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Revolutionary Expectations in 1917 Russia

Rex A Wade ( is University Professor of History, George Mason University, retired.

The February Revolution of 1917 not only overthrew the Russian monarchy but raised great expectations among the population. The essay looks at the expectations of several key segments—workers, soldiers, women, peasants, upper and middle classes, and nationalities. As the Provisional Government was slow to fulfil their expectations, the population turned leftward politically. In a matter of months this led to the rise of the extreme left and the Bolshevik seizure of power.

In February 1917 Revolution broke out and successfully overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. The new revolutionary leaders faced many problems—political, social, economic, cultural, others—but two of them stand out: war and popular expectations. One was war. The Great War, World War I, had a massive impact on the population: human losses, dislocation of big sections of the population evacuated away from the front areas, large numbers of new widows and fatherless children, disruption of the economy and the beginning of runaway inflation, among others. Russia’s poor military performance and serious social-economic problems created strong dissatisfaction with the imperial regime of Nicholas II. Once the February Revolution overthrew Nicholas, people expected the new Provisional Government to quickly do something about the war and the problems it had caused. Differing ideas about that immediately emerged. Failure to find a way to peace quickly undermined the successive 1917 governments that made up the Provisional Government and helped bring the Bolsheviks to power towards the end of the year. I have examined this in other publications, starting with my first book, The Russian Search for Peace, February–October 1917, and continuing in many articles and books, including in my current third edition of The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

The other massive problem was how to meet all the expectations that the revolution sparked in the population, especially as the population moved quickly to get their aspirations fulfilled. The February Revolution not only gave the people of the Russian Empire an unprecedented opportunity to express their wishes, but allowed them to organise for their fulfilment. Freed from the old regime’s censorship and controls over public life, they burst forth with a massive self-assertiveness, holding public meetings, creating new organisations, and forcing out political leaders who did not move quickly enough to fulfil their expectations. Announcements of conferences, congresses, committees, public meetings, organisations being formed, and other manifestations of a newly unfettered public life filled the newspapers, whose numbers exploded in 1917. Speeches became the order of the day in a society that had previously been gagged but now could and did speak not only freely but constantly. In some ways Russia in 1917 was a vast and ongoing meeting.

Amid all the meetings, speeches, posters, newspaper editorials, proclamations by political parties, and other clutter of untrammelled free expression, one can, however, perceive the process by which the various strata of society voiced their aspirations and struggled to fulfil them. Through a multitude of new organisations they put forth their vision of what the revolution meant, its purpose, and what should be its outcome. Everyone measured the revolution by the extent to which it fulfilled or threatened their aspirations. What we will do here is examine some of those aspirations and what happened, or did not happen to fulfil them, and how that shaped the outcome of the revolution.

As we look at these aspirations, we should keep in mind that the Russian Empire was an enormously diverse society, divided by wealth, occupation, education, ethnicity, nationality, religion, legal status, regional characteristics, and in various other ways. Nor should we forget the multiplicity of identities a single person might have. A recent rural recruit to a Moscow factory could well harbour continuing aspirations for a share of the land in his/her home village alongside his/her new industrial concerns as well as identities based on gender, religion, home region, nationality, and politics. What motivated a Ukrainian or Estonian peasant who was serving in the army? Did he have more sense of common interest with other Ukrainians or Estonians regardless of class, or with peasants of whatever ethnicity against all landlords, or as a soldier threatened with possible death if the war continued? How did one identity affect the others? Which predominated? Interests were often multiple, sometimes complementary and sometimes competing.

While examining the aspirations of the many segments of society and how those played out, we need to keep in mind the unusual and rather unstable political structure of 1917. Political leaders in Petrograd immediately formed the Provisional Government. It was universally accepted as the new and legitimate government of Russia until a popularly elected Constituent Assembly could meet and establish the new permanent government and political system. Initially dominated by liberals, the Provisional Government quickly became a coalition of liberals and moderate socialists. Alongside it, and quickly recognised as the real power, was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. It was composed of delegates from factories, military units, and various work places and socialist political parties, but led and dominated by the socialist intelligentsia. A similar structure of local official government and soviet followed for provincial cities.

