The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Formation of the Soviet Union

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Formation of the Soviet Union

The Russian Revolution: October 1917


On October 25, 1917, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin led his leftist revolutionaries in a successful revolt against the ineffective Provisional Government, an event known as the October Revolution. The Revolution resulted not only in the dissolution of Russia’s Provisional Government but also the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and members of the royal family. The monarchy was then replaced with a communist government that ruled with an intolerant, and often violent, fist for over seventy years. This event remains the seminal turning point in Russian history and for much of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.


Learning Objectives

  • Explain the key events and people of the Russian Revolution of October 1917
  • Examine the long-term consequences and legacies of the Russian Revolution


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Vladimir Lenin: lead revolutionary and head of the Bolshevik party during the October Russian Revolution in 1917

Leon Trotsky: head of the Petrograd Soviet; an intellectual socialist and eventual righthand man to Lenin

soviets: small, locally-elected councils of men with ties to socialist ideas supporting workers, soldiers, and peasantry

Bolsheviks: political party of Vladimir Lenin that was considered extreme, and later became the basis of the Russian communist party

July Days: four to five days in mid-July 1917 when soldiers, sailors, and workers held armed protests against the Provisional Government

“Peace, Land, Bread!”: Lenin’s famous slogan that won the heart and support of the Russian peasantry during his “April Theses” speech in April 1917

October Revolution: successful Russian Revolution that overthrew the democratic Provisional Government and established the Bolsheviks as a military dictatorship

Execution of the royal family: plan hatched by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to eliminate any chance of a restoration of the imperial family in Russia

Ipatiev House: site where the tsar and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks


Background: Vladimir Lenin


Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, forever remembered by his pseudonym, Lenin, was born some four-hundred miles southeast of Moscow in 1870 in the city of Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), Russia. Lenin grew up in a middle-class home and excelled in school. Before reaching adulthood, though, his comfortable lifestyle endured two personal catastrophes that, perhaps, shaped his future career. His father died unexpectedly from a brain bleed when Lenin was a teenager. Not long after, Lenin’s older brother, Alexander, was arrested and later executed for conspiring to assassinate the Tsar.


Portrait of teenaged Vladimir Lenin. Historians suspect that it was around ​​this time in his life
that Lenin started to become more revolutionary in his thoughts and studies.



Historians often cite these events as decisive turning points in young Lenin’s life. Ones that inspired the increasing revolutionary attitude that materialized during his time at Kazan University. Exceedingly intelligent, Lenin eventually attended law school. His passion, however, resided in the words of communism’s founder, Karl Marx.

Lenin’s revolutionary activity began in earnest around the turn of the century. He moved to Saint Petersburg, married a Marxist schoolteacher, and began writing anti-monarchist, Marxist pieces. Notably, he wrote for the Marxist paper, Iskra (Spark in English). During his time writing for Iskra he adopted the pseudonym, “N. Lenin.” His activities ultimately resulted in several temporary exiles, notably to Zurich, Switzerland. But by the time of his exile, Lenin had recruited a strong group of supporters in Russia. One that would continue throughout his exile, and grow stronger during World War I.


The February Revolution


In many ways, February Revolution of 1917 was the opening act in the larger Russian Revolution that would occur in October 1917. For over two years, Russian urban populations had suffered from reduced to meager food and fuel rations because of Russian participation in World War I. In February 1917, women in Saint Petersburg led a protest for increased rations and government reform. The protests quickly gained momentum as people from all walks of life joined the revolt. Saint Petersburg’s streets filled with demonstrators. With the tsar at the front, Tsarina Alexandra was left to handle the growing crisis. Instead of confronting or comforting the crowd, Alexandra remained inside her palace with her children.

Enormous strikes of hundreds of thousands of workers erupted across the city. From afar, Nicholas attempted to send his guards and policemen to quell the rebellion. Instead, most of his forces sided with the peasants. On March 15, 1917, Nicholas II abdicated. By doing so, the power in Russia fell from the hands of an imperial dynasty to a shaky Provisional Government.



Leon Trotsky. Vladimir Lenin’s righthand man and the head of the Petrograd Soviet in St. Petersburg. Despite his early prominence and close association with Lenin,
Trotsky would be assassinated by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico City, 1940.


Importantly, while the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky initially acted as the governing body responsible for foreign affairs, a smaller group was gaining momentum in Russia: the soviets. These groups were small, usually local councils comprised of elected officials. These officials were characterized as anti-monarchal socialists who represented the goals of the people. Notably, Saint Petersburg was home to the Petrograd Soviet. At its head was a man who later became a close ally of Lenin—Leon Trotsky. As the Revolution gained momentum, so too did the power and popularity of the Soviets, as well as the most radical of the socialist movements, which was led by the Bolsheviks and headed by Vladimir Lenin.

