How did the Bolseheviks and Lenin Gain Control of Russia?

Problems Facing Tsarist Russia

  • Only 1% of population owned almost all of the land
  • small, but growing middle class
    • merchants, bankers, industrialists
  • Peasants were poor and illiterate
  • Starvation and disease were widespread
  • Use of outdated agricultural techniques
  • Lack of technology
  • Terrible working and living conditions for workers in cities
  • Only produced heavy industrial goods ie. steel, coal
  • Russian Orthodox Church had a lot of influence and had many ties with Tsar
  • People wanted to modernize the country
    • play a major role on the world stage with a powerful military
      • industrialization is required for this to occur
    • economy was heavily based in agriculture (which was very backwards)
  • Tsar thought modernization could weaken his power
    • Further industrialization would lead to growth in cities
    • educated workforce would grow, and there would be more people who could question the government and ask for political change
  • Witte's Economic Policy called for industrialization but in 1902 Russia's economy collapsed
    • thousands lost jobs
    • protests and strikes throughout cities
    • large starvation coincided with economic turmoil
  • 1905- Political unrest was visible
    • failed revolution
  • Revolution caused Tsar to make some concessions:
    • Duma- where representatives would be elected by the people
    • civil rights
    • the right to form political parties
    • end to censorship
  • However, Tsar still kept strict control, and did not grant these concessions to the extend that the people had hoped for.

Effects of WWI

  • Military failures caused frustration towards the Tsar's actions and lost the support of the people and the morale of the soldiers
  • Living conditions were worsened as supplies were directed towards soldiers
    • starvation occurred it cities
    • urban workers became more hostile
  • Tsarina and Rasputin were in charge of the country when the Tsar went to the front of the lines to boost morale
    • replaced government officials with corrupt, unqualified people
    • discredited Tsar
  • People wanted greater political reforms but the Tsar would not make the necessary concessions
  • Feb. 23rd 1917 General turned on Tsar forcing him to abdicate

After the February Revolution

  • Groups searching for power after the revolution
    • The Liberals: Kadets, Octoberists, Progressive Bloc
      • Main Beliefs: parliamentary democracy, civil rights, free elections in which all men could vote
      • Methods: Non-violent political channels, the zemstvo, the Duma, the press and meetings
    • Socialist Revolutionaries:
      • Main Beliefs:
        • Placed hope for revolution with peasants
        • Excepted the development of capitalism as a fact
      • Methods: Agitation, and terrorism.
    • Social Democrats:Bolsheviks, and Mensheviks
      • Main Beliefs: Both factions accepted main tenets of Marxism but split over role of the party
        • Bolsheviks-
          • few but highly disciplined professional revolutionaries
          • operated under central leadership
          • highly centralized party
        • Mensheviks-
          • broadly based party, who would accept all who wanted to join
          • democratic, allowed members to have a say in policy making
          • encouraging of trade unions
  • Petrograd Soviet-
    • elected individuals from factories to represent the people
    • soldiers also were represented in the Soviet
    • intended to protect the interest of the workers and soldiers
    • Had more power because they controlled the infrastructure
    • could have taken power but didn't want to fight
  • Provisional Government-
  • formed of individuals selected by the Duma
    • intended to be a place holding government until The Constituent Government was formed
    • said they would hold elections for the constituent assembly
  • Kerensky was a member of both and served as a line of communication
  • Small local governments were set up around the country
  • Conditions did not immediately get better because they were still fighting in WWII

