Nobody in 1917 considered the revolution in Russia unexpected. The Russian nobility had long been haunted by the specter of serf peasants revolting to avenge their near-slave condition. A modern proletarian revolution had been awaited ever since the European upheavals of 1848. This fear/hope was fed by strikes of industrial workers met with Cossack cavalry charges. No less significant was the growth of the famous modernist intelligentsia, the middle strata of educated specialists who felt stymied by the old aristocratic bureaucracy and the generalized backwardness of their country. The intelligentsia saw itself as the guiding force of epochal renovation. This sense of lofty mission translated into a spate of subversive strategies, from creating a world-class literature to volunteer charitable activism and throwing bombs at the oppressors.
Nevertheless, the empire kept on muddling through and even registered impressive industrial growth mainly because for almost half a century it had luckily avoided losing wars, a typical trigger of revolutions. The tipping points—as observed in many other revolutions—arrived with the costly and morally embarrassing military defeats in 1905 and again in 1917. The soldiers rebelled against their commanders while the police disintegrated. The collapse of state coercion released all the long-repressed specters of rebellion: furious peasant revolts in the countryside; the now armed worker militancy in big cities; the intelligentsia enthusiastically organizing a panoply of political parties and nationalist movements that soon became independent governments in the ethnically non-Russian provinces.