Peace, bread and land

In 1894, Nicholas II became Tsar of the motley Russian empire, which included Ukrainians, Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Iranians…

In 1894, Nicholas II became Tsar of the motley Russian empire, which included Ukrainians, Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Iranians, Mongols and Armenians. Many were impoverished peasants or unskilled factory workers who were not allowed trade unions. Revolutions in 1905 forced the conservative Tsar to call a Duma (parliament), a short-lived experiment in democracy. Protest groups were varied: liberals, Social Revolutionaries, and Marxists, including militant Bolsheviks under Lenin (whose aim was a proletarian dictatorship).

During the first World War, millions of Russian soldiers died and the Tsar made ever-more-unpopular decisions: taking disastrous personal command of the army and allowing the Empress and her corrupt adviser Rasputin undue influence at court. By February 1917, with freezing weather and bread shortages, feelings of unrest were running high in Petrograd. A mass demonstration resulted in the defection of many of the Tsar's troops. The Petrograd Soviet (workers' council set up in 1905) was revived, and other cities and towns followed suit.

On March 16, 1917, a 300-year-old dynasty ended when the Tsar abdicated, and Russia was proclaimed a republic under a moderate provisional government, which took the unpopular decision to continue Russian involvement in the war, and failed to make a major decision on land redistribution. By contrast, Lenin offered "Peace, Bread and Land" and "all power to the Soviets". Lenin and Trotsky pressed for a revolutionary seizure of power, and on November 7th, 1917 (called the "October Revolution" because it fell during that month under the Julian calendar), the government was captured. A new era of world politics began, heralding the ideological battle between communism and capitalism that dominated most of the 20th century. From 1919, the Comintern (Communist International) was charged with promoting revolutionary communism outside Russia, achieving its greatest success in China.

The Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war, but then faced a "White" counter movement - composed of tsarist officers, conservatives, liberals and socialists - which gained the support of Allied forces. The Whites were defeated by the Red Army led by Trotksy.


The 1920s saw the birth of the Soviet Union, a federation of more than 150 nationalities, with a flowering of art inspired by the Revolution (censorship ensured that those who were opposed to the new ideology did not have a platform). Many were intoxicated by the break-up of the old system - including religion - in favour of the new emphasis on mechanisation and technology.

The Revolution wiped out the landed gentry and the big bourgeoisie, ushering in a new era of state control. Following the economic devastation of the war, peasants reacted to Lenin's policy of grain requisitioning by growing only enough grain for their own use. By 1921, some seven million Russians had died of starvation (some resorted to cannibalism). After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin forcibly amalgamated small farms into larger collectives run by party officials, which, it was believed, would operate more efficiently and produce more grain to finance industry. Millions of protesting peasants were either shot or sent to labour camps. Stalin wanted to turn the predominantly agricultural USSR into one of the leading industrial states in the world. Giant manufacturing complexes, hydroelectric dams, canals and cities sprang up, and the standard of education improved. The communist ideal of equal pay was abandoned as an incentive to get people to work harder.

Stalin's dictatorship began in earnest in 1929 and ruled supreme until his death in 1953. He inflicted purges and show trials on the general populace and on his own party and the Red Army. The exiled Trotsky was murdered in Mexico. Millions of innocents perished in jails, torture chambers or in the labour and death camps known as the Gulag. Unlike his predecessors, Stalin was not attached to theories, but to power.

Returned exile Lenin addresses a pre-revolutionary rally in 1917