Rewriting Russia's Revolution Evan Mawdsley discusses how scholarship both inside and outside the Soviet Union, spurred on by the political somersaults in the East, is revising our view of Lenin, the events of 1917 and after

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Rewriting Russia's Revolution

Evan Mawdsley discusses how scholarship both inside and outside the Soviet Union, spurred on by the political somersaults in the East, is revising our view of Lenin, the events of 1917 and after.

Events are moving with a dizzying pace in the modern USSR and its Eastern European neighbours. In November 1989, on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, demonstrators carried placards with slogans like 'Seventy-two Years on the Road to Nowhere': As this article was completed (in March 1990) the news media all over the world showed workmen in Bucharest trying to demolish a twelve-ton statue of the leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin. How far will all this lead to a re-evaluation in the West of the events that established the whole Soviet era?

It could be argued that for Western historians, at least, no fundamental reinterpretation is necessary. The explanation can be found in the decades before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The era of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82) was an era of zastoi (stagnation) in Soviet historical writing as well as in Soviet politics and economics. By an interesting accident of history however, this period, and especially its second half, was an exciting period for the study of Russian revolutionary history in the West.

At the risk of making things rather too simple, it could be said that before the mid-1960s there had been a traditional view of the revolution. This view stressed the 'elite' Bolshevik party and its manipulation of the political situation in 1917. 'If only Lenin had not seized power by his coup d'etat in Petrograd', the argument ran, 'a peaceful outcome and a Westernised Russia might have been possible.' This has been called a 'Cold War' view, but in fact it began with the first Western reaction to the Bolshevik victory and the first writings of the politicians and academics who fled Russia after the Revolution. Stalinism and the Cold War just seemed to confirm this view.

In the late 1960s a. new wave of historical research on the Revolution began. The new writing had several causes. There was the general expansion of universities and university history in the United States and elsewhere. The particular interest in Russian history and politics came from the delayed effect of the Cold War and the impact of the first Sputnik in 1917. Research was aided by easier access for Western historians to Soviet archives and libraries and by the publication of documents in the USSR.

But not only was there more activity and more information, there was a new attitude to the Soviet history. It would be going too far, perhaps, to call this 'revisionist' but it did reflect a new concern with social history and a move away from simple politics (and a notion of politics which at times approached conspiracy theory). Broadly speaking, the reinterpretation played down the role of central political leadership, turning instead to the social underpinnings of the revolution and looking beyond the capital. One historian who had a major impact on the younger generation was Leopold Haimson, whose important article, 'The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905-1917', was published in the American journal Slavic Review in 1964. Haimson’s article was notable both for stressing the broad social discontents underlying the Russian turmoil of the early twentieth century and for its pessimistic assessment of the tsarist regime's chances of survival – with or without the First World War. The overthrow of the tsarist system, Haimson suggested, was the result of unstoppable social forces and so – by implication – was 'the overthrow by extremists of the Provisional Government that succeeded it.

At first much of the new writing took the form of doctoral dissertations and articles, but gradually substantial books appeared. By the middle of the 1980s there were general works on the February and October Revolutions in Petrograd. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa had written The February Revolution: 1917 (University of Washington Press, 1981) and Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (W.W. Norton, 1976). Both stressed the complexities of the situation and. the wide-scale social disruption. Both emphasised the weaknesses of the Bolshevik party, and Rabinowitch made much – as he had in his earlier Prelude to Revolution: the Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (Indiana University Ptess, 1968) – of the flexibility of Lenin's Bolshevik Party in responding to popular pressure.

Other more specialised books brought out the same points. Robert Service in The Bolshevik Party in Revolution: A Study in Organisational Change, 1917-1923 (Macmillan, 1979) stressed the limitations in the Bolsheviks' leadership; the party of 1917-19, was quite different from the 'totalitarian' Stalinist party of the 1930s, and from the image of it which had been produced by the previous generation of writers like Leonard Schapiro (in his influential The Communist Party of the Soviet Union , first published in 1960).

