A revolutionary year: How Russia ‘got bolshy’ in 1917

Review: SA Smith’s majestic book sets the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas and the Bolshevik revolution in context

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928
Author: SA Smith
ISBN-13: 978-0198734826
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £25

‘The revolution continues,” Mikhail Gorbachev declared at the 70th-anniversary celebrations of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in Russia. The Soviet leader was a true believer in communism, yet within five years of this statement his glasnost-and-perestroika revolution had shattered the communist system and post-Soviet Russia was embarked on a brutal and chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism.

There were, in fact, two Russian revolutions in 1917: the spontaneous, popular revolution of February (or March, depending which calendar you use) that forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate, and the Bolshevik insurrection of October (or November) that overthrew the provisional government that had taken his place. The Bolsheviks believed they were the vanguard of a revolution sweeping across the world, and faith in the socialist future remained strong until the very end of the Soviet regime.

After communism fell, in 1991, Gorbachev’s view of the Russian Revolution changed radically. Asked in 1996 if there was a moment in history he would like to have changed, Gorbachev replied that the February Revolution against tsarism should have been allowed to run its course. Such a view is now common in contemporary Russia, where the centennial of the revolution will be commemorated rather than celebrated. In a speech last year another former communist, President Vladimir Putin, complained that Soviet power had led to Russia’s defeat in the first World War and to mass repression, including the murder of the tsar and his family.

The distorting prism of hindsight is particularly intrusive in relation to the Russian Revolution. As Stephen Smith notes in Russia in Revolution, his majestic survey, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate understanding what did actually happen in 1917 from its consequences: the creation of a violent, repressive state whose experiment in socialism as a political and economic system ended in dismal failure. But, as Smith shows, both Russian revolutions were motivated by the desire for freedom: freedom from want and class oppression, as well as the right to civil and political liberties. In this respect Bolshevik leaders and activists were as idealistic as the masses they sought to lead. The Soviet revolution is dead and buried, but its ideals of equality, social solidarity and popular empowerment remain relevant.

Smith specialises in the social history of the Russian Revolution, and he skilfully reconstructs the cultural and socioeconomic context of 1917. The fall of tsarism was rooted in its failure to modernise, specifically to replace a regime of autocracy with a constitutional monarchy. But the failings of the tsarist system did not make its calamitous collapse inevitable. The vital contingency was the outbreak of the first World War. The war exacerbated the system’s problems and created the conditions for a tsunami of popular discontent that broke in March 1917 with a general strike and soldiers’ mutiny in Petrograd.

A second important contingency was the role played by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland when the tsarist regime fell. He returned to Russia courtesy of a sealed train provided by the Germans, who hoped to gain advantage through Lenin’s adding to the country’s chaos. Indeed Lenin led the Bolsheviks into opposition against the provisional government, whose failure to exit the first World War became crucial to the opposition’s success. A disastrous military offensive launched in June 1917 provided the Bolsheviks with an opening to stage their insurrection in Petrograd a few months later.

The Bolsheviks’ power base was secured by the Soviets, the organisations of popular power that first appeared during the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 and that re-emerged in 1917. The Soviets shared power with the provisional government, but Lenin’s strategic goal was to liquidate this so-called dual power in favour of Soviet rule. Thus the story of 1917 was one of growing support for the Bolsheviks, who opposed the war while demanding land for the peasants and workers’ control of the factories.

Counterfactual questions

The historiography of the Russian Revolution is replete with counterfactual questions. Was the collapse of tsarism inevitable? Did the provisional government have to fail? Could the Bolshevik insurrection have been averted? But Smith’s contribution to this possible alternative history does not convince this reviewer. He argues that rising popular support for the Bolsheviks could have been contained short of revolution if moderate socialists in the provisional government had adopted a policy known as revolutionary defencism – the unilateral suspension of hostilities with Germany and a negotiated end to the first World War.

In fact the Bolsheviks pursued a variation of that policy after they assumed power, but it did not turn out well. The Germans’ response to the Bolsheviks’ unilateral declaration of peace in January 1918 was to invade and occupy swathes of Russian territory. The Bolsheviks survived in power after the German attack, but the draconian terms of the subsequent Brest-Litovsk peace treaty sparked opposition across the political spectrum, including within the party itself.

The difference between the Bolsheviks and their opponents was that they needed peace in order to be able to retain power, whereas the opposition viewed the treaty as an opportunity to undermine Lenin’s government. The Bolsheviks also believed that if they retained power in Russia they would be in a good position to aid the coming European socialist revolutions.

Instead the Brest-Litovsk treaty paved the way to a catastrophic civil war. The Bolsheviks triumphed, but the political price was high, as it was during the civil war that the subsequent repressive regime took shape. Democracy was suppressed, and violence became the preferred mode of conduct in both politics and military affairs. The civil war destroyed the popular movement that had swept the Bolsheviks to power and transformed a party of revolutionaries into a bureaucracy.

Was degeneration of the revolution inevitable? Smith argues that although the Bolsheviks’ authoritarian ideology was important in directing the choices they made during the civil war so, too, were the dire circumstances they faced, which included large-scale foreign intervention by western capitalist states. It wasn’t only Bolshevik terror and ruthlessness that won them the civil war but also the political disunity of their opponents and the continuing appeal of revolutionary ideas.

Geoffrey Swain's elegant and compelling Short History of the Russian Revolution focuses on a political narrative of the events in Russia from 1905 to 1917. Swain argues that the Bolshevik insurrection was buttressed by a popular revolution and emphasises the revolutionary impulses of the Russian working classes, who had grown ever more frustrated and radicalised as successive attempts to reform tsarism failed.

Swain’s intricate political history of 1917 shows how the devil really is in the detail. Bolshevism was not an unstoppable force. The road to the Bolshevik revolution was much more haphazard and reactive than it appears in retrospect. Lenin’s urgings notwithstanding, the Bolsheviks were reluctant to seize power on their own. The November insurrection was a defensive move to stop the provisional government reasserting control in Petrograd. Lenin wanted to seize power before the opening of the Second Congress of Soviets, but that happened only because the meeting was postponed.

According to Swain, the coup element in the Bolshevik insurrection was Lenin’s determination not to share power with other socialists. After the insurrection the Bolsheviks were forced to share office with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who represented militant peasants, but the coalition broke up over Brest-Litovsk. Thereafter the Bolsheviks and their communist successors ruled alone. It was Gorbachev’s abolition of the one-party system, in 1990, that delivered the coup de grace to the Soviet regime.

Swain’s counterfactual spin is even less convincing than Smith’s. Had the Left Socialist Revolutionaries been able to win a majority at the Fifth Congress of Soviets, in July 1918, the Bolsheviks would have been forced back into a coalition that would have resumed the war against Germany, which Swain thinks revolutionary Russia could have survived, thereby avoiding a civil war in which millions died. A more likely scenario is that of decisive military defeat by the Germans and a descent into equally violent disorder.

Lenin, however, was not for turning. Representation at the Fifth Congress was gerrymandered to ensure a Bolshevik majority. Whatever the cost, Lenin was determined to hang on to power so as to construct a socialist utopia. It was this amalgam of idealism and realism that shaped Lenin’s Bolshevik party into such a potent force.

Prof Geoffrey Roberts is dean of graduate studies at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy