They have nothing to lose but their chains. - Karl Marx ?The Communist Manifesto? (1848)
1917 was a disastrous year for Russia. During, this short, in historical terms, period of time there happened two great catastrophes which had changed the future of this country as well as the future development of the whole world. Certainly, I mean the revolutions in March and in October 1917 which were quite logical and, to some extent, natural result of the situation in which Russia was.
To prove my viewpoint it is highly important to research the circumstances that accompanied and caused the revolutions. And in my work I would like to emphasize the role of Russian peasants in the events of that time. Actually, there can be found several causes which provoked the revolutions and first of all, I want to start from a brief description of the population of Russia at the beginning of 1917.
Peasants occupied a dominant position in the quantitative aspect in comparison with other classes of Russian society and represented over 80% of total number of the population. That is why it is logical to presuppose that they were the main objective of any revolutionary force who wanted to gain people's popularity. Moreover, they were recruited to Russian army which mainly consisted of peasants who, in their turn, didn't clearly understand the aims of this war and didn't have any desire to participate in it. The same tendances were the characteristics of workers who being not so numerous originated from peasants families or were the poorest peasants without land.
But their unwillingness to take part in the war was not the only reason that made them morally prepared for the revolt. The conditions of life of Russian peasants and workers were unbearable. Though Russia had a great territory it didn't belong to people who worked on it. The principal landowners were representatives of the upper classes of the society. At the same time 70 % of peasants owned only from three to ten acres. Moreover, while they had not enough land to work on they also used old and even primitive tools, implements and methods of cultivation. Naturally, they couldn't grow enough crops to cover their needs and they couldn't use their land more effectively. Further, Russian peasants being so poor had also pay huge sums of rent and tributes to their landlords and such situation created a great tension among the peasants who were ready to do anything to change this system and to improve their life. Ironically, as if their sufferings were not enough they had got one more tribute to pay: they had to provide for Russian army in World War I. On analysing these facts one can easily come to the conclusion that Russian peasantry were ready for any radical changes that could improve their life.
Also there were other causes which do not concern peasants directly but influence the general situation anyway. Firstly, there were workers who, as I have already mentioned, originally were from peasants? families or landless peasants. They worked and lived in unbearable conditions: they lived in slums, worked 10-12 hours a day, didn't have a weekly day off, nor any social protection, trade unions didn't exist, the wages were low. Moreover, the Russian government occupied with war and other problems didn't attempt to improve the life conditions for peasants and workers.
Certainly, there were some political factors that deteriorated the situation. There were practically no political freedom and people couldn't organize themselves in strong political parties to protect their interests. Though there were some such as the Socialist Revolutionary party that was considered to be the party standing for peasants? interests but unfortunately for them, they were practically illegal and persecuted by the Tsar's government. In such conditions of absolutism and repressiveness of Russian Tsarism even intelligentsia tended to opposition to the government. Thus, the situation in the pre-Revolutionary Russia was very dangerous for the official leaders of the country and it was finally undermined by the World War I and the development of revolutionary activity of different parties, including the Bolsheviks party. The rulers couldn't improve the situation and lower classes (peasants and workers) couldn't cope with their problems anymore.
And here we can't ignore the role that peasants played at the beginning of 1917. They refused to supply food to the army and towns and they couldn't pay high taxes. Consequently, in the cities began demonstrations and protests while soldiers began to disobey the officers and desert the front line. That is why under the pressure of demonstrations and the Duma (Russian parliament) that voted to create a ?provisional committee? with the task of creating a republican constitution for Russia Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 15 in favour of his brother Michael who, in his turn, refused to accept the throne, and instead transferred his rights to rule to the Duma which formed the Provisional Government to save the order and normal life in the country.
The soviets of peasants and soldiers began to appear but unlike the revolution of 1905 period they appeared even in the army as well as in towns and villages. They were united under the power of the Central Soviet that was elected from the representatives of all soviets of the whole country. They took part in the formation of the Provisional Government that was supposed to give peasants land, introduce civilised conditions in the countryside as well as in the factories, and end the war.
In May 1917, the representatives of peasants from all parts of Russia organized a peasant congress. It demanded two immediate measures: to stop sales of land and give the land to the local soviets elected by peasants. But, unfortunately, a new government didn't give to peasants what they demanded and they were still discontent. Consequently, the peasants began to expropriate the private land and use it in their own interests by dividing it between the members of the community without expecting any help from the part of the government. In such a way, making disorder, the peasants provoked food shortages and made the social tension in the towns extremely great that eventually led to the fail of the Provisional Government's policy.
Moreover, in October the peasants would not oppose the formation of the Bolshevik government. Why then did they act in such a way? The explanation is quite evident. Lenin, the Bolsheviks? leader, promised two things that couldn't fail to gain the support of the rural population because they were extremely popular among them as well as among all Russian common people. These promises were the ending of the war and reforming land ownership by distributing the land to the peasants. All these steps taken by Bolsheviks and the passivity of the government led to unwillingness of the peasantry to prevent somehow the revolution in October 1917 while the poorest representatives of this layer of Russian society joined the red army and took part in the following civil war.
However the behaviour of the peasants can be explained not only by socio-economical factors but also by human psychology, mentality and traditions. To analyse this aspect more thoroughly we can refer to works of Richard Pipes who says that Russian peasants had o long historical traditions of serfdom and their main problem was isolation from the rest of the society. He denies the revolutionary character of rural population and estimates that: ?The peasant was revolutionary in one respect only: he did not acknowledge private ownership of land. No economic or legal arguments could change his mind: he felt he had a God-given right to that land and that someday it would be his. And by his he meant the commune's, which would allocate it justly to its members. The prevalence of communal landholding in European Russia was, along with the legacy of serfdom, a fundamental fact of Russian social history. It meant that along with a poorly developed sense for law, the peasant also had little respect for private property. Both tendencies were exploited and exacerbated by radical intellectuals for their own ends to incite the peasantry against the status quo.?(Richard Pipes, Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime)
Taking into account all above mentioned, I come to the conclusion that Russian peasantry played a significant role in both the revolution in March and in October 1917. They were exhausted economically and mentally, they were desperate and had nothing to lose and, consequently, ready to revolt. In March the World War I served as the catalyst that caused the revolution which began with shortage of food in the cities and army and desert of soldiers, peasants by origin mainly. The lack of changes in the conditions of life of common rural people led to their inert position during the second revolution in October that, as they supposed, could realize their dreams: stop the war and give them the land. Finally, old traditions and isolation of this part of the society from political and cultural life led to their readiness to take the land by any means regardless the law and rights of private property. Thus, we cannot deny the role and importance of the peasantry for both Russian revolutions although they were not organized and often used by different political forces in their own interests.
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