Other historians now emphasised the process of the 'spontaneous' radicalisation of groups of the population, and they did this on the basis of long periods of research in the USSR. Important work was done on the army and on Moscow, Petrograd, and Kronstadt: Allan K. Wildman's The End of the Russian Imperial Army (Princeton University Press, 1979-87), Diane Koenker's, Moscow Workers and the 1917 Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1981), Stephen Smith's, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), and Israel Getzler's, Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Not everyone was convinced. One outstanding exception was John Keep. His The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976) made much of the broad social dimension of 1917-18, but Keep still saw as the central feature the Bolshevik manipulation of mass organisations like congresses and soviets. The majority of historians, however, went the other way and stressed the situation was out of anyone's control.

Turning to the most recent Western writing about the Revolution – work published in the Gorbachev era – we might well conclude that so far it does not amount to such a remarkable change as that which took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, a number of themes have been followed forward. We are still learning more and more about 1917 and its background. The 1905 Revolution, which Lenin called the essential 'dress rehearsal' for 1917, now has a good general history, Abraham Ascher's The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford University Press, 1988). A major new work on the antecedents of 1917 is about to appear in the form of Robert McKean's, St. Petersburg between the Revolutions: Workers and Revolutionaries, June 1907-February 1917 (Yale University Press, 1990).

Our understanding of Lenin's role has been enhanced by Robert Service's multi-volume Lenin: A Political Life (Macmillan, 1985). The volume taking the story up to the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 will become publicly available in early 1991. (The author has had particular problems due to Soviet publication of new source material.) Service skilfully combines ideas with biography and action; what becomes more clear than before are the difficulties Lenin had keeping the party with him.

Biography has never been a strong aspect of Soviet or Western historiography. Long awaited has been a work on Kerensky, the leading figure of the 'Provisional Government' (of March-October 1917); the main source was a series of unreliable memoirs by Kerensky. Now we have Richard Abraham's, Alexander Kerensky: First Love of the Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1987). Robert Slusser, Stalin in October: The Man who Missed the Revolution (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987) highlights (or perhaps relegates to the background) another political actor. The treatment of opponents of the Bolsheviks is carried forward by Ziva Galili in The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1990); it was the Menshevik leaders who, despite their small popular following, were important in determining the policies of the early non-Bolshevik soviets and the 'coalition' socialist/non-socialist governments that followed Nicholas II after February 1917.

Studies of social history continue, one new example being Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia in 1917 (Princeton University Press, 1989). Local studies are spreading further afield than the revolutionary centres of Moscow, Petrograd, and Kronstadt. The peasant heartland of Great Russia is described in two books, one on 1917 and the other on the Civil War years: Donald L. Raleigh, Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov (Cornell University Press, 1986) and Orlando Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil Was: The Volga Countryside in Revolution 1917-19 (Oxford University Press, 1989). In many ways regions like these were most typical of 'Russia'.

The new books are not only moving out of the Petrograd-Moscow axis, they are also moving chronologically beyond the October Revolution; after all, in terms of social turmoil, 1917 was a minor affair compared to the years that followed it. Figes represents an early attempt to look at the social upheaval after 1917. The urban sector in the Civil War is also studied in Richard Sakwa, Soviet Communists in Power: A Study of Moscow during the Civil War, 1918-21 (Macmillan, 1988); the same city is part of a larger study by William J. Chase, Society and the Soviet State: Labour and Life in Moscow, 1918-1929 (University of Illinois Press, 1987). (Getzler's book was also important for looking at the years after 1917.) A number of different themes relating to the Civil War appear in Diane Koenker, et al. (eds.), Party, State and Society in the Russian Civil War: Explorations in Social History (University of Michigan Press, 1989). There are now two surveys which try to tie the whole of the Civil War together, Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (Unwin Hyman, 1987) and W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (Simon R Schuster, 1989). (It is a pity that there is not yet a single volume summarising research on 1917 – as opposed to the Civil War.)

