The Russian Revolution


  1. To understand the social composition of Russia and the different problems and goals each social group faced.
  2. To understand the various political views in revolutionary Russia, a spectrum spanning from monarchists to Marxists.
  3. To understand the phases of the Russian Revolution, a process that included two separate revolutions and the Civil War. Was the Bolsheviks' success inevitable? Could the Provisional Government have remained in power?

Preclass Preparation

All of the students should prepare a short paper, either discussing the situation of an individual social group (nobles, middle class, workers, or peasants) or the platform of a political party before the Revolution (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Constitutional Democrats/Kadets, Octobrists, or Nationalists).

All students should familiarize themselves with Lenin's April Theses, which can be accessed here: The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution

I. The Prelude: Russia After 1905

In 1917, Russia was still overwhelmingly a country of peasants, but following the Revolution of 1905 and the establishment of the Duma, Russia contained a variety of political parties that appealed to different segments of the population. The purpose of this section is to provide students a solid grounding of the different perspectives, hopes, and aspirations for the future of Russia other than the Bolshevik's goals.

As a whole class, discuss the different social ranks of Russia in 1917 (nobles, middle class, workers, peasants). If the students have written a short paper on the social ranks, have those students present their work to the class.

Discuss with the whole class the position of those ranks, and what goals this rank might have had for the future of Russia. Ask:

  • What would an average peasant have wanted in 1917?
  • What could be done to improve the situation of the workers?

As a whole class, discuss the different political parties of Russia in 1917 (which includes Nationalists, Octobrists, Constitutional Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and Bolsheviks). If students have written a short paper on the political parties, have those students present their work to the class. If no student has written on the political parties, then the instructor should briefly summarize the political platforms.

Using a smart board, chalkboard or overhead projector, draw a political spectrum from Right to Left (from Nationalists to Bolsheviks). As a whole class, fill in the connections between political parties and social ranks. Ask:

  • Which political parties appealed to the middle class? Why?
  • Which political parties appealed to the peasantry? Why?

Finally, have a discussion with the whole class about the possible future of Russia in January 1917. Point out that the most popular political party by a wide margin was the Socialist Revolutionaries because of their strong connection to the peasantry. Then ask:

  • Which political parties were the likeliest winners?
  • Which was the likeliest loser? Why?

II. 1917-21: An Era of Upheavals

The purpose of this section is to have the students connect the social and political composition of Russia in 1917 with the various shifts in political power that occurred thereafter.

A. The February Revolution

Begin a discussion of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Ask:

  • Which political party and/or social rank lost power as a result?
  • Which gained power?

B. The Provisional Government

Begin a discussion of the potential for a constitutional democracy in Russia. Ask:

  • Which political party and/or social rank lost or gained power?
  • What problems could prevent the success of the Provisional Government?
  • What could strengthen the position of the Provisional Government?

C. Discuss Lenin's April Theses

Then ask:

  • What ranks in society was Lenin appealing to with his program for “peace, bread, and land”?
  • What did the Bolshevik Party offer that other political parties did not?

D. The October Revolution

Begin a discussion of the Bolshevik takeover in St. Petersburg. Ask:

  • What social rank gained or lost power?
  • What problems did the Bolsheviks face in extending their revolution outside of St. Petersburg?
  • What political parties could offer a successful alternative? Why?

E. The Civil War

Begin a discussion of the Civil War. Ask:

  • What factors led to the Bolshevik success?
  • What factors led to the defeat of the forces opposed to the Bolsheviks?
  • Did the Bolshevik Party implement Lenin's April Theses?
  • Was that one of the reasons for their success?

III. Historical Context

The purpose of this section is to have the students engage with the concept and common aspects of revolutions in general. This allows them to review material from earlier in the course as well as understand the historical importance of revolutions in a broader context.

Discuss briefly the stages of the French Revolution, with attention to the social ranks in France before it occurred. Ask:

  • Is there a difference between France's social composition in 1789 and Russia’s in 1917?
  • Is there a difference in the political system in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1917?

Present Crane Brinton's four-stage model (.pdf/99.3KB) of revolutions: Liberal, Radical, Conservative, and Restoration.

As a whole class, discuss the applicability of Brinton's model of revolution for France (.pdf/31.3KB), guiding students to connect the Constitution of 1791 with the Liberal phase, the Constitution of 1793 with the Radical phase, the Constitution of 1795 with the Conservative phase, and finally the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy as the last phase.

As a whole class, discuss the applicability of Brinton's model of revolution for Russia. This might include the February Revolution as the Liberal phase and the October Revolution as the Radical phase. What are the possible Conservative and Restoration phases? Some possibilities are the NEP as Conservative and Stalin's autocracy as a Restoration, or Stalin's Russia as Conservative and Khrushchev or the end of the Soviet Union as Restorations.

If time allows, the discussion of Brinton's model could continue for reviewing course material. Ask:

  • Were the Revolutions of 1830 or 1848 "revolutions" according to Crane Brinton? Why or why not?
  • Does Brinton's model even apply for France and Russia?
  • Are there a set of features that are necessary to have a "revolution"?

Additional Resources


Marxist Internet
This website contains archive Material specifically concerning the Bolshevik Party, particularly Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, with photographs, speeches, and letters.


Clark, Katerina. Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
An excellent discussion of the various cultural aspects of the Revolution, including music, art, public exhibitions, and festivals. This book is written as a series of essays, so it would be easy to select one and focus on an aspect of revolutionary culture and its ability to transform the mentality of the Russian public.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution, 1917-1932. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
An excellent synthesis of early Soviet history, which goes beyond the Revolution to trace the evolution of Bolshevik policy from theory to practice.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. Introduction by Harold Shukman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
The famous account of the October Revolution by the American Marxist, which was treated as factual for years. Reed recorded the Revolution from his experiences in Russia, but make sure to use an edition of this book with a good introduction that discusses the issues related to Reed's truthfulness about what he did and did not see while in Russia.

Steinberg, Mark, and Vladimir M. Khrustalëv. The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
An annotated collection of archival documents from the Revolutionary period, with a focus on the experience of the Russian people living through the upheaval.

Wade, Rex A. The Russian Revolution, 1917. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A survey focused on the Russian Revolution, which synthesizes all of the most recent archival research on the Revolution.