Revolution and Power

Revolution and Power

Kate Crompton, Dickson College, 2013

The following essay was written as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2013. It was written in response to the following question: '"Staying in power was much harder than seizing it." Elizabeth A Wood. Discuss this with reference to the Russian and other revolutions of your choice.'

The Russian Revolution in 1917[1] and the French Revolution in the late 1700s[2] both justify Wood’s quote. In Russia’s case, the country had been suffering from economic hardship and food shortages for many years, and many were unhappy with Tsar Nicholas II’s lack of action. In 1917, The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took over power, but as the years went on, struggled to retain this and resorted to extreme measures. In France, a similar course of events occurred. The country was in debt, the masses faced unfair taxation and had little food. Eventually, the old regime was overthrown by Maximilien Robespierre, but he too found that staying in power was extremely difficult, and also resorted to violent measures to keep his power intact.

The strategic campaign and careful planning of the Bolsheviks allowed for a relatively easy rise to power. They based their views in Marxist ideals to appeal to proletariat Russia. Since February 1917[3] , Russia had been ruled by a Provisional Government after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Because the Provisional Government had not been fairly elected by the Russian people, there was much discontent throughout the country. The country had already been facing economic hardship, and many were unhappy with Russia’s involvement in World War I, something which the Provisional Government had been persevering with. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin used this discontent as a platform for him and his party, which led them from being in exile at the start of 1917, to having power over Russia by the end of the same year. Lenin targeted the Soviets, he wanted to gain control over them, and seize power in their name. He devised slogans to appeal to the masses, and Bolshevik support increased. Leon Trotsky, a supporter of the Bolsheviks, also played a vital role in the success of the party. He was the mastermind behind the Red Guards, the Bolshevik Military. The Red Guards played an extremely important role in the overthrow of the Provisional Government, particularly during the Kornilov Affair. This event occurred when one of the supporters of the Provisional Government, Lavr Kornilov, attempted to seize power in Petrograd.[4] The Bolsheviks came to the city’s aid, which made support for the party skyrocket. Finally, on October 25th 1917[5] , The Red Guards stormed Winter Palace, and arrested the Provisional Government, thrusting Lenin and the Bolsheviks into power. Overall, seizing power was relatively easy, clever propaganda and a strategic plan of attack proved to be effective for the party, but maintaining power in such a chaotic country was no simple task, and, as the quote states, staying in power was much harder for Lenin than seizing it.

The Bolshevik’s careful planning and strategic action ended once they gained power. They improvised their policies, had no long-term plans and their intentions were vague. Because Russia was such a large country, communication was poor, and the Bolsheviks found it difficult to control what was happening in the more isolated parts of Russia. The country had also lost vast amounts of land gained in World War I, including the Baltic Provinces, the Caucasus, Poland, Finland and the Ukraine.[6] Because of this, the Bolsheviks faced a significant decline in support. As the Populist-Socialist newspaper Narodynoye Slovo[7] stated: “[a] worker’s and peasant’s government? That is a pipedream, nobody, either in Russia or in the countries of our allies will recognise this ‘government’”.

Lenin dealt with this decline by dissolving the Constituent Assembly, and instead creating the 3rd Congress of the Soviets[8] , mostly made up of Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who had similar policies. Lenin grew increasingly desperate to retain his power, and resorted to desperate measures. He revamped the Red Guards to suppress any discontent among the masses, and implemented the Cheka, a secret police force, to ensure his power was not put in danger. He was also known to refer to his critics as “counterrevolutionaries”. This growing discontent ultimately led to the Russian Civil War, in which groups opposing Lenin formed an army called the “Whites”. The Civil War went on for a number of years, up until 1922[9] , and during that time, the Bolsheviks went to extremes to repress those that threatened their power. A prime example of this was the Red Terror, which took place after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Lenin, throughout September and October of 1918.[10] The Red Terror, planned by Lenin from his hospital bed and carried out by the Cheka, involved the torture and killing of Russians who were thought to be counterrevolutionary. An estimated 10,000[11] Russians fell victim to the Red Terror, including many who did not openly voice their opinions on Lenin. It is clear to see that Lenin and the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to retain their power, and because they had such a decline in popular support, had to resort to extreme violence. In the Bolshevik’s case, staying in power was far more difficult than seizing it.

