‘What about Lenin do you admire most?’ Catherine Merridale, author of Lenin on the Train (2016), answered as most historians would: ‘I can’t think of anything much to admire.’ That this question could be asked at all in 2017 shows that the Russian Revolution continues to fascinate. Such continuities with the mental world of the Cold War are no speciality of the political left, but they rely on nearly heroic efforts to simplify an incredibly complex historical reality.
What came to be known as the ‘Russian Revolution’ was not one event. It was a whole bundle of revolts, civil and national wars, and uprisings, all deeply entangled with World War I. First, there were the February and October revolutions one hundred years ago. They were initially confined to urban Russia, in particular Petrograd. They combined rapid political change with social revolution driven by an increasingly radicalised working class. Second, there was a cluster of rural revolutions, different in character by region. Third, there was a military mutiny against the war. And fourth, there was a variety of anti-imperialist, national revolutions of non-Russian minorities at the periphery of the empire. These upheavals constituted an interdependent process which stretched from 1916, when a mutiny in Central Asia began the revolutionary period, to the middle of the 1920s, when pacification of most regions of what had become the Soviet Union was complete. This process is hard to grasp in its entirety or to narrate in anything like a coherent manner, as Jonathan D. Smele’s brilliant but convoluted The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars 1916–1926 (2015) demonstrates.
Whoever remembers this revolution, thus, always has to pick and choose. This essay reviews the choices historians, writers, and politicians make when remembering and forgetting about the revolution in this centenary year. It answers the question of why we should still bother with it after one hundred years.
One answer is attachment to the ‘promise of 1917’: the revolution had red flags and heroic symbols, great artists and inspiring dreams. Unless one is among the few remaining Stalinists, however, such nostalgia relies on drawing a line separating the revolution from its totalitarian offspring: Stalinism. An exercise in counter-factual history of long standing, sophisticated arguments have identified moments when ‘things went wrong’. The details are less interesting than the fact that, once the line is drawn, a surprising number of contemporary intellec- tuals still argue that remembering the revolution enables revolutionary thought.
One prominent exponent of this line of reasoning is China Miéville, a socialist activist whose day job is writing sci-fi and fantasy and whose moonlighting as a historian of the revolution has produced the very readable October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, $29.99 pb, 369 pp, 97817866345042017). It competently summarises the English-language socialist history of 1917 and declares that this revolution ‘could be ours’. A connoisseur of factional fights and political tactics, Miéville is fascinated by the revolution’s endless meetings, the conduct of debates, and the crafting of resolutions. This strangely old-fashioned, Petrograd-centric political history should interest any aspiring revolutionary. It studies October in order to avoid its ‘failures and crimes’ the next time around. For readers not preparing for insurrection, the book offers a useful guide to further reading, replete with amusing leftist tirades against the various political mistakes historians have made.
On the more academic side of the left is Oxford Professor S.A. Smith, a veteran of the historiography of 1917. His Russia in Revolution: An empire in crisis, 1890 to 1928 (OUP, $35 hb, 405 pp, 97801987348262017) is among the best one-volume introductions to not only the history of the revolution but also of late tsarism, the Civil War (1918–21), and the years of the New Economic Policy (or NEP, 1921–28). This study’s level of detail and subtlety of interpretation might overwhelm readers who do not already have a firm grasp on the topic.
A substantially revised and expanded edition of Smith’s not-so-short The Russian Revolution: A very short introduction (2002), this volume, like its predecessor, follows a well-established left-wing interpretation: It excludes Stalinism (1928–53) from the narrative, making the NEP the revolution’s ultimate destination. This was a time when the Bolsheviks temporarily allowed the ‘anarchy of the market’ to play a role in the economy, without ever feeling comfortable with this compromise with first principles. Meanwhile, Smith presents Stalin’s revolution from above of 1928–32 as a rupture – the First Five-Year Plan, collectivisation, and dekulakisation (the expropriation, deportation, or execution of the more prosperous farmers, known as ‘kulaks’) are not part of the revolution. This approach contrasts markedly with the current scholarly consensus popularised by Sheila Fitzpatrick’s influential The Russian Revolution, first published in 1982 and released this year in a fourth edition.
Smith concedes that Stalin was a Leninist; that he rose to power because of the anti-democratic structures Lenin had built; and that as long as Bolsheviks were in power, a break with the compromises of the 1920s was highly likely. However, ‘this emphatically did not mean that ideology dictated the violent dekulakisation, wildly escalating planning targets, the terror and forced labour that Stalin would actually unleash’. Stalinism was Stalinist because of Stalin. That Stalin was also a Bolshevik and a Leninist is secondary.
