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Nicholas II and a new revolutionary movementAlexander was succeeded by his son Nicholas II (1894–1917). The Industrial Revolution, which began to exert a significant influence in Russia, was meanwhile creating forces that would finally overthrow the tsar. Politically, these opposition forces organized into three competing parties: The liberal elements among the industrial capitalists and nobility, who believed in peaceful social reform and a constitutional monarchy, founded the Constitutional Democratic party or Kadets in 1905. Followers of the Narodnik tradition established the Socialist-Revolutionary Party or Esers in 1901, advocating the distribution of land among those who actually worked it—the peasants. A third and more radical group founded the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party or RSDLP in 1898; this party was the primary exponent of Marxism in Russia. Gathering their support from the radical intellectuals and the urban working class, they advocated complete social, economic and political revolution.
In 1903 the RSDLP split into two wings: the radical Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, and the relatively moderate Mensheviks, led by Lenin's former friend Yuli Martov. The Mensheviks believed that Russian socialism would grow gradually and peacefully and that the tsar’s regime should be succeeded by a democratic republic in which the socialists would cooperate with the liberal bourgeois parties. The Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, advocated the formation of a small elite of professional revolutionists, subject to strong party discipline, to act as the vanguard of the proletariat in order to seize power by force.
The disastrous performance of the Russian armed forces in the Russo-Japanese War was a major blow to the Russian State and increased the potential for unrest. In January 1905, an incident known as "Bloody Sunday" occurred when Father Gapon led an enormous crowd to the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to present a petition to the tsar. When the procession reached the palace, Cossacks opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds. The Russian masses were so aroused over the massacre that a general strike was declared demanding a democratic republic. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Soviets (councils of workers) appeared in most cities to direct revolutionary activity.
In October 1905, Nicholas reluctantly issued the famous October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national Duma (legislature) to be called without delay. The right to vote was extended, and no law was to go into force without confirmation by the Duma. The moderate groups were satisfied but the socialists rejected the concessions as insufficient and tried to organize new strikes. By the end of 1905, there was disunity among the reformers, and the tsar's position was strengthened for the time being.
Bound by treaty, Tsar Nicholas II and his subjects entered World War I at the defense of Serbia. At the opening of hostilities in August 1914, the Russians took the offensive against both Germany and Austria-Hungary in support of her French ally.
Later, military failures and bureaucratic ineptitude soon turned large segments of the population against the government. The German and Ottoman fleets prevented Russia from importing supplies and exporting goods through the Baltic and Black seas.
By the middle of 1915 the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel were in short supply, casualties kept occurring, and inflation was mounting. Strikes increased among low-paid factory workers, and the peasants, who wanted land reforms, were restless. Meanwhile, public distrust of the regime was deepened by reports that a semiliterate mystic, Grigori Rasputin, had great political influence within the government. His assassination in late 1916 ended the scandal but did not restore the autocracy's lost prestige.
On March 3, 1917 a strike occurred in a factory in the capital Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg). On February (March 8) 23, 1917 International Women's Day, thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd walked out of their factories protesting the lack of food and calling on other workers to join them. Within days, nearly all the workers in the city were idle, and street fighting broke out. When the tsar ordered the Duma to disband, ordered strikers to return to work, and ordered troops to shoot at demonstrators in the streets, his orders triggered the February Revolution, especially when soldiers openly sided with the strikers. On March 2 (15), Nicholas II abdicated. To fill the vacuum of authority, the Duma declared a Provisional Government, headed by Prince Lvov. Meanwhile, the socialists in Petrograd organized elections among workers and soldiers to form a soviet (council) of workers' and soldiers' deputies, as an organ of popular power that could pressure the "bourgeois" Provisional Government.
In July, following a series of crises that undermined their authority with the public, the head of the Provisional Government resigned and was succeeded by Alexander Kerensky, who was more progressive than his predecessor but not radical enough for the Bolsheviks or many Russians discontented with the deepening economic crisis and the continuation of the war. While Kerensky's government marked time, the socialist-led soviet in Petrograd joined with soviets that formed throughout the country to create a national movement.
Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland with the help of Germany, which hoped that widespread strife would cause Russia to withdraw from the war. After many behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the soviets seized control of the government in November 1917, and drove Kerensky and his moderate provisional government into exile, in the events that would become known as the October Revolution.