The consolidation of the research also includes the imminent appearance of a volume of essays edited by Robert Service summarising Western research, Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution (Macmillan, 1990). Important specialist reference books have appeared: Harold Shukman, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Russian Revolution (Blackwell, 1988), and George Jackson (ed.), Dictionary of the Russian Revolution (Greenwood Press, 1989). And in June 1988 a new British journal devoted to the period, Revolutionary Russia , began to appear – published by Frank Cass & Co.

In terms of research the most exciting new developments are not so much to do with time and place, as with efforts to go beyond narrative history, and beyond politics and economics, into new dimensions. The cultural underpinnings of the era are for the first time opened to examination in Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read (Princeton University Press, 1985) and Ben Eklof, Russian Peasant Schools: Officialdom, Village Culture, and Popular Pedagogy (University of California Press, 1986). Neither is directly concerned with the political events of 1917, but they are crucial to a real understanding of the era.

Less important perhaps, but equally interesting, are works on 'culture' in the era of the Revolution and Civil War: William G. Rosenberg, Bolshevik Visions: The First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Ardis, 1984) and Abbott Gleason, et al., Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution (Indiana University Press, 1985). Some of the themes raised here are also examined in Peter Kenez, The Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization (Cambridge University Press, 1985). Finally, reference should be made to one other aspect of 'culture', the new religion of Marxism-Leninism; the patron saint of this is studied in Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives!: The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia (Harvard University Press, 1983).

So far it would be fair to say that the Western reinterpretation, from the 1970s to the early 1980s, and again in the later 1980s, has been independent of political events in the USSR. After all, the Brezhnev era was one of political stagnation and a particularly stale period in Soviet historical writing. Many Western historians had access to Soviet primary sources, but they could hardly he impressed either by what their Soviet counterparts were writing or about the overall political development of the USSR.

The Gorbachev period is very different, but it too has yet to have its impact. A whole article could be written about how Soviet historians may rewrite the history of their revolution. There have been surveys of the first stages of the new writing by Alec Nove, Glasnost' in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia (Unwin Hyman, 1989), and R.W. Davies, Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution (Indiana University Press, 1989), but much more is yet to come. The best of it will be very stimulating. Western historians began in the 1970s to discard the notion of the Leninist elite party leading the masses, seeing it as part of an obsolete anti-Soviet 'totalitarian' concept. Ironically, the notion will also be dropped by Soviet historians, although their version of it was part of the officially-inspired concept of the Leninist 'leading role' of the party.

In the best case – of continuing Soviet openness – Western historians will find themselves, if not out of a job, at least coming second to their most talented Soviet counterparts. Clearly there is a Soviet interest in Western writing; Rabinowitch's book on the October Revolution, for example, has now been published in the USSR. But Soviet historians, now less encumbered by ideological baggage and the top-down 'planning' of Soviet research institutes, with free access to archives, will be able to produce wonderful work. (Although some Soviet historians may find new distortions in the form of Great Russian chauvinism or anti-Semitism.)

The effect of Gorbachev and glasnost on Western historical writing is also not yet clear. Little has as yet been incorporated even into articles, let alone books. For one thing historical glasnost only became apparent from 1987-88, and the full dimensions of the Soviet crisis also only became clear about that time. The most sensational material released has been about Stalin's purges and the war. The lead-time for books is long, and authors are cagey about going to press before all the information is out.

Assuming that perestroika and glasnost continue, Western historians will get more and more information about the Revolution and Civil War. This should be especially interesting for studying events outside Petrograd, and among rival parties; of special interest will be details of the activities of the state and party in the Civil War.

But the events in Russia are not simply to do with glasnost – or the open availability of information. The experience of the turmoil now taking place in Russia – and its unforeseeable outcome – will influence the way that the current generation of Western historians will look at the events of 1917 (although perhaps not influence them in such a radical way as they would have been had perestroika begun in the 1960s when the old historical interpretation was still intact). In any event the whole position of the nationalities will be re-examined in the wake of how powerful the national tradition of the minorities has shown itself to be. Likewise the role of people's power – the political role of the constituent assembly and so on – may come in for further consideration.

