It may look innocuous, but this tiny lead ball is thought to have triggered a rebellion that saw millions of Russians die and gave rise to the world’s first communist state.
When the ball of shot narrowly missed hitting Tsar Nicholas II after it was fired from a cannon in 1905 in St Petersburg, it is believed to have set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the Russian Revolution.
Russia was a country on the brink of mass political and social unrest at the time of the so-called assassination attempt on Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg in January 1905.
On January 22, days after Russia’s last emperor believed he had survived an attempt on his life, soldiers of the Imperial Guard shot unarmed striking workers as they made their way to the Winter Palace in a peaceful demonstration.
Up to 100 people died on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, a day that would prove to have grave consequences for the Tsarist regime. It is widely regarded as one of the key events that sparked the eventual Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the dismantling of the country’s Tsarist autocracy.
The series of rebellions saw Tsar Nicholas II forced to abdicate in February of that year, and ultimately paved the way for the creation of the USSR in 1922.
In October 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the shaky provisional government established after the abdication, and Nicholas and his family were eventually held in a prison in Yekaterinburg.
In July 1918, as anti-Bolsheviks approached the city, the family was executed. They are thought to have been killed on the orders of Bolshevik leader Lenin.
It seems odd that one ball of shot could cause the Russian revolution. However, if the country was already in a precollapse state then it wouldn’t take much.
The Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Russian SFSR. The Emperor was forced to abdicate and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government during the first revolution of February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar; the older Julian calendar was in use in Russia at the time). In the second revolution, during October, the Provisional Government was removed and replaced with a Bolshevik (Communist) government.
The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). In the chaos, members of the Imperial parliament or Duma assumed control of the country, forming the Russian Provisional Government. The army leadership felt they did not have the means to suppress the revolution and Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, abdicated. The Soviets (workers’ councils), which were led by more radical socialist factions, initially permitted the Provisional Government to rule, but insisted on a prerogative to influence the government and control various militias. The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War (1914–18), which left much of the Russian army in a state of mutiny.
A period of dual power ensued, during which the Provisional Government held state power while the national network of Soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left. During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes. When the Provisional Government chose to continue fighting the war with Germany, the Bolsheviks and other socialist factions campaigned for stopping the conflict. The Bolsheviks turned workers militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army) over which they exerted substantial control.
In the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the workers’ Soviets, overthrew the Provisional Government in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks appointed themselves as leaders of various government ministries and seized control of the countryside, establishing the Cheka to quash dissent. To end Russia’s participation in the First World War, the Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918.
Civil war erupted between the “Red” (Bolshevik), and “White” (anti-Bolshevik) factions, which was to continue for several years, with the Bolsheviks ultimately victorious. In this way, the Revolution paved the way for the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. While many notable historical events occurred in Moscow and St. Petersburg, there was also a visible movement in cities throughout the state, among national minorities throughout the empire and in the rural areas, where peasants took over and redistributed land.