The Russian Revolution resulted in the establishment of the first Communist state in history and was the work of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin - that's the general story told to history students in textbooks, an incredibly simplified version of the events that took place between 1905 and 1925 in Russia.
The revolutionary period actually comprised numerous uprisings, a deadly civil war, and brought about the end of a centuries-long dynasty. By the time the Russian Revolution was over, the government, economy, and social framework of Russia were under a new order that would lead to decades of global divisiveness.
Here's a quick outline to get you started: fighting in 1905 and 1917 set the stage for a new Communist regime, soon to be followed by a civil war that lasted until 1921. Lenin was in power until his death in 1924, and after Stalin eliminated Leon Trotsky as a rival, he controlled Russia until the early 1950s.
The establishment of Soviet Russia, as the end result of the Russian Revolution, has left an undeniable historical legacy. Now that you know the broad strokes of what happened in Russia during the early 20th century, here are some facts that might surprise you, clear up a few questions, and even leave you wanting more.
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American 'Polar Bears' Struggled To Keep Their Guns From Freezing In Northern Russia
During the Russian Civil War, the US sent roughly 5,000 troops to North Russia to fight at the request of British and French troops in the region. The group landed in Arkhangelsk (Archangel), Russia in late 1918 - just as the Great War was coming to an end.
Largely comprising men from Michigan and Wisconsin, the Army Expedition Force was tasked with keeping weapons in Arkhangelsk out of German and Bolshevik hands as well as assisting a group of Czechoslovakian forces stranded in Russia.
Through the winter of 1918 and 1919, the "Polar Bears" - as they became known - focused their efforts on six specific locations throughout the province as temperatures reached below -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Amid the cold, American forces found that their weapons froze to the point of not being useable.
According to Harry J. Costello, one of the men who served:
It remained for an American machine gunner to solve this problem... of keeping all the movable parts warm in the Arctic weather so that an instant response of fire would come when it meant life or death to us.
One cold morning, this doughboy suggested putting hot water in the jacket, wrapping the gun in several heavy blankets, changing the water frequently when freezing was near.
This, therefore, was practiced continually on the railroad front, but on other fronts, where it was next to impossible to build a fire, the water-cooled machine guns might just as well have been thrown into the discard.
Before the group left Russia in July 1919, it lost more than 550 men to combat and disease.
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Chess Master Ossip Bernstein Reportedly Escaped Death Thanks To His Chess Skills
Born in modern Ukraine, Ossip Bernstein studied law in Germany and went on to become a finance lawyer. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he was arrested by the Cheka, or Bolshevik secret police, which was established in December 1917 to eliminate threats to Bolshevik power and tasked with investigating "counterrevolutionary" crimes.
After Bernstein was taken into custody in Odessa, he received a death sentence for having been an adviser to banks in pre-Bolshevik Russia. On his execution day, he was lined up in front of a firing squad when one of the commanders asked what his name was.
Once it became clear that Bernstein was not only a lawyer, but one of the most talented chess players in Russia, the commanding officer challenged him to a chess match. If Bernstein won, he would be allowed to live. Bernstein accepted the challenge and won. He was spared, freed, and later settled in France.
Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917. He, his wife Alexandra and their five children were kept in confinement at Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. By the summer of 1918, the civil war between Red and White Russian forces raged, and when it looked like there might be an effort to rescue the Romanovs, the whole family perished.
In July 1918, revolutionaries ushered the Romanov children - Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei - into a room along with their parents and several family servants, at which time all were shot.
People paid little attention to the Romanovs' murders at the time. This was largely a combination of discontent with the imperial family and czarist government, as well as efforts by the Communists to keep the information out of the spotlight.
In addition to Nicholas and his immediate family, numerous members of the extended Romanov family were killed in July 1918 as well. According to Time magazine, this took place at Alapayevsk:
Grand Dukes Sergius, Ivan, Constantine and Igor, Grand Duchess Elisabeth, Prince Vladimir Paley, Secretary Romez, Nun Barbara Yakovleva were taken to an abandoned mine and thrown down a shaft. According to Investigator Sokolov, all were still alive after the fall except Sergius. The hand-grenades that were thrown down after them killed Romez; the rest died more lingeringly.