In what follows, we will look at some of the more important “identities” and how the revolution affected them and what they expected from it. Initially, the general mood was extremely optimistic that all problems could be solved and all aspirations met. After the overthrow of Nicholas, everything seemed possible. Despite such optimism, however, the reality was that the varied aspirations of diverse segments of society were not easily satisfied in that rapidly changing time of war and general domestic upheaval. Failure to meet people’s expectations drove the revolution towards more extreme parties and movements. Let us look at several important groups and what they expected and got.

Urban Workers

The urban industrial and other workers were central to the revolution, both in its origins and its development. They were concentrated in the major cities, especially Petrograd (modern St Petersburg and the capital in 1917) and Moscow. Organised by the industrial process, they started the revolution through the rapidly expanding strikes and demonstrations process of 23 February–2 March 1917. They were soon joined by most of the city’s population and then, on 27 February, by mutinying soldiers. After the February Revolution succeeded and the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were formed, they continued to play a central role as they sought to fulfil their aspirations, a process the understanding of which is essential to comprehending the further development of the revolution generally and its outcome in later 1917.

What did the workers want, indeed, demand? We can break that into two broad groupings: workplace issues, and broader political and social issues. First, they moved quickly to improve their economic situation and the workplace. They demanded the eight-hour workday instead of the very long ones that had typified Russian industry, and in fact workers swiftly began to introduce it and employers grudgingly accepted it. They also moved immediately to improve working conditions and safety, oust harsh foremen and managers, institute sick leave, and secure opportunities for education, job advancement, vacation time, and other workplace issues. They also demanded immediate wage increases to offset the wartime inflation. They were generally successful initially. These became an ongoing source of conflict with employers, however, as a rapidly rising inflation quickly erased the initial salary gains while deteriorating economic conditions made it increasingly difficult for employers to continue to raise wages even if they wanted to. Workers also quickly came to support those political leaders calling for rapid steps to end the war, putting them at the vanguard of a key political movement that shaped the revolution’s outcome. All of these issues were central to the working classes’ rapid turn from support for the moderate socialists to preference for radicals including, but not only, the Bolsheviks.

A key role in fulfilling, or attempting to fulfil, worker expectations as well as shaping political life in revolutionary Russia generally was played by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, supported by workers’ soviets in other cities. These soviets emerged during the February Revolution and quickly became the de facto power centres rather than the Provisional Government and local city and provincial governments. The soviets were composed mainly of workers and soldiers, but led primarily by socialist intellectuals, especially Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), with the Bolsheviks playing a lesser role at first and a major role later. The Petrograd Soviet became the real centre of political authority for the new revolutionary Russia, even though its initial central leaders formally recognised the Provisional Government as the official government of the new Russia. During the spring and summer the Petrograd and other soviets forced the central and local governments to implement a series of reforms favourable to them. This continued until after the October, Bolshevik, revolution made the soviets the government.

Alongside the soviets emerged many other institutions representing the interests of the urban workers. These included workers’ factory committees, trade unions, worker’s militias and Red Guards, and, in large cities, local district soviets. The leadership of these came from the intelligentsia, socialist party activists, and the worker’s themselves (especially at lower levels). One of the ironies of 1917 is that lower level, especially factory level (or smaller army unit levels) soviet leaders tended to be more radical than the top-level, intelligentsia, leaders. They were in closer touch with the growing unhappiness of their constituents and had less sense of broader national issues.

