2017 Press Releases

Op-ed: Russian Revolution’s centenary is Putin’s dilemma

10 Mar 2017
Geoffrey Roberts, Professor of History and Dean of Graduate Studies at UCC.

How should a conservative government commemorate a revolution that was crucial to the foundation of the state that it rules? 

The Irish government’s response to the Easter Rising centenary last year was commendably open and pluralistic. The heroes of 1916 were lionised but the victims of their actions were remembered, too. The Rising was celebrated but due respect was accorded to critics of the violent insurrection. The negative as well as the positive consequences of the Rising were debated at length. While radicals bemoaned the continuing failure to implement the egalitarian ideals of 1916, the government emphasised the political, social and economic progress that has been made in the past 100 years.

The Fine Gael-Labour government’s commemoration strategy worked very well and the centenary celebrations were its last success before losing office in May.

The conservative regime of President Vladimir Putin in approaching the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution faces even more complex problems than those confronted by the Irish government. First, there was not one but two revolutions in Russia in 1917 – the February Revolution that overthrew Tsarist autocracy and the October Revolution through which the Bolsheviks took power. (According to our Gregorian calendar, rather than them Julian calendar used in Russia at the time, these revolutions took place in March and November 1917.)

October was by far the more important of the two risings as it brought to power radical socialists dedicated to revolutionising not only Russia but the whole world. The Soviet system established by the Bolsheviks challenged western capitalism and imperialist activities in a way that shaped world politics for much of the 20th century.

The Bolsheviks seized power during World War 1 and two decades later their communist successors fought a life and death struggle against Hitler and Nazi Germany. The Soviet triumph in the World War 2 saved western democracy and propelled the USSR to superpower status. For the next 40 years the Soviets fought the west to a standstill in a global cold war – a conflict that only ended when Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s final leader, introduced democratic reforms that undermined the communist system and led to the break-up of the USSR in 1991.

Since President Putin is neither a monarchist nor an autocrat he has no particular difficulty endorsing the March 1917 democratic revolution that forced the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II. However, the collapse of Tsarism was followed by violence, chaos and disorder, allowing the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Provisional Government that had replaced the Tsar’s rule. Putin could, of course, condemn the Bolsheviks – and he often does - but as a former communist he sees much to admire in their ideals. Moreover, while the Bolsheviks introduced communism to Russia they also defended the borders of the Tsarist empire, not least during the civil war and foreign state interventions that followed the revolution. Bolshevik victory in the civil war was the foundation of the advanced industrial state that is the heritage of post-Soviet Russia.

Yet as a conservative President Putin favours evolution, not revolution. There is nothing he fears more than a western state -inspired and state-sponsored ‘colour revolution’ in Russia.  Such a development could topple his regime and he suffer a fate similar to governments in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. President Putin will therefore strive to celebrate the Russian Revolution whilst using it as a parable about the dangers of freedom going too far and foreigners being allowed to interfere in Russia’s affairs.

A dramatic eyewitness account by an American journalist of the Bolshevik insurrection in Petrograd in November 1917 -- John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World -- has become perhaps the most famous book about the Russian Revolution. Reed was an idealistic socialist who portrayed the Bolshevik leaders as revolutionary heroes. He was not the only one. At the time widespread admiration was expressed throughout the world in support of both Russian revolutions, seen as legitimate revolts against economic and social injustice and in pursuit of fundamental civil and political liberties.

Reed, who died in 1920, did not live to see the degeneration of this idealistic revolution into a repressive Bolshevik party dictatorship. Reed’s ashes were interred in the Kremlin wall on Red Square in Moscow– the only foreigner ever to be so honoured. His book became the foundation for Sergey Eisenstein’s film October (1927), a silent movie whose depiction of the Bolshevik insurrection did much to consolidate its image as a popular revolution. Famously, Eisenstein’s re-creation of the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in Petrograd caused more damage than did the original assault!

Like the Easter Rising, the Russian Revolution had a long gestation. Some historians trace the seeds of revolution back to the liberal so-called Decemberist Revolt of 1825 against Tsar Alexander I – the conqueror of Napoleonic France. Other historians focus on the destabilising effects of Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in the 1850s – an action designed to prevent a peasant revolution but which instead destroyed traditional relations in the countryside, sowing agrarian discontent in Russia that was to lodge at the heart of subsequent upheavals, including those in 1917. Tsarist suppression of national and ethnic minorities was another important factor. Russia under the Tsars was a multinational, multiracial empire seething with discontents – the Bolsheviks called it “the prison of the peoples”. Heavy-handed Tsarist attempts to pacify and unify the people through imposing Russian language and culture – so-called Russification – rather intensified the spiralling resentments of oppressed minorities. Thus, in 1917, the centrifugal forces of nationalism came to the fore. 

