Why the Russian Revolution actually owes its success to nonviolent resistance

Despite conventional wisdom, Russians relied principally on a sophisticated and diverse array of nonviolent methods to end centuries of tsarist rule in 1917.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Women demand increased rations in a demonstration along the Nevskii Prospekt after International Women’s Day, February 23, 1917. (Central State Archive of Kino-Photo-Phono Documents, St. Petersburg)

Erica Chenoweth’s remarkable recent book, “Civil Resistance,” is another contribution to the growing mountain of evidence for the power of nonviolence. While armed resistance long enjoyed a rarely questioned reputation as the most effective way to defeat oppressive domestic or occupying regimes willing to use force to impose their rule, Chenoweth and others have done much to dispel that myth. They have shown how movements using nonviolent methods — strikes, mass demonstrations and vigils, boycotts, stay-at-homes, slow-downs, nonviolent blockades, parallel government, and other forms of noncooperation and disruption — can not only defeat such regimes, but are actually successful two-to-three times as often as violent ones.  

Evidence for the greater effectiveness of nonviolent movements comes from studies that gather and sort large numbers of cases into either primarily violent or primarily nonviolent categories, allowing researchers to compare the large gap between success rates and study the factors that explain it. The result has been a wealth of important insights into the nature, potential and challenges of nonviolent resistance campaigns.

While identifying cases as either violent or nonviolent is important for comparing the two types of methods, especially in large empirical studies, it also has an important limitation. Some successful movements widely considered violent also feature sustained and widespread nonviolent methods, ones that may actually make the movement’s very success possible. This unaccounted-for-role of nonviolence in such movements makes it likely we are still overestimating the effectiveness of violence and underestimating the effectiveness of nonviolence when we characterize such movements as both violent and successful. Taking a closer look at these types of movements is a helpful corrective. In an earlier article for Waging Nonviolence, I described the indispensable but little-noted role of nonviolent techniques to the success of the otherwise violent Irish Revolution. Here I turn to a more famous and globally significant case: the Russian Revolution.

The 1917 revolution in Russia is widely considered a classic example of successful violent revolt. When friends and family recently asked what I was working on, and I responded “an article on nonviolence and the Russian Revolution,” most assumed I was joking. And plenty of those who study civil resistance share this view. While some, such as Jonathan Schell and Milan Rai, have focused on its nonviolent dimensions, many do not. Gene Sharp, the path-breaking theorist of nonviolent action, includes Russia’s 1905 rebellion as a case study in his “Waging Nonviolent Struggle,” but not the much larger and more significant 1917 sequel. Chenoweth’s new book, mentioned above, refers to the Russian Revolution as an example of “armed struggle” and codes it as both violent and successful, while Chenoweth’s earlier groundbreaking book with Maria Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” frequently uses it as an example of “violent insurgencies” that nonetheless succeed.

This reputation for violence is understandable. Russia did see some political violence in 1917, and the civil war that followed the revolution, starting in 1918, was an intensely violent armed conflict. Furthermore, the revolution’s main players were not pacifists, or even especially committed to tactical nonviolence, while some, such as the Bolsheviks, had an actual ideological preference for violent insurrection. Nevertheless, the revolution itself saw remarkably little bloodshed, and instead ended up relying principally on a sophisticated, diverse and ongoing array of nonviolent civil resistance methods, many spontaneously developed by ordinary Russians.  

One of these methods stands out in particular. Just as the Irish Revolution was an early demonstration of parallel government’s powerful potential as a civil resistance technique, Russia’s did the same for security force defection, an especially potent tool if the goal of a movement is to completely overthrow a regime. When political authorities decide to use violence to enforce their rule on populations that no longer recognize their legitimacy, they need people to carry it out — police, army units, militias. But when these very people ignore or refuse orders to use violence, authorities lose their last way of securing cooperation, and their power evaporates. This dynamic would happen many times as the Russian Revolution unfolded.

The February Revolution

By early 1917, Russia was ripe for revolution. The tsarist regime of Nicholas II survived 1905’s revolt through a combination of violent repression and political reforms, but deep political discontent remained, and it only intensified during World War I. By February 1917, almost 3 million Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the war, with more than 4 million taken prisoner. Officers found it more and more difficult to get exhausted and disillusioned troops to fight. Back home, food shortages, inflation, labor unrest and anger over the war’s deadly toll on families created an increasingly restive population. The situation in Petrograd, the capital and one of Europe’s largest cities, was especially tense.

A spontaneous walkout by women textile workers protesting bread shortages on February 23, International Women’s Day, spread to other factories around Petrograd until a third of the city’s workers were in the streets by that night. Strikes and street demonstrations only grew over the next few days, drawing in people across social and economic groups demanding an end to the war, the Tsar’s abdication, and fundamental economic and political restructuring. The city ground to a halt, especially once transit workers stopped the trams. Spontaneous grassroots organizations in factories, schools, offices and other settings were critical in coordinating growing pressure on the regime. In the words of historian Rex Wade, this “popular self-assertion became a dominant feature of the entire revolution of 1917,” creating a momentum that even caught most socialist leaders who had long-advocated revolution off guard.

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Nicholas II responded by ordering a violent crackdown, and on February 25 some local troops did follow his orders and fired on demonstrators, killing several hundred of them. But the people stayed in the streets, many appealing to the soldiers to join them. By the next day, a mutiny that started in the units that had previously fired on civilians spread throughout the Petrograd garrison, soldiers refused orders, officers fled the city, and the Tsar’s authority in Petrograd collapsed.

While starting in Petrograd, the revolution spread to other cities across Russia, and from there into the towns and countryside. While there were some violent attacks on local tsarist officials and sporadic clashes with troops, it was largely a process of grassroots mass noncooperation — strikes and demonstrations that brought life to a halt, people ignoring the existing authorities, and local garrisons refusing to crack down. When Nicholas ordered combat troops diverted from the front to crush the revolution, his generals saw the writing on the wall and refused. They and political elites from across the spectrum informed the Tsar he had no choice but to abdicate, which he did on March 2. A regime that had held political power for centuries saw it evaporate in a matter of days as masses of Russian people simply stopped obeying it.

Spring and summer

Even before Nicholas’s abdication, institutions of parallel government were emerging, and they quickly gained political legitimacy as public loyalty shifted to them. A previously weak legislative body, the Duma, which was part of the 1905 reforms, ignored Nicholas’s order to dissolve and began exercising more substantial governing functions to fill the vacuum left after his fall. At the same time (and on the other side of the same building), delegates elected by workers and soldiers from across the city formed the Petrograd Soviet, or council. In her history of the period, Sheila Fitzpatrick details how “the February Revolution had produced not one but two self-constituted authorities” that would produce a “spontaneous” arrangement of dual power. As neither body wanted complete control, they settled into a power-sharing arrangement and negotiated the formation of a new multi-party-coalition Provisional Government to run the country until a Constituent Assembly — democratically elected from across Russia — could meet to establish a new constitution and permanent government structure.

This spontaneous creation of new political institutions repeated itself in other cities and regions across Russia with their own local versions of soviet and provisional government power-sharing, and below these governing bodies, in Petrograd and beyond, was a dizzying array of smaller factory and garrison soviets, neighborhood committees, village assemblies and other political bodies. These were also fed by an explosion of civil society activity long stifled by tsarist repression. The country saw a remarkable flourishing of newspapers, conferences, public meetings, political parties, civic groups, professional organizations, theater troupes, athletic clubs, youth leagues and scientific associations.

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People all across Russia used these new institutions of self-organization and self-government in two important ways. The first was to shape policies adopted by the new political authorities. Sometimes this meant pressuring it to adopt new ones, as when feminist organizations successfully forced the Provisional Government to grant women the right to vote, or when soldiers forced the Petrograd Soviet to adopt “Order No. 1,” which empowered the rank-and-file and removed the cruelest forms of discipline wielded by officers. Other times this meant preventing the government from carrying out its preferred policies by ignoring them, as when peasants refused to turn over requisitioned food, or soldiers sabotaged a planned June offensive against German positions by refusing to fight unless attacked, causing military leaders to inform the Provisional Government that soldiers “no longer listen to the orders.” 

