Glossary of the Russian Revolution

This glossary defines important terms, concepts and events that took place around the Russian Revolution.


All-Russia Constituent Assembly

April Theses

Bolshevism

Cheka

Civil War

Constitutional Democrats

Dual Power

Menshevism

New Economic Policy (NEP)

Provisional Government

Red Army

Red Guards

Red Terror

Social Revolutionaries (SRs)

Soviets

Soviet Union – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

State Duma

War Communism

White Movement

White Terror

All-Russia Constituent Assembly

A freely and universally elected democratic body that would have determined Russia’s form of government and political system, following the Provisional Government’s ruling of the country. The Assembly’s election was based on the principles of universal adult suffrage.

At a stroke, Russia would give equal voting rights to women and soldiers, as well as abolishing property qualifications and lowering the voting age to 20. However, the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks on its very first day of opening.

April Theses

Lenin’s April Theses outlined his political programme for the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution, when he returned from his exile abroad.

The majority of Bolsheviks who remained in the Russian Empire supported the broadly liberal Provisional Government and strived for the creation of the Constituent Assembly (parliament). In the April Theses however, Lenin controversially contradicted this approach, arguing that the ‘bourgeois’ government would become a vehicle of counter-revolution.

Even his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, commented: ‘I am afraid it looks like Lenin has gone mad’.

Desperate to maintain the revolution’s impetus however, Lenin successfully persuaded the Bolsheviks to adopt a policy of ‘No Support for the Provisional Government’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’, paving the way for July Days and the October Revolution.

Bolshevism

The Bolsheviks were a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), which split from the Menshevik faction at the Party’s Second Congress in 1903. After a narrow vote, Lenin’s faction claimed the term ‘Bolshevik’, of the majority, while the Mensheviks were named for the minority in that vote.

Bolshevism was largely defined by Lenin’s understanding of Marxism. However, instead of imagining that individual countries would each progress through necessary stages and that Russia’s next ‘stage’ must be led by the Liberals, Lenin saw each country as part of a single interconnected imperialistic world-system. Russia was the ‘weakest link’ in this ‘chain of imperialist states’ and was therefore the most likely place that a system-wide socialist revolution would begin before sweeping through the rest of Europe and beyond.

Instead of making alliances with the Liberals who he thought were incapable of seeing through their own revolution, Lenin called for the democratic and socialist revolution to be led by the working-class in alliance with the peasantry.

Throughout 1917 the Bolsheviks became widely known as one of the more extreme left-wing groups, and ultimately seized state power in the October Revolution.

In 1918 the party became known as the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and in 1919, prompted the foundation of the Communist International (Comintern), which aimed to provide direction to the forces of world revolution.

After the Red Army enabled the Bolsheviks to survive the Civil War and consolidate their dictatorship, they founded the Soviet Union in 1922.

Cheka

The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka) was organised in December 1917 and from the beginning was led by Polish aristocrat and Russian revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinskii.

It was reorganised under a new name in 1922 and thereafter went through several reincarnations, such as the Stalin People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the late Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) and the post-Soviet Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).

Initially created as an Emergency Commission to fight counter-revolutionaries, saboteurs and financial speculators with 23 staff on roll, it soon turned into a secret police department with regional apparatus and about 40,000 combatants organised in squads.

Civil War

The Russian Civil War was a series of military conflicts in the territory of the Russian Empire between the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the crash of the last large-scale anti-Soviet peasant revolts in 1923. The chronological boundaries could be extended to 1916 and 1926 when anti-government (anti-Tsarist and anti-Soviet) military uprisings and actions were erupting in the Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Although the last of the White forces fled Crimea in November 1920, unrest continued on Bolshevik territory for several years. The official end of the ‘Civil War’ in Soviet historiography is defined as October 1922, when the Red Army entered Vladivostok, the furthest eastern city in Russia. A new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was declared in December 1922.

Constitutional Democrats

The Constitutional Democratic Party, also called Constitutional Democrats – formally Party of People's Freedom – was a legal liberal political party in the Russian Empire. Party members were called Kadets. The party was formed in response to the October Manifesto of 1905 and was banned by the Soviet Government in December 1917. The core support for the party was provided by professionals and intellectuals, including teachers, university lectures, lawyers, writers, doctors and engineers.

In general, their programme supported liberalisation of the Labour legislation (e.g. introduction of an eight-hour working day) and promoted full citizenship for all of Russia's minorities, including emancipation of Jews, who in Tsarist Russia were mainly confined to special territories called the Pale of Settlement and were denied many civil rights.

