The Russian Revolution

Thoughts after reading Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.


The Russian Revolution shocked the world and shaped the 20th Century. It ushered in both the first communist and the first totalitarian state. The Bolsheviks triumph dashed the hopes of Russian liberals, who wanted the country to have prudent reform. Instead the Russians replaced one authoritarian regime with another.

Westerners should look at Russian Revolution before pushing democracy on those who have no self-governing experience.  In 1917 Russia experienced political upheaval: in an eight month span, the Romanov dynasty fell and a provisional government was toppled by the Bolsheviks. Orlando Figes, the foremost scholar on the Russian Revolution, claimed that the Bolsheviks prevailed because of the weakness of Russia’s democratic culture. Centuries of serfdom and autocracy prevented the country from developing the cultural prerequisites needed to foster and strengthen democracy, Figes concluded in his monumental work, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924.

It’s appropriate that Figes began his study with the 1891 famine. That calamity politicized and radicalized Russian society. Marxism provided the country with an explanation for its economic woes. Instead of reaching out to the emerging civil society and making political reforms, Tsar Alexander III responded to the crisis by clamping down on the zemstovs (local councils), arresting council members and censoring their publications.

It was a precursor of things to come. The Romanovs refused to reform during their last years of rule. Part of that was ideology: Alexander and his son Nicholas II (who assumed the throne when his father died in 1894) were Muscovites and believed that all of Russia was their fiefdom. They believed their rule was absolute; no law or bureaucracy constrained their power. Nicholas thought he and his people shared an unbreakable bond, and regarded representative democracy as “harmful” to his people.

Nicholas, unlike his father, was a weak leader. He idolized Alexander and shared his Muscovite vision, but lacked the leadership skills needed to successfully rule. Figes described his rule as an autocracy without an autocrat. When Russia was coming unglued during the Great War, his diary was filled with notes about the weather, his tea-time companions, and the like. He was a simple thinker, and was concerned with minute, superfluous details rather than grand strategy.

The first great challenge to his rule came with the 1905 Revolution. Nicholas held onto power because the military sided with him. He also benefited from a fragmented opposition which included urban workers, peasants, liberals, radicals, and independence seekers, who obtained some political concessions from the king. Nicholas allowed a Duma (parliament) to meet. New freedoms were granted, including then expansion of the press and the toleration of new political parties. But Russian liberals soon became disenchanted with the Duma, which was seen as an impotent body. Legislation needed to pass through the Tsar and a State Council before it became law. The first Duma convened in 1906; it lasted 72 days.

Russian society remained on edge long after 1905. Many in the Russian intelligentsia looked for solutions to the nation’s political problems. But unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, they remained isolated from society at large. They were isolated politically from the Tsarists state and culturally from the peasants. Russian intellectuals also differed from their Western European counterparts in a more dramatic way: their ideas. European thinkers came out of the Enlightenment tradition, which produced skepticism, led to pluralism, and to the rejection of absolutes. Russians, on the other hand, embraced an idea wholeheartedly and it became dogma.

Marxism was the big idea which enamored Russian thinkers in the early 20th century. But the man who made Russia the world’s first communist state, was not an orthodox Marxist.

Like many of his contemporaries, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin became a revolutionary after reading Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky’s 1862 novel, What Is To Be Done?. The novel described a superman who denied himself pleasure in order to harden his will. This ascetic lifestyle trained the body and mind for the cause and promised salvation through politics.

Chernyshevsky shaped Lenin’s approach to Marxism. First and foremost, Lenin believed a dictatorship was necessary for a revolution to flourish. He insisted that action could altar history. And he was convinced a revolutionary vanguard was needed to topple an existing government.

The novel also played a role in splitting the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into rival factions during the 2nd Party Congress in 1903. The two parties quarreled over Article I of the party statute, which dealt with party membership qualifications. Lenin envisioned a centralized party of professional revolutionaries. His opponent, Julius Martov, thought anyone who recognized the Party Program and obeyed the Party leadership deserved membership. Lenin’s iron-will helped secure a majority of party members (making his side the Bolsheviks).