The parallels will in any event he fascinating. Observers of Gorbachev's Russia should keep in mind Leopold Haimson and 'The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905-1917 '. Perhaps Haimson's 'dual polarization' – polarisation within the ruling elite and polarisation between that elite and the population at large – is a cause for pessimism both about pre-1917 Russia and about the USSR in the 1990s. That, however, remains to be seen.

  • Evan Mawdsley is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern History at the University of Glasgow and is currently working on a study of the CPSU Central Committee members.

The October Revolution

by Roy Medvedev, translated by George Saunders

Roy Medvedev is the most prominent Soviet dissident historian. The appearance of The October Revolution will arouse great interest. Here is a Russian, a Marxist, an admirer of Lenin subjecting the hallowed revolution itself to critical scrutiny. His reflections on the significance of the revolution, breaking free of Soviet orthodoxy and yet endorsing the revolution itself, represent a major political statement in the Soviet context. At the same time, as a knowledgeable and perceptive scholar, his wide-ranging discussion will be of general interest for the light it throws on the events themselves.

The book is not a narrative on the scale of Let History Judge, his account of Stalin's reign, but rather a succinct analysis of what he sees as the central controversies surrounding the revolution. The first half of the book is addressed to the questions 'Was the October Revolution Inevitable?' and 'Was the October Revolution Premature?'. The second half dissects the economic policy of the Bolsheviks during their first eight months in power and examines how far it was responsible for the catastrophic scale of the Civil War which followed. Medvedev argues that the revolution was not inevitable, but neither was it premature. His theoretical discussion of both questions is not perhaps very profound. Important steps in his argument, such as his view that the Provisional Government could have ended the war, are not pressed closely enough to be completely convincing. Partly because of the restricted sources available to him and partly because of the brevity of the work – the text runs to only about 70,000 words – he is inclined to proceed by assertion as much as documentation. Nevertheless, the intellectual independence of his approach, and the genuine historical imagination he exercises in interpreting such questions as the motives of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, inspire respect.

More immediately arresting is the second half of the book. The economic policy of the Bolsheviks in the winter and spring of 1918 was, he argues, disastrous and unnecessary. Carried away by the political triumph of October, they set themselves 'unrealistic and unrealisable' economic goals. They tried to introduce total control of exchange and consumption at one step, forbidding trade and seeking to feed the cities by forcibly extracting the grain surplus from the villages. Since Bolshevik presence in the countryside was pitifully small, they appealed to the poor peasants and set up poor peasants' committees to force grain from the middle and rich peasants. Economically, the result was immediate dislocation and long-term damage since relatively productive peasant farms were divided by the poor peasant into small holdings which for years to come would produce little or no surplus grain. Politically, the results were even more serious. The campaign alienated the majority of the peasantry thereby creating mass backing for the counter-revolutionary forces in the Civil War, and it made irreparable the 'tragic rift' between the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks.

The major message of the book lies here. Lenin was great enough to learn from his mistakes – in 1921, on the brink of disaster, he at last liberated trade under the New Economic Policy. But facing the problems of later periods, his successors have shown far less courage and insight. Agricultural mismanagement and crisis have repeatedly hampered Soviet development. The lesson of 1918 is the need to avoid premature attempts at total control of the economy which reduce production and alienate valuable political allies. This lesson, says Medvedev in a provocative reference to current Soviet conditions which will make his life in Russia no easier, is 'very important today, when there are so many disputes over the issues of one-party rule and pluralism'.

The October Revolution

Constable, London, 1979; 295 pp.

The October Revolution

On its 80th anniversary Graham Darby argues that the Bolshevik success of 1917 was rooted in the failings of the Provisional Government and the aspiration of ordinary people.

With the eightieth anniversary of the Communist Revolution looming large on the horizon, it is probably an appropriate moment to consider once again how it was that the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in October 1917. Of course until 1991 the Revolution remained very much a part of living history, part of the Cold War - an event which according to Soviet sources, was part of an unfolding grand design as predicted by Karl Marx, part of the inevitable process on the road to world socialism. In short, the Bolshevik Revolution was bound to happen. Admittedly this view never found much favour in the West, but now with the Soviet Union consigned to the 'dustbin of history' it should be ignored and our focus can turn back to the Provisional Government - for it was the failure of the Provisional Government (and the other socialist parties) that allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power and hijack what had had become a large popular revolution.

First of all it is important to remember that Nicholas II was not really swept away by a popular revolution. He was removed by his own class - by has generals to be precise. And their purpose was to prevent revolution. They mistakenly believed that by removing the Tsar, the unrest would subside and the people would be satisfied. How wrong they were! The very thing they sought to prevent, they actually made possible. The people's aspirations were given full rein. But there was perhaps never any real possibility of the people's aspirations being satisfied by the Duma politicians. Like the generals, these were men of wealth and privilege, men of property and business - they were not revolutionaries; they too were there to prevent revolution. So from the very start, the objectives of the Provisional Government were very different from those of the ordinary people. It is hardly surprising that an impasse developed. Thus in order to make sense of what happened between February and October 1917 we need to look not only at the failings of the Provisional Government, but also at the aspirations of the ordinary people, and finally at how the Bolsheviks were able to exploit both of these.

The Failings of the Provisional Government

A number of criticisms have been made of the Provisional Government. The liberal politicians had little understanding of the workings of government; they wasted time over legal niceties; they were too aware of their provisional nature; they were themselves bitterly divided; they were reluctant to use force to impose their will; they were unable to control the Soviets; they could not manage the economy; they failed to distribute the land; they wished to continue the war; they upheld the interest of the bourgeoisie; they betrayed the masses; and they failed to call the Constituent Assembly.

There is a great deal of truth in all these charges but they miss the point. The point is that too much was expected of the Provisional Government in too short a time. Soldiers wanted an end to the war; peasants wanted the land; workers wanted better conditions; the politically articulate wanted freedom of association, press etc.; different nationalities wanted self determination; the Allies wanted an offensive against the Germans. Any government would have found all these aspirations difficult to fulfill in peacetime let alone during a difficult war. Moreover the government was only provisional (clearly the failure to call the Constituent Assembly was a major mistake) and its power was undermined by the Soviets. Thus it can be argued that it faced an impossible task.

From February onwards the central government was simply drained of power as ordinary people took matters into their own hands. The Tsarist system had held Russia together; with the Tsar gone the power structure had collapsed. Traditional authority had been smashed beyond repair and a climate of disobedience took its place. The government had to comply with the wishes of the masses (and quickly); otherwise it was doomed. There was a honeymoon period perhaps until May, when the government could have acted, but by June it was over. For this reason the June offensive was meant to restore the government’s prestige. Accordingly its failure had significant political implications. In particular it was a personal calamity for Kerensky whose self-confidence and judgement suffered as a result. The people increasingly ignored the Provisional Government and when in August Kerensky fell out with Kornilov (another major mistake – he feared the right and ignored the left) he succeeded in alienating the army. What little power the government had left, evaporated. However, the government not only failed to accede to the people's demands, it consciously tried to resist them. This was the policy of the Kadets, the most influential liberal group of politicians.

There is much truth in Lenin's oft-quoted parody of Provisional Government policy: 'Wait until the Constituent Assembly for land. Wait until the end of the war for the Constituent Assembly. Wait until total victory for the end of the war' The Kadets did not want to distribute land until the Constituent Assembly was called and as peasant demands became more radical they sided with the landowners. The Kadets were opposed to the state regulation of the economy on philosophical grounds. The Kadets fully supported the war even after the failure of the summer offensive. The Kadets wished to halt the revolution and favoured a military coup to restore discipline and smash the soviets. And the Kadets deliberately postponed the calling of the Constituent Assembly because they knew they would be swamped by the socialist parties (this proved to be correct; in November they only polled 4.7%). Looked at in this light it is not surprising the Provisional Government failed. Given that the Kadets consciously wished to resist aspirations of the ordinary people but lacked any power to resist them, it is remarkable that the Provisional Government lasted as long as it did.

The People’s Revolution

Resistance to popular demands was impossible in the climate of 1917. In the absence of coercion the peasants, workers and soldiers could simply disobey landlords, managers and officers, thereby destroying the authority of the politicians in government. In short no one would do as they were told! But this was not simply blind obstinacy; the people had their own aspirations. And they did not need politicians - even socialist ones - to tell them what they wanted.

The peasantry believed the land should belong to those who worked it. The seizure of private land was usually planned and coordinated through the village commune. They also sought equitable justice, local government officials elected by the peasants themselves and free education. 'The goals, methods and rhythm of peasant actions during 1917 were their own' (Acton).

The peasant revolution began slowly and did not really get under way until the autumn. Initially the peasants organized themselves into committees, sought to bring unsown land back into productive use, withdrew their labour from landlords and intervened in the management of estates where landowners looked as though they were asset stripping. The government tried to steer a middle course between the landowners and peasants (which was impossible) and after July tried to take a firmer line against the latter. For instance on 8th July the government confirmed that land seizures were completely impermissible pending the decision of the Constituent Assembly. The subsequent decline in peasant ‘incidents’ in August was deceptive as the majority were working on the harvest. Although the position of Soviet historians has always been that all the peasants rose in revolt in September and October, it seems likely that this is an exaggeration. There were serious disturbances but these were largely confined to about a dozen provinces and carried out by a minority of the peasantry. Many peasants showed remarkable patience and were prepared to wait for a legal transfer of land but only because they were confident that there was a new environment in which their wishes would be fulfilled. However, the patience of others was running out and at the time of the October Revolution direct action was coming to the fore, and there was little the government could do about it. In short the Provisional Government could not control events in the countryside.

Most historical research has focused on the proletariat, the working class, though in truth the workers were not as important as the soldiery in terms of the collapse of government authority. In particular the phenomenon of the Soviets has generated much attention. There were 300 of these within three months, 600 by August and 900 by October, but in reality they were controlled by an elite of activists and, for many workers, the unions and factory committees were the organs through which their demands were made and met. What did the workers want? They wanted better conditions: improved wages, a shorter working day, an end to the authoritarian factory structure, and an end to the humiliating treatment meted out by management. In the aftermath of the 'February Revolution many of these demands were met and unpopular managers were 'purged'.

Initially Factory Committees were quite moderate in their requests. However, the improvement in working conditions did not bring an improvement in the economy; it continued to deteriorate and as it did so worker demands became more extreme as workers moved from their own agenda to a reactive one. Rising prices, shortages of raw materials and problems of food supply led to an increasing number of strikes from May onwards (peaking in September). However, strikes did not keep the factories open and after the July days the workers in Petrograd faced mass redundancies and the possibility of counter-revolution. 1917 then was not a glorious episode for the proletariat; it was a growing nightmare. Seen in this light the increasing radicalisation of worker demands takes on a different hue and the takeover of factories (workers' control) should be interpreted as a last ditch act of desperation to save jobs, rather than a manifestation of some radical agenda. Motives remained economic though politicisation went on apace. However, workers were true to issues rather than parties and they were prepared to support anyone who could restore the economy. Thus they had little time for the Provisional Government and lf their leadership in the Soviet failed they were prepared to support new leaders here too. It is in this context that Bolshevik success should be seen.

Where did all this leave the Provisional Government? Well, quite clearly it was powerless to resist initial worker demands and powerless to prevent their increasing radicalisation. The responsibility for the collapsing economy must also rest with the government, through all the problems that we have mentioned were inherited. However, they got worse, rather than better. Clearly worker demands did not help the economy (working less hours and being paid more money cannot have helped company viability) but much of subsequent worker intransigence was, as we have seen, the result of economic collapse rather than its cause. The Provisional Government's failure to manage the economy lost it the support of the working class. As in the countryside, the Provisional Government had little control in the cities and the main reason for this is because it did not control the soldiers either. Thus by far the most significant group, as far as government authority was concerned, were the soldiers. It was with them that the fate of the government rested.

The soldiers, who were largely peasants in uniform, naturally shared the wish for land reform but they also wanted to transform traditional military discipline. They wanted representative committees, the dismissal of unpopular officers and more humane treatment. These changes occurred almost instantaneously throughout the Empire and were reflected m the Petrograd Soviet's Orders No 1 and No 2 (which, though for the Petrograd garrison only, had widespread repercussions across Russia) Generally speaking the changes were 'spontaneous, orderly and responsible', and symptomatic of a 'massive, self-generating revolutionary movement from below' (Read).

Initially the government adopted a conciliatory attitude and proclaimed a limited Declaration of Soldiers Rights (May 11). The soldiers also wanted an early end to the war and did not want to conduct offensive operations. There was, however, an inherent contradiction in this position. The Germans were not simply going to go away. This attitude accounted for the failure of the June offensive and the rebellious garrison troops in early July. In the aftermath the government tried to tighten up discipline by reintroducing the death penalty (July 12) and reports from the front in mid-August indicated that the situation was quite stable. In fact the incidence of desertion (before October) has been much exaggerated and the soldiers were committed to stopping the German advance.

However, the Kornilov Affair destroyed any trust that there might have been. The incident was interpreted as an attack on soldiers' rights. Now no one supported the government and relations between soldiers and officers sunk to an all time low. The soldiers were tired and hungry and had little faith in either the High Command or the possibility of victory. As with the peasantry this disaffection was generated by the soldiers themselves, not by outside political agitators. Hunger was more powerful than propaganda. By October the whole army was being swept by a virtual tidal wave of self-assertion by the soldier mass on behalf of peace regardless of consequences or conditions' (Wildman). Increasingly radical resolutions were passed by the soldiers and a refusal to obey orders became widespread Russian army was disintegrating and once again there was absolutely nothing the government could do about it Moreover, without military force the government was impotent.

Of course the leading arbiter of national politics was the Petrograd garrison, and garrison troops tended to be more radical than those in the front line. The soldiers would have supported any government which was prepared to carry out the policies they favoured, (peace, land, democracy etc.) but the growing inability, or unwillingness of the Provisional Government to carry out these policies meant that when the government was threatened the garrison had nothing to save it.

It would appear, then, that the increasingly radical challenge to traditional authority by the peasants workers and soldiers dictated the course of the revolution and sealed the fate of the Provisional Government. Once it became clear that the government was not going to fulfil their wishes, the ordinary people took direct action through their committees But there was a limit to what these committees could do they could not end the war, restore the economy or ensure food supplies throughout Russia The people needed a government of politicians who were prepared to carry out the people's policies They needed a party with a programme that coincided with theirs This is where the Bolsheviks come in.

The Bolshevik takeover

If we look at the state of the political parties in February 1917 we would have to say that the Bolsheviks were the least likely party to take control the Kadets dominated the government but they were unable to attract mass support as there was an inherent contradiction in wanting universal suffrage and serving the interests of the propertied few They suffered a precipitate decline The Soviets were dominated by the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, the former had considerable support among the proletariat, the latter among peasantry, and both had support among the soldiers. The Bolsheviks were behind all these parties with a membership of 10,000; and things did not get much better for them. Lenin's return in April generated more interest and his position, 'no support to the Provisional Government', and no collaboration with other socialist parties, was unique and proved to be valuable later. However, up to the July Days the party had made little progress and their suppression after the episode seemed to herald their demise. Yet remarkably from this time on their political strength began to grow, as they came to be seen as the one party untainted by collaboration with the Provisional Government. This growth in support in August predated the Kornilov affair but that event proved to be the real turning point. What had been a trickle became a flood in September as more and more people turned to the Bolsheviks as their next best hope. By October membership had ballooned to 300,000.