True to his commitment to provide a balanced portrait of this revolution, Smith stresses ‘the emancipatory impulses within Bolshevism’. He rightly claims that Bolshevik popularity in late 1917 was due to the ‘promise to abolish inequality and exploitation’, to the ‘rejection of the war as imperialist’, and to the claim that the revolution would ‘dismantle the bureaucratic state and place power in the hands of local soviets’. However, what transpired instead was dictatorship of one party led by one man (Lenin), class terror, expropriation, and civil war. In the end, what Smith highlights are progressive causes not specific to Bolshevism. These were soft-line concerns to Lenin and his men, which could be, and were, ditched if tactics demanded: ‘anti-colonialism, women’s rights, experiments in law, welfare, and education, or new concepts of urban planning and architecture’.
The Bolsheviks were a party of radical class warriors, not beacons of social democracy. Smith knows this well, and yet he continues to feel that the revolution ‘opened up certain progressive possibilities that the dismal record of Stalinism and Maoism should not blind us to’. Studying the revolution allows to dream about alternatives in a present where ‘everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage belief that it can be organized in a more just and rational fashion’.
Much more widespread than left-wing nostalgia is a second contemporary way to remember the Russian revolution: as a cautionary tale. Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $35 pb, 588 pp, 97814746004532017) is one example. Lenin, the unashamed liar if it served the cause; the rabble-rouser who promised easy solutions to complex problems; the authoritarian who thought that everything was permitted if the results were right; the lawyer who detested the rule of law as a silly idea of liberal weaklings; the egomaniac who equated his personal power with the future of mankind – this Lenin is highly recognisable today. He was, writes Sebestyen, ‘the godfather of ... “post-truth politics”’. And indeed, Steve Bannon, for one, has declared himself a Leninist – a strange but fitting appropriation by the far right of an icon of left-wing militancy.
The attempt to make 1917 relevant to today’s world by treating Bolshevism as the original post-truth political movement has a distinguished pedigree in debates from the Cold War. Conservatives have long remembered the revolution as nothing more than a morality play: see what happens if you try to change the world. The latest instalment is Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Revolution: A new history (Basic Books, $30, 350 pp, 9780465039906), a single-mindedly conservative interpretation. Rather than a society in turmoil at the war’s outbreak, led by a reactionary incompetent unwilling to understand the need for political change, as most accounts have it, Russia appears as ‘the economic story of its day, a colossus in the making’. The autocrat’s only fault was that he ‘lacked the courage of his convictions’. His greatest mistake was to listen to liberals, who are to blame for all that followed, first for Russia going to war, then for stabbing the monarchy in the back, before bungling the business of governing, meekly allowing the Bolsheviks to seize power.
A clarion call for conservative hard-headedness, McMeekin’s book warns that the Bolshevik menace is still with us: US socialist Bernie Sanders and best-selling economist Thomas Piketty, author of the brilliant Capital in the Twenty-First Century (French original: 2013; English translation: 2014), spearhead ‘the old dream of social revolution’. The enemy continues to stand on the left. ‘The popularity of Marxist-style maximalist socialism is on the rise again,’ McMeekin opines. Mistaking splinter groups of campus radicals for a political mass movement, he warns of dark forces ‘dreaming of a world where private property and inequality are outlawed, where rational economic development is planned by far-seeing intellectuals’. Lenin lives! The revolution continues! Be afraid!
Conservatives, of course, are not the only ones in need of cautionary tales. Closer perhaps to Sebestyen is the standard social democratic use of this revolution: this is what happens if you let capitalism run rampant – you get Lenin and the Bolsheviks, lose all your assets, and probably die in Stalin’s execution chambers. Thus better vote Labor and build a welfare state. Hence studying the revolution can be driven by anti-revolutionary gradualism, as a historian stressed, who had made it his life’s work to rescue the Bolsheviks from the accusation that October was a coup. Interviewed by Sean Guillory on the latter’s prolific Russia Blog podcast in May this year, Alexander Rabinowitch reflected on what drives his research:
Some people are interested in lessons from it [the revolution] ... for the insight it gives into making revolution. They are revolutionaries, they are Marxists. I am not ... To me the lesson is that we need to resolve fundamental political, social, and economic issues, the needs of people generally, if we are going to avoid revolutions. And revolutions on a scale as they occurred in Russia are just profoundly dangerous ... But to understand that, you have to understand the revolution.