The second was to effect radical change directly themselves. For instance, workers instituted their long-demanded eight-hour workday unilaterally by simply refusing to work longer, gave themselves the right to more breaks by taking them, and removed abusive managers by ignoring them. Nationalist bodies in regions such as Finland and Ukraine gained independence or regional autonomy by just acting as if they already had it. And, most dramatically, peasants organized at the village level to shift power from large landowners to themselves. They adjusted rents by paying less, adjusted wages by refusing to work unless paid more, redistributed land to themselves by simply occupying and working it, gained access to restricted woodlands by going into them to hunt or cut wood, and took possession of restricted pastures by grazing their livestock on them. When landlords objected, peasants ignored them and local government officials either sided with the peasants or were powerless to intervene.  

The October Revolution

Public frustration with the Provisional Government grew over the summer and into the fall, fed by its failure to end the war, surging prices, especially for food, factory closings due to shortages of raw materials and rising crime across the country. This produced a popular political shift further leftward. There were growing calls for an end to the power-sharing arrangement between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet in favor of the Soviet’s all-socialist coalition running the country alone until the Constituent Assembly met. As the most outspoken critics of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks were the primary beneficiaries of this shift. They and their allies gained strength as their delegates were elected in greater numbers to governing bodies, including the Petrograd Soviet itself.

In late August, Gen. Lavr Kornilov, who had been signaling counterrevolutionary military action, moved troops perceived as loyal to him closer to Petrograd. When the Provisional Government responded by relieving him of command, Kornilov ordered his troops to take the city and carry out a military coup. Their advance was slowed, however, when railway workers refused to operate the necessary trains, allowing time for local people to infiltrate the ranks and appeal to soldiers to disobey their orders. This they did, refusing to advance further, and the coup collapsed.

The coup attempt further radicalized the population, especially in and around Petrograd, drawing more support to the Bolsheviks. By September, they controlled a working majority in the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin, who believed “not a single question pertaining to the class struggle has ever been settled except by violence,” favored an immediate armed uprising to overthrow the Provisional Government and seize power for the party, but other radical leftists, including some Bolsheviks, urged a more cautious approach. The majority of the population still favored a temporary all-socialist coalition replacing the Provisional Government until the democratically-elected, and almost certainly socialist-dominated, Constituent Assembly convened.

While calling for an uprising to overthrow the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks did not have any detailed plans for one, and when it came in October, it took many by surprise. Furthermore, it was Trotsky’s political maneuvering, not Lenin’s commitment to armed revolt, that made it possible. Trotsky’s idea was to build enough support in the Petrograd Soviet, among the people on the streets of the city, and within the ranks of the Petrograd garrison to use the upcoming All-Russian Congress of Soviets to effectively transfer power away from the Provisional Government.

The day before the congress was to open, the government itself sparked the uprising by closing several Bolshevik newspapers and ordering more troops to guard the Winter Palace. Workers and pro-Soviet troops responded by pouring into the streets and taking up key positions in the city. While there were some clashes and a handful of deaths, what followed was primarily two days of what Wade calls “nonshooting confrontations” that culminated in “a curiously unmilitary faceoff” at the Winter Palace. As troops nominally guarding the Provisional Government turned over their weapons and melted away, its leaders fled the city or were arrested without incident, leaving the Petrograd Soviet and its Bolshevik leaders with effective governing power.

While there was heavier fighting in Moscow over the next several days, the Provisional Government’s loss of authority across the country happened quickly and relatively bloodlessly. Due to the loyalty shifts among key populations already in place, one contemporary observer called the October Revolution less an uprising than a mere “changing of the guard.” Trotsky said the Provisional Government had already lost its power before it even knew it was being overthrown.  

An unappreciated nonviolent revolution   

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was obviously not completely free of violence. There were sporadic deadly clashes. Armed worker militias did intimidate opponents. Sometimes peasants attacked their landlords or soldiers their officers. What is noteworthy, however, is how infrequent and limited such bloodshed was across such a tumultuous year. The historian Robert Gerwarth notes how “remarkably nonviolent” and “almost peaceful” the revolution was. Lenin was actually disappointed in how little insurrectionary violence occurred given his ideological commitment to it, one reason Bolsheviks later overemphasized its role in the revolution.  

