The Bolsheviks Triumph: Battles, Events & the Shift of Power

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  • 0:02 Bolshevik Triumph
  • 0:34 Background
  • 1:34 October Revolution
  • 3:10 Consolidation of Power
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Bolsheviks' rise to power in 1917 and their subsequent struggle to hold onto authority in Russia during the Russian Civil War.

Bolshevik Triumph

Sometimes, only after we think we've achieved something do we realize just how much work we have left to do. For example, after George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to announce that the War in Iraq had been won, there was still a decade of fierce fighting to go before U.S. involvement in that country came to an end. Similarly, even though the Bolsheviks technically took control of the Russian government in October 1917, there was still a lot of work to be done before the communists could effectively rule in Russia.

Background

The czar of Russia prior to the Russian Revolution, Czar Nicholas II, was a relatively weak and ineffectual monarch who cared more for his family and leisure time than he did governing. Disillusioned with his poor government, intellectuals, workers, and peasants alike had grown increasingly discontent, and widespread strikes led to Nicholas being forced to grant the Russian people a variety of civil rights in 1905.

Despite this measure, he soon went back on his word and cracked down harshly on political opponents, especially those who espoused communism. Regardless, some survived, and Nicholas II found himself on the wrong side of public opinion yet again when he personally took control of Russian forces in World War I. Nicholas blundered away thousands of young Russians, and the rest of Russia starved as food behind the lines became harder to find. Discontent with Nicholas eventually grew so great that a local army garrison joined striking workers and captured the czar in Petrograd, forcing him to abdicate in March 1917.

October Revolution

In place of the authoritarian czar, the state representative assembly, known as the Duma, took control of the Russian government. The Duma was primarily made up of landowners and the aristocratic classes, and workers were largely as unhappy with the provisional rulers as they were with the czar.

Peasant and worker uprisings swept across Russian cities and in the countryside throughout the summer of 1917. Attempts to repress these uprisings only fueled the anger amongst the general population. To make matters worse, the Duma chose to continue fighting against Germany in World War I, a move that was incredibly unpopular and caused much of the public to give their tacit support to revolutionary groups, including the Bolsheviks.

It was these Bolsheviks, an extreme communist revolutionary group led by Vladimir Lenin, who gained much of the support of the Russia population. With this support in hand, the Bolsheviks resolved in early November to rise up in arms and relatively easily overthrew the provisional government in Petrograd in the October Revolution, called such because it was still October by the old Russian calendar.

Once in power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks wasted little time in implementing socialist policies, but they first pulled out of World War I as promised. Signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918, Lenin immediately recalled all Russian troops from the front and accepted an enormous amount of territorial losses. Though Russia's withdrawal from the war infuriated their British and American allies and gave away huge swaths of Russian territory in eastern Europe, Lenin cared little. Consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia was Lenin's main goal.

Consolidation of Power

This proved a lofty goal because soon after the October Revolution, Russia descended into civil war. The Bolshevik Red Army faced long odds in its fight against the White Army, a force made up of the military officers of the former czarist state. In addition, the Bolsheviks faced forces from foreign countries, like Great Britain and the United States, who simultaneously feared the birth of communism in Russia and were still angry with the Bolsheviks for withdrawing from World War I.

In order to overcome the odds in the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik Red Army required not only the strong leadership of Vladimir Lenin but also the keen organizational and military sense of Lenin's compatriot, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky organized the Red Army from various workers' groups who had supported the Bolsheviks, though most of these men had no military experience whatsoever. Trotsky demanded rigid discipline from his troops. He often summarily executed troops who showed cowardice in battle.

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