The 1905 Revolution gave Lenin hope that he could lead a successful overthrow of the Tsarist state. He viewed 1905 as a warm-up act to a Bolshevik coup, and saw the failures of liberals and the bourgeoisie as a sign of their weakness. The peasants, on the other hand, were a potential revolutionary force who could rid Russia of the Romanovs.

The Great War ultimately cost Nicholas II power. Russia was a mess in 1914. After Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by a Serbian nationalist, the country was in an uproar. Nicholas faced a difficult decision. If he stayed out of the conflict, he risked a patriotic uprising from Russians who believed they were the defender of the Slavic people. If he marched his troops into battle, he risked social upheaval at home. The tsar made a desperate gamble: he thought rallying the country around the flag would unite his people.

It succeeded, at least initially. The Duma voluntarily dissolved on August 8, 1914, fearing that ‘unnecessary politics” would hinder the war effort.  Like people around the globe, the Russians marched proudly into war, confident they’d quickly prevail. Everyone thought the conflict would end within a few months, and the boys would return home for Christmas. No one imagined the conflict would turn into a quagmire, remembered for its trench war-fare and the tremendous loss of life.

The war showed all the worst characteristics of Nicholas, the executive. He advanced generals based on their loyalty to the court, rather than on their battlefield merit. He committed a number of tactical blunders (only exacerbated by Russia’s primitive communication system) which resulted in a staggering number of casualties. Troop morale deteriorated as the war lingered on. A public outcry over the mismanagement of the war broke out in 1915. Nicholas briefly recalled the Duma that summer, only to dissolve it a few months later.

The parliamentary impotence showed the weakness of liberals and made radicalism a welcome alternative for many Russians.

Millions of women and children flocked to the cities eager to work in the factories and help the war effort. To pay them, the government printed millions of rubles. The money supply increased eight fold during the war years, which resulted in rapid inflation. In addition, the country had stopped making commercial goods. All industrial output was geared towards the war effort. This left workers with plenty of money in their pocket, but nothing to buy.

This led to growing anger directed at the Tsar’s court and social turmoil throughout the country. City workers were restless. Peasant farmers were scared. They moved away from cash-crops and planted only substantive crops; with money worthless, they hoarded production and fed themselves. City workers went hungry. They spent their free time waiting in line for food.

The February Revolution began in the bread lines. Mass agitation broke out in the cities. Peasants revolted in the countryside. This time, the military abandoned their monarch. Many soldiers joined the crowds. All were fed up with war and wanted to come home.

Many Bolsheviks were shocked at the news. Lenin was in Zurich at the time. Leon Trotsky, who would lead the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, was in New York City.

Nicholas abdicated on March 2. With his departure, the imperial system collapsed: the Tsar’s bureaucracy, the police, army, and Church were rendered obsolete overnight. A provisional government was put into place.

For a time, Russia became the freest place on the planet. The provisional government believed state power was coercive, and set up a weak central state that relied upon local self-rule. Government leaders saw themselves as heirs to the French Revolution. They issued a number of political liberties: free press, assembly, speech were given while universal suffrage was granted.

Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks continued gaining support. They remained the only left-wing party demanding an immediate end to the war. In April, Lenin issued his Theses which called for an overthrow of the government, demanded immediate Soviet (workers’ councils) power. They hid behind the legitimacy of the soviet, to obscure their real object (dictatorship of the proletariat). This rhetoric appealed to radicals as well as those unversed in Marxist thought.

The provisional government’s great blunder came in June. They launched an military offensive, aimed at winning over their allies’ (the Entente of Britain, France, and the U.S.) support and representing the national spirit of the February Revolution.

