Why did democracy fail to take root in Russia in 1917?
First edition. August 2005.

The Russian Revolution traces the history of Russia from 1861-1923. The unit focuses on the political, social, and economic conditions that led to the fall of the Tsar and explores the competing political ideologies that contested Russia’s future in 1917.

In the early spring of 1917, millions of Russian people poured into the streets and clamored for “democracy,” a word that meant different things to different people at the time.

The Russian Revolution marked the beginning of an effort to remake the world using socialism. Today, socialism, as imagined by Marx and Lenin, seems to have been consigned “…to the dustbin of history,” to use Trotsky’s phrase. Yet it is also worth considering why those with aspirations of building a liberal democracy in Russia failed to do so in 1917. What conditions existed that allowed Lenin to grab the reins of power and put into place a totalitarian state and not a democracy? What are the role and responsibilities of citizens in political transitions? What lessons exist for us today as societies undergo political change?


The readings are intended to prepare students to consider thoughtfully the political forces at play in 1917. Part I explores Russia from the end of serfdom to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Part II examines the revolutionary period of 1905-1917. The Epilogue examines Lenin’s consolidation of power.


Peasant Life

Through investigation of a painting, proverbs, statistics, and literature, students identify characteristics of peasant life in Russia.

Geography of Russia

Using a series of political and physical maps, students practice map-reading skills and consider how geography affects history.

Understanding the Political Parties

Reading selections from the political party platforms of 1905, students determine which platforms match up with which parties.

Symbols of the Revolution

Students examine symbols and political writings of the Russian Revolution and understand their historical significance.

Role-Playing the Four Options

Drawing on primary sources, students work cooperatively to advocate for one of the options Russians debated at the time.

Lenin Takes Power

Working in groups, students develop a dramatic recreation of a meeting of Lenin and his colleagues deciding what to do in 1918.

Supplemental Resources

Additional reference material for added context and support.


Chamberlin, William Henry. The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1935). 2 volumes.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy; The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996). 923 pages.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). 200 pages.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Structure of Soviet History: Essay and Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). 573 pages.

Ulam, Adam. The Bolsheviks (New York: MacMillan, 1965). 598 pages.

An excellent collection of primary sources (including documents, images, audio, video) from the Soviet era.
Back to top