The Legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolutions

By Issy Defillion

A century has passed since the Russian Revolutions of 1917, a century in which historians have reflected on its consequences for the politics and peoples of Russia and the World, and on the legacy it still holds today.

In our minds, when thinking of the Russian Revolutions we may recall a flash of red; the red of the blood lost, the red of the Red Guards’ uniform, the red of the Communist flag. The figureheads of revolution – Lenin and Stalin – their faces, their words, their revolutionary mystique remain at the forefront of our minds when we think back to 1917.

The 14th February 1917 witnessed the appearance of signs bearing the slogans ‘Bread!’ and ‘Down with autocracy!’ on the streets of Russia.[1] The 21st February saw fellow Russians exclaiming, “D’you know, if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”.[2] In the early hours of 14th March, on his return to St Petersburg, Tsar Nicholas II waited patiently on board a train whilst mutinous troops blocked the line. It was inside this train that autocracy fragmented. In the afternoon of the 15th March, a ‘visibly emotionless’ Nicholas abdicated his throne in favour of the establishment of a Provisional Government; 300 years of Romanov autocratic rule came to a decisive end.[3]

On the 26th October, the capital awoke without realising who the new rulers were; overnight, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party had arrested members of the Provisional Government at the Winter Palace and had seized power.[4] Overnight, the political climate of Russia was transformed. Thus, commenced the rise of a Communist Russia; later to be recognised as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR would shape a legacy that would influence European and global development until its collapse in 1991.[5]

Leap to the 7th November 1931; four huge portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were placed on the façade of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, collectively becoming the symbolic centrepiece of Stalinist thought and culture.[6] The legacy of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, cultivated from the events of the Revolutions, would see the birth of communism worldwide, and consequently the transformation of millions of lives.

The spread of communism is arguably the greatest legacy of the Russian Revolutions. Historian Eric Hobsbawm, has argued that without the October Revolution, the USSR would not have found itself at the head of a ‘socialist camp’.[7] Further historiography argues that the ‘revolutionary mood’ of the events of 1917 in Russia ‘infected’ distant metropoles on continents such as Australia, Canada and the USA where authorities witnessed mass strikes as workers fought to build unions, raise wages and improve conditions.[8] The ‘colonial periphery’, from 1919, Ireland, Egypt, Iraq, British India and China all beheld resistance against foreign intervention inspired by the Russian Revolutions. It would appear that the Marxist ideology of ‘World Revolution’ would appear to have materialised due to the wave of resistance across the world generated by the Russian Revolutions.

Furthermore, the spread of communism was a legacy which facilitated the defeat of Hitler, and ultimately, of fascism. Hobsbawm believes that the period of the capitalist-communist alliance against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s was ‘a hinge of twentieth-century history and its decisive moment’.[9] He argues that the victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler was the achievement of the regime installed there by the October Revolution. Ultimately, if it were not for the military legacy of the Russian Revolutions, and the subsequent defeat of Hitler, alongside the capitalists, the Western world would not be what it is today. Hobsbawm argues that, without the occurrence of the October Revolution, our world would function on a platform of authoritarian and fascist themes rather than parliamentary ones.[10] He concludes this line of argument by stating it to be ‘ironic’ that the most enduring result of the October Revolution was ‘to save its antagonist’, the West.[11]

Concerning the economic legacy of the Russian Revolutions, it is possible to link the October Revolution with the rise of Stalin and the Stalinist economy. This part of history is littered with conflicting terms; ‘ambitious goals’, ‘driven workforce’ and ‘prosperity and productivity’ or, ‘oppressive working environment, ‘unrealistic targets’ and ‘unsustainable economy’. Ultimately, the historiographic debate is still unclear about whether Stalin’s economic plans were weak or strong.[12] Yet, it is worth acknowledging the positive economic legacy of the Russian Revolutions. Robert Tucker argues that the Revolutions opened the door for many peasants to have careers in the ‘new society’.[13] He states that industrialisation and collectivisation – components of Stalin’s Five Year Plan – resulted in the recruitment of ‘millions of people of peasant stock into the working class’. The output of oil increased from 11.7 million tonnes in 1927 to 28.5 million tonnes in 1937, whilst output of coal increased from 35.4 million tonnes in 1927 to 128.0 million tonnes in 1937. Russia’s poor performance in the First World War in comparison to its victorious performance in the Second World War can serve as further evidence of the transformation of Russia’s economy; from low-level economic development in Tsarist Russia to economic superiority and ‘superpower’ status in post-Revolution Russia.[14] However, this legacy is not without its pitfalls. Famine was a consequence of Stalin’s collectivisation in Soviet Ukraine and it contributed to the death of 3.3 million people in 1932-33.[15]

Taking a broader view on the legacy of 1917, the fall of communism led to the economic collapse of Russia and its satellite states. Joseph Stiglitz has argued that Russia and other states transitioning from communism to capitalism continued to suffer widespread disappointments.[16] Indeed, he believed the economic crisis in Russia that agitated global markets in the 1990s was ‘the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression – one that would spread from Asia to Russia and Latin America and threatened the entire world’.[17] This was supposedly due to the failure of Russia and other East European countries to convert to a market economy and reverse the legacy of communism by fostering capitalism.[18] Russia’s ‘rapid’ trade liberalisation, accompanied by ‘equally rapid’ capital market liberalisation and privatisation was ‘flawed, and proved devastating’ to the economy in the 1990s.[19] And so, we can argue that the whilst on a short-term basis the Revolutions did increase economic productivity, taking a retrospective view on Russia’s economy up to the 1991 would paint a different picture.

