The Russian Revolution began 100 years ago last month on the cold streets of St Petersburg with housewives protesting about bread shortages. Striking workers and rebellious soldiers quickly joined in, bringing the then capital to a standstill.
In short order, the tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. A new government vowed democratic reforms and ruled ineffectively until it was in turn overthrown in October by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who established the world’s first communist regime.
The revolutionary year of 1917 would not only drastically alter the course of Russian history but of the 20th century itself. The triumph of Bolshevism ignited a vicious civil war that killed thousands; saw the rise of a one-party state that spied on its people and outlawed dissent; and gave way to the rise of Joseph Stalin, whose grim rule needs no embellishment.
Across the globe, the capitalist West and the Soviet Union would engage in a 70-year standoff that collectively cost several trillion dollars and whose effects are still felt to this day.
As we look back, few events in history seem as inevitable as the revolution. But the critical study of history demands a closer look at such assumptions.
Among the clutch of new releases to coincide with the revolution's centenary, S A Smith's Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis – 1890-1928 casts such a light on the factors leading to the upheavals of 1917, and offers an ideal introduction to the deep roots of the revolution, its unfolding and long aftermath.
A leading figure in Russian studies, Smith, like other historians, does not hold much of a brief for Nicholas II. But nor does he think Russia the wretched, backwards land of historical repute.
To be sure, a repressive political culture blocked any forward movement in its parliament, the Duma, and failed to deal with the consequences of a 1905 revolution, which brought about limited reforms that were stifled by the tsar.
But Smith highlights other factors. By 1914, Russia was the world’s leading exporter of grain; the lot of the peasantry was improving. Industrial workers laboured under gruelling conditions and low pay, but their wages ticked upwards, despite government crackdowns on union activity. Russia had a bustling civil society. Professional associations flourished and a lively press, aided by the relaxation of censorship, aired a variety of views. Book publishing also thrived.
Smith has synthesised a diverse array of sources, and offers the views of other historians in counterpoint to his own. In his account, the march to revolution seems less sure. “Despite political stasis, a civil society expanded in the years up to the First World War and the case can be made that although society remained deeply unstable, Russia was moving away from revolution,” Smith writes. But the war drastically altered these circumstances. Russia’s troops were ground down, with losses approaching two million. The demands of warfare on this scale deformed the economy, leading to drastic shortages on the home front. A bread strike could topple a tsar.
The Provisional Government, formed in the wake of the abdication, had to grapple with these problems and the volatile political forces unleashed by the February events. The Petrograd Soviet, a radical council of elected workers and soldiers’ deputies, also jockeyed to set the terms of new order. Moderately socialist at the outset, the Soviet pressed for land reforms and could claim popular backing – something the new government could not.
It was the war that would ultimately bring the Bolsheviks to power. The Provisional Government pressed the fight against Germany, a stance that could claim the support of moderate socialists, not just liberal nationalists who vowed to defend Russia’s honour and uphold its commitment to the allies.
Yet the failure of a disastrous offensive in June 1916 forever tainted the moderate socialist cause and severely diminished the prospects of democracy. Lenin would masterfully exploit the divisions created by the war as he manoeuvred the Bolsheviks into striking distance of power that summer.
But was Bolshevism and the rise of a dictatorial Soviet state the only outcome 1917 could produce? It's a matter of debate. Some historians, such as Dominic Lieven, argue that a Bolshevik dictatorship was a more likely outcome than liberal democracy, though "certainly not the only or even the likeliest one". The contributors to the fine volume of essays, Was Revolution Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution puzzle over such questions.
Edited by veteran British diplomat Tony Brenton, former ambassador to Moscow, and featuring such notable scholars as Orlando Figes, Richard Pipes and Sean McMeekin, the collection touches on a series of crucial moments – the abdication, the role of Rasputin and Russia’s entry into the war, the attempted assassination of Lenin in 1918 and so on.
The most fascinating essays turn on the question of Lenin and his role in the overthrow of the Provisional Government. McMeekin looks, with a connoisseur’s eye for conspiracy, at the breathtaking decision by the German High Command to allow Lenin to travel, via the legendary “sealed train”, from Switzerland through Germany then on to Sweden as he made his way back to revolutionary Petrograd after years in exile. On the face of it, it was an absurd gamble: let an extreme, marginal rabble rouser return to his homeland in the hopes he might destabilise Russia and take it out of the war. Which is exactly what happened.
Lenin never let-up in his demand that Russia withdraw from the war and his wish that soldiers then turn on their capitalist exploiters. “In terms of political marketing, Lenin had established a powerful brand as the leader of the anti-war, anti-government opposition. All he had to do was stand firm on principle, and wait for Russia’s leaders to flounder while prosecuting an increasingly unpopular war,” McMeekin observes.
Lenin found an eager audience in disillusioned soldiers who were being thrown futilely against superior German armies. McMeekin speculates that if Lenin had been kept out of Russia, the troops would “not have been bombarded with anywhere near the level of defeatist propaganda they were that fateful spring”.