If revolutionary nostalgia, as well as conservative, liberal, or social democratic cautionary tales, still resonate with some constituencies in the English-speaking world, a third reason why people used to care about the Russian Revolution has vanished: the state it founded, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is no more. So why bother about the Russian Revolution?
This question is particularly pressing in the biggest of the successor states: the Russian Federation. The Putin administration has a fairly pained relationship to the revolution, as I pointed out in an essay for The Conversation earlier this year. Putin has been careful not to make too much noise about the centenary, as revolution is the last thing he wants to encourage. The president is troubled by the execution of the Romanovs and the murder of clergymen. He blames Lenin not only for Russia losing World War I because of Bolshevik disorganisation of the front, but also for the breakdown of the Soviet Union: The constitution of the new state as a union of formerly independent republics with the right of secession – Lenin’s program, which he pressed through against Stalin – planted a ‘time bomb’ under the new empire, which eventually exploded in 1991. Lenin, then, is to blame for losing World War I, for the demise of tsarism, and, posthumously, for the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
Despite such ringing disendorsement, the government cannot completely ignore the Russian Revolution without also disowning the state it gave birth to: the Soviet Union. And this state won the war against Nazism, a victory which Putin, in sync with much of the population, eagerly embraces as part of a positive national narrative (a topic I explore in an essay in the September 2017 issue of History & Memory). Putin’s minister of culture, the maverick historian Vladimir Medinskii, has tried to square this circle.
In Medinskii’s narrative, the revolution becomes a terrible catastrophe for the fatherland: an imperial, moral, political, and economic breakdown. The resulting Civil War is reduced to a fight between Reds and Whites, all of them Russian patriots who wanted nothing but the best for the fatherland. In the end, the Bolsheviks turned out to be the better state-builders, and hence the better patriots. Hence they won. The Whites might have lost, but Russia rose from the ashes, implicitly, too, because the Red Army managed to reconquer much of the Romanov Empire. This interpretation, then, has an imperialist edge unlikely to make it popular in the non-Russian successor states of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the liberal opposition has found an ingenious way to mobilise the Russian Revolution for its own ends. Mikhail Zygar, one-time editor-in-chief of the independent television station Rain and author of the scathing All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the court of Vladimir Putin (2016), created an interactive website entitled ‘1917: Free History’. As Canadian historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer pointed out in The Brooks Bulletin late last year, the underlying message is that the October revolution was an unlikely, highly contingent, nearly accidental event. Zygar’s implication is: political change is possible, even in highly repressive regimes.
While fending off such yearning for an open future from the democratic left, the government also attempts to contain opposition much further to its right. Russian nationalists, indeed, have resurrected the anti-Semitic zombie of the revolution as a Jewish conspiracy. No wonder Putin tries to tread a middle path of ‘reconciliation’: the memory of this revolution threatens to wake up too many barely sleeping dogs.
If you are not a revolutionary dreamer who yearns for better, redder days; if you are no Russian liberal or nationalist who needs to come to term with this revolution in some way; and if you are no preacher of apocalypse intent on mobilising the Russian revolution as a cautionary tale to strengthen your breed of conservatism, liberalism, or social democracy: if you are none of these, should you care about the Russian revolution?
I think you should.
There is a very pressing reason why we should study 1917 a century later: the current political shape of Eurasia. The period of war, revolution, and civil war in which the revolution was embedded was an essential moment in the gestation of the Soviet successor states. It promised a post-imperial world in the territories once ruled by the Romanovs. There are beginnings for such a narrative, not least in Richard Pipes’s The Formation of the Soviet Union (1954). More recently, Joshua Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the destruction of the Russian Empire (2014) has provided a manifesto for such a history. Later this year, non-specialists will also be able to enjoy a new landmark in the historiography, penned by a veteran historian of revolutionary Russia. Laura Engelstein’s just-published Russia in Flames: War, revolution, civil war, 1914–1921 (OUP, £25, 840 pp, 9780199794218) is destined to become the standard English-language history of this period.
Like no other author published in this centenary year, Engelstein decentres the revolution from Petrograd in 1917, embedding it into the wider context of war and imperial breakdown. The Ottoman and Habsburg empires did not survive World War I, and neither did, initially, their Romanov cousin. Sustained violence followed all across the post-imperial shatter zone, as Robert Gerwarth has reminded us in The Vanquished: Why the First World War failed to end (2016). The results of this violence were different in Russia. Like neighbouring China, which had descended into post-imperial chaos earlier and would take much longer to re-emerge from it, the Russian empire managed to re-establish itself under the red banner.