Indeed, one of the main characteristics of the revolution was the steady, but swift, growth of popular radicalism. This undermined the original Soviet leadership, drawn primarily from the Mensheviks and Right SRs, and raised up the Bolsheviks, Left SRs, and other radicals. Workers took to the streets in July 1917 to demand that the Soviet take power or at least help form an all-socialist government to replace the coalition of liberals and socialists. They failed in July, but failure only turned workers further towards the Bolsheviks and the extreme left. Workers increasingly replaced moderate leaders of soviets and other institutions with more radical ones. This set the stage for the October Revolution and Bolshevik regime. The workers again turned out in October to help the soviets take power, which as it turned out catapulted the Bolshevik Party into power. Their point throughout was to try to get a government more attuned to their needs and committed to meeting their demands.


The soldiers and sailors were, along with the industrial workers, the group whose aspirations and actions most powerfully shaped the fate of the revolution. This was true especially of the huge Petrograd city garrison, whose revolt on 27 February transformed the popular revolt in the streets into a successful revolution. On that day, having been traumatised by orders to fire on demonstrators the previous day, they instead came out into the streets and joined them. This helped push the moderate and even conservative political leaders to move away from merely trying to reform the tsarist system to joining in its overthrow. With the soldiers’ mutiny, the revolution triumphed definitively.

The soldiers’ post-February activity focused on three sets of aspirations: (i) the terms of their conditions of military service, especially relations with officers; (ii) attaining peace; (iii) general social, economic, and political issues.

They immediately insisted on a change in the terms of their military service, which found quick expression in “Order No 1.” Pushed through the Petrograd Soviet on 1 March as an “order,” not a mere resolution, it called for sweeping changes in the terms of military service. Three major changes were incorporated. First, it called for creating elected soldier’s committees. These started immediately in Petrograd and then quickly sprang up across the entire armed forces, at all levels. This gave soldiers what proved to be powerful institutions through which they could challenge the authority of officers, look after their own interests, and in effect completely change the structure of military authority. Second, Order No 1 fundamentally changed officers–men relations by prohibiting the traditional officer use of derogatory language towards the men and making other changes in their interaction. It demanded that the soldiers be treated as human beings (quite unlike the tsarist military service). Third, it solidified that the soldiers’ primary loyalty would be to the soviets and their own councils, not officers or the Provisional Government. These ideas quickly spread from Petrograd to other garrisons and then to the front. In the long run, they completely disrupted the military; during the intensely unpopular military offensive of June 1917 many units held meetings to discuss officers’ orders and then often refused to obey them, especially when they would put them in danger.

After they restructured service conditions, soldiers could vent their feelings about the war and their aspirations for peace. They desperately wanted an end to the slaughter which had taken so many of their comrades—Russian losses had been horrendous. Yet, they also supported the need to maintain the front and to defend Russia from Germany, and now to defend the revolution as well. When the Petrograd Soviet in late March opened a discussion of how to end the war, the soldiers quickly took up the question also. When Irakli Tsereteli and a group of Mensheviks and SRs returned from Siberian exile and put forth what came to be called Revolutionary Defensism, the soldiers rallied behind it. Revolutionary Defensism called for continued defence of the country alongside active efforts to find a general negotiated peace. This dominated foreign policy and domestic politics for the next several months. Its failure by September resulted in a dramatic shift of support from the moderate socialists and Revolutionary Defensism to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs.

While they focused on the war, soldiers developed other demands. Most were peasants and anxious to see the land redistribution carried out (see the section on peasants). The “over 40s” demanded to be discharged. Soldier committees called for an improvement in food and other supplies, and took an increased role in the management of units. The social and economic gaps between most officers (primarily nobles and educated classes) and the rank and file (peasants and urban lower classes) fed tensions as the year and its many problems went on. Although most of the army’s structure stayed in place until after the October Revolution, tension grew steadily and its military capacity steadily declined. Desertion became more and more of a problem. Similar issues affected the navy.