Vladimir Lenin’s return to Russia from his exile in Zurich, Switzerland is one of legend. News of the February Revolution had reached him, and he deemed it the right moment for a socialist state to take hold in Russia. But the question remained: how could he return to Russia from Switzerland?

After several failed efforts, Lenin found an unlikely solution in the form of the German government. Eager to see Russia knocked out of the war and correctly believing that Lenin could help churn up the revolution in Russia, the Germans proposed a deal. They offered him safe passage from Zurich through Germany in a sealed train car that carried other Russian revolutionaries. The train passed into Sweden and Finland. Then Lenin slipped back into Russia in disguise. The German gamble would soon pay off as Lenin and his associates stirred up far more discontent and rebellion than the thousands of mutinying Russian soldiers at the front.


French map illustrating in red the route of Lenin’s sealed train as he was carried across Germany, Sweden, and Finland before arriving at Finland Station in Saint Petersburg.


On April 16, 1917, Lenin delivered a speech from Finland Station in Saint Petersburg titled the “April Theses.” In this speech, he highlighted the goals for his political party, the Bolsheviks. Among his demands was the claim that all power be handed over to the Soviets. He emerged as a champion of the workers, farmers, sailors, and soldiers by declaring, “Peace, Land, and Bread!" Neither he, nor his party, supported Russian war efforts. Instead, they supported peace, a redistribution of land among the working class, and improved diets for Russia’s suffering population. Unsurprisingly, as support for Lenin’s party grew, the popularity of the Provisional Government quickly diminished.


The July Days


The summer of 1917 proved far more challenging for Russia than anyone expected. With the tsar’s abdication, three-hundred years of imperial rule had ended overnight. The shaky Provisional Government made attempts to implement democratic rule, but they also chose to remain a committed ally in World War I. This decision likely caused their ultimate downfall.

Russians across the country were exhausted and tired of the costs of World War I. Historians have since estimated that nearly two million Russian soldiers were killed in the war, while nearly five million were wounded. Combined these figures suggest that over half of Russia’s army was a casualty in World War I—a far higher figure than any other army in the war. Moreover, the war had exhausted Russia’s natural resources.

In July, mobs of sailors, soldiers, and workers banded together to protest the Provisional Government’s decision to remain in the war. These armed demonstrations were known later as the July Days.

The goal of demonstrators was to overthrow the Provisional Government—which the working class feared would still put too much government power in the hands of a few, educated elites. But due to disorganization among political factions, the coup failed. Lenin, the head of the Bolshevik Party, was temporarily forced to flee over the border into Finland.


The October Revolution


By the fall of 1917, Russian food and fuel scarcity ravaged St. Petersburg. Exhaustion and anger permeated every walk of society. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, it was a perfect recipe for a revolution.

Lenin slipped across the border from Finland and met with the man who would become his righthand—Leon Trotsky. As head of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky knew more about the city and its people than Lenin did. Together, they organized the foundation of the Russian Revolution.

On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks organized forces and led an attack on the Provisional Government. Alexander Kerensky tried to organize forces to counter the attack but failed to find enough soldiers. Confronted by superior numbers, Kerensky was forced to flee for his life. The Provisional Government collapsed. Bolshevik forces stormed the tsar’s former residence, the Winter Palace, and seized innumerable priceless treasures, while simultaneously destroying all symbols associated with the imperial rule of the Romanovs. In a climactic moment, Lenin delivered a speech to a crowd that “all rule had passed to the Soviets.” Almost overnight, Russia had transformed from a fledgling democracy to a communist, military dictatorship unseen before (or since) in history. This dictatorship would later be revealed to the world as the Soviet Union.


Soviet-era postage stamp depicting the storming of the Winter Palace, part of the Russian Revolution of October 1917.



On October 26, the Bolsheviks presented The Decree on Land. It allowed peasants to seize private land from the nobility and redistribute it among themselves. The Bolsheviks viewed themselves as representing an alliance of workers and peasants and memorialized that understanding with the hammer and sickle on the red flag of the Soviet Union. Other decrees resulted in the following:

  • All private property was seized by the state.
  • All Russian banks were nationalized.
  • Private bank accounts were confiscated.
  • The Church’s properties (including bank accounts) were seized.
  • All foreign debts were repudiated.
  • Control of the factories was given to the Soviets.
  • Wages were fixed at higher rates than during the war, and a shorter, eight-hour working day was introduced.


The success of the October Revolution transformed the Russian state into a soviet republic. A coalition of anti-Bolshevik groups attempted to unseat the new government in the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1922, but they would prove horribly unsuccessful.


The Last Days of the Romanovs


In March 1917, the last Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated not only on behalf of himself, but also on behalf of his ailing, hemophiliac son, Alexei. His younger brother, Michael, also quickly refused the throne and was later murdered by Bolshevik supporters in the woods outside of Perm, near the Ural Mountains.

