What caused the 1917 Russian Revolutions?

On the 30th December 1916, Grigori Rasputin was murdered. This, along with the military defeats in World War One and the many failings of Tsarist Russia triggered a series of incidents throughout 1917 that led to one of the defining moments in world history: The Russian Revolutions.

Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) in 1896, 1896 (colour litho), Russian School (20th century) / Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images


What caused the Revolutions?

Here is a timeline of events

Up to the end of the 19th century, Russia was an autocratic country ruled by a Tsar and supported by the privileged nobles, who owned the best land. Around 85 per cent of the Russian people lived in the countryside and earned their living from agriculture, with the vast majority of peasants living in extreme poverty.


1861: Emancipation of the Surfs 

Tsar Alexander II freed all Russian serfs (one third of the total population) via the Emancipation Manifesto of 3 March 1861. Although the system which tied the Russian peasants irrevocably to their landlords was abolished, they had less land and the redemption tax they had to pay was often more than what the land was worth. Rapid industrialisation led to the growth of a small working class and the spread of revolutionary ideas.


The Emancipation of Russian Serfs in 1861, 1908-09 (oil on canvas) / Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878-1927) / Bridgeman Images


1891-1892: The Great Famine

People had nothing to lose any more, the essential ingredient for any revolution


Famine-Stricken Villagers who have left their Homes on the Way to St Petersburg / after Johann Nepomuk Schonberg (1780-1863) / Look and Learn / Illustrated Papers Collection / Bridgeman Images


May 1887 : Lenin’s brother, Alexander Ulyanov, is hanged for plotting to kill Tsar Alexander III


Lenin (1870-1924) and his mother learning of the execution of his brother, 5th May 1887 (colour litho) / Russian School (20th century) / © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images


1894 October: Tsar Alexander III dies and his son, Nicholas II, becomes the ruler of Russia



Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarita Alexandra in full coronation regalia, May 1896 (b/w photo) /© Peter Newark Pictures / Bridgeman Images

1905, January 22: Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg, The first Russian Revolution 

Peasants and industrial workers went on strike and put on demonstrations throughout the city, including at the Tsar’s Winter Palace. The imperial guards opened fired on a crowd of thousands of peaceful protesters and many died or were injured. Rather than squash the protests, the repression encouraged strikes and uprisings all across the Empire.


Revolution of 1905, Russian Empire / Bridgeman Images


1905, June 27: Mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin in the Black Sea

The revolution had spread to the navy and Eisenstein will get inspired to make a movie out of this


Poster for Sergei Eisenstein's film, 'Battleship Potemkin', 1926 (colour litho) / Anton Lavinsky (1893-1968) / Bridgeman Images


October General Strike 

The revolutionary movement reached its climax in October 1905, with the declaration of a general strike and the formation of a soviet (council) in St. Petersburg itself.

Most cities, including the capital, were paralyzed. Under pressure from his advisers, Nicholas II reluctantly agreed to sign a Manifesto, granting civil liberties, cabinet government, and a legislative Duma elected on a wide franchise.  The Manifesto’s proclamation was met with jubilation in the streets on October 17 and the general strike was called off.


October 17th, 1905 (oil on canvas) / Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) / Bridgeman Images


1906 July 21: Due to the growing tensions between the State Duma and Emperor Nicholas II’s Council of Ministers, the assembly was dissolved


The opening ceremony of the first State Duma, 1906 (b/w photo) / Russian Photographer (20th century) / Bridgeman Images


1908: Rasputin is introduced into the aristocracy

Rasputin, the infamous ‘holy man,’ supposedly helped to heal Tsar Nicholas’ sick son, Alexis, who suffered from a blood disease, hemophilia. After this, Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina Alexandra became immeasurable; he could do no wrong as excuses were consistently made for his inappropriate behavior. He was very popular among aristocratic ladies.


The dark on the eve of the Russian Revolution forces. Rasputin and his court of women. 1917 / SeM/Universal Images Group / Bridgeman Images


1914: World War I began. The following year, Tsar Nicholas took command of Russian Army

With war came unimaginable loss of life, food shortages, and countless other forms of human misery.  1.5 million soldiers deserted the army in 1916.


Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918) last Emperor of Russia / Peter Newark Military Pictures / Bridgeman Images


1916 December: Rasputin is murdered by Russian nobles

When Nicholas departed to lead Russian forces in World War I, the Tsarina had been put in charge of domestic affairs and dismissed many ministers. Due to Rasputin‘s influence over the Tsarina and his involvement in government decisions, he was blamed for the failings. To the Russian people, Rasputin symbolised what was wrong with government. The court and the imperial family lost favour with the Russian people. It was also thought that the pair were leading a pro-German court group, which led to Rasputin’s murder. His murder came too late to reverse perceptions of the imperial family.