The political road leading to 1917 can be seen as beginning with the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. The revolt began with the bloody suppression of a peaceful protest in St Petersburg (later renamed Petrograd) in January 1905. During a demonstration demanding political and economic reforms hundreds of people were killed when troops opened fire. Bloody Sunday, as it came to be called, sparked strikes and demonstrations in cities throughout Russia. Then, when the protests spread to the countryside, there were riots, murders and attacks on property. An armed uprising against the Imperial Government took place in Moscow in December 1905.

Unrest in the armed forces added to Tsar Nicholas II’s woes. This arose in part as a result of the disastrous 1904-05 war with Japan, which had begun when the Japanese launched a surprise attacked on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet pursuant of disputes about imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea.

Nicholas II was forced to make concessions to the protesters through the October Manifesto that promised a constitutional monarchy, legalised political parties and established a Russian parliament (the Duma). But when the immediate crisis passed the Tsar returned to repression and eroded the constitutional reforms of the October Manifesto. Nicholas II was a stern critic of “divisive “ democracy and a true believer in Tsarist autocracy as divined by god to protect Holy Russia from internal and external enemies. Prime Minister Peter Stolypin led the Tsar’s repression. His hangings of insurgents became known as the ‘Stolypin Necktie’. But this did not prevent radicals and revolutionaries carrying out some 2,000 assassinations from 1908-1912. Stolypin’s 15-year old daughter was killed by a terrorist bomb and in 1911 Stolypin himself was assassinated.

While the bloody repercussions of the 1905 revolution meant another revolutionary outburst in Russia was highly likely they did not make inevitable the violent overthrow of Tsarism. Nicholas II resisted political reform but he remained open to the economic and social evolution of his empire, not least because Russia needed to compete for resources with its great power rivals in Europe and Asia.

In the 1890s Sergey Witte, the Tsar’s Finance Minister, presided over the state-sponsored industrialisation of Russia. Industrialisation was accompanied by urbanisation, an expansion of the middle classes and the development of a more extensive and sophisticated civil society in Russia. According to some historians Tsarist Russia was on the cusp of successfully completing its modernisation when it was halted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Indeed, without the war there would have been no Russian Revolution. The demands of war exposed how the Tsarist system was deficient and the limits of its modernisation. Russia lost territory and suffered five million casualties during battles with German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish armies from 1914-1917. In 1915 Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of Russia’s armed forces and was blamed for subsequent military defeats. The Russian elite began to lose faith in the Tsar and in the Duma opposition grew to his conduct of the war. Rumours spread that Nicholas II was overly influenced by his German princess wife, Alexandra, who, in turn, was under the control of the mystic Russian monk Grigory Rasputin (assassinated in December 1916). But it was the growing economic crisis that became the tipping point. Inflation devalued the currency so peasants stopped supplying food to the towns because prices were too low and there was nothing to spend money on. Food shortages in the cities sparked industrial unrest and political protests. 1916 was a year of strikes in Russia with membership and support for revolutionary organisations increasing significantly.

Events came to a head with a strike and demonstration on International Women’s Day by female textile workers in Petrograd, which escalated into a citywide strike. Troops sent to suppress the protests refused to fire on the workers and began to fraternise with the crowds, resulting in a soldiers’ mutiny in which some 200,000 troops of the Petrograd garrison defected to the revolt. Duma representatives then petitioned the Tsar to abdicate, a recommendation supported by many generals who feared the mutiny would undermine Russia’s war effort.

On 15 March 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. But Michael refused to accept the crown without the approval of an as-yet-unfounded Constituent Assembly, thus bringing the 300-year Romanov dynasty to an end. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks, fearing a resurgence of support for the monarchy, executed the Tsar and his family.

It fell to a Provisional Government (PG) to fill the power vacuum and to organise democratic elections to a Constituent Assembly that was to be tasked with creating and adopting a new constitution for Russia. Meanwhile Russia became an increasingly unruly society. Mutinous soldiers demanded the right to elect their officers. Peasants seized land from the aristocracy. Workers took control of their factories. The economic crisis deepened as strikes and demonstrations continued, accompanied by widespread violence and lawlessness. The PG was a reformist government trapped in a revolutionary state.

Nor did the PG rule alone. As the revolt spread, Soviets – people’s popular power organisations that had first appeared during the 1905 Revolution – were revived. The Soviet in Petrograd was particularly important since it wielded the power of veto over the PG’s decisions and actions. Into this unstable situation of “dual power” stepped Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the most important single actor in the 1917 drama. If any one person can be said to have changed the course of world history it was Lenin. 