The February Revolution transformed the formerly submissive soldiers and sailors into a self-conscious political force with their own aspirations and organisations. The mutinying soldiers of the Petrograd and Kronstadt garrisons were quickly transformed into a major institutional force in the new political power structure. In the cities, they formed their own soldiers’ soviets alongside the workers, while a soldiers’ committee system based on the military’s own hierarchical structure provided the vehicle for the soldiers and sailors to assert their aspirations and become a powerful, organised force in the revolution. The political party that could maintain their support would be able to lead the revolution. As one participant wrote soon afterwards, “the Petrograd garrison lived at the very centre of the revolutionary storms … Revolutionary events held the … garrison in a state of endless tensions, summoned it into the streets, awarded it the enviable role of arbiter of political conflict.” As the Provisional Government failed to end the war, the soldiers turned increasingly leftward, more favourable to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs.


Women were a special, and important, part of the revolution. For one thing, in a significant sense they started the revolution when, on 23 February, “International Women’s Day,” some female textile factory workers came out in demonstrations calling for a better food supply and an end to the war. They went to nearby factories and demanded that the men come out and join them. The February Revolution had begun. They continued to play a variety of major roles, driven by political ideology, social-economic conditions, cultural traditions, their specific situation, and their ethnicity. For them the revolution had important gender issues, but was also driven by non-gender issues that strongly affected women—generalisations can be difficult.

The war cut multiple ways for women. It created enormous hardships for most women. With husbands and fathers gone and many of them killed, enormous numbers of women not only had to take on more and harder work but also suffered economic decline. Without their husbands’ higher earning power, the standard of living declined, whether agricultural or urban labour. Factory women were paid less at the same job than men, while women working as shop clerks and other urban jobs were at the very bottom of the pay scale. The wartime cities suffered housing shortages and other problems, which affected working class women especially hard. Peasant women faced much heavier labour as they had to take on work previously done by men in farming, but now generally found their family shut out of determining village policies, which normally were made at male only meetings. Moreover, urban or rural, how to care for their children while they worked was an added burden.

On the other hand, for a minority of women the war offered opportunities, especially in the cities. With men gone, it opened job opportunities, although generally at lower pay than for men. Better educated urban women were able, if they wished, to take advantage of new opportunities in public service activities. Some women, of all classes, organised to help nurse wounded soldiers, which also gave them a sense of serving their country. As the thousands of committees and organisations sprang up in 1917, women often were able to take an active role (although men almost always dominated). In some villages, women whose husbands were away at the front or killed were, as family heads, able to play a more active role in local affairs, but usually not.

The revolution gave women one very remarkable gain, one which set Russian women above those of most of the world: the right to vote. Feminists, drawn primarily from the middle and upper classes, pushed immediately for the right to vote. The new Provisional Government immediately declared a universal, direct, secret, and equal vote for all. Women asked: does that include us? The initial answer was no, so women moved quickly. On 20 March, about 20,000 women marched in Petrograd demanding the vote. This was, perhaps, the first major demonstration after the February Revolution. Male political leaders split along arbitrary lines, with liberals, conservatives, and socialists on both sides, for and against. However, on 20 July 1917 the Provisional Government gave women full and equal voting rights, making Russia the first major country to do so.

Alongside the vote, women pushed for a variety of other gains. Middle class and liberal women pushed for things such as better access to higher education and the professions; they made gains in most cases. Some women even pushed for the right to serve in the army and Russia did create a few special small women’s detachments under the general inspiration of Maria Bochkareva. The government was less concerned with their military potential than the hope that they would shame male soldiers into fighting more vigorously. That did not happen.

There was, however, a major split among educated women: to be socialist or non-socialist. It was feminists from liberal, non-socialist parties that led the way to the right to vote and some other gains. Socialist women political figures, in contrast, played down the importance of gaining the right to vote, arguing that class and economic issues were more important than gender political gains at that time. For them, the essential division was between socialists and non-socialists, with gender of relatively minor importance.

