Revolution and the Fortune of War

On the centenary of the Russian Revolution, five books track its transition from idealism to tyranny.

Postcard celebrating the February Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar, 1917.

‘Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of history’, wrote Nikolai Sukhanov to describe the events of October 1917 in Russia. That the Bolsheviks would end the year in power was inconceivable when Tsar Nicholas II was forced from the throne in March. Lenin’s party was a tiny group on the fringe of Russian politics and its irascible leader had been in exile for almost two decades, firing off tendentious pamphlets and newspaper articles, which were read only by his few devoted followers.

The novelist China Miéville’s sparkling month-by-month recounting of 1917 brings out the full extent of the instability and confusion that engulfed Russia, as conflicting political leaders and parties sought to establish their position within the novel situation that faced them after the abdication of the tsar. There was no inevitability about the outcome of the revolution and, as each of the works in this review suggests, the process of revolution in Russia was uncertain and volatile.

The provocative collection of essays edited by Tony Brenton identifies a dozen occasions when even a small shift in the course of events could have brought about fundamental change in the way in which Russia evolved. How differently would the revolution have turned out had the German government not decided to facilitate Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917, or if the assassination attempt on Rasputin in the summer of 1914 had been successful?

The collapse of the tsarist regime in the space of little more than a week at the end of February 1917 was not preordained. As Steve Smith argues in his excellent history of revolutionary Russia, ‘the autocracy was not a decrepit and immobile regime blind to the changes that were taking place around it’. But this ‘great, sluggard, contradictory power’ – as Miéville characterises the Romanov empire – was far from stable in the first years of the 20th century. In 1905 the tsarist state came within a whisker of political catastrophe and economic disaster. Even though it survived and regained its composure, industrial discontent was fuelled by the massacre in 1912 of more than 200 striking workers in the Lena goldfields by tsarist troops. However, Russia’s entry into the war in summer 1914 radically changed the prospects for Nicholas II’s regime. Russia’s weak performance exposed the incompetence of the government and fatally splintered Russian society. As the war advanced, the mood of the country was symbolised by the ‘Tango of Death’ that was performed by a Moscow professional dance duo.

The radicalisation of politics proceeded apace after the abdication of Nicholas II. The Provisional Government decided not to withdraw from the war, food supplies continued to worsen and inflation gathered pace. Lenin’s Bolsheviks gradually became the beneficiaries of the failure of Russian liberalism to sustain the Provisional Government. In Yuri Slezkine’s expansive account of the Revolution, he argues that their success derived from the essential nature of Bolshevism as a millenarian sect. Lenin’s return to Petrograd in 1917 took place on Easter Monday and, Slezkine suggests, ‘he declared that the time had come; the prophecy had been fulfilled’. The Bolsheviks were thus powerfully motivated in their desire to make a revolution and install themselves in government. As Smith suggests, however, ‘the Provisional Government had expired even before the Bolsheviks finished it off’. Yet the quasi-religious fervour that Slezkine ascribes to Lenin and his followers was not by itself enough to propel them to power. Once the October Revolution had taken place, the Bolsheviks found themselves faced with a series of crises – civil war, famine and international isolation – that required real political determination to overcome. The transformation of the Bolsheviks from revolutionary group to governing party was, in part, successful because they possessed an intense self-belief in the righteousness of their cause. That said, they also had no compunction about using the full resources of the state to impose their regime on the Russian population.

The collection of articles in a special issue of the journal, Historical Research, edited by Matthew Rendle, provides detailed and closely researched insight into some of the ways in which the new government operated: it set up revolutionary tribunals – political courts focusing on counter-revolutionary crimes – to crush opposition and help transform mentalities, while its prisons became brutal, unhealthy institutions.

The works reviewed here are each concerned with the reasons for the transformation of the Russian Revolution from the idealism of 1917, when great crowds welcomed freedom in the wake of Nicholas II’s abdication, to the harsh rule imposed by Lenin and his successors. Slezkine uses the House of Government, a huge apartment block built in the late 1920s on the banks of the river Moscow to house members of the Soviet elite, as the symbol around which he constructs his view of the Russian Revolution. It was, he argues, ‘a massive missionary campaign ... that proved strong enough to conquer an empire but not resourceful enough to either convert the barbarians or reproduce itself at home’.  In the 1930s, resident after resident of the lowering grey apartment block on the river experienced the hammering on the door in the middle of the night that presaged arrest, imprisonment or execution in the name of the Revolution.  Slezkine’s bleak assessment of the continuities that led from 1917 to the bitter viciousness of Stalinism can be challenged. There were, as Richard Sakwa argues in his essay in Brenton’s collection, other trajectories that the revolution could have taken. While Lenin bequeathed a political environment that allowed Stalin to come to power, Stalin had to fight difficult and lengthy battles before he could be sure of his grip on authority. If Trotsky or Bukharin had emerged as leader, a different path would have been possible. The centenary of the revolution provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of historical change and to ponder how ‘liberty’s dim light’, which had illuminated 1917 for the poet Osip Mandelstam, became the precursor to Miéville’s ‘long century, a long dusk of spite and cruelty’.

Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution
Tony Brenton (ed.)
Profile Books 384pp £25

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville
Verso 384pp £18.99

The Centenary of the Russian Revolution: New Directions in Research
Matthew Rendle (ed.) 266pp
Historical Research, vol. XC, no. 247 (IHR and Wiley)

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press
1,128pp £29.95

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928
S.A. Smith
Oxford University Press  472pp £25

Peter Waldron is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia.