Historiography of the Russian Revolution

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Historiography of the Russian Revolution

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Lord, let me be a poet,

Let me not deceive people”.

Introduction- When considering an in-depth analysis of any given historical period, all good historians will make some reference to historiography: the different views and debates that are held by a variety of historians; the history of History. An acknowledgement of the work that has come before them, an exploration of the issues that have given rise to dispute and a comparison of different arguments, gives balance and perspective to the writing of good History. Differing political backgrounds and bias, different emphasis of themes and new approaches sources has given rise to different ‘schools of thought’ within historians’ work; a trend that is indeed evident in the historiography of Russian Revolution. Labels of ‘Soviet’, ‘Marxist’, ‘liberal’, ‘libertarian’ and ‘revisionist’ have emerged that describe a number of mutual points of dispute and agreement amongst historians of the Russian Revolution. However, it is important to realise that it is not always possible to ‘pigeonhole’ every historian into neatly labelled ‘boxes’ and amongst historians of similar viewpoints, such as liberals; there are often considerable areas of disagreement. Nevertheless, many writers do stand for clearly defined schools of thought: Pipes is a definite liberal, Fitzpatrick a revisionist and the History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks) short-course articulates the Soviet view developed under Stalin. There are, though, innumerable grey areas. Many historians (especially more recent writers) have aspects in their work that overlap different traditional labels; e.g. Figes draws a lot of his arguments from the revisionist point of view, but he is fairly conservative in his political persuasion (in some respects not too far removed from Pipes) and he re-emphasises the importance of key individuals, such as Lenin, seeking to address the criticisms made of some early revisionist accounts by putting the ‘leaders back into history’.

The fall of Communism in the former USSR in 1991 has also drastically changed the historiographical landscape. The opening up of the Soviet archives has led to a renaissance in the study of the political nature of the Bolshevik Party, with sources now available to perhaps answer some key questions that have previously been largely based on conjecture or limited evidence. This has not resulted, though, in an easing of debate. The work of Robert Service has offered a revised understanding of the totalitarian view, whilst Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov is scathing in his attacks upon Lenin and Stalin, a view that is largely identical to the classic liberal accounts in its conclusions. Indeed, the collapse of Communism and the supposed ‘triumph’ or ‘vindication’ of capitalist democracy has largely resulted in a return to the more conservative, liberal point of view in many popular accounts of the Revolution.

An equally important factor in developing an understanding of Russian historiography is the recognition of bias and the context in which different historians approaches have emerged. The basis of the Soviet view was to justify the Revolution and celebrate the triumphs of Communism; the Cold War influence over the liberal approach underscores its dismissal of any notions of ‘mass participation’ (a ‘Marxist’ ideal) and thus seeks to demonise the Bolsheviks; revisionists, on the other hand, are critical of both polarised views, and seek a deeper, more complex analysis. The debate amongst different historical approaches indeed continues to be an on going, developing discourse. Whilst the Stalinist Soviet view has been largely discredited, Marxist interpretations continue to be applied by some historians; the liberal view is still championed and eloquently espoused by a number of modern writers (most notably Richard Pipes); and revisionist (and even ‘post-revisionist’) approaches are continually throwing new understandings upon our understandings of the Russian Revolution.

Despite the increasingly complex nature of Russian historiography, a most worthwhile exercise is to consider which school of thought various historians belong to when you read their work. It is equally important to acknowledge areas of historical debate within your own writing, drawing attention to the insights different individual historians have made. It is perfectly acceptable for you to take on and base your own understandings on the interpretation of a historian whose analysis you feel is the most convincing, although you must acknowledge that you have gained your insights from their work. Unlike in some other subjects, students of History are not expected to ‘re-invent the wheel’. But that should not discount you seeking a complex answer to your questions that draws on the conclusion of different schools of thought. New work is being produced all the time and our understandings of the Revolution continue to grow as historians uncover new sources and approach the old in different ways. Students new to the study of History sometimes despair at trying to find out “what really happened” or what is “the right answer”. The fact that historians fundamentally disagree in their arguments can indeed be confusing. However, good students of History should see that maybe a “right” answer is very hard to come by. History was never nice and neat (just like real life), but the initial lack of a ‘clear cut’ answer should not lead to confusion – the analysis that is often most convincing is that which is best able to articulate and explain contrasting views and debates. Recognise bias – our own, that of historians, and that of the sources we analyse. Consider the notions that post-modernism sheds on History, and on the nature of memory and experience: how one person perceived and experienced the Revolution can be entirely different to the experiences of another. We must continue to ask questions of our sources: Why do they think that? How were they affected? What were they hoping to achieve? Did their expectations, experiences, values and desires change over time?

The popular perception of the Russian Revolution in the Western world (and therefore most school textbooks) has typically followed the liberal interpretation. We live in a free, democratic society (or we hope it is) and generally experience little discomfort, brutality or desperate danger. Russia at the turn of the century is in many ways a seemingly ‘alien’ world. It can be hard to not ascribe our own values onto this society. We should thus be wary of our own bias. The violence and callousness of much of the Revolution naturally repulses us. Punishing a thief by ramming a stake up his rectum or nailing him to a fence is horrible and inhuman in the least – but to the Russian villager, whose existence was often brutal and a life-long struggle for survival, it might have made sense. Even trying to understand the personality of Lenin is a difficult task. Many accounts of the Revolution portray him as wholly consumed by the task of the Revolution, a one-sided and dogmatic figure. Yet Lenin somehow found time to have a romantic fling with Inessa Armand. In the same way, Dzerzhinsky not only ran the Cheka, but also a large children’s charity. These were complex and very real human beings.

It is disappointing that the brilliant work of revisionist historians has been often overlooked, or is too complex in its analysis for popular media to make use of. It was interesting that for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1997 the New York Times Literally Supplement chose all liberal historians to reflect on the importance and significance of the events. Richard Pipes has dismissed the revisionist account as simply a re-hash of the Soviet view; politics and the actions of leading protagonists continue to be the driving factors in understanding the Revolution. Pipes makes fine use of a wide variety of sources, but he ignores the important new evidence that revisionist historians have brought to light and he cannot reconcile any notions of popular support and mass agency with the Bolshevik Party. Orlando Figes, the author of one of the most brilliantly acclaimed new accounts of the Revolution, argues “we are all social historians now”; meaning that the broad notions raised by revisionist historians are now impossible to ignore. Although taking the liberal view can often be the easiest way of making a straightforward response to an exam or essay question (and the liberal view still has some compelling arguments), by taking on board some of the new insights revisionist work has given us, by seeking a more complex answer that is not consciously driven by political bias, the richness of one’s analyses can only be made greater.

Following my broad summary of the different schools in the History of the Russian Revolution, I have included a number of short quotes from leading historians. I have tried to structure the quotes so that they read like a conversation or debate – which I think is a good way of conceptualising historiography. Note how there is a certain amount of agreement on different matters, but also some subtle and some glaring differences. I have categorised these historians merely for the purpose of drawing attention to key, broad approaches in their views of the Revolution – not all uniformly agree on all issues of debate surrounding the Russian Revolution, nor do all necessarily ‘fit’ neatly into the categories given. The historians’ work I have drawn these quotes from are simply those I have read – it is not a definitive list. Nor should you avoid reading at least a few extended works yourself, to take in the narrative in its entirety is an important and valuable exercise in itself.

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