However there is an important point to be made here. People (and we are mainly talking about workers and some soldiers – the Bolsheviks were always weak amongst the peasantry) were turning to the Bolsheviks not because they were becoming committed to Bolshevism but because they had become dissatisfied with the socialist parties which had worked with the Provisional Government and failed to deliver on the fundamental issues of peace, land and bread. The Mensheviks and. the Social Revolutionaries were discredited by their collaboration and the Mensheviks in particular suffered a dramatic collapse. This was because they had in fact set themselves against popular opinion by refusing to create a soviet government. Many were hamstrung by their belief in the Marxist theory that a long bourgeois phase had to precede socialism. Theirs was a significant missed opportunity. So the Bolsheviks inherited the people's hopes somewhat by default. They did not hold out ‘a new vision of the revolution', rather ‘a more speedy realisation of the original one' (Wildman)

The fact that the Bolsheviks were able to absorb such a dramatic increase in membership and support belies the old view that they were a ruthless, rigid, centralised, disciplined streamlined machine. At this stage they were in fact a flexible, fluid organisation, and while Lenin’s prestige was immense he did not have the control Soviet historians used to have us believe. In addition the party's propaganda and policies did not educate and persuade the masses; rather, they evoked a response because they coincided with the masses view. They did not create the people's programme they merely articulated it.

What Lenin brought to the movement was a programme distinct from the other parties and an unstoppable drive to seize power. Whether or not he was behind the July Days is a moot point but in the autumn he saw a real opportunity and, although his timing was wrong in September, without him it is unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have taken power in October. It is still likely that the Provisional Government under Kerensky would have collapsed (it had no support and no power at all) but what would have replaced it is anybody’s guess, though a soviet government (i.e. a coalition of socialists) was the only real alternative. Kerensky's blunders over Kornilov and finally on 24 October when he tried to suppress the Bolsheviks ensured their victory. In many ways he initiated the insurrection by forcing the Bolsheviks to defend themselves. But while the October Revolution bore all the classy hallmarks of a coup d'etat, it was more than that: it was a response to the popular movement. The troops stood by and allowed the Bolsheviks to take over, in the name of the soviets, in the name of the people. But this turned out to be a massive deception.


Thus it can be argued that the Provisional Government was almost doomed to failure from the start. The propertied classes had removed the Tsar to prevent a revolution but their vision of a liberal democracy which would maintain their position of privilege in no way corresponded to the wishes of the people. Perhaps it was intellectual arrogance that made the bourgeoisie feel the people could not have an agenda. In any event, the people did have an agenda (peace, land, bread, etc.) and this was the revolution from below. The government failed to respond to the people s wishes and even came to resist them. But it had no power to do so. Power rested with the people but they in turn needed a responsive government. Eventually after the failure of the Mensheviks and SRs in coalition many turned to the Bolsheviks. After August Kerensky's government had no power and Lenin stepped into his place in October. But whereas the people saw the Bolsheviks as a vehicle for achieving their aims, for Lenin popular support was a vehicle for achieving his messianic vision of world revolution and world socialism. Accordingly there was bound to be a dramatic clash between these two perceptions. ‘Where the people thought they were taking power for themselves, they were actually handing it over to a new, authoritarian leadership with almost unlimited aims' (Read). This became dear as the Bolsheviks struggled to retain power.

Because the whole mechanism of state control had collapsed, the principal objective of the Provisional Government should have been to restore the authority of the state, but it could not. It had no coercive power and the link with the localities had been broken In fact state authority was not to be re-established until some time after the Bolsheviks had seized power and then they were only able to do so by reverting to the methods of the old regime. This of course explains the paradox at the heart of the Revolution – how an oppressive, bureaucratic police state under the Tsar was replaced by an oppressive, bureaucratic police state under the Communists There was a truly popular revolution in 1917, but the Provisional Government failed to respond to it. The Bolsheviks did, but only to pervert it. The Russian people are still living with the consequences.

Further Reading:

  • E Acton Rethinking the Russian Revolution (1990)

  • G Darby The Russian Revolution: From Tsarism to Bolshevism 1861-1924 (1997)

  • O Figes A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (1993)

  • D Lieven Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias (1993)

  • C Read From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and their Revolution

  • A Wildman The End of the Imperial Russian Army (2 vols, 1980 & 1987)

About the Author:

Graham Darby is Head of History at King Edward VI School Southampton and the author of The Russian Revolution: From Tsarism to Bolshevism 1861-1924 in the new Longman History in Depth series.

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