I’m going to talk a lot about the Whites— the Tsar and the nobles, mostly— in these posts, in part because my main character in TSARINA, Natalya, is a White. But I think it’s time to talk a little about the Reds. Who they were, what they wanted, and why they were willing to have a revolution to get it.
To talk about why the Russian Revolution happened, we have to back up a ways. A long ways, actually, sort of the the beginning of Russia. Russia had been a feudal nation since about the 11th century, before it was much of a nation at all. Feudalism, if you aren’t familiar, is a system of government where peasants are required to work the lands of the nobility in exchange for living on those lands and military protection (that’s a super simple explanation). The peasants weren’t allowed to leave whatever land they were “bonded” to (usually this was the land they were born on), had production quotas, weren’t allowed to change “careers” (Sorry, little Jimmy, but you can’t be a dentist, because you’re a peasant…forever…), and were, essentially, property.
Basically, the peasants— or serfs— were slaves. They could even be mortgaged.
The nobles thought this system was awesome. The serfs, not so much. But what were they going to do? The nobles had all the power and money and education and soldiers. So, there were a few rebellions, but mostly the serfs just stayed miserable, all simmering-anger and bitterness and farming.
Now, we flash forward to the early 1800s. Russia is a world power now— they’ve modernized! They have a great army! They have some really nice buildings!
Anyhow, in 1812, along comes Napoleon, the Emperor of France who was systematically conquering Europe. Part of how Napoleon rose to power in France was that he sold himself as someone who offered all sorts of Enlightenment ideas— like greater social mobility, innate freedom, trial by jury, freedom of religion…all sorts of good stuff (that was quite similar to some of the stuff the U.S.’s founding fathers were fans of).
While the French largely loved him (obviously), the non-French people of Europe weren’t thrilled with Napoleon himself, seeing as how he sort of invaded and took over…all the countries ever. Including Russia! Only that Russian invasion thing didn’t work out so well for him.
See, Napoleon invaded Russia in the middle of winter. Let me show you what Russia looks like in the middle of winter.
(That’s a picture taken in the Black Sea— one of the warmer parts of Russia)
So, when Napoleon invaded Russia during the winter, this happened:
Russia: *burns up supplies, burns down cities, moves everyone into the countryside*
Napoleon: HEY GUYS WHAT’S UP. Wait. Where is the food? The shelter? Why is everything covered in snow?
Napoleon: Seriously, this isn’t funny. It’s cold. It’s getting colder. I’m leaving this country a terrible Yelp review.
Russia: *snicker snicker*
Napoleon: Oh &*$%, my army is dead.
So Napoleon takes what’s left of his army back to France to thaw, and the Russians, who are pros at this whole OMG-IT’S-FREEZING thing, bound right out of the countryside and give chase. They chase Napoleon’s army out of Russia, all the way to Paris, gaining support from the countries that Napoleon had previously conquered as they went. Eventually, Napoleon surrendered and was sent to the island of Elba to think about what happens when you try to out-winter a Russian.
The Tsar of Russia, Alexander, was obviously pretty pleased with himself. I mean, not only had he just been instrumental in defeating Napoleon, but he felt he’d also proven that all those Enlightenment-Revolution-Newfangled ideas were no good. ENLIGHTENMENT DROOLS, MONARCHIES RULE! (Do you see my pun? Do you see it?)
Only…as it turned out, the people of Russia were pretty interested in those Enlightenment ideas. They seemed pretty progressive. They seemed like the future. Sure, Napoleon was crazy, but freedom of religion? Greater social mobility? The ability to get government jobs based on qualification rather than rank?
Surely those ideas couldn’t be so wrong, right? The serfs— many of whom had been in the very army that ran Napoleon off— were especially interested in these ideas, and started advocating for them. Tsar Alexander basically told them to STFU. It’s hard to blame him; I mean, the guy had just spent a lot of time, money, and life defending Russia from someone who represented those ideas. I can see why he sort of had a HAHA BEEN THERE DONE THAT, NO outlook on the whole thing.
