Tom had never been much of a student of Russian history. He can never remember which Alexander begot which Nicholas and vice versa. However, he did know that Russia in general, and St. Petersburg in particular, has seen much more than its share of war. It had centuries of territorial wars with countries ranging from Sweden to Japan and then there was the interminable 20th century which began with WWI, went immediately into the Russian Revolution, then into the Communist Civil War, followed by WWII, the Cold War, the Afghan War, multiple hard and soft wars with Soviet Union states, Chechenian terrorism and on and on.
But he never really understood these wars or how they fit together. Therefore, he jumped at the chance to learn more about at least the Russian Revolution through a St. Petersburg walking tour titled Three Revolutions Tour (Joyce passed on this tour). Tom met Vlad at the appointed time and place where he underwent a two-hour lesson not just on the Russian Revolution, its prequels and its aftermath, but also how it grew out of WWI, the incredible privations of WWII, Russia’s “ascension” of Crimea and much more.
The First Revolution
The story of the Russian Revolution actually began well before WWI. It had its roots in the entire Czarist system and the practice of serfdom, which was barely a half-step above slavery. This practice, in which unlanded peasants were at the mercy of the nobility and the landed aristocracy, had been a veritable institution since the 11th century. Although people made limited and unsuccessful efforts to at least reform, if not necessarily abolish the system, it remained largely intact until 1861 when Czar Alexander II formally abolished it. He also enacted a number of other reforms such as reorganizing the judicial system, abolishing corporal punishment, promoting local self-government, imposing universal military service and ending some privileges of the nobility.
In some ways, however, this only exacerbated the problem. For example, although the serfs were freed, they did not have any land and remained at the mercy of the nobility. Revolutionaries, took these actions as confirmation that any such reform would be so half-hearted as to provide little value to citizens. They would certainly not even begin to approach their own absolutely revolutionary goals. So, after surviving eight assassination attempts, Alexander finally succumbed to the ninth attempt. His successors were far less accommodating to even incremental liberalization.
Frustrations continued to build and the opposition, while repressed, continued to gain supporters and strength. By October 2005, the workers (as well as the serfs and the revolutionaries) had enough. Although they weren’t even close to staging a violent overthrow of the monarchy, they did stage what was intended to be a peaceful march on the Hermitage to issue their own set of demands for reforms.
Nicholas II, however, was weak as Czars go. He didn’t like to make difficult decisions and was uncomfortable with confrontation. Rather than face the protesters, he left the city and left his ministers in charge. They overreacted to the protests and sent out troops who, incapable of or unwilling to deal with even peaceful demonstrations, opened fire, killing a couple hundred protesters on what became known as Bloody Sunday. After that, a tentative proposal for at least partial reform and the election of a Parliament (although hardly fully democratic in that a single gentry vote would equal 10 worker and peasant votes) was withdrawn from consideration. So much for the “First Revolution”
The Second Revolution
Russia’s second revolution occurred in February 1917, when nobles and the czar’s own ministers became frustrated by the weakness and indecision of the Nicholas II, and by the terrible miscalculation and mismanagement of the attempt to capture Constantinople. They seized power and formed a provisional government and planned to enact some of the reforms demanded by an increasingly restive populace. Nicholas abdicated without resistance.
The end of WWI, however, had given the Bolsheviks a new opportunity to launch a much more ambitious revolution. Confusion in the government, a populace tired of privation and increased anger among the military brought new recruits to the revolutionary cause–even among some of the military officers. On October 25, a blank firing by the warship Aurora signaled the beginning of a revolution. The provisional government surrendered and the Bolsheviks occupied the palace with little or no opposition. Even so, they captured and eventually executed virtually all the ministers.
The Bolshevik leaders turned the palaces into museums to show people how lavishly the royals and nobility had been living while the citizens suffered in an effort to justify and legitimize the revolution. The revolution then rapidly spread beyond St. Petersburg to Moscow, to other cities, and then into the provinces.
But Russia’s and St. Petersburg’ problems didn’t end there. Although Lenin maintained control of the revolution for about four years, deteriorating health and his death led to a power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky and the Red and White Russians. This resulted on a four year Civil War that devastated the country and the economy ands turned relatives and neighbors against one another. Then, when Stalin finally gained control, he executed his opponents (including eventually, the exiled Trotsky) and brutally repressed all opposition. He then demanded continued sacrifice from the people in an all-out drive to industrialize the country.
The Third Revolution
Then came the 1940s. Despite striking an opportunistic alliance with Germany, Hitler turned around at attacked Russia, opening a second, Eastern Front that decimated both countries and ultimately, probably cost Hitler the war. While the entire country suffered through the revolution, St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, probably endured the greatest suffering.
A three-year German blockade and siege of the city cut off virtually all access to food and supplies and even knocked out the heat during some of the coldest winters in history. While the lack of heat worsened the already intolerable hardship, it did provided at least one near-term and one long-term benefit. Over the near term, the cold froze the bodies of the dead until spring, when the ground became soft enough to allow graves to be dug. This helped prevent the spreading of disease and a possible plague. The long-term benefit was the hardship the cold imposed on the German forces that were attempting to capture the city. The weather dramatically slowed their progress, produced a huge number of casualties and devastated morale of the troops. In the end, it at least saved St. Petersburg, and possibly, all of Russia and Europe from Nazi control.
But despite the quasi-benefits, as many people as could escaped the city, heading as far east as Siberia (away from the fighting and ideally, where they could at least grow food to sustain themselves). Between the deaths and the refuges, the city’s population fell by half, from about 2 million to 1 million during the course of the war.
Still, St. Petersburg and the Russian people overcame these decades of privation to rebuilt its buildings, its culture and to more than regrow its population to more than five million.
, but not like mom used to make.