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  • Writer's pictureSusana Aikin


In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to pre-revolutionary Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.
Read further below on Russia Before the Revolution.

The Russian Revolution took place in 1917 when the peasants and working class people of Russia revolted against the government of Tsar Nicholas II, dismantling his autocratic state, and creating a new communist government that led to the rise of the Soviet Union.

Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918)

Tsar Nicholas II of the Romanov imperial family followed his ancestors’ tradition of ruling Russia alone, with no true representative bodies: even the Duma, an elected body created in 1905, and the closest thing to a parliament Russia had known, could be completely ignored by the Tsar whenever he wished to. And that he did often.

Nicholas II and his family

The result was an autocratic regime under which every faction, from liberals to revolutionaries, democrats to socialists, and every other strand of political thought, were all increasingly desperate for reform. Freedom of expression was limited, with censorship of books and newspapers, while a secret police operated to crush dissent, frequently either executing people or sending them to exile in Siberia.

Alexander Palace, near St. Petersburg, one of the favorite residences of Nicholas II and his family

Prior to the Russian Revolution, the Russian imperial court had reached its height in splendor and wealth. Amongst the nobility, there were fabulous displays of grandeur in grand balls, summer palaces, and vast festivals of pomp, pageantry, social class and expense.

Dance class for young ladies in Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

In the early 19th century, Russia was quite behind Europe on every index of civilization and quality of life: life expectancy, infant mortality, alphabetization, literacy, roads, markets, doctors per capita, schools per capita, sanitation, publishing, and knowledge of hygiene.

Russian serf

Russia did not experience the Industrial Revolution to nearly the same extent as other European countries. Because of this, the middle class in Russia were unable to develop like it did elsewhere. Without a significant middle class, wealth and power was held in the hands of a few, while the vast majority of people had almost nothing.

Russian peasants circa 1900, Prokudin-Gorsky collection

Meanwhile, Russia still relied heavily on peasantry work, the majority of which were landless. The peasants of Russia had been freed from serfdom in 1861 by Alexander II. However, in order to give the peasants land, the government had to pay the landowners for it.

Russian peasant women plowing

As a result, the peasants had to pay this ‘loan’ back to the state in the form of Redemption Payments. This increased the hardship of peasants. Famine was a common occurrence among peasant populations at the turn of the century.

Russian peasant dwelling circa 1900, Prokudin-Gorsky collection

Russian Serfs

Russian serfs had basically no rights, and had been little more than slaves. Even after serfdom was officially abolished, the peasant class had little opportunity to better themselves. The Russian peasantry toiled continually and suffered horrifying living conditions.

Barge Haulers on the Volga

Barge Haulers on the Volga

When the free labor of the serfs disappeared, the old elites were forced to adapt to a capitalist, industrialized farming landscape. As a result, even more peasants traveled to the cities in search of work. There, they urbanized and adopted a new, more cosmopolitan worldview—one that often looked down on the peasant lifestyle they left behind.

Living conditions under Tsar Nicholas II

Cities were highly overcrowded, unplanned, poorly paid, dangerous and unregulated. Upset with class, at odds with their bosses and elites, a new urban culture was forming.

Russian industrial workers circa 1915

Russian cabman, circa 1900

By the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, the tightly packed and expanding urban areas were experiencing problems like poor and cramped housing, unfair wages, and dwindling rights for workers.

Freedom of Speech. Anonymous artist. St. Petersburg, circa late 1905

These workers swiftly began to grow more politically-engaged and chaffed against government restrictions on their protests. This created a fertile ground for the socialist revolutionaries, who moved between cities and exile in Siberia.

The Tsar on horseback, blessing Russian troops during World War I

The First World War provided the catalyst for Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917. As demand for ever more soldiers increased, the peasant population grew angry as young men and horses, both essential for the war, were taken away, reducing the amount they could grow and damaging their already precarious standard of living.

Striking Putilov in St Petersburg workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1917

Inflation occurred and prices rose, so hunger became endemic. An increasingly desperate government turned to using the military to curb the strikers, causing mass protest and troop mutinies in the cities as soldiers refused to open fire. A revolution had begun.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

In October of 1917, The Bolshevik-dominated Soviet government was established in October, with Lenin as chairman.

Artist's depiction of the Russian Revolution

We Shall See the Sky Sparkling
We Shall See the Sky Sparkling



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