It ended in disaster for the Russians. 400,000 soldiers were killed in the escalation. Once the Germans responded to the onslaught, Russian forces began to flee en masse. Soldiers turned their guns on commanding officers. Trench Bolshevism, the call for land and peace, resonated with many of the beleaguered troops. The disaster so discredited the provisional government that it lost control of the military in Petrograd that October.

The Bolsheviks seized power in a coup on October 25, 1917. They stormed the Winter Palace in the late hours of the night. Throughout Petrograd, life went on as normal. Few realized the transition that took place.

No one thought the Bolsheviks would hold onto power long. Many party members believed they’d quickly relinquish control of government. Their success was a tribute to three factors: Lenin’s dedication to the mission, the centralization of all power through the Bolshevik Party, and the lack of an organized opposition (many believed internal Bolshevik tension would lead to its collapse).

Lenin quickly showed how he planned to rule. Within days he outlawed opposition press, branded political opponents as counter-revolutionaries, and created his secret police (the Cheka, a precursor to the KGB). Most importantly, he encouraged a class war on privilege.

“Down with the bourgeoisie” became the talk of the street. This class warfare helped launch an environment of terror, which the Bolsheviks would later use to quell dissent. This turned into an assault on society at large and helped the party consolidate power across the country. The murder of the Romanovs was the most dramatic sign of this new era of terror.

A few months after seizing the government, Lenin ended Russia’s involvement in the Great War. In signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, he showed how badly he wanted peace: Russia gave up over 290,000 miles of territory (including Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus) which contained 60 million people, some of the country’s most valuable farmland, and nearly 90% of its coal mines.

The treaty, effectively, affirmed socialism in Russia alone: many Bolsheviks (notably Trotsky) dreamed of communism spreading across Europe. By ceding Eastern Europe, Lenin ensured that communism wouldn’t be exported to the West.

It also played a role in moving the capital to Moscow. The German advance was within miles of Petrograd when the Russians signed the peace agreement. Lenin feared losing the home of the revolution if his troops continued fighting the Germans.

Brest-Litovsk exacerbated the Russian Civil War, which started shortly after the Bolsheviks took power. Neither the Whites (anti-Bolshevik forces) nor the Reds had wide support in the conflict, even in the territories they controlled. The country was war-weary, and civilians preferred to stay out of the conflict. The soldiers were worn out too; both sides were plagued by mass desertions.

The Reds had a political advantage. They fought to preserve the revolution, while the Whites failed to articulate a political agenda. So the communists did that for them. They portrayed the Whites as a monarchical force and labeled them (as they did with all political opponents) as counter-revolutionary.

Lenin used the Civil War to launch a war on the peasants. Since taking power, he had become increasingly disgruntled with the class. Now he sought to destroy them. He launched a battle for grain and had his forces forcibly remove crops from them. The Bolsheviks claimed they were hoarding food, and it was the party’s responsibility to take the crops and feed the country.

This began the collectivization process. The party nationalized the farms over a period of several years, ending centuries of small farming tradition the peasants had enjoyed and putting control of the land into the state’s hands. Nationalization of all industry became a feature of Soviet society.

A People’s Tragedy ends with the death of Lenin in 1924. In his last days, the dictator wrote a series of memos in which he lamented the direction the revolution had taken and ruing his decision to make Joseph Stalin the party’s first General Secretary. But Lenin shaped the future Soviet state: The terror, the purges, the dictatorship, all began on his watch.

The Soviet authoritarians simply replaced their Romanov predecessors. George Orwell would claim the two were indistinguishable at the end of Animal Farm. After centuries of autocratic rule, the people thought of power strictly in coercive terms, not in regard to the rule of the law.

Decades of Muscovite rule in the years leading up to the revolution stifled civil society and prevented liberal reforms from occurring. Neither Alexander III nor Nicholas II was interested in becoming a constitutional reformer. Russia’s lack of democratic culture enabled Bolshevism to take root.


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