It wasn't until 1991 that the bodies of Nicholas, Alexandra, and three of their children - Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia - were unearthed near Yekaterinburg. The remains of Maria and Alexei were positively identified in 2007.
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Ukrainians In Far Eastern Russia Tried To Establish 'Green Ukraine' During The Russian Civil War
To establish a buffer zone between the Communist Soviet Union and imperial countries in East Asia, the Bolsheviks set up a republic led by Alexander Krasnoshchyokov. This took place in 1920, after years of fighting in Siberia and in what would become the Far Eastern Republic.
Between 1917 and 1918, the largely Ukrainian population of eastern Soviet Russia attempted to establish autonomy no fewer than three times. Green Ukraine, also called New Ukraine, the Green Wedge, and the Ukrainian National Republic, exercised a level of cooperation with the dictatorship established by Admiral Alexander Kolchak in Siberia.
As a key member of the White Army, Kolchak launched a coup at Omsk in the east in 1918, but lost power in 1920. After that, Soviet authorities suppressed separatist movements in eastern Siberia and in the Far Eastern Republic.
Nominally, there was leadership in place for Green Ukraine until 1922. Iuri Hlushko-Mova was arrested by Kolchak's men in 1919, released and put back into power that same year, and later taken into custody by Bolshevik authorities in 1922.
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By late 1917, the Provisional Government of Russia was failing. The Winter Palace in Petrograd (renamed from St. Petersburg in 1914 because it sounded "too German") was the seat of government and also possessed a hospital. As a result, it was a target of militant Bolsheviks.
The head of the Russian Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, ordered its defense. Reportedly, 137 members of the Women's Battalion of Death, alongside Cossack and Russian troops, attempted to resist the Bolsheviks, but according to David Soskice's first-hand account of the event:
The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik armed mob, as though by a horde of barbarians. All the State papers were destroyed. Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets....
Among the palace's target areas was its extensive wine cellar. When bottles were smashed and "crates of wine were thrown into holes in the river ice... crazed people dove in after it and drowned." Reports also surfaced that officials tried to pump wine out into the streets, but "crowds gathered to drink it from the gutter." Still another reporter recalled thinking she heard gunfire, but it was actually the pop of corks by "soldiers who lay on the white snow... not dead, but merely drunk."
It was not common for revolutionaries to change their names - something both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin did.
In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the surname Lenin while in exile, also using it to sign his written works. The pseudonym was to protect his true identity, but observers (including Lenin's niece, Olga Ulyanova) theorize it may have been in reference to the Lena River. Other possibilities include being an homage to a character in Leo Tolstoy's novel Kazaki, or belonging to a dead man whose name Lenin simply usurped.
Born Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, the man the world knows as Joseph Stalin was of Georgian origins. In 1912, he effectively changed his name to a Russian word that means "man of steel" by signing an article for the Pravda newspaper as "K. Stalin." For historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin, the logic behind Stalin's name change was driven by the fact that his surname was "simple, devoid of all aristocratic pretense, understood by any worker and, most importantly, looked like a real last name."
When Communists took over in 1917, the practice of "Octobering" was established to unite the populace through rituals and ceremonies. One practice was to "October" babies and give them names inspired by the changing culture. As a result, names like Elektrifikatsya (Electrification), Karm (Red Army), Ninel (Lenin spelled backward), and Stolen (Trotsky and Lenin) became popular. Additional names included Goitin (Guillotine), Melor (Marx, Engles, Lenin, October Revolution), Komitern (Communist International), and Rem (revolution, electrification, and peace.)
Other names saw big changes during the Russian Revolution. St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914 because it sounded "too German," but it was changed to Leningrad in 1924, shortly after Lenin's passing. Streets, parks, and other areas within towns and cities were also renamed to reflect socialist and Bolshevik influences. In 1991, a referendum passed changing the name of the city back to St. Petersburg.