February 12th was the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Surprisingly, the Kremlin has taken a very low-key stance on the centenary. We believe the government’s decision to downplay this historical event offers an insight into Russian President Putin’s thinking.
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In this report, we will present a history of the Russian Revolution, showing how civil order deteriorated in the years after 1917. We will offer observations of how the Kremlin’s treatment of the revolution reflects Putin’s worldview. As always, we will conclude with potential market effects.
The Russian Revolution
There were two revolutions in 1917, one in the spring and another in the fall. The first occurred in March and the other in October. Russia had made halting steps toward modernization and liberalization. At the turn of the 19th century, Russia was the last European autocracy. The government had no representative body; instead, the primary instruments of the state were the bureaucracy and the secret police.
The 1905 Revolution did raise hopes of liberalization. Russia’s embarrassing defeat a year earlier in the Russo-Japanese War had weakened national morale. Russia was
1 Basis the Gregorian calendar; Russia was on the Julian calendar at the time, putting the revolution in February.
2 Or in November, again, based on calendar differences.
beginning to industrialize; every nation that has gone through this process suffers through social disruption and Russia was no exception to this pattern. As landless peasants moved to urban areas seeking work in factories, they faced hard and dangerous work under difficult living conditions.
In response to the uprising, Tsar Nicolas II promised reforms that included universal male suffrage and a directly elected representative body. In reality, the Duma turned out to be an indirectly elected legislature that had little power.
Nicolas II was considered to be a weak and stubborn man who nonetheless ruled as a repressive leader, following the policies of his father, Tsar Alexander III. The Russian economy remained backward and, although the serfs were officially freed in the mid-1800s, in reality, the countryside was populated with landless peasants whose conditions remained desperate.
The onset of WWI would expose all the weaknesses of the Russian government. Russia, due to treaty obligations, was tied to France and Britain. When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in late June 1914 by a Serbian revolutionary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent Serbia a set of demands calculated to be rejected by the Serbs.3 With Serbia’s eventual rejection of Austria’s demands, the latter prepared for war against the former. Since Russia was an ally of Serbia, it threatened to protect Serbia against an Austrian attack. This threat set in
motion a series of actions and mobilizations that led to WWI.4
3 These demands included a full investigation of the assassination in Serbia conducted by Austrian security personnel.
Russia was woefully unprepared for modern war. Because of its poor transportation infrastructure, it was forced to begin mobilizing troops soon after the Austrian threats on Serbia; this action convinced Germany that it faced an existential threat of war. It is estimated that Russian troop strength at the onset of the war was just under six million. Germany only had about
65% of Russia’s men under arms but was able to deploy them much faster. In addition, German troops were much better equipped and trained.
Although most of the participants in WWI suffered serious losses, Russia’s 2.3 mm military death toll was the largest of any participant. Although the Russian military generally performed well against the Austrians, they were no match for the German military. Despite fighting on two fronts, Germany was able to push Russian troops within 100 miles of St. Petersburg by 1917.
Unsurprisingly, Nicolas proved to be an ineffective war leader. Adding to Nicolas’s leadership shortcomings was the fact that the Tsar and Tsarina had come under the sway of Gregory Rasputin, a self-proclaimed monk who convinced the family he could heal the royal family’s son, Alexi, from hemophilia. Rasputin’s influence grew when the Tsar took control of the military effort by going to the Eastern Front in 1915. According to reports, Rasputin influenced the Tsarina, who was essentially running the government at the time, to appoint candidates he favored to various posts. This led to resentment among the political elites in Moscow. In December 1916, a group of nobles assassinated Rasputin; however, the actual circumstances of his execution are uncertain.5
In early March, with civil unrest increasing, the leadership of the Duma met with Tsar Nicolas. On March 15, he abdicated in favor of his brother, Michael. Michael abdicated the following day. The Romanov Dynasty had come to an end.
By early 1917, two factors had become abundantly clear. First, the war was extremely unpopular and the Russian people wanted it to end. Second, peasants wanted land reform. The new government vowed to maintain its war participation in order to maintain the support of Western powers. It did try to negotiate with Germany to end the Eastern conflict, but the German terms were seen as overly harsh.
Germany wanted Russia to quit the war; this would allow the Germans to shift the soldiers on the Eastern Front to the Western Front
4 Perhaps the most famous book on the conditions that led to war is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. See: Tuchman, B. (1962). The Guns of August. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company. For a more contemporary analysis (and, in my opinion, convincing), see: Clark, C. (2012). The Sleepwalkers. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
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