Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia was governed by autocratic rulers who suppressed revolutionary ideals imported from the West. Major social and economic reform programs in the 1860s and at the turn of the century failed to address Russia’s most acute problems. In 1914, when Russia became a major participant in World War I, the economic gap between Russia and Western Europe had grown and so had dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Combined with those conditions, the stress of the war effort allowed the radical Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir I. Lenin, to overthrow the provisional government that had displaced the tsar in 1917. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Historians have generally agreed that a revolutionary movement was born during the reign of Alexander I (ruled 1801-1825). Young officers who had pursued Napoleon into Western Europe came back to Russia with revolutionary ideas, including human rights, representative government, and mass democracy. The intellectual Westernization that had been fostered in the eighteenth century by a paternalistic, autocratic Russian state now included opposition to autocracy, demands for representative government, calls for the abolition of serfdom, and, in some instances, advocacy of a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Officers were particularly incensed that Alexander had granted Poland a constitution while Russia remained without one. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Several clandestine organizations were preparing for an uprising when Alexander died unexpectedly in 1825. Following his death, there was confusion about who would succeed him because the next in line, his brother Constantine, had relinquished his right to the throne. A group of officers commanding about 3,000 men refused to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Alexander's brother Nicholas, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution. Because these events occurred in December 1825, the rebels were called Decembrists. Nicholas easily overcame the revolt, and the Decembrists who remained alive were arrested. Many were exiled to Siberia. *

To some extent, the Decembrists were in the tradition of a long line of palace revolutionaries who wanted to place their candidate on the throne. But because the Decembrists also wanted to implement a liberal political program, their revolt has been considered the beginning of a revolutionary movement. The Decembrist Revolt was the first open breach between the government and liberal elements, and it would subsequently widen. *


Social Democrats of Russia

Many Russian revolutionaries fled abroad, where they became exposed to Marxism. Two early Russian Marxists—Georg Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod—founded the Russian Social Democratic Party in Switzerland in 1883.

In Europe, social democrats were making gains in the newly formed parliaments. Classical liberalism and reforms were not possible in Russia because there were no parliaments, only tsars, tsar-controlled bureaucrats and secret police. Introducing social reforms through democracy was regarded by many revolutionaries impossible and revolution and violent overthrow of the government was regarded as the only way to bring about change.

The Social Democrats (Socialists)—formally known as The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Rossiyskaya sotsial-demokraticheskaya rabochaya partiya, RSDRP) and also known as the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party or the Russian Social Democratic Party— was a revolutionary socialist political party formed in 1898 in Minsk to unite the various revolutionary organisations of the Russian Empire into one party. This party later split into Majority and Minority factions, with the Majority (in Russian: "Bolshevik") faction eventually becoming the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During his years in exile, Lenin rose to a high position in the Social Democrats.

Other parties of this era included the 1) Social Revolutionary Party (the Populists), the main revolutionary party in the countryside, founded in 1901; and 2) the Union of Liberation, a group of relatively moderate liberal politicians, founded in 1903 and later called the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). The Union of Liberation and Social Revolutionaries were periodically repressed.

Creation of the Bolsheviks

Bolshevik, originally referring to a member of the majority (bol'shinstvo), is a name adopted by the radical members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903. In March 1918, the Bolsheviks formed the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). That Party was the precursor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Lenin formed the Marxis-leaning Bolshevik Party with 60 Russian revolutionaries at the meeting of the Socialist International in Brussels and London in 1903. The Bolsheviks were created when the Social Democratic party split into the factions. The Bolsheviks (meaning "the majority"), led by Lenin, called for the immediate violent overthrow of the government and the establishment of the proletariat.

The other faction, the Mensheviks ("the minority"), led by Plekhanov, favored a slower, more measured approach and the creation of a democratic government. Mensheviks were a member of a wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party that existed until 1917. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks believed in the gradual achievement of socialism by parliamentary methods. The term Menshevik is derived from the word men'shinstvo (minority).

Ironically the Mensheviks were the larger of the two parties but Lenin through tricky maneuvering was able to lead the party at the International. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks coexisted until 1912, when the Bolsheviks were established as a separate party.

The Bolsheviks were small but they were disciplined and committed, and they were prepared to use force if necessary. Funds were raised, in some cases by breaking into banks. Members were instructed on how to make bombs, set fires and bring convoys to a halt with trucks. Cells were organized among trade unions, transportation workers and in the army and navy.

Russia Before the Bolshevik Revolution

There were 150 million people in Russia in 1900. About 85 percent of the population was still rural and 76 percent were Russian. The freeing of the serfs in 1861 had little impact on society as a whole. Peasants still worked the land the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years before.

Reforms in education, law and local institutions (“zemstrvos)” and an industrial boom starting in the 1880s (oil, railroads), created the beginning of modern state, despite the autocratic tsarist regime. Liberal and revolutionary parties and minorities, such as the Jews, were persecuted.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Russia arguable experienced the most rapid industrialization the world has ever known. By World War I it was a world power, ranking with Germany and France. At this time only 10 percent of the population was urbanized but a large number of rural people came the cities and engaged in migratory industrial labor.

Industrial crisises after 1900 and harvest failures aggravated the poverty of urban workers. In the “Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra”, Peter Kurth wrote, "Eight of ten industrial workers in St. Petersburg lived on income lower than the tsar's own government had determined was essential to survive...Elegant shops peddled candy and diamonds next to poverty so bleak it could scarcely be described."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.