What strikes a reader of today is the extent to which all the major political parties had significant women among their leadership: Anna Miliukova, Countess Sofia Panina, and Ariadna Turkova among the liberal Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), Nadezhda Krupskaia (Lenin’s wife) and Alexandra Kollontai among several prominent women Bolsheviks, Maria Spiridonova for the Left SRs and Ekaterina Breskhko-Breshkovskaia for the Right SRs, and Eva Broido among the Mensheviks. In something unique for the times, Panina held the position of Deputy Minister of Education in the Provisional Government, and then soon afterwards Kollontai took a People’s Commissar (ministerial) position in the new Bolshevik government: both were remarkably high offices for women anywhere in the world at that time.

Women’s gains in 1917—the vote, public and committee service, access to jobs—were mainly permanent gains. For the most part, however, aside from the vote, they had little immediate effect on the great majority of women. Peasant women, the majority, saw their lives deteriorate, and even for working class women the social-economic gains were small and transitory. Women’s hardships saw a particular manifestation in the political activism of the soldatki, soldiers’ wives and widows, as they tried to improve their government-provided cost-of-living allowance in the face of rising inflation. They staged a massive demonstration in Petrograd and were active elsewhere.


For the peasants, who made up most of the population, revolution first of all meant obtaining land, and secondarily, greater control over their lives by changing economic, political, and even moral relationships in the countryside. The revolution had removed or seriously undermined the traditional coercive institutions—police, courts, army, others—by which the government controlled peasant actions. The latter quickly understood that change and moved resolutely to establish local self-government and the right order of things as seen by them. Revolutionary change in the countryside did not happen all at once, but rather in a series of steps, village by village, over the next few months. Then, in late October, the new Bolshevik government sanctioned peasant land seizure and redistribution as one of its first acts.

As news of the February Revolution trickled into the villages in March, the peasants institutionalised the new order by creating elected village committees to act on the issues facing peasants: land distribution, wages for rural labourers, relations with landlords, access to woods, meadows and waters, and other issues. They expanded these committees to the larger rural district (volost) level. They also engaged in violent acts such as seizure of land from private large landholders and state land. The Provisional Government and central soviets tried to control and direct peasant actions, without much success. The government had more success with higher geographic level organisations, but those had little control over the peasants and some, which were agrarian socialist-led, actually supported direct peasant actions. The peasants saw themselves as free citizens with the right to shape their own future, while the government and higher political organs, including socialist dominated soviets, tended to see them as “the dark people” who needed extensive tutelage.

Conflict between the peasants and the new government and central soviet leaders came quickly. The Provisional Government found it had to continue the tsarist policies of requisitioning grain and regulating the distribution of foodstuffs. At the same time, production of manufactured goods for peasants continued to decline, removing incentives for them to market grain. Moreover, as peasants began to seize the land of large private landholders, less grain became available on the market for cities and the military.

All this was complicated by the fact that the government and soviets were divided internally on the issue of how and to what extent to do land redistribution. Failure to move ahead quickly on the latter angered peasants and stimulated peasant violence. About half of the latter instances involved direct seizure of crop and pasture land by the peasants at the village level. In doing this the peasants normally acted collectively as a village whole. Sometimes they burned down houses of landowners to prevent their return, and for its symbolism. When not directly seizing land, they took other measures: illegally using pastureland and cutting timberland, for example. This drove home how powerless the government was to prevent their actions. As the year progressed, returning soldiers, sometimes armed, strengthened the peasants and often stimulated more violence.

Peasant actions also had a moral aspect: the attack on landlord holdings reflected the peasant view that the land morally belonged to those who worked it, namely, themselves. Even peasant large landholders had part of their land seized as villagers moved towards traditional values that the land belonged to those who worked it and that every peasant in the village deserved an appropriate share. In the Russian and Ukrainian heartland, where most peasants lived, the revolution had a clearly egalitarian emphasis and strongly communal bias.

