It was a response to one failed institution called the "czars," which replaced it with another failed institution that was even worse. It was begun with the best of intentions, but it ended with the worst of results. And it was the first trial run of the communist system, which should have been the last because of the dismal results; but which was attempted time and time again with the highest of hopes, only to end in the lowest of failures every time it was tried; with few seeming to learn anything from it.
Czar Nicholas II
But in putting forth these criticisms of the Russian Revolution, let me assure my readers that I do not wish to defend the legacy of the czars. There was indeed much abuse under their regime, and the Marxist revolution was a reaction against some very real problems that Russia was experiencing at that time. I don't have time to go into all the particulars of these problems, but suffice it to say that there was a long history of repeated crackdowns on the people's liberties, with much obstruction of the kinds of progressive reforms that might have solved these problems in a more constructive way. Czar Nicholas II reminds me of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI - a monarch who could have prevented his own downfall by a few concessions to the people's wishes, but who effectively engineered his own demise by his unwillingness to do so. The parallels to the French Revolution are numerous and striking, and the Russian Revolution is eerily reminiscent of the earlier revolution in France.
Eastern Front of World War One
But the more immediate historical context for the Russian Revolution is to be found in World War One, which had been raging for over two years by the time the Russian Revolution began. Most American, British, and French historians of World War One - perhaps also the German historians - have tended to focus on the Western Front, with the trench warfare in France and Belgium. Nonetheless, there was a great deal of fighting on the Eastern Front as well, which mainly involved conflict between the Germans and the Russians. As you can imagine, this was of great importance to the Russian Revolution of this time; because the Russians were fighting desperately against the Germans in Eastern Europe, and the war was not going well for them. They were losing significant numbers of troops in the maelstrom of combat, and they were sometimes losing territory to the Germans as well. From the point of view of the Romanov government, the revolution at home could not have come at a worse time.
February Revolution, 1917
The event that we call the "Russian Revolution" was really two revolutions - one called the "February Revolution," and one called the "October Revolution." The October Revolution is the one that gets the most attention, but the February Revolution was of great importance as well, as it was what actually caused Czar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne and renounce his kingship. It replaced the czar's regime, quite simply, with a new government. Nonetheless, the October Revolution really was the most important one; as it was the one that brought communism to Russia. It had truly momentous long-term consequences for both Russia specifically, and for the world at large. The actual revolution is often dated to two specific days, which are celebrated as the anniversary of the Revolution; but there is considerable reason to regard it as much longer than that, because it sparked the Russian Civil War, which would continue for a full five years after that. (Much longer than two days.)
October Revolution, 1917
Negotiations for Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which ended the war on the Eastern Front), 1918
The revolution created so much chaos at home that the Russian government signed a peace treaty with Germany, in which it lost territory that included a full one-quarter of its empire's population. World War One was still raging elsewhere (including on the Western Front), but the Eastern Front was closed early due to the chaos at home. The Russian Revolution was therefore a major event for World War One, as well as for the later history of the twentieth century (including the Cold War and World War Two). When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the West the following year (which ended World War One completely), the Russian Civil War was still going on; and fearful Westerners (including the Americans) actually sent troops to the war-torn region, in an attempt to prevent communist victory in the Civil War. But the American intervention did not go well (to say the least), and the plans for involvement in Russia's internal struggles were soon abandoned (and never resumed).
Allied intervention in Russian Civil War, 1918
The Russian Civil War was a brutal business, and did not come to a final end until 1922 - almost four years after the Armistice in the West. It is estimated that each side of the conflict lost a million people or more - not counting a quarter of a million summary executions performed by the Reds. The result of all this was an uncontested communist domination of Russia, which lasted for over sixty years. In the decades after the civil war ended, the bloodshed continued without letup, as the new Soviet state executed people suspected of disloyalty, or "undesirable political opinions" (a phrase which paraphrases them only slightly). Estimates range on the death toll for the postwar purges, but some put it as high as 20 million (source: Boston University) - a figure about six times the combined death toll for both sides in the civil war. Because of this, it is almost universally recognized that the revolution was a disaster for Russia, and that the damage it caused had repercussions far beyond Russia's borders. (The Soviets later conquered Eastern Europe during World War Two, and their system of government spread like a virus in the wake of Soviet conquest.) Whatever the Soviet system was, it has few apologists today; and even avowed communists do not often defend the record of the Soviet state. (It once had its Western apologists in the twenties and thirties; but it has been written off as a failure by virtually everyone - communist and otherwise - that is living in the West today.)
Victims of the Great Soviet Purge in the 1930's
More significant for the way this period's history has been taught is the Marxist response to the failures of the Soviet state. "It's not really communism," many of them say, "as real communism has never been tried. The failures of Soviet Russia were due to other factors," they say, "and do not reflect poorly on the philosophy or economics of Karl Marx." The specter of negative revisionism rears its ugly head here, as Marxist historians try to shift the blame for Soviet failures onto something else - anything but the philosophies they espouse, and the ideas they advocate. The problem with their take on this is that it's just not true - the Russian Revolution really was an attempt to institute communism, and it ended in exactly the kind of abject failure that any critic of communism would have predicted. I don't mind revising our telling of the history when better evidence or explanations come along; but these historical revisions need to be checked by reality, and not based on wishful thinking. The truth is that the Russian Revolution really does reflect poorly on communism, and will continue to do so for anyone who truly understands what happened in it. (For further evidence on this point, see my blog post on the subject.)
Russian Revolution of 1917
It is said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. If so, the continued efforts to make communism work would seem to qualify for this definition. No matter how many rationalizations one can come up with about how "this time will be different" (or how "it wasn't really tried before"), the fact is that communism has both been attempted, and it has failed every time it's been tried. Every time we ignore this evidence from history and try the experiment again, we abandon our own logic and sense of reality, and walk further down the road to eventual despotism.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
A review of "The Great War" (1964 BBC miniseries, about World War One)
Why we allied with Soviet Russia during World War II, and then fought against it later on
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)
Part of a series about
Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work
The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Communism in practice: The results of the experiments
Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)