In exile in Switzerland when the Tsar fell, Lenin was secreted back to Russia in a sealed train provided by the Germans to transport him and his entourage across Europe. The Germans aimed to destabilise their Russian enemy and, in this, they certainly succeeded.

Lenin believed the effects of war combined with the aftermath of the Tsar’s fall made Russia ripe for socialist revolution. He also perceived there to be a rising tide of revolution across Europe, including in Ireland. When he returned to Russia he re-aligned the Bolshevik Party as the PG’s main opposition. The Bolshevik slogan was “All Power to the Soviets”. They supported the peasant and worker revolt and demanded an end to Russia’s participation in the World War 1.

The PG was as much undone by the war as the Tsar had been. It supported Russia’s involvement as being a patriotic national duty to defend the country from its enemies. Moderate socialists in both the government and the Soviets supported this mission. Yet when in June 1917 the PG launched a disastrous offensive against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the operation’s failure led to the collapse of the PG coalition. In its stead came a new coalition dominated by moderate socialists and headed by a socialist Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, who had been war minister in the previous government.

Throughout spring and summer 1917 popular support for the Bolsheviks grew. More and more delegates to the increasing number of Soviets across the country were Bolshevik supporters. The Bolshevik Revolution was not a majority revolution – the party was too weak in the countryside – but by the time they seized power the Bolsheviks represented a mass revolutionary movement in urban Russia. Particularly important were the high levels of support for the Bolsheviks among industrial workers and conscripted soldiers and sailors.

In July 1917 the Bolsheviks almost overplayed their hand when large-scale clashes occurred in Petrograd between their supporters and troops loyal to the PG. When it became clear the Bolsheviks were not strong enough to seize power Lenin called the demonstrations off. Nevertheless, after the “July Days” the PG began to arrest Bolshevik leaders and Lenin was forced to flee to Finland.

The PG clampdown on the Bolsheviks convinced Lenin that power could only be attained by a violent insurrection to overthrow the government. Lenin’s view was reinforced when a Tsarist general mounted an attempted coup -- the Kornilov affair. Kornilov’s troops were stopped in their tracks by striking railway workers and armed workers’ militias. The only way to avert counter-revolution, argued Lenin, was for the Bolsheviks to seize power on behalf of the Soviets.

But Lenin, even as Bolshevik founder, chief strategist and theoretician, did not have the power to dictate policy to his party. There was outright opposition to his proposed coup on grounds that it was premature and would result in the Bolsheviks being crushed by the PG. Others argued that the Congress of Soviets, due to meet in Petrograd at the end of October, should be asked to allow the overthrow of the PG.

After much argument Lenin’s view prevailed and on the night of 7/8 November Bolshevik Red Guards seized control of public buildings in Petrograd and arrested PG ministers, although Prime Minister Kerensky himself escaped capture. The Bolsheviks then went to the Congress of Soviets and won support to establish a Soviet Government.

That first Soviet Government was a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who represented militant peasants. Elections to the Constituent Assembly went ahead but the Bolsheviks closed the Assembly down when it met in January 1918 on the pretext that was not representative of public opinion. The real reason was that the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs had failed to win a majority in the assembly elections.

In March 1918 when the Bolsheviks kept their promise to take Russia out of the war and signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, their coalition with the Left SRs broke up. The Bolsheviks’ opponents then felt free to launch a violent campaign to forcibly overthrow Lenin’s government now Russia was no longer at war. This violent resistance to the Bolsheviks was actively aided and abetted by Britain, France, and the United States, leading to the Russian civil war of 1918-1921 in which seven million people died.

The civil war was close run. At its height in 1919 the Bolsheviks were corralled in central Russia, being attacked from all sides by “White Armies” led by former Tsarist generals and admirals. The Bolsheviks won the civil war for many reasons but most important was that they defended the continuation of revolution, as opposed to the counter-revolution sought by most of their opponents.

The Bolshevik victory in the civil war was for them an even greater triumph than their revolution. Through the processes of civil war they consolidated their grip on power and began their experiment in socialism. But success came at a high price. The civil war transformed a party of idealistic radical revolutionaries into group of ruthless rulers ready and willing to deploy extreme violence in pursuit of utopia. The Soviet state emerging from the aftermath of civil war was authoritarian, repressive and often terroristic. Joseph Stalin, one of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators, ascended to power after Lenin’s death in 1924.

During Soviet times the anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure power was an occasion of major celebration, marked by a menacing military parade through Red Square in Moscow. In 2005 President Putin disposed of the public holiday on Revolution Day and instead introduced a Day of National Unity. What unity may mean in Russia’s future will be President Putin’s most important consideration in this 100th anniversary year as he wrestles to reconcile the complex continuities and discontinuities of Russia’s recent history.

Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History and Dean of Graduate Studies at UCC.


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