“Without a towering personality like Lenin to channel anti-war sentiment in the most nihilistic possible direction, it’s easy to imagine a less destructive course in 1917,” he adds.
For Figes, a single moment in time on the night of October 24 marks a crucial turning point. Lenin had been in hiding since the summer, wanted by the government for his role in anti-war unrest in July. He had been damaged by swirling allegations about his links to Germany and the amount of German money that flowed into Bolshevik coffers. But he was about to make a bold move.
Disguised in a wig and worker’s cap, Lenin set off across St Petersburg for the Smolny Institute, headquarters of the Petrograd Soviet. A government patrol stopped him, but let him pass, thinking he was merely a drunk. The next day he launched the coup that would transform the revolution and lead to Bolshevik seizure of power.
These historical forays offer fascinating snippets of Lenin in 1917. For a full-scale treatment of the life, Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator offers a well-paced account written with verve. Sebestyen is a veteran journalist and historian whose previous books include Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Union. The life of Lenin makes for great copy, and Sebestyen’s appraisal of Lenin is sharp and pacy.
His journey from freelance revolutionary on the margins to the heights of power is one of the great stories of 20th-century history. The son of a minor nobleman, Lenin, born Vladimir Ulyanov in 1870, was radicalised when his older brother was executed in 1887 for his role in a plot to assassinate the tsar. In Marxism, he found an all-encompassing philosophy of history and a way forward. Lenin would become, in effect, a professional revolutionary.
Iron willed, implacably hostile to his foes – both the ruling class and his rivals on the left, who often came in for more opprobrium than the bourgeois capitalists he vowed to overthrow – Lenin was ruthless in his pursuit of bringing Marx-inspired revolution to Russia and then the world.
In the fevered precincts of the European left, Lenin was a canny operator. Socialist conferences in the pre-war years were an ideological battleground, and Lenin was a skilled general. He knew how to form a caucus, lobby for votes, plan for debates and pack rooms with his supporters. Some sneered at such tawdry politicking, but, as Sebestyen notes, it was a winning formula. “He could glad-hand other delegates, take an interest in their lives and, when he needed to, could listen.”
The Lenin of posterity is a hard man: dour, unsmiling, vehement in his rhetoric and devoid of sentiment. But Sebestyen shows a more three-dimensional Lenin, not just a cardboard revolutionary.
“He was not a monster or sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman,” the author observes.
He loved to climb mountains and take long walks in the Swiss Alps. He was a demanding partner to his wife Nadya, but their relationship had intensity formed in danger and long years of exile.
On his return to Russia, Lenin deployed all his political arts as he attacked the war and the government. He made noises about the betrayal of democracy, even if he thought little of it. His message was blunt – and effective.
“He told his lieutenants that in their propaganda it was important to keep things simple: ‘We must talk about peace, land, bread, these things. Then we will shine like a beacon in the darkness.’”
On this message he rode to power. Sebestyen notes that Lenin's style of rule was peculiar. He was secretive and sidetracked by minutiae. As he waged war on anti-Bolshevik forces and beat the peasantry into submission, requisitioning their grain, he could still write a Decree on Libraries. He was a master of micromanaging detail, but also of deniability.
Lenin kept his distance from those who enabled and financed his return to Petrograd. Even more notorious is his murky role in the murder of Nicholas II and his family, which played out in July 1918.
In his superb new book, The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, the distinguished historian Robert Service details the final months of the Romanov ruler's life, and the complex manoeuvring within Bolshevik circles that culminated in the tsar's shocking end.
Himself a biographer of Lenin and an expert on Bolshevik policies, Service looks into daily round of Nicholas in captivity. Service has examined the former tsar's diaries and choice of reading – War and Peace, works by Chekhov – and shows a fallen monarch grappling with his situation. The family ate well, even as Russians starved. After the Bolshevik takeover, their privileges were gradually stripped away.
Rival Bolshevik groups contended for control of the tsar. A plan to bring him to Moscow was scuppered as the civil war intensified. There is no record of a direct message from Lenin to murder the tsar, but as Service writes: “He was certainly responsible for making it easy to proceed with the executions. Throughout the summer, he chided any Bolsheviks he suspected of lacking the necessary mercilessness towards the enemies of the October Revolution.”
Many more enemies of the October Revolution – actual and imagined – would be put to the death. Bolshevism did not offer genteel prescriptions for the reform of society. Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin came to the fore. Much has been written about how much Leninism led to the cruelties of Stalin.
Smith cautions against fast forwarding to the terrors of 1930s. “We should pause before accepting the view that the Russian Revolution initiated a cycle of escalating violence that inevitably culminated in the gulag.”
Nonetheless, 1917 brought to the fore a style of leadership and political culture that defaulted to a single leader. It established a template.
Yet whatever was to come, “millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.”
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The National.
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