Another example that demonstrates this quote was the French Revolution, and, in particular, Maximilien Robespierre’s rise to power. Under Kind Louis XVI’s rule, France faced a massive debt, brought on by a number of factors, including the Seven Years’ War, France’s role in the American Revolution, the upkeep of France’s extensive army and navy, and Louis XVI’s personal luxuries. The masses faced food shortages as a result of this, and also unfair taxation, brought on by a feudal system which made the nobility and clergy exempt from paying tax. Eventually, the Bourgeoisie created the Legislative Assembly, a more representative form of government that replaced the previous French Congress. Within the Assembly, though, two factions formed. The first was the Jacobins, a group of progressive, radical liberals, and the Girondins, more conservative members that supported the monarchy. Outside of the Legislative Assembly, in the cities, groups called sans-culottes began to form. These groups were made up of labourers who were unhappy with the harsh treatment they had been receiving, and opposed the Girondins. The sans-culottes were a powerful driving force behind the revolution, and Robespierre cleverly used their anger, as well as appealing to the Jacobins, as a way of getting what he wanted- power.

Robespierre ultimately took advantage of the sans-culottes’ anger toward the Girondins, and on the 6th April 1793[12] , stormed a Girondin-led National Convention. This led to the Girondins being banished, and Robespierre seizing power in the Jacobin’s name. Robespierre’s rise to power was clearly quite straight-forward, he used strategy and appealed to the working-class citizens, who made up the majority of the population. He knew that the masses were the driving force behind the revolution, and used that to his advantage. But, much like Lenin, Robespierre went on to face difficulties retaining his power. In September 1793[13] , The Reign of Terror began, which was an effort to retain power by resorting to whatever means necessary. The Reign of Terror can be compared to the Red Terror in Russia, as the aim was to oppress any counterrevolutionary activity using violence. Anyone thought to have opposing views to Robespierre, even if they did not act on them, were put to death under the guillotine. Over 100,000[14] French people were convicted “guilty” of counterrevolutionary activity and killed. Robespierre’s intention through the reign of terror was to strengthen his support base, however, it had the opposite effect. The public staged a massive backlash against Robespierre, and was arrested. On 27th July 1794[15] , Robespierre was beheaded, meeting the same fate that many had through his reign. Therefore it is easy to conclude that, much like Lenin and the Bolsheviks, it was far more difficult for Robespierre to stay in power than to seize it, and this struggle essentially killed him.

Wood’s quote, “staying in power was much harder than seizing it”, applies to both the Russian and the French Revolutions. Both Lenin and Robespierre appealed to the masses and took advantage of their anger to gain their power. They both went on to struggle retaining this power, and both leaders turned to horrific mass violence as a last resort. Both leaders, as a result, lost support for their cause. The two leaders went from being iconic figures, a symbol of freedom for the masses, to falling victim to greed and a hunger for power.


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Primary Sources

Leon Trotsky, 1980. The History of the Russian Revolution. [3 vols in one] Edition. Monad Press.

Reed, J, 1919. Ten Days that Shook the World. 1st ed. United States: BONI & Liveright.

Secondary Sources

Bastille Day and the French Revolution. 2012. The Reign of Terror. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].

BBC. 1816. The Causes of the October Revolution. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].

Halsall, P, 1997. Modern History Sourcebook. 1st ed. New York.

John Simkin. No date. Brest-Liovsk Treaty. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].

Marxists. No date. Principal Dates and Time Line of the French Revolution. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].


  1. ^ BBC. 1816. The Causes of the October Revolution. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].
  2. ^ Marxists. No date. Principal Dates and Time Line of the French Revolution. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].
  3. ^ BBC. The Causes of the October Revolution.
  4. ^ BBC. The Causes of the October Revolution.
  5. ^ ibid
  6. ^ John Simkin. No date. Brest-Liovsk Treaty. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].
  7. ^ Reed, J, 1919. Ten Days that Shook the World. 1st ed. United States: BONI & Liveright. Ch VII
  8. ^ .SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on The Russian Revolution (1917–1918). SparkNotes LLC. 2005. [accessed March 14, 2013].
  9. ^ ibid
  10. ^ ibid
  11. ^ ibid
  12. ^ SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on The French Revolution (1789–1799). SparkNotes LLC. 2005. (accessed March 14, 2013).
  13. ^ SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on The French Revolution
  14. ^ Bastille Day and the French Revolution. 2012. The Reign of Terror. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 02 April 13].
  15. ^ SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on The French Revolution (1789–1799).