Reading History: The Russian Revolution

Edward Acton outlines the historiography of the Russian Revolution.

The Russian Revolution occupies the strategic centre of contemporary history. In a matter of eight months power passed from the hands of the Tsar into those of the Bolsheviks. Europe's slumbering giant, for centuries a bastion of reaction, suddenly became the source of a momentous challenge to the world domination of western capitalism. The Soviet Union presented a. dynamic new model of economic, social, political and ideological development which was to exert a potent influence over the world's less advanced nations and less privileged classes. The revolution set in motion a process of change in which we are all caught up.

To understand this process historians have been led back again and again to the upheaval of 1917. Why did the imposing facade of Tsarism simply disintegrate? Why were liberal and moderate socialist parties unable to retain the influence and popularity they enjoyed after the February revolution? Why was it the Bolsheviks who benefited from mass disaffection from the Provincial Government? How was Lenin's party able to consolidate its hold on power? Analysis of these questions has suffered from the subject's obvious 'relevance'. The orthodox Soviet account of the Bolshevik triumph plays too important a role in legitimising the Soviet government for close probing to be permitted. Western work, on the other hand, has for long been distorted by the passions and prejudices of Russian refugees and Cold War warriors. Reacting against Soviet panegyrics, western. historians have tended to view October as the product of dark conspiracy and the manipulation of an irrational and easily led Russian people. Gradually, however, the mould has begun to break. Recent western research has advanced by focusing on two main dimensions of the revolution.

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