But people couldn’t get the Enlightenment ideas out of their head, and so eventually, some rebel army officers and about 3000 soldiers marched on St. Petersburg. They wanted the serfs’ freedom, they wanted a more representative government, and they wanted the power of the monarchy limited. This happened in December, so the rebels were aptly called the Decembrists, and the uprising was called The Decembrist Rebellion.
It did not work.
In fact, it really went quite poorly. The Decembrists were defeated, and the Tsar— by this time it was Tsar Nicholas I in power— sent most of them to Siberia. Serfdom was officially abolished in 1865, but seeing as how the serfs had no money, education, or skill sets beyond farming the land they were born on, it wasn’t as huge a leap forward for them as you might think. So mostly, the nobles are still nobles, the peasants are still peasants, and Russia is still a capital-M Monarchy.
The thing is, though— you can’t really stop ideas, no matter how many people you send to Siberia.
First, the Team Enlightenment people— whose ideas had evolved and become more complex than those original Enlightenment ideas the Decembrists had— assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 via a bomb under his carriage (it’s worth mentioning that it was a group of Team Enlightenment EXTREMISTS that did this. Alexander II was actually one of Russia’s more progressive Tsars, and was trying harder than most of his predecessors to work with Team Enlightenment, but…it was sort of too little, too late). His son, Alexander III, ascends the throne and becomes Tsar. He’s pretty angry about his dad getting blown up, so he ignores Team Enlightenment as best he can for a while.
Fast forward again to 1904. Japan and Russia are in a war, and it is going really, really poorly. Russia kept making some pretty bad military decisions that cost both money and lives. The soldiers fighting on the front were poorly equipped. Plus, so much energy is going into the war effort that there’s not enough food for the people back home. Because Russian was a capital-M Monarchy, people blamed the Tsar (who was now Alexander III’s son, Tsar Nicholas II)— if he would just let some of those Enlightenment ideas through, the people of Russia would be able to have a say in how things were handled!
And this is where it all starts to boil over.
The people of Russia are getting really, really angry and Nicholas II realizes he has to do something. He finally gives in and agrees to some pretty huge reforms, and the country’s constitution gets a major overhaul in 1906. Now, the Tsar would share power with a newly created parliament, the State Council, and the State Duma.
The Tsar still had plenty of power— he pretty much had final say and veto power on anything the other political bodies came up with. And he sort of hated this whole new constitution thing. Remember that Nicholas II thought he was God-appointed: That literally, God himself was like, “Nicky, you are the best. You get to be Tsar of Russia! YayTsarOfRussiaYay!” So the very idea that Nicholas would allow someone else to help run it? Well. That was sort of spitting in the face of both God and his birthright (if birthrights had faces).
So, the Tsar was angry that Team Enlightenment wanted to limit his power. Team Enlightenment was angry that the Tsar still held a great deal of power. Team Enlightenment was bolstered by the poorer peasant/former serf class, and Team Tsar was bolstered by the nobles. The huge difference in social classes meant each side had a lot of trouble understanding what the other was so upset about.
And then World War I happened.
For a minute— a really brief, tiny, flickering minute— all of Russia stood together as Team Russia. Patriotism was at all time high! Let’s go kick some German butt! Who even knows what schnitzel is, anyway? BORSCHT FOREVER.
But then the war started to go poorly.
And people started to feel like the Tsar was responsible, since he was the one who still held the lion’s share of political power.
And people remembered that the Tsar’s wife, Tsarina Alexandra, was originally from Germany, and that made them uncomfortable.
And then Russian factories couldn’t make enough guns, so men were literally sent to the front and told “Find a dead guy and take his gun.”
And then the war started going even worse, and the Tsar made more than a few PR mistakes.
And then everything snapped.
Team Enlightenment— who were now the Reds— took over the Winter Palace. They captured the royal family and put them under house arrest. They assumed control of the government. Team Tsar— the Whites— struggled to fight back, since they would normally fight back with the military, and the entire military was gone fighting Germany. The military troops that were left? A lot of them saw the writing on the wall and decided to join the Reds.
So. Why did the Revolution happen?
Because you can only tell someone to sit down and shut up so many times before they refuse to do either.
Because pride makes war seem easier than compromise.
Because no one wants to play on a rigged system.
And because you can’t stop an idea.