By 1914 the Romanovs’ domains included, besides the Russian heartland, parts of the Far East and Central Asia, the Trans-Caucasus (today’s Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), Poland, the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine. By the time the revolution broke out in February 1917, Poland was under German occupation, as were parts of the western Baltics and sections of Belarus. All over the non-Russian borderlands still under Russian control, demands for greater autonomy, and at times independence, were heard. After the October revolution, the inept diplomacy of the Bolsheviks led to further losses to the Germans who occupied Ukraine, more of Belarus, and all of the Baltics. The year 1918 saw further imperial breakdown. Finland and Poland, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and the Trans-Caucasus republics were among the most prominent of the new states. Other regions were taken over by alternative Russian rulers, the various ‘White’ forces.
The Bolsheviks, then, were reduced more or less to the territory of Russia before Peter the Great began imperial expansion in the seventeenth century. In 1919, 1920, and 1921, the Red Army managed to regain much of the lost empire. In central Asia, pacification dragged on well into the 1920s and indeed beyond. Only Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Finland remained independent, at least until World War II, when the reconquest of the empire was continued by incorporating eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union before reducing what was left of Poland to a satellite. Only Finland escaped, bruised but independent.
Engelstein suggests that the significance of the Revolution lies in what it teaches us about ‘the cost of democracy’s failure’, but her attention to the imperial aspect can also be pushed in a different direction. War and revolution were moments when, under the ruins of empire, an alternative political landscape became visible for a short while. Such a history could potentially be embraced by everybody in the post-Soviet space as a prehistory of the present, although in Russia such a re-imagining of the revolution would require a withering away of imperial nostalgia. At present, many Russians perceive such a history as anti-Soviet, and by proxy anti-Russian. And it would be perfectly possible to tell it thus, by presenting a narrative in which the freedom loving non-Russian peoples were forced back into a new, now Bolshevik ‘prison house of nations’. But it would be equally possible to stress how Bolshevik victory was one of the lesser bad options, if compared to the pogroms, ethnic cleansings, and other brutalities instigated by armed nationalists, warlords, and bandits.
In and around 1917, after all, nation building in Eurasia was no bloodless affair. Everywhere in the former Romanov Empire, populations were ethnically, religiously, and nationally highly complex, differences often made combustible by economic and social inequalities. Only an inclusive, non-ethnic form of civic nationalism, which focused on loyalty to a particular state and a set of values it embodies, would allow the integration of multi-ethnic populations within one nation. Such a nationalism, however, requires a relatively high level of restraint among élites, who must abstain from utilising ethnocentric and racist rhetoric.
It was exactly this type of civic nationalism which the Soviets eventually promoted in their rather convoluted way. After they had reconquered the non-Russian regions militarily, they proclaimed ‘friendship of the peoples’ all loyal to the Soviet order; they instituted an ‘affirmative action empire’, to quote Terry Martin’s path-breaking 2001 book The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and nationalism in the USSR, 1923–1939, in order to accommodate ethnic sentiments and neutralise the nationalist threat. The Bolsheviks could do so, because ideologically they were not committed to nationalism, despite bouts of Russian chauvinism and ethnic cleansing under Stalin. For nationalists, meanwhile, the other form of nation building was always more likely in the situation of 1916–26: exclusive, ethnic nationalism which threatens minorities with violence or, at best, discrimination.
The result of the re-gathering of much of the Romanov lands under the red flag was a pseudo-federal Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which on paper gave the constituent states the right to secede. In 1991, as Putin complains, they would take the constitution’s rhetoric seriously. With the core of the Soviet Union more and more Russianised since victory in World War II, and with the ideological commitment to the socialist empire in serious crisis, this union broke apart along the borders which had been established, by and large, in the process of breakdown and reconstitution of empire during the period of war, revolutions, and civil wars. Today’s Eurasia, thus, has a deep historical connection to the revolutionary period. Appropriated in a careful and critical way, this history could promote both anti-imperialism and a civic form of nationalism – the basis for a peaceful future for the region.
Major new titles referred to in this article:
Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, revolution, civil war, 1914–1921 (Oxford University Press, 2017)
Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A new history (Basic Books, 2017)
Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (Penguin Press, 2016)
China Miéville, October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017)
Victor Sebestyen, Lenin the Dictator: An intimate portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017)
Jonathan D. Smele, The ‘Russian’ Civil Wars 1916–1926 (Oxford University Press, 2015)
S.A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An empire in crisis, 1890 to 1928 (Oxford University Press, 2017)