Nicholas remained under house arrest with his wife, children, and a handful of servants at their home—Tsarskoe Selo—for six months. In August 1917, Alexander Kerensky decided to move the family to a more secure location, far removed from the capital city. With effort, the Romanovs were transported to a former governor’s palace in Tobolsk, Siberia. For nearly nine months, the family enjoyed relative peace. The tsar and his children enjoyed short walks, reading, music, and even such menial chores as sawing wood. However, conditions for the royal family took a turn for the worse in late 1917 after the Bolsheviks seized power in Saint Petersburg.

Throughout all of this, the royal family remained steadfast in their Orthodox faith. Believing that their prayers would be answered and help would soon arrive. Their hopes were destined to be ill-founded. In April 1918, a seasoned Bolshevik guard prepared the family for a final relocation. This time, they would be moved right into the heart of Bolshevik territory. Though they did not know it, plans were made for the execution of the royal family.



Ex-tsar Nicholas II sawing wood with his son, Alexei, at Tobolsk. Winter, 1917 – 1918.


In April 1918, the family arrived at what would be their final location, the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Secretly nicknamed the “House of Special Purpose,” the grandiose home was designated as the future execution site of the royal family. Indeed, the final days of the Romanov family were, as one historian described, a “living Hell.” Bolshevik guards painted over the family’s windows, restricting their view to the outside world. Walks were limited to half-an-hour in a courtyard, once a day. Dinners were served to the royal family after they’d been spat into. And lewd drawings and innuendos were presented to the Romanov daughters. Moreover, the family remained under the constant guard of their Bolshevik captors who restricted their every action.

In the early hours of July 17, 1918, Yakov Yurovsky, the chief Bolshevik guard, awoke the family and ordered them to get dressed. To quell their fears, he said the family was being transferred to a new location for their safety. The family was then led into the house cellar. Alexei, unable to walk due to a previous, severe hemophilia bleed, was carried by his father. The seven Romanovs then sat or stood with their servants and waited for instructions. Nearly an hour passed before the Bolshevik guards returned. This time, armed. Yakov Yurovsky said,

“Your friends have tried to save you. They have failed you. We now must shoot you.”

Reports indicate that the tsar, naïve to the end of his life, had only time to exclaim, “What? What?” before numerous shots were fired upon him. Nicholas and Alexandra died instantly. However, many of the untrained Bolshevik guards, little more than thugs, were uncomfortable executing the tsar’s children.

An almost mystical charm initially seemed to protect the daughters. Reports of the events indicate that bullets ricocheted off their dresses, and the executioners resorted to using bayonets and the butt-ends of their rifles to attempt to murder Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia. When that failed, Yurovsky and his lieutenant shot the daughters in the back of the head. Later, the executioners discovered the young women had sewn jewels into their dresses in such numbers that they had acted as bullet-proof vests. Yurovsky saw too, that amazingly Alexei had survived the execution. He walked to the “heir of all the Russias,” who still lay in his father’s arms, and savagely kicked the boy before shooting him twice in the back of the head. Similarly, each of the servants were brutally beaten and shot to death. The execution of the royal family had lasted far longer than planned. And the subsequent destruction and burial of the bodies in the Ural Mountains proved disorganized.


The cellar of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It is obvious from the bullet strikes where Nicholas II and Alexandra sat. In 1977, a Soviet team demolished the house under orders from Boris Yeltsin. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church, the “Church on the Blood” sits on the site where the execution took place.


Almost immediately, rumors circulated that one of the children, likely Anastasia, had survived the massacre and escaped. The rumors escalated in 1988 when the remains of the tsar, his wife, and three of their daughters were excavated and positively identified through DNA analysis. In 2007, though, the rumors were definitively quashed when the remains of Alexei, and his sister (likely Marie) were discovered and positively identified through DNA analysis. In recognition for their devout faith, the Russian Orthodox Church has proclaimed the seven Romanovs, “passion bearers” or members of the faith who remain devout in the hour of their death. This was based on accounts of the family trying to make the sign of the cross as they met their brutal deaths.




The Russian Revolution is a pivotal event in modern history. It not only extinguished imperial rule in Russia but also experiments in democracy. The Bolshevik party would reorganize themselves and become the backbone of Soviet communism during the 1920s. Today, the legacies of the Russian Revolution remained mixed. While the rights of workers and the lower classes were touted as the future backbone of Russia, enacting those measures proved difficult. The country erupted into a violent civil war at the end of World War I, as well as engaged in equally brutal wars across parts of Eastern Europe, notably Poland and Ukraine. Moreover, the largest communist and military dictatorship in history would emerge in the shape of the Soviet Union.


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