Lenin's Rise to Power

  • **LENIN** had been exiled in Switzerland but returned to Russia with the help of Germany
  • Menshevik leader told him that he was not needed and that he should leave
  • Lenin delivered the April Thesis, which called for:
    • world wide socialist revolution
    • immediate end of war
    • Soviet to take over Provisional Government
    • Land given to the poor
  • Slogan of "Bread, Peace and Land!"
  • Lenin was a strong leader, and used his rhetoric skills to can support
  • Lenin believed that the world wide socialist revolution would occur when the weakest link in the capitalist chain (Russia) would break, opposed to Marx's view that the most industrialized country would be the spark of revolution
  • Flaws of Provisional Government:
    • War:
      • people did not want the war to continue but the gov't couldnt afford to lose so they launched an attack on Germany which failed miserably
      • people were outraged and it led to the July Days (more info later)
    • Land:
      • People wanted immediate land reform but the Provisional Government wanted to wait, so that the Constituent Assembly could divide land
      • Angered peasants took land anyways without permission
    • Minority Groups:
      • demanded more autonomy
    • Economy:
      • shortage of food, fuel and raw materials
      • Grain shortage
  • Problems facing Kerensky:
    • liberals in gov't were moving to the right, now wanted:
      • no land reforms
      • defense of property
      • military discipline
      • law and order re-established
    • army was disintegrating:
      • regiments were deserting
      • commandeering of trains
    • Control in countryside was lost:
      • land seizures led to increased violence
    • Soviet was declining in influence:
      • leaders were becoming out of touch with the workers
      • lacked decisive leadership
    • economic situation in cities:
      • Grain wasn't getting to the cities
      • factories were closing
    • Increasing lawlessness:
      • robbery
    • Increasing support for Bolsheviks:
      • workers, soldiers, and sailors were becoming more radicalized
      • turned to Bolsheviks for reform
  • July Days:
    • failure of summer offensive and the economic problems caused a build up of anger in workers and soldiers
    • this led to the July Days rebellion
    • Lenin took a wait-and-see policy because he was scared
    • many Bolshevik leaders got arrested as a result
      • Trotsky included
    • Lenin fled to Finland
  • Kornilov affair:
    • Kerensky needed a general he could trust and chose Kornilov
    • Kornilov started to march towards Petrograd
    • Kerenesky armed the Red Army to defend the city
    • Irretrievably damaged Kerensky's reputation
    • Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders were discredit for association with Kerensky
    • Kadets and liberals lost the trust of the people
    • Soldiers were infuriated and murdered many officers
    • Bolsheviks gained popular support and were seen as defenders of the revolution
    • Bolsheviks used this support to take control of Petrograd Soviet and elect Trotsky president of it
  • October Revolution
    • Lenin decides the time is right to take over:
      • Bolsheviks had control over Soviet
      • popularity was at an all time high
      • Kornilov affair demoralized liberals
      • Provisional Government was helpless
    • Trotsky convinced Lenin to wait until to the second congress to seize power
    • Kerensky sent radical army units out of Petrograd, which spread rumors that they were abandoning the city to the Germans. Because of this the Bolsheviks set up a military revolutionary committee
    • Night of October 24-25 Red Guard took over all key posts ie. bridges, phones, railways
    • Night of October 25-26 Bolsheviks invaded the Winter Palace and arrested everyone
    • This was followed by 10 days of fighting in Moscow between Bolsheviks and other parties

Initial Consolidation of the Bolshevik State 1917-1921 (Christian G-S)

Word Document of this section

Even though Lenin had proclaimed Soviet power, he decided to minimize the Soviet. In order for him and the Bolsheviks to rule autonomously, he created the Sovnarkom, which became the new ruling body of Russia. It was made up of the Chairman and the Commissars, who each performed certain tasks. Here are some examples:

  • Chairman: Lenin
    • Commissar of Foreign Affairs: Trotsky until February 1918
    • Commissar of War: Trotsky from February 1918
    • Commissar of Nationalities: Stalin

However, the local Soviets, filled with Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, still held power around Russia, since the Sovnarkom could not truly carry out its own laws, due to its precarious weakness. However, to achieve support, Lenin made several decrees:

Land Decree:

  • Peasants had the right to overrun estates and redistribute land as they saw fit
  • However, it was temporary. Lenin did not see privately owned land as a Bolshevik policy

Worker’s Control Decree:

  • Factory committees of workers were allowed to control their production and finances by “supervising management”
  • Not a Bolshevik supported idea, but worker support was crucial

Rights of the People of Russia Decree:

  • Right of self-determination of minorities in the Russian empire
  • Only a paper measure, since it could not truly be carried out

Over time the former Soviet died out because it was undermined by Lenin’s lack of communication with it. It started to lose overall significance and eventually disbanded in the 1930s.

In addition to following popular demands, Lenin also based his regime on terror and suppression of opposition. Lenin did this by:

  • Shutting down oppositional press
  • Arresting and outlawing the Kadets, who had dominated the Constituent Assembly
  • Arresting right-winged Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries
  • Establishing the CHEKA in December 1917
  • Class warfare against burzhui (bourgeoisie)
  • Replacing judicial system with revolutionary justice (arbitrary and violent)
  • Arresting and execution of civil servants

Lenin’s actions, however, were met with enormous pressure from other socialist parties to form a coalition government. People wanted democratic freedom. After a railwaymen’s union’s decision to threaten to cut communication and supplies to Petrograd, Lenin was forced to give in and allow elections to the Constituent Assembly to take place, as well as to work with power sharing. However, to counter his personal downfall, Lenin did the following:

  • Formed a political alliance with the Socialist Revolutionaries, which gained him substantial peasant support. In return, he allowed some SRs in the Sovnarkom.
  • Following his lack of seats in the Constituent Assembly, he declared it redundant. As a result, he closed it by force.