The monk Grigoriji Rasputin between Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna, caricature, Russia, 20th century / © NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images
1917: The beginning of the Russian Revolutions

January 22: 140,000 strike in Petrograd to commemorate Bloody Sunday; strikes in other cities


A pacifist demonstration and the February Revolution in Russia, 1917 / Film Images / Bridgeman Images


February 23: The February Revolution begins, ignited by International Women’s Day

Militant women textile workers, many of whom are soldiers’ wives, initiate a massive strike in Petrograd. 128,000 workers take to the streets, and among their chief demands is an end to the World War and an increase in food supplies.


Revolutionary militia, St Petersburg, 1917 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer, (20th century) / Private Collection / Calmann & King Ltd / Bridgeman Images


February 26-27 – The Tsar orders the use of military force to break the strike

Early Sunday morning, the police launch wide scale arrests of over 100 leaders of revolutionary organisations, including the Bolsheviks. Acting under the Tsar’s orders, troops fire on protesters causing tens of thousands of casualties but they begin to mutiny later in the day and join the protesters.

Russian Postcard from the 1905 Revolution Depicting Imperial Troops Repressing Opposition Protesters / © Tobie Mathew / Bridgeman Images


February 28 – The Tsar attempts to return to Petrograd but is delayed by railway problems  

The Duma and the Petrograd Soviet both meet to plan a course of action.


Illustration from "Elnet", Sergey Chavain, 1936, 1972 (gouache on paper) / The Gamborg Collection / Bridgeman Images

March 1 – The leaders of France and Britain formally recognise the Provisional Government as the official government of Russia


Illustration from "Elnet", Sergey Chavain, 1936, 1972 (gouache on paper) / The Gamborg Collection / Bridgeman Images


March 2 – The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, signed his enforced abdication (in favour of Grand Duke Mikhail, who effectively declined power) 

Nicholas II of Russia shovelling snow. / Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images

April 3 – Lenin and other Bolsheviks arrive in Petrograd from exile 

The German government helps the Bolshevik leader Lenin return to Russia. He publishes the ‘April Theses’, offering people: ‘Peace, bread, land’, and proclaims: All power to the Soviets.’

Lenin returns to Russia, 1917 (colour litho), Aksenov, A. (fl. 1917) / Private Collection / Peter Newark Pictures / Bridgeman Images

May 1917: Leon Trotsky returns to Petrograd from exile 

Despite previous disagreements with Lenin, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and played a decisive role in the communist take-over of power.

Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin during the Russian Revolution, 1917 (b/w photo), Russian Photographer (20th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark Pictures / Bridgeman Images

The July Days  (July 16–20) 

The July Days began with spontaneous protests against the Provisional Government.  After the Bolsheviks unsuccessfully try to direct these protests into a coup, Lenin was forced into hiding.

Bolshevik protest scattered by machine guns. Nevsky Prospect, Petrograd. July 4,1917. Street demonstrators were fired on by troops of the Provisional Government from the roof of the Public Library. The Bolsheviks unsuccessfully try to direct these protests into a coup, and Lenin was forced into hiding. However, 'The July Days' confirmed the popularity of the anti-war, radical Bolsheviks / Everett Collection / Bridgeman Images

July 24 – Alexander Kerensky becomes Prime Minister of the Provisional Government

The Socialist Revolutionaries, unlike the Bolsheviks, intended to keep Russia fighting in World War I, a decision that became increasingly unpopular with the Russian people.

War cabinet of the Provisional Government of Russia, under Alexander Kerensky, who took over the leadership of the government on 24 July 1917. Kerensky himself sits at position no 1. / Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images

August –  A failed coup by General Lavr Kornilov, commander of Russian Army

The Kornilov coup had enormous repercussions. Kerensky, the moderate socialists, and the liberals were discredited because of their earlier support of Kornilov. The Bolsheviks and radical left, in contrast, had warned against the danger of a military coup and now seemed vindicated.

Lavr Kornilov, Russian Cossack general and one of the commanders of the White Army in the Russian Civil War (litho), French School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Look and Learn / Rosenberg Collection / Bridgeman Images

The October Revolution –  Lenin succeeds in taking over

The Bolsheviks take over Petrograd and The Winter Palace, the last holdout of the Provisional Government. The Council of People’s Commissars (abbreviated as Sovnarkom), led by Lenin, is now in control of Russia.

We Are the Successors of the October Revolution ! We Are the Builders of Communism !,1973(gouache on paper), Mekhantiev, Viktor (1941-2019) / Gamborg Collection / The Gamborg Collection / Bridgeman Images


Find Out More

See more images and clips for the Russian Revolution

Note: Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until January 24th 1918, when this system was replaced by the Gregorian or New Style calendar


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