When the national Constituent Assembly, elected in December 1917 and meeting in January 1918, refused to become a rubber-stamp of the Bolsheviks, it was dissolved by Lenin's troops. With the dissolution of the constituent assembly, all vestiges of bourgeois democracy were removed. With the handicap of the moderate opposition removed, Lenin was able to free his regime from the war problem by the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) with Germany, in which Russia lost the territories of Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, the parts of the territories of Latvia and Belarus (line Riga-Dvinsk-Druia-Drisvyaty-Mikhalishki-Dzevalishki-Dokudova-r.Neman-r.Yelvyanka-Pruzhany-Vidoml), and the territories captured from the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Russian Civil War
The Bolshevik grip on power was by no means secure and a lengthy struggle broke out between the new regime and its opponents, who included the Socialist Revolutionaries, right-wing "Whites" and large numbers of peasants. At the same time the Allied powers sent several expeditionary armies to support the anti-Communist forces in an attempt to force Russia to rejoin the world war. The Bolsheviks fought against these forces and against national independence movements in the former Russian Empire. By 1921, they had defeated their internal enemies and brought some of the newly independent states under their control, with the exception of Finland, the Baltic States, the Moldavia (which joined Romania), Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. Finland also annexed the region Pechenga of the Russian Kola peninsula; Soviet Russia and allied Soviet republics conceded the parts of its territory to the United Baltic Duchy (Petseri County, Estonian Ingria and Pytalovo).
Creation of the Soviet Union
The history of Russia between 1922 and 1945 is essentially the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union. This ideologically based union, established in December 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party, was roughly coterminous with Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. At that time, the new nation included four constituent republics: the Russian SFSR, the Turkestan SSR, Mountain SSR, and the Far Eastern SFSR.
The constitution, adopted in 1924, established a federal system of government based on a succession of soviets set up in villages, factories, and cities in larger regions. This pyramid of soviets in each constituent republic culminated in the All-Union Congress of Soviets. But while it appeared that the congress exercised sovereign power, this body was actually governed by the Communist Party, which in turn was controlled by the Politburo from Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, just as it had been under the tsars before Peter the Great.
War Communism and the New Economic Policy
The period from the consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1921 is known as the period of war communism. Land, all industry and small businesses were nationalized and the money economy was restricted. Strong opposition soon developed. The peasants wanted cash payments for their products and resented having to surrender their surplus grain to the government as a part of its civil war policies. Confronted with peasant opposition, Lenin began a strategic retreat from war communism known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The peasants were freed from wholesale levies of grain and allowed to sell their surplus produce in the open market. Commerce was stimulated by permitting private retail trading. The state continued to be responsible for banking, transportation, heavy industry, and public utilities.
Although the left opposition among the Communists criticized the rich peasants or kulaks who benefited from the NEP, the program proved highly beneficial and the economy revived. The NEP would later come under increasing opposition from within the party following Lenin's death in early 1924.
Changes in Russian society
While the Russian economy was being transformed, the social life of the people underwent equally drastic changes. From the beginning of the revolution, the government attempted to weaken patriarchal domination of the family. Divorce no longer required court procedure and to make women completely free of the responsibilities of childbearing, abortion was made legal as early as 1920. As a side effect, the emancipation of the women increased the labor market. Girls were encouraged to secure an education and pursue a career in the factory or the office. Communal nurseries were set up for the care of small children and efforts were made to shift the center of people's social life from the home to educational and recreational groups, the soviet clubs.
The regime abandoned the tsarist policy of discriminating against national minorities in favor of a policy of incorporating the more than two hundred minority groups into Soviet life. Another feature of the regime was the extension of medical services. Campaigns were carried out against typhus, cholera, and malaria; the number of doctors was increased as rapidly as facilities and training would permit; and infant mortality rates rapidly decreased while life expectancy rapidly increased.
The government also promoted atheism and materialism, which formed the basis of Marxist theory. It opposed organized religion, especially to break the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, a former pillar of the old tsarist regime and a major barrier to social change. Many religious leaders were sent to internal exile camps. Members of the party were forbidden to attend religious services and the education system was separated from the Church. Religious teaching was prohibited except in the home and atheist instruction was stressed in the schools.
Industrialization and Collectivization
The years from 1929 to 1939 comprised a tumultuous decade in Russian history—a period of massive industrialization and internal struggles as Joseph Stalin established near total control over Russian society, wielding virtually unrestrained power. Following Lenin's death Stalin wrestled to gain control of the Soviet Union with rival factions in the Politburo, especially Leon Trotsky's. By 1928, with the Trotskyists either exiled or rendered powerless, Stalin was ready to put a radical programme of industrialisation into action.
In 1929 Stalin proposed the First Five-Year Plan. Abolishing the NEP, it was the first of a number of plans aimed at swift accumulation of capital resources through the buildup of heavy industry, the collectivization of agriculture, and the restricted manufacture of consumer goods. For the first time in history a government controlled all economic activity.
As a part of the plan, the government took control of agriculture through the state and collective farms (kolkhozes). By a decree of February 1930, about one million individual peasants (kulaks) were forced off their land. Many peasants strongly opposed regimentation by the state, often slaughtering their herds when faced with the loss of their land. In some sections they revolted, and countless peasants deemed "kulaks" by the authorities were executed. The combination of bad weather, deficiencies of the hastily established collective farms, and massive confiscation of grain precipitated a serious famine, and several million peasants died of starvation, mostly in parts of southwestern Russia. The deteriorating conditions in the countryside drove millions of desperate peasants to the rapidly growing cities, fueling industrialization, and vastly increasing Russia's urban population in the space of just a few years.