Though Lenin had signed a Decree of Peace in October, 1917, he was unable to simply generate a status quo with the Germans, since his borders were left unprotected by deserting soldiers. As a result, he signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, which gave away vast chunks of Western Russian land, which was the breadbasket. As a result, he lost support, both from the people and from the SRs.

The Russian Civil War 1918-1920

The sides:


  • Bolsheviks
  • “Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army”
  • Made up of Kronstadt sailors, Red Guards, and volunteers
  • Located in the Russian heartland, which meant more men to bring into the army, as well as full control of the railway network, which was vital for supplies
  • Ended up winning the war
  • Had many desertions, but maintained a 3-million men military in 1920. That number grew to 1 million within a few years.
  • Organized by Trotsky, who did several things which ultimately contributed to the red victory:
    • The reinstated strict military disciplines and corporal punishment for desertion
    • Used old Russian officers to lead the troops and kept them loyal by holding their families hostage
    • Used his train as a means of creating strong morale and resupplying the front lines where fighting was fiercest


  • Anyone who opposed the Bolsheviks, which included monarchists, liberals, SRs, Mensheviks, and former military officers
  • Geographically divided, which meant strategic coordination difficult
  • Deeply divided due to political opinions
  • Lacked support due to ruthlessness of Generals and soldiers, as well as politica differences
  • 4 main armies

#Yudenich’s Army
# 15,000 men
# almost captured Petrograd but were stopped by Trotsky in October 1919

  1. Omsk Government
    1. 140,000 men
    2. captured Eastern towns, but fell apart as a result of internal quarrels, determined Red counterattacks, and power struggles
  2. Komuch

#SR government based in Samara
# Claimed to be the legitimate government of Russia

  1. Southern Volunteer Army
    1. First led by General Kornilov and Alekseev. Then led by Generals Denikin and Wrangel after late 1918.
    2. 150,000 men
    3. Had many Cossacks. They later deserted when their own region was secured.
    4. Were defeated at Tsaritsyn by Stalin in late 1918
    5. Tried fighting again in the summer of 1919 and made it within 320 km of Moscow, but was forced on a retreat to the Crimean peninsula by Trotsky.
  • Were sometimes supplied by Western powers. Western forces took little part in the fighting of the war (only a few skirmishes, etc.). Allied troops were guarding munitions at Archangel and Murmansk


  • Peasant armies
  • Fought for both sides. Usually the primary objective was securing one’s personal region
  • Most famous: Nester Makhno army in the Ukraine
    • Used guerilla tactics
    • Ended up aligning with the Bolsheviks

The Russo-Polish War 1919-1921

In 1919, the poles hoped to take advantage of the internal strife in Russia and make some land grabbing. By 1920, they had captured Kiev. However, by this time, the Bolsheviks had more or less won the Civil War and the fear of polish invasion united Russians of different political background against the common enemy. Within a short amount of time, the Poles were pushed back to Warsaw. Lenin saw this as an opportunity to build his “red bridge” of spreading communism to Western Europe. However, far from supplies, the Reds were defeated by the Poles. As a result, the Polish gained large parts of Ukraine and White Russia (aka Belarus).

Life in Russia during the Civil War

The Civil War had its share of atrocities. Here are some examples:

  • Cossacks destroy the farms and claimed the lives of some 115,000 Jews on the Ukraine alone
  • Whites shot miners who did not produce enough coal in the Donbass region
  • Reds nailed white officers’ medals into their shoulder pads
  • Over 1 million are said to have died from Typhus or Typhoid fever

While Trotsky was managing the war, Lenin took care of domestic matters. His challenge came in fixing the rapidly deteriorating economy, which had faltered by the spring of 1918. His freedoms for the factory workers and the peasants had backfired and generated little manufacturing, as well as a massive food shortage within the cities, since the peasants refused to sell their food without becoming able to purchase goods. Additionally, wheat rich Ukraine was under Green army control. Thus, Petrograd was put under severe bread rationing (50 grams per day). This caused food riots. The workers also started leaving for the countryside in search of food, leaving the factories short of labor. Lenin had to find a way to keep the factories open and working completely, while also feeding the workers. His answer: War Communism

