April 23, 2014

Peace, Land, Bread

Peace, Land, Bread

Peace! Land! Bread! This was the battle cry of the 1917 October Revolution (old calendar) that would changed the history of Russia and indeed the entire world – the cry of workers and peasants fed up with a failed system and the trials of war.

Since the time of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian tsars had gradually centralized their power, leeching it little by little from the nobility. In a sort of quid pro quo of power and oppression, the tsars granted noblemen dominion over their land and peasants, making them henceforth tied to the land. In Western Europe, we called this feudalism; in Russia, it became known as serfdom.

This was by no means a perfect system. Reign after reign witnessed threats to the established order, from peasant uprisings to the higher-class Decembrist revolt. And yet the slavery-like practice of serfdom persisted, and even after the official Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, life for peasants and the lower classes remained just as miserable.

As industrialization created a growing class of similarly-oppressed workers, tension and anger escalated within Russian society. By the time Nicholas II, Russia's last tsar, ascended the throne in 1894, fears of riots and revolution were real and immediate. The Russian people were beginning to demand rights and freedoms; they were beginning to ask that they be treated like people.

With success abroad known to be a good antidote for unrest at home, the Russian government got to work expanding its borders, primarily to the east. But success proved elusive: the ever-expanding empire eventually bumped up against Japan, a neighbor with similar imperial ambitions. In the war that followed, Russia suffered a humiliating defeat and unfavorable peace treaty. Rather than quell the unrest in Russian society, this military disaster provided the spark for the first of the Russian Revolutions (December 1904 - December 1905). By October 1905, the tsar had caved and acceded to the creation of something close to a constitutional monarchy, complete with a parliament (Duma) and elections.

Let's not be fooled by appearances, however: the tsar retained much of his power. The first Duma was promptly disbanded for being too liberal, and election rules were amended to avoid giving representation to any threatening parts of society. Only the third Duma (out of four) served its entire term, allowed to survive because it had little real authority. Thus, the results of the 1905 revolution proved insufficient for real change. The real drivers of discontent – more urban workers than rural peasants – were still without a voice in government, but change appeared possible.

Events on the international front threatened the balance yet again, as World War I broke out in 1914. Russia was still trying to recover from its military fiasco with Japan and was grossly unprepared for a major military conflict on its western border. The Russian Army suffered terrible defeats and the country experienced economic crisis and extreme food shortages. By March of 1917, 10 million peasants had been forced into military service with over 1.5 million killed and another 4 million seriously wounded. Women were forced off the land and into urban factories to support the floundering war effort.


After tolerating these conditions for three years, workers and soldiers began to protest and riot. They were tired and hungry. They wanted peace. They wanted bread. (The land part would come later.) In 1917, International Womens' Day (February 23rd, old calendar) prompted over 90,000 workers to strike and the army stationed at Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to rebel. With the situation spiraling out of control and under pressure from his ministers, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne in favor of his brother Michael on March 2, 1917. Michael turned the job down the following day, leaving Russia without a monarch.

A moderate Provisional Government stepped in to fill the void, with its constantly-changing members representing supporters of constitutional monarchy and some moderate socialists. At the same time, the Petrograd soviet (council) represented the voices of workers, soldiers, and their intellectual backers, leaving Petrograd ruled by two governments.

Where were the Bolsheviks during all this? Despite their name (derived from bolshinstvo, "majority") they were a minority within the Social-Democratic Party. Unlike the more moderate Mensheviks, Lenin's group formed a radical left wing calling for a socialist government and society to be established by force. Amid the instability of 1917, the Bolsheviks gradually gained the support of the unsatisfied and the impatient: soldiers demanding peace, workers demanding bread, and peasants demanding land.

The Bolsheviks and those they represented expected the Provisional Government to meet their demands for an end to Russia's involvement in WWI, distribution of land to the peasants, a reduction in factory labor hours, and bread. The Provisional Government, under Alexander Kerensky, never delivered. They had entered into a series of treaties with Britain and France that promised Russia a warm water seaport and sections of Turkey and Persia if they continued to support the war effort.

According to Bolshevik doctrine, this provided the perfect opportunity for a takeover. The use of force – the distinguishing feature of their ideology – was brought to bear overnight, between November 6 and 7, 1917. The Red Guard, armed factory workers, and sailors of the Baltic took over the telegraph office, electric plant, bank and rail stations. The Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was not so much stormed as snuck into; Kerensky fled (disguised as a woman), while the rest of the Government was arrested and the palace was sacked. On November 7, Petrograd woke up to a new government.

Did this new state – which continued to fight for its existence for the next five years – deliver on its promises? They did manage to get Russia out of WWI – the peace the soldiers demanded, although in the context of civil war that was little comfort. Land was given in theory, and then taken away in practice; bread proved hard to find amid the deprivations of War Communism. But the battle cry of "peace, land, bread" had done its job – the revolution of 1917 was complete.

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