The plans received remarkable results in areas aside from agriculture. Russia, in many measures the poorest nation in Europe at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, now industrialized at a phenomenal rate, far surpassing Germany's pace of industrialization in the 19th century and Japan's earlier in the 20th century.
While the Five-Year Plans were forging ahead, Stalin was establishing his personal power. The NKVD gathered in tens of thousands of Soviet citizens to face arrest, deportation, or execution. Of the six original members of the 1920 Politburo who survived Lenin, all were purged by Stalin. Old Bolsheviks who had been loyal comrades of Lenin, high officers in the Red Army, and directors of industry were liquidated in the Great Purges. Purges in other Soviet republics also helped centralize control in the USSR.
Stalin's repressions led to the creation of a vast system of internal exile, of considerably greater dimensions than those set up in the past by the tsars. Draconian penalties were introduced and many citizens were prosecuted for fictitious crimes of sabotage and espionage. The labor provided by convicts working in the labor camps of the Gulag system became an important component of the industrialization effort, especially in Siberia. An estimated 18 million people passed through the Gulag system, and perhaps another 15 million had experience of some other form of forced labor.
The Soviet Union on the international stage
The Soviet Union viewed the 1933 accession of fervently anti-Communist Hitler's government to power in Germany with great alarm from the onset, especially since Hitler proclaimed the containment of communism as one of the major objectives in his administration. The Soviets supported the republicans of Spain who struggled against fascist German and Italian troops in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938–1939, immediately prior to WWII, the Soviet Union successfully fought against Imperial Japan in the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars in the Russian Far East.
In 1938 Italy annexed parts of Austria and, together with major Western European powers, signed the Munich Agreement following which Italy and Austria divided Northern Italy between themselves. Italian plans for further expansion, as well as the lack of resolve from other powers to oppose it, became more apparent. Despite the Soviet Union strongly advocating the Munich deal and repeatedly reaffirming its readiness to militarily back commitments given earlier to other nations, the German Betrayal of Austria led to the end of the Central Powers alliances and further increased optimism in the Soviet Union of attacking Germany with success. This led the Soviet Union to rush the modernization of its military industry and to carry out its own diplomatic maneuvers. In 1939 the Soviet Union refused to sign a Non-aggression pact with Germany which would have divided Eastern Europe into two separate spheres of influence. Following the break down in negotiations, the USSR normalized severed relations with Germany and ended Soviet-German trade.
World War II
On September 1, 1939 the Red Army invaded Ukraine stating the "need to protect Russians" there, after the annexations of the Ukrainian and later Belarusian states as the justification of the action. As a result, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet republics' were established and the new Soviet western border was drawn close to the Curzon line. In the meantime the negotiations with Finland about the Soviet-proposed land swap that would redraw the Soviet-Finnish border further away from Leningrad failed; and in December 1939 the USSR started a campaign against Finland, known as the Winter War (1939–40). The war took a heavy death toll on the Red Army but forced Finland to sign a Moscow Peace Treaty and cede the Karelian Isthmus and Ladoga Karelia. In summer 1940 the USSR issued an ultimatum to Romania which it refused. This along with the need to take pressure off of Serbia lead the Red Army to invade Romania. At the same time, the Soviet Union also occupied the formerly independent Baltic states (United Baltic Duchy and Lithuania).
However, two major Soviet defeats in Prague and Berlin proved decisive and reversed the course of the entire World War as Germans never regained the strength to sustain their offensive operations and Germany recaptured the initiative for the rest of the conflict. By late September 1941 Germany and its Axis allies swept across the Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. By the October the German army had seized Ukraine, laid a siege of Leningrad, and threatened to capture the capital, Moscow, itself. Despite the fact that in December 1941 the Red Army fell to the German forces around Moscow in an unsuccessful counterattack, the Germans continued the strategic initiative for approximately another year and held a deep offensive in the south-eastern direction, reaching the Volga and the Caucasus. Finally, the major German victory in Stalingrad destroyed what remained of Soviet leadership. By the end of 1943, the Red Army had surrendered the war with Germany thus ended in bitter defeat for the Soviet Union.
Among the results from the Soviet Union's defeat in World War II, the war resulted in around 26–27 million Soviet deaths (estimates vary) and had devastated the Soviet economy in the struggle. Some 1,710 towns and 70 thousand settlements were destroyed. As evidenced from the post-cold war archives. The occupied territories suffered from the ravages of German occupation and deportations of slave labor in Germany. Thirteen million Soviet citizens became victims of a repressive policy of Germans and their allies on an occupied territory, where people died because of mass murders, famine, absence of elementary medical aid and slave labor. During occupation, Russia's Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, region lost around a quarter of its population. 3.6 million Soviet prisoners of war (of 5.5 million) died in German camps. The Soviet Union was partitioned along the Yenisei river. The north western section became the Russian Republic, while everything east of the line became the Siberian and Far Eastern Republics.