the devastating Volga famines and epidemics.

“Long term effects are more interesting. By becoming the world’s first Communist state Russia became isolated from the Western world, distrusted and seen for many years as an enemy, something which arguably still is the case.

The civil war broke out a few days later, and would last until 1923 in certain, far flung parts of the former Empire. Any group within society with an agenda, and with the capability to take up arms, did so. Bolsheviks, anti-Bolshevik “white” forces made up of army officers, the bourgeoisie and upper classes, the fearsome Cossack tribesmen who had once been so loyal to the Tsar now fighting for their own auton

omous region, various parts of the Russian Empire fighting for independence after so many years of Imperial rule, and even interventionist forces sent by Britain, France, the United States and Imperial Japan, all collided in a hell of snow, fire and blood.

The fighting was, in no uncertain terms, brutal. War crimes committed by all involved, long drawn-out sieges, large-scale assaults on cities, vast theatres of war encompassing thousands of square miles, especially in the Russian far east and in Siberia and adverse weather conditions throughout autumn and winter meant this once-mighty empire became little more than a broken, scarred battleground where no quarter was given or expected, and countless innocent people were caught up.

Zoe Knox, an associate professor of modern Russian history at the University of Leicester, said: “The Russian revolution is one of the twentieth century’s defining moments. It’s the culmination of the previous fifty years of au

tocratic rule, Marxism gathering momentum during Russia’s industrialisation at the start of the twentieth century and the internal weaknesses exacerbated by the First World War.

“Short term effects are clearer cut. Not only is there the violence of the civil war that follows, but there’s the heavy death toll and displacement that occurs throughout and the persecution of religion that follows the war’s end.”

Even today Russia’s revolution and the events which followed are a talking point for a great many historians and academics. It will continue to be for a century more.

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