Although focused on the land issues, the peasants realised that broader political questions and events in the cities were also important: the ongoing war and the peace question, the elections to Constituent Assembly, access to education, and others, including the structure of local government. For the most part, they gave political support to the SR Party, the traditional “peasants party.” It, however, was increasingly divided between radical left, centrist, and moderate right wings. At the same time, being spread across the vast landscape made it difficult for peasants to have the kind of influence that industrial workers and garrison soldiers had. On the other hand, they did not necessarily need broader political organisation and influence to carry out their land seizures and redistribution. Indeed, by late summer the central government and Soviet had essentially lost control of the countryside. The 26 October Bolshevik declaration of universal land distribution (drawn heavily from peasant and SR theories) both met peasant approval and was a de facto recognition of what was happening across the country. Whatever the long-term peasant fate under Bolshevik rule, at this point in time they were one of the most successful groups in attaining their aspirations.

Upper and Middle Classes

These important social-economic strata are often ignored in histories of the revolution, but deserve a serious discussion. They too had aspirations and expectations of the revolution. Moreover, they initially played a key role in its success and supported it and played an important role in the newly created Provisional Government. They generally found the first Provisional Government, composed from their own ranks, as entirely acceptable. Later, once socialists significantly entered the Provisional Government and pushed policies these classes disapproved of, and especially after the mild-summer failure of the military offensive and the resignation of Prince Lvov as Minister President, they became more ambivalent and even hostile towards the evolving Provisional Government. (It went through four major restructurings plus some minor ones in the eight months of its existence.)

The true upper class—mostly the upper nobility, large landowners, higher military officers, and in a sense large industrialists—initially saw the revolution as a political event that would restrict or replace Nicholas and the autocratic regime with one more open and more capable of waging the ongoing war. They did have their own interests: protection of land rights and private property, officer’s authority, commitment to national defence, strong support for the war effort, and the creation of a parliamentary constitutional order with a strong government. They did not see generating a sweeping social transformation to be one of the purposes of the revolution. Therefore, they soon became distressed and then increasingly alienated as it became more socialist and focused on drastic social-economic restructuring.

The middle class (the concept was very vague or even non-existent at the time in Russia) shared most of the above concerns, but stressed an “above classes” ideology. It was drawn from the rapidly growing professional and urban economic middle class. As the genesral political, economic, and military situation deteriorated in 1917, the middle class split apart politically. Many of the more well-to-do elements gravitated towards the conservative political movements, weak as those were. Much of the lower middle class, in contrast, shifted towards the moderate socialist parties. The liberal Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party, the key political base of the professional middle class, shrank politically even though it remained the most important non-socialist party.

The broadly defined middle and upper classess that made up most of the well-educated strata of society increasingly found themselves being shunted to the side in politics and in disagreement with the direction of government action. This led many of them to lean towards a “strong man” and quasi- or full-dictatorship as 1917 progressed. Many supported General Lavr Kornilov in July–August as he emerged as “the strong man,” “the Napoleon of the Russian Revolution.” His fall at the end of August and then the Bolshevik seizure of power in late October pushed them even more in that direction. This helped lead to civil war in 1918.


The non-Russian peoples of the empire made up approximately half of the total population. During 1917, a wide range of ethnic nationalisms of varying strength and importance emerged once the tsarist repressions were gone. By loosening the control of the central government, the revolution allowed local nationality leaders to assert claims to authority and to organise, propagandise and attempt to mobilise the population along lines of national identity. These ranged from modest claims for cultural autonomy and respect for religious and ethnic differences to demands for national-territorial autonomy within a federal republic. Calls for near or complete independence increased as 1917 wore on and contributed to a growing general sense of instability and governmental weakness that replaced the great optimism that accompanied the February Revolution.

