1917: The Fragility of Power

The First World War ensured the success of the Russian Revolution. Peace would have strangled it at birth. 

Decisive year: a Soviet propaganda poster, c.1917. © Heritage Images/akg-images.

As recently as 30 years ago, the Russian Revolution was still considered by many to be the most significant event of the 20th century. When History Today marked the 70th anniversary of Lenin’s seizure of power, as this month we mark its centenary, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost – a contested word, often translated as transparency or openness – still offered the hope of a reformed Soviet Union. But the sclerosis of a system dependent on coercion, corruption and censorship was too far gone and just four years later, in December 1991, the whole miserable edifice came crashing down.

The Russian Revolution was born of the First World War, an event which, according to Vernon Bogdanor, has superseded Lenin’s triumph as the 20th century’s pivotal moment, that from which all else follows.

The Bolsheviks, who sought an end to that war, had been nurtured by imperial Germany, a fact known to the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky, who had put down Lenin’s attempted coup of 4 July 1917. Lenin fled into exile, though Kerensky, desperate for support from the Left, dropped any charges against the plotters that remained. He was to live to regret his leniency. Germany brought Lenin back to Russia just four months later, a tale told succinctly and brilliantly in Catherine Merridale’s Lenin On the Train. Another year of war between the Allies and the Central Powers gave Lenin and Trotsky just enough time to get a grip on Russia’s industrial heartland and win the subsequent Civil War. The vast empire was now in the hands of those who cared more for the abstractions of world revolution than the wellbeing of their compatriots. Millions would die as a consequence.

Imagine though, if the earlier 1905 Revolution had succeeded, as it almost did. Germany, unhindered by conflict elsewhere and with a massive land army, would have sought its immediate end. And so it is possible that the Kaiser would have succeeded where Napoleon and Hitler failed. A very different 20th century would have begun.

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