From Bloody Sunday in 1905, to the violence of the July Days in 1917, to the atmosphere of suspicion and fear generated by the Red Terror during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 and the execution of the Romanov family in 1918, the Russian Revolutions were of a violent nature. Lenin’s use of the Cheka – established in December 1917 – established a framework of coercion and intimidation that would be intensified under Stalin. The ‘Great Terror’ of 1936-1938 witnessed the purging of party officials and those disloyal to Stalin.[20] Roughly one million deaths are attributed to this period of terror, whilst two to three million more are accredited to Stalin’s use of gulags.[21] This ‘dark side’ of power and government is what marks the Revolutions: an autocratic Russia transitioned into an arguably authoritarian one due to the events rooted in 1917.

Today, Putin’s Russia shares various similarities to the Russia of 1917. Civil unrest continues.  The 2011-2013 protests[22] regarding supposedly ‘flawed’ election results are an example of this,[23] whilst more recent accusations of Putin’s role in ‘rigged’ US elections of 2016 persist.[24] The question remains over whether we commemorate the Revolutions in a positive or negative light.

Did the Russian Revolutions liberate the working-class people from the weak leadership of Tsar Nicholas II, or did it provide a new framework of oppression with the rise of Stalinism? Did the Revolutions give Russians the figurehead they so crucially needed to modernise the economy, or did the rise of communism provoke economic collapse with its unsustainable political and economic framework, which ultimately came to a head in 1991?

We could say that Russia has gone full-circle, back to the days of autocracy, when we consider the way in which Putin exerts political control despite what could be perceived as the pretence of democracy. However, with so many questions in need of answers, one thing is for sure: the Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917 shook Russia to its core, and determined the path of Russia’s twentieth-century history.




“Russia, thank God, is not a constitutional country”

(Letter from Empress Alexandra to Tsar Nicholas II, July 1915)[25]


“Putin has named himself the emperor of Russia for the next 12 years”

(Protest leader after presidential elections of 2012)[26]


[1] N. N. Sukanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record (Princeton, 1984), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] I. F. W. Beckett, The Making of the First World War (Yale, 2012), p. 159.

[4] N. N. Sukanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record (Princeton, 1984), p. 648.

[5] I. F. W. Beckett, The Making of the First World War (Yale, 2012), p. 144.

[6] Robert C. Tucker, ‘The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult’, The American Historical Review 84 (1979), p. 352.

[7] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, (Penguin Books, 1995).

[8] Neil Faulker, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (London, 2017), p. 221.

[9] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p. 7.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] S. Davies and J. Harris, Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order (Yale, 2014), p. 19.

[13] Robert C. Tucker, ‘The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult’, The American Historical Review 84 (1979), p. 347.

[14] Figures from R. W. Davies, M. Harrison and S. G. Wheatcroft (eds.) The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945 (Cambridge, 1994), p. 236.

[15] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York, 2012), p. 53.

[16] Baloch, B. O and Inam, M. ‘Globalisation and its Discontents’, Review of Stiglitz, J. Globalisation and its Discontents (New York, 2002)’, The Dialogue 2 (2002), p. 153.

[17] Joseph Stiglitz, Globalisation and its Discontents (New York, 2002), p. 89.

[18] Ibid., pp. 133-165.

[19] Baloch, B. O and Inam, M. ‘Globalisation and its Discontents’ review of Stiglitz, J. Globalisation and its Discontents (New York, 2002)’, The Dialogue 2 (2002), p. 160.

[20] S. Davies and J. Harris, Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order (Yale, 2014), p. 20.

[21] Timothy Snyder, ‘Hitler Vs Stalin: Who Killed More?’, The New York Review of Books Online (March 2011) (accessed March 10 2017).

[22] Lecture given by Matthew Rendle, ‘Russian Revolution in Russian Culture: A Century On, 1917-2017’, November 14th 2016.

[23] Miriam Elder, ‘Russian Election ‘skewed’ in Vladimir Putin’s favour, observers say’, The Guardian (March 2012) (accessed 9 March 2017).

[24] David Smith, ‘White House says Vladimir Putin had direct role in hacking US elections’, The Guardian (December 2016) (accessed 11 March 2017).

[25] I. F. W. Beckett, The Making of the First World War (Yale, 2012), p. 149.

[26] Miriam Elder, ‘Russian Election ‘skewed’ in Vladimir Putin’s favour, observers say’, The Guardian (March 2012) (accessed 9 March 2017).


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