War Communism:

  • Grain requisitioning
    • Peasant resistance
    • Quotas
    • Hunting of Kulaks
  • Ban on private trade
    • Led to the formation of black markets
  • Nationalization of industry
    • All industry run by Vesenkha.
    • Reinstatement of managers
  • Labor discipline
    • Fines for lateness or absentness
  • Rationing
    • Class-based rationing
    • Soldiers and workers received the most
  • Red Terror
    • Workers, anarachists, and opposing socialists put down by the Cheka via arrests and executions
    • Execution of the Tsar family on July 17, 1918
      • Demoralization
      • Blaming local soviets
    • Between 1918-1920, some 300,000 executions were performed
    • Labor and concentration camps
  • Cheka raids of black markets
  • In the 1920s, 42% of prostitutes in Moscow were from the Bourgeoisie class

New Economic Policy or How was the Bolshevik state consolidated between 1921 and 1924

Why did they create the NEP?

1921-Economy in shambles:

  • Peasants revolt
    • Collapsed transport system, thus production had come to a halt
    • Grain production fallen
    • Mass death from disease
    • Peasants were hostile-detested grain requisitioning
  • Urban workers revolt
    • Food shortages
    • The militarized factories-conditions horrible
    • State controlled unions-corrupt
    • Strikes result in martial law
  • Kronstadt Sailors also revolt
    • Supported urban workers
    • Mutinied against Bolsheviks…were shot

Political Dissent:

  • The revolts had led to divisions in the party
  • Worker’s Opposition(group)
    • wanted workers to have more control, criticized Trotsky’s gov’t controlled trade unions
  • Lenin recognizes the need for an end to war communism
  • Trotsky wants to intensify war communism


  • “Only a tactical retreat”-temporary
  • Presented to the Politburo
    • seen as a betrayal to the ideology, but also necessary

Key features

  • Grain requisitioning abolished-some grain is still taken, but mush less and the extra can be sold on the open market
  • Small businesses reopened
    • private ownership allowed
  • Ban on private trade lifted
    • money economy was back
  • State control on heavy industry (also transport and banking)
    • They were organized into trusts

Economic recovery:

  • 1922-Economy getting better:
    • Food was in circulation
    • Trade was regular
    • Factory output increased (rose 200% in 3 years)
    • Industry grew slowly
    • Nepman
      • private traders (men who bought produce and other products from the peasants and sold them in the city)
    • All seemed well with the economy, but it came with a price: extreme increase in crime and prostitution

1923- “Scissors Crisis”:

  • Too much food
    • prices drop
  • Still a lack of industrial goods
    • prices rise
  • Gov’t takes action
    • took peasant taxes in cash
  • Crisis short lived
    • industry begins to grow

Inside and outside the Soviet Union people thought that this was the end of communism, but with a liberalized economy came a more centralized gov’t. By 1924 there was a one party dictatorship. However, when the Bolsheviks took power they had no clear plan of how to run the country so they kind of improvised. They centralized the government by concentrating the majority of the power in the hands of a few top people. The Sovnarkom gained more power.

How did the party come to dominate the government?

  • 1919-Politburo created (more power to a small group-only 7- people)
  • Local communist groups took control of soviets across Russia, but obeyed the people at the top
  • The party began to “appoint” its own members to power
  • 1923-nomenklatura
    • Series of elite governmental and political positions held by the most loyal members of the Bolshevik party. This resulted in a much more authoritarian party that was far detached from its proletarian base.

In what ways did the government become more centralized?

  • It was essential to keep large industries afloat (especially during the Civil war)
    • They nationalized industry
  • Transport was important for the same reason as industry so it was also nationalized
  • Quick decisions during the Civil war were made without much consultation from other bodies
  • Organizations created to ensure distribution of food

Political Oppression during the NEP:

  • Censorship (pre-publication censorship)
    • Russian writers and scholars were deported if their documents were not in line with what the government wanted
  • Attack on political rivals (Mensheviks and Socialists Revolutionaries arrested)
    • These parties are banned
  • Show trials-Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries put on trial and accused of ridiculous crimes and were then killed (sometimes imprisoned)
  • Ban on political factions
    • Lenin calls for unity and anyone who was against this was shunned
  • GPU-Cheka (secret police)
  • Controlling peasant revolts
    • Rebel villages crushed
  • Attacks on the church
    • Union of the Militant Godless
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License