The methods that drove events in Russia during 1917 were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Masses of ordinary people went on strike, demonstrated in the streets, refused to cooperate with officials, and organized to change economic and social relationships by simply acting as if those changes already existed. Russians created a web of new political institutions and channeled political conflict into them through impassioned speeches, competing motions, credential challenges, walkouts, formal resolutions, and delegate elections; one contemporary referred to the revolution as one seemingly endless political meeting.

Perhaps most important was security force defection. At key moments when troops were ordered to use violence — by the Tsar in February, by frontline commanders in June, by Gen. Kornilov in August, or by Provisional Government in October — they simply refused, dissolving the power those giving the orders assumed they had. Given this overwhelming preponderance of nonviolent methods, it is clear that the Russian Revolution actually owes its success to nonviolence instead of violence. In spite of its reputation for demonstrating the effectiveness of violent uprisings, the Russian Revolution is actually another, usually overlooked, instance of the power of nonviolent civil resistance.

A cautionary violent aftermath

That is the hopeful part. Less so is what came next. Aside from the Bolshevik’s ideological reasons for later overplaying the role of violence, the revolution’s violent reputation owes much to its consolidation and the civil war that quickly followed. Schall writes that “while the Bolsheviks did not use violence to win power, they used it, instantly and lavishly, to keep power.”

At the end of the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had significant popular support, especially in key cities, but it did not amount to a majority across the country, especially among the enormous peasant class. Voting for the Constituent Assembly would give the Bolsheviks only 25 percent of the seats, and they were not even the largest party in the body. But they were able to use their temporary control of the government ahead of the Constituent Assembly to end the war through an armistice, further building their support among rank-and-file troops, and to begin arresting rivals and former allies in other political parties with their new secret police force, the Cheka. When the Constituent Assembly finally convened on Jan. 5, 1918, the Bolsheviks ordered their armed “guards” to instead dissolve it, which they did, as well as using force to break up street protests.

The Bolsheviks and a diverse collection of ideological and regional opponents quickly raised armed militias and mobilized loyal troops, and by the summer of 1918 the country was deep in civil war, one that would eventually kill 3 million people and displace millions more. The war’s spiraling cycle of violence included widespread atrocities — mass rape and executions, anti-Jewish pogroms, burned villages and crop destruction and pervasive torture. The Cheka grew from a small force at the beginning of 1918 to 140,000 members when the war ended in a Bolshevik victory.       

The country’s rapid descent into an intensely bloody conflict after a largely nonviolent revolution prompts the obvious question: Why was nonviolence so effective in 1917, including sabotaging most attempts by authorities to use violence, while from 1918 onward, nonviolent resistance quickly gave way to multiple parties using widespread and intensely violent methods against each other?

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The answer may lie in the nature of nonviolent civil resistance itself. When masses of diverse people unite to withdraw power from political authorities by refusing to cooperate with them, there is little such authorities can do, especially if those they rely on to use violence to enforce their will also refuse to cooperate. This is what happened across the revolution’s stages in 1917 and made attempts to use violence so ineffective. It is what propelled the Bolsheviks to power, even as Lenin hoped for a more violent showdown than the Provisional Government was able to provide because it had already lost the popular authority to muster it. But once in power, the Bolsheviks did enjoy significant popular backing, even if not a majority. They did have enough political support that many people were willing to uphold their authority by doing their bidding, including to use violence against opponents when ordered.

At the same time, the unity that drove revolutionary opposition to Nicholas II in February, or Kornilov in August, or the Provisional Government in October no longer existed. The Bolsheviks faced opposition that was less broad-based, less widespread, and more divided, making civil resistance to their authority much harder to pull off. For opponents who were not especially committed to nonviolent methods as such in the first place, falling back on factional violence to counter that of the Bolsheviks and their rank-and-file supporters seemed the only option.

The Russian Revolution, then, demonstrates that the very thing that can make nonviolent civil resistance effective enough to overthrow regimes — unified mass noncooperation and disruption — can also be its greatest vulnerability, particularly when political divisions prevent it from coalescing, and the regime has a reliable popular base of followers willing to cooperate in its rule, including by using violence. That should not obscure the too-often overlooked role of nonviolence in the Russian Revolution, but it should be a sobering reminder of the challenges activists working to wield nonviolent civil resistance must overcome.


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