Socialism, Bolshevism, and the Red Scare

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Why were the Bolsheviks able to seize power in Russia in 1917?

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Good question, but unfortunately it is also a great example of trying to explain the Russian Revolution with a bumper sticker answer.  The standard answer will be that WWI created the conditions which the Bolsheviks took advantage of to stage the November Revolution.  The standard answer will also talk of the effectiveness of Lenin's message of "Land, Peace, and Bread" in winning over the peasants and working class to the Bolshevik side.

Unfortunately, the answer to your question is not that simple.  To fully understand why there was a revolution in Russia in 1917, and actually there were two revolutions, you must look at Russian History going back to the time of Ivan the Terrible.  You have to look at historically how the Czars ruled and how they treated the majority of the Russian people. 

Closer to 1917 you need to look at the effects of the Russo-Japanese War, the failed 1905 revolution, the unpopularity of Peter II's wife (who was German), the effects of rapid industrialization in Russia, the fact that many nobles wanted Peter the II gone, not to end WWI but to actually fight it more effectively.

So when answering this question, you must look both at underlying and long term causes.

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Historians have debated this question for some time. The consensus for many years after the revolution emphasized the tightly-knit organization of the Bolsheviks. According to this interpretation, the Bolsheviks managed to topple the Russian provisional government with relatively little support from the Russian people as a whole. Lenin, in short, was the leader of a cadre of revolutionaries who, unified in purpose, were able to overcome his opponents, a mixture of royalists, moderate socialists, and republicans who lacked the same will and cohesion that characterized the Bolshevik movement. 

While not discounting the importance of these factors, modern historians tend to emphasize the degree to which Bolshevik ideology and popular appeals resonated with the Russian people. The Bolsheviks were especially popular in St. Petersburg, where the people gradually became convinced that only they could be trusted to bring the disastrous war to an end. This interpretation also places great importance on the dire conditions that confronted the Russian people in 1917. Bread and fuel shortages, exacerbated by the war itself, made them willing to embrace Bolshevik reforms. In fact, the Bolshevik program of "peace, land, and bread" was in many ways a response to the demands of the Russian people, especially soldiers and sailors and their families in Petrograd.

In short, the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 can be attributed to, among other factors, their organization, the conditions faced by the Russian people, and the inability of the provisional government to deal with these conditions.

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