The “nationality question,” as it was called, was complex. The term encompassed a large and diverse population: more than 100 different ethnicities of widely differing size, culture, language, beliefs, economic development, and national identity. Within a nationality/ethnicity, at one extreme were individuals, especially urban and educated, who were basically Russified and had left their ethnic origins largely behind, or who for ideological reasons (Marxism especially) rejected nationalism. In contrast were those, also largely urban and educated, who were strongly nationalist and demanded autonomy or independence. A third extreme variant, probably largest of all, were rural populations who identified with their local region or clan and had only a weak sense of being “Ukrainian,” “Kazakh” or other nationality (although most of these had a definite awareness of not being “Russian”). In between stood people of every gradation of national identity. Some ethnic groups had a strong sense of national identity while others had little, which had important political implications.1

The nationality issue was complicated by the fact that, as noted earlier, individuals usually had multiple identities and aspirations. For example, a Ukrainian peasant might identify with the grievances of all peasants against landlords regardless of ethnicity. Did he, however, feel any kinship with Ukrainian landlords or urban intellectuals, or were they seen as part of the hostile outside world? Did the fact that many landlords were Russian or Polish and many urban merchant creditors were Jewish stimulate Ukrainian national identity or influence actions of Ukrainian peasants? What of a factory worker of Ukrainian origins—did he orient towards Ukrainian issues or multi-ethnic working-class issues? Similarly, would a Tatar factory worker in Kazan respond to the issues of 1917 as a worker, as an ethnic Tatar, or as a Muslim, not to mention other possible identities arising from former peasant status, gender, or political beliefs? When confronted with a need to choose among parties and programmes, which identity prevailed? Moreover, the identity that came to the fore at a particular time could change with circumstances. To further complicate things, these peoples had been incorporated into the Russian Empire as it expanded and most were living in their ancestral homelands. When confronted with a need to choose among parties and programmes, which of the multiple identities would have prevailed?

Moreover, nationality-based politics in 1917 often tended to blend with socialism and the nearly universal call for major social change. The most successful ethnic-based parties usually were also socialist in doctrine. Which was most important to individuals? It appears that in most cases in 1917 social concerns trumped nationalist content among minorities: nationalist parties without strong social reform platforms usually did poorly, while non-nationalist “all-Russia” socialist parties often did well even in minority areas. Put together, socialism and nationality were a potent political mixture.

For almost all nationality spokespersons and movements in 1917, at least until the October Revolution or even until the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the objective was some kind of autonomy within a federal state. “A Free Estonia (or Free Ukraine, Free Uzbekistan, etc) in a Free Russia” was a common slogan. Seemingly contradictory at first glance, such calls spoke to the special situation of the Russian state in 1917. They meant a demand for the reorganisation of the state as a federal republic in which administrative boundaries would be drawn along nationality lines and that these regions would have significant autonomy, with a special emphasis on expanded use of the local language and ethnic cultural development.

The Provisional Government and the political elite in Petrograd and Moscow were not, however, sympathetic to even limited nationality movements and demands for autonomy. Both the socialist and liberal political parties of Russia had opposed tsarist Russification policies and supported the civil and cultural rights of the minority peoples. At the same time, however, in 1917 most political leaders in Petrograd—Russians especially but also many of other ethnic origins—insisted upon maintaining the integrity and unity of the state and that any internal reorganisation had to be postponed until after the Constituent Assembly and the end of the war.

Petrograd authorities failed to recognise the seriousness of the issue. They tended to dismiss nationality grievances, believing that they would be unimportant in the new Russia. Through civil rights, toleration, democracy and elected local and national governments, they thought the “nationality question” would fade away. Only in late September did the Provisional Government, already badly weakened, make any concessions to the growing demands for nationality autonomy. The “Third Coalition” cabinet, formed on 25 September under Alexander Kerensky, included in its programme recognition of the right of self-determination “on such principles as the Constituent Assembly shall determine.” By this time, however, more aggressive nationality-based organs, such as the Finnish Parliament and the self-proclaimed Rada (Parliament) in Ukraine, had already stated that the right to determine their future rested with the local population alone.