The Kadets were represented in the State Duma and in the Provisional Government, although steadily lost popular support as the Revolution developed, receiving only 5% of votes at the All-Russia Constituent Assembly election. In the next several years most of the Kadet leadership was forced to leave Russia.

Dual Power

See Soviets.

Menshevism

The Mensheviks were a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), which split from the Bolshevik faction at the Party’s Second Congress in 1903. After a narrow vote, Lenin’s faction claimed the term ‘Bolshevik’, of the majority, while the Mensheviks were named for the minority in that vote. The split would not become formal until 1912 however, and even after this, many members of both factions hoped for a reconciliation.

The Mensheviks considered themselves to be orthodox Marxist revolutionaries operating in a society that had not yet achieved its ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution and was therefore not yet ready for the stage of socialist revolution. They thought that the working-class would only be able to take power once capitalism had already become fully entrenched and thoroughly modernised the Russian economy.

For them, the immediate task was to overthrow the Tsar in order that capitalism could then fully develop in Russia, and they were willing to work with the liberal Kadets to achieve this.

From 1914 onwards they suffered splits and divisions over their attitudes to the War, the Provisional Government, their relations with the Bolsheviks and the Civil War.

Throughout the Civil War, the Mensheviks continued to have a stronghold in Georgia, which they governed as an independent state until the Red Army invaded in 1921. Those Mensheviks who remained in the new Soviet states were persecuted under the Bolsheviks – especially after the Kronstadt uprising – as the shift to the relatively moderate period of the New Economic Policy (NEP) seemed to confirm many of the Mensheviks’ previous arguments against Lenin’s faction, which made them a potential danger to the regime.

New Economic Policy (NEP)

NEP is the complex of policies introduced by the Soviet Government in 1921, which replaced the policy of so-called War Communism.

According to the new rules, peasants were allowed to sell their produce on the market after having given some of it away to tax, so the policy was called Prodnalog (food tax). It replaced the previously applied policy of Prodrazverstka. Small businesses were also allowed; in essence it was an introduction of state capitalism.

NEP was prompted by the anti-Soviet revolt of soldiers and sailors in the Bolshevik stronghold at the navy base of Kronstadt. For many hard-line Bolsheviks and recent converts, this was a major disappointment – a betrayal of the revolutionary principles.

For Lenin and the party Politburo (the executive committee for Communist Parties), the NEP was a controversial survival strategy. However, the change of direction did not prevent the outbreak of severe famine that affected nearly 90 million people between 1921–23.

Provisional Government

The governing body in Russia that took power after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15 (2) March 1917. The Provisional Government lasted until 7–8 November (25–26 October) 1917, when it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.

It was formed as a result of the agreement with the Provisional Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

Red Army

According to Bolshevik theory, a socialist revolution should have eliminated all state institutions, including the regular army. Yet it soon became obvious that the new regime needed to defend itself, and the Red Army was formed in 1918. Initially, service was voluntary but conscription was soon instituted.

Imperial military officers were drawn into the army either willingly or as hostages. ‘Commissars’ were appointed in each unit to ensure party control and promote the Bolshevik ideology. The strict hierarchy within the army, mass propaganda and greater access to communications and industrial production all contributed to the ‘Red’ victory.

In February 1946, the Red Army was renamed the ‘Soviet Army’. However, it was dissolved together with the USSR in December 1991 and succeeded by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Red Guards

Red Guards were volunteer military squads consisting mainly of industrial workers, peasants, Cossacks and some soldiers and sailors. They were formed to protect the Soviet power during 1917 and were mainly influenced by and gave support to the Bolsheviks. They were instrumental in the October Military Uprising (October Revolution) and some units were later reformed into regular Red Army units.

Red Terror

The Red Terror (1918–22) was a campaign of mass and systematic oppression, mainly executed by the state security organisation – the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka).

It was officially announced on 30 August 1918 after Lenin was badly wounded and the Head of the Petrograd Cheka Moisei Uritsky was assassinated by members of the Social Revolutionary Party.

The number of victims of the Red Terror remains controversial, but it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed.

As a principle of the Cheka operations, renunciation of the justice system was adopted and execution without trial became standard.

Social Revolutionaries (SRs)

The Socialist Revolutionary Party, or Party of Socialists Revolutionaries (the SRs) was a major political party in early 20th century Russia and a key player in the Russian Revolution. The party's ideology was built upon the philosophical foundation of Russia's Narodnik (Populist) movement of the 1860s–70s and therefore saw the peasantry as the revolutionary class.

The party was founded in 1902 and for most of its existence, operated illegally, although a few party members were elected in the State Duma. The party promoted democratic and agrarian socialism – a core part of which was land-socialisation (a form of redistribution), as opposed to the Bolshevik programme of land-nationalisation.

After the 1905 revolution was crushed, the SR Combat Organization started a wave of terrorist activities and became responsible for assassinating government officials. The total number of casualties of terrorist attacks between 1907–11 (including civilians) is estimated in the thousands.

Before the February Revolution many of the SR leaders lived in exile abroad, but returned in spring 1917 to take an active part in Russian politics. They joined the Provisional Government and at the same time were active in the Soviets.

During 1917 the party split again into right and left SRs, but managed to gain 40% of the vote in the All-Russia Constituent Assembly elections. After the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolsheviks, the party lost strength and political importance. Left SRs remained Bolshevik allies until the July 1918 uprising, after which the leaders were executed, some party members joined the Bolshevik party, and the rest split into further factions. The party disintegrated in 1922.

Soviets

Councils of workers’ and later peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies. The first Soviets were organised during the unrest in 1905. During the Tsarist regime their activities were illegal, sporadic and aimed at supporting workers’ interests and revolutionary activism.

Between February and October 1917 Soviets contested for power with the Provisional Government and the term ‘dual power’ was applied to the situation. Soviets were led not only by the Bolsheviks, but also by other socialists.

By the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets (November 7–9, 1917), which was dominated by the Bolsheviks, it was proclaimed that all power had been transferred from the fallen Provisional Government to the Soviets.

Soviet Union – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Soviet Union was formed in December 1922 after the official victory of the Red Army and the Soviet government in the Civil War. The Union primarily consisted of four republics: Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Transcaucasian (including the Armenian, Azerbaijan and Georgian republics).

As a result of Red Army incursions, Central Asian territories that had been part of the Russian Empire or under its protectorate also fell under the Bolshevik control.

In 1924 most of these territories became part of the Soviet Union as the Bolsheviks redrew borders in Central Asia to form the new union republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

By the time of its disintegration in 1991, the USSR consisted of 15 Soviet republics, and the ‘national question’ was one of the time bombs that eventually blew it apart.

State Duma

The first modern Parliament in the Russian Empire was elected in 1906. The Lower House was called Duma and held its meetings in the Taurida Palace in St. Petersburg.

There were four convocations of the State Duma. The First Duma lasted for 72 days and was dissolved by the Tsar. After the Second had worked for 103 days, it was also dissolved and the electoral legislation was changed under ‘emergency powers’. Only the Third Duma lasted a full five-year term, while the Fourth was closed as a result of the February Revolution in 1917.

War Communism

This term is used to describe the complex of internal policies of the Soviet state during the Civil War in 1918–1921. These are characterised by almost total nationalisation of industries, businesses, banks and services, bans on private retail and the introduction of state monopoly to agriculture. With the latter came Prodrazverstka – obligatory deposited agricultural produce. Similar policies at wartime measures had been introduced by the Tsarist government in 1916 and by the Provisional Government in 1917, but only the Bolsheviks promoted Prodrazverstka as a principle and took it to extremes with devastating results.

Prodrazverstka left most peasants with no crops to sow for the following season. After a dry summer in 1921, peasants were left not only without a new crop, but also with no emergency grain. The number of victims who died as a result is estimated at around 5 million.

War Communism also implied that commodity-money relations would soon be replaced by the principle of equal distribution of ‘material benefits’. This was in line with the ideal principles on which communism, according the many Bolshevik theoreticians, should be built.

War Communism was later replaced by the New Economic Policy (NEP).

White Movement

Between 1917 and 1923 opponents of Bolshevik rule from all sides of the political spectrum – from far right monarchists to socialists who just months before had worked with the Bolsheviks – established strongholds and took control of various territories. This is usually called the ‘White movement’.

The White movement consisted of the Volunteer Army which operated in South Russia commanded by Generals Kornilov and Alekseev; the Armed Forces of South Russia led by General Denikin; the Eastern White counter-revolutionary army and a provisional Russian government headed by Admiral Kolchak; the White forces in the North commanded by General Iudenich; the Kuban Cossacks, and other smaller formations.

The White movement was defeated by the Red Army, as the White forces were disjointed and had differing agendas and loyalties. Being on the move most of the time, they did not try to win support from civilians or non-Russian peoples, but rather alienated them through war atrocities and chauvinist imperial policies.

White Terror

The term ‘White Terror’ is used to indicate mass oppression, Jewish pogroms and unlawful killings of enemies and civilians by secret intelligence and other special services on the territories controlled by the White armies. Although these campaigns were disjoined and non-systematic, the number of victims over the period of the Civil War could be considered comparable to the Red Terror.