Curiously, it was the Bolshevik Party in 1917, that most emphatically created an accommodating image on the nationalities question. Lenin had long argued that, while nationalism was ultimately detrimental to the interests of the working class, specific conditions defined whether it was progressive or regressive at a given moment. In 1917, Lenin adapted these ideas to the reality of the situation in Russia and defended the right of national self-determination—whether independence or autonomy—and repeatedly attacked the Provisional Government on behalf of Finnish, Ukrainian and other movements. While affirming the right to secede, however, the Bolsheviks at the same time stated that demands for secession must always be considered from a class perspective on a case-by-case basis. Lenin’s programme rested on both practical acceptance of the force of nationality and federalism in 1917 and a confidence that ultimately the success of Bolshevik socialism would render nationalism meaningless. (This concept led in 1924 to the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union, as a federal state based on the major ethnic divisions of the time, and in turn created the conditions that allowed its break-up along major nationality lines in 1991.)

Whatever specific party or bloc programmes might be in 1917, in general, ethnic Russian and minority nationality spokespersons saw the revolution, and especially what freedoms it entailed, differently. Most Russian political leaders stressed that democracy and freedom could be guaranteed only by preserving intact the Russian state, perhaps even a centralised one. Minority nationalists, on the other hand, saw the democratic promise of the revolution being fulfilled only through some major restructuring of the state towards autonomy and federalism and as meaning even independence if that is what a people wanted. Without that, they argued, freedom and democracy, much less the Petrograd Soviet’s vaunted slogan of self-determination of peoples, had no meaning. Indeed, as 1917 progressed, ethnic-based nationalist identity became increasingly assertive and well organised in many regions.Among the larger nationalities along the Western and Southern borders, growing nationalist movements threatened the traditional definition of the Russian state. They also undermined the authority of the Provisional Government.

Nationality and regionalist movements, of whatever kind, were a major destabilising factor in the life of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and added to the growing sense of chaos and national collapse that became so strong in the summer and fall. Actual independence, however, became a major force only after the October Revolution shattered national unity and after the closing of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolsheviks in January 1918. The latter action reduced prospects for resolving national aspirations through an elected constitutional order within a multi-ethnic, probably federal, Russian state.


Looking back at the Russian Revolution of 1917 and trying to understand it, a key feature is that the revolution activated a wide range of groups defined along social, economic, gender, ethnic, and class attributes. Moreover, it strengthened those group identities by allowing them to organise along those identity lines, which Tsarist Russia had not permitted. As the year went along, the importance of these groups grew, while government authority, central especially but also local, declined precipitously. These trends opened the door for the Bolsheviks, who had not been part of any of the earlier 1917 revolutionary governments and not tainted by their failures. Not being in the Provisional Government they could therefore promise to take steps meeting almost everyone’s needs and hopes once it was overthrown. This played a central role in the rise of the Bolsheviks during the second half of 1917 and allowed them to seize power.

Once in power the Bolsheviks moved swiftly to meet popular aspirations by issuing decrees on land distribution and peace and quickly ending the war (even if at terrible, if temporary, land loss to Russia). They also issued a series of laws and declarations that met many of the aspirations of workers, soldiers, and peasants. At the same time, their sweeping decrees and increasingly dictatorial rule, including abolishing the recently democratically elected Constituent Assembly, offended many. Indeed, meeting everyone’s expectations quickly proved impossible and the civil war that had loomed as a possibility all through 1917 quickly followed.


1 These ethnic/nationality issues make more sense if one is aware that in Russian there are two words which we lump together as “Russian” but which mean importantly different things. One is Russkii, meaning place, person or thing that is ethnically Russian, and the other is Rossisskii/Rossiia, which refers to the overall Russian state and its citizens regardless of ethnicity. Thus, one can speak of being Ukrainian or Latvian or of having a Ukrainian or Latvian political unit within a “Russian” (Rossisskii) state.

Updated On : 7th Nov, 2017


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