…. once the Czar was gone, no Russian ever commanded again. It was not until a fearsome set of internationalists and logicians built a sub-human structure upon the ruins of Christian civilization, that any form of order or design again emerged…. All sorts of Russians made the revolution. No sort of Russian reaped its profit.”Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, Part 5—The Unknown War, The Eastern Front.
(First Published 1923-31, e-Pub edition, Rosetta Books, 2013), pp. 444-5
(Photo credit – Petrograd Soviet, 1917 – Jacobin)
We have now followed the tale of the Russian Empire and its absolutist intransigence from the failed Decembrist Revolt of 1825 to the early days of 1917. In historiography, there has been no lack of analysis about contributing factors and causes leading to the final collapse of the Tsarist system on February 23 (Old Russian Calendar Date, March 8 by modernized dating) and the abdication of the Tsar and the end of the Romanov dynasty and implementation of a Provisional Government in early March.
Churchill’s analysis does not follow the standard sort of treatment of these events. He does not exhaustively list the failures to reform and the lost opportunities to avert catastrophe amid social and governmental collapse. Rather, his account makes for very interesting and possibly disquieting reading to an open-minded student of history, and particularly this history. Lest you, dear reader, be tempted to dismiss Churchill’s work because it was penned by a British politician who, one would think, would not know enough to give an authoritative interpretation but would be offering a mainly ideological and anti-communist perspective without taking into account the “hard facts and details” of the case, I would caution you to reconsider that preconception.
Here is why:
- Winston Churchill was intimately acquainted at first hand with a great deal of what transpired in World War I among the Allied governments, of which Russia was one of utmost importance as an original member of the Entente Powers, or Allies. As a powerful Senior Minister of the British Government through most of that great conflict, he had access to great quantities of inside information. He knew many of the participants personally – on both sides of the battle-lines, but especially among the upper echelons of the Allied Powers.
- By 1923, Churchill had already written several works of serious history and knew how it was done. As we have said, he had access to material that many scholars and writers did not have access to until many years later. He was already known to be an excellent writer, matching in his literary achievements his extraordinary oratorical ability.
- Later in his life, Churchill’s historical writings were recognized as worthy of being recognized among the best of his time. These included his masterful four volume treatment of Marlborough and His Times, the story of his distinguished ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and generalissimo of the British and Allied armies opposing King Louis XIV’s attempt to win mastery of Western Europe between 1701-1714. He had also written a multi-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples and the six volumes of The Second World War, his personal account of that enormous conflict written largely from his perspective of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, an extraordinary accomplishment for a statesman, and not based on his exceptional service to his country and humanity but on his literary merit and ability as a serious and recognized historian in his own right.
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953 was awarded to Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.The Nobel Prize in Literature 1953. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 17 Mar 2023. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1953/summary/
Thus, his account of what happened in the Russian Empire in 1917 and previously merits serious consideration.
Churchill does not credit the thesis that the Revolution was inevitable. In his account, he speaks of a number of circumstances which left the door open to a very different outcome if but a few circumstances had changed, or if the Tsarist regime had managed to survive but a few weeks longer. For example, the United States was on the verge of entering the conflict, and did so almost precisely one month after the Tsar fell from power. That alone might have staved off the disaster as a new hope of eventual victory in the war and ample new sources of supply could have reached Russia via the new year-round port of Archangelsk which now had a railroad connection to the south.
Churchill mentions that, as we have previously pointed out, the only sort of government Russia had ever known since its emergence as a definite European entity was absolutist Tsarism. Churchill posits that absolutism was the only form of rule the vast Russian state could feasibly be governed by, even in 1917. The Tsarist variety of absolutism would prove to have been downright benevolent in comparison to what was about to be visited on the longsuffering Russian peoples over the next 70+ years.
No other form of government had ever really been attempted in Russia, and all the traditions were rooted in that. In 1917, there were no plausible leaders who could make anything else work, for no one had any other kind of experience to work with. The reformists and revolutionaries had never ruled anything, and that indeed would engender the only possible outcome, disintegration of all cohesion and orderly rule into anarchy that could only be remedied by imposition of another absolutism. That eventually emerged, as quoted above, in the form of “a fearsome set of internationalists and logicians buil[ding] a sub-human structure upon the ruins of Christian civilization”.
Let us briefly summarize what happened from March to November 1917. Petrograd (St. Petersburg) revolted, beginning on Mar. 8. All attempts to quell the revolt failed after an initial assault by troops loyal to the Tsar dispersed the crowds. Thereafter, troops refused to fire on the citizens. The Duma dilly-dallied while the workers and laborers formed a city “Soviet” – an association unifying all regular people supporters of overthrowing the autocrats and reforming society, including army units. By Mar. 14, the Duma accepted the responsibility of forming a Provisional Government contingent on having the support of the Soviet, which really controlled the city. The Tsar was compelled to abdicate for himself and his son, and his brother Michael refused to take the throne, now rendered very precarious in any case. The Provisional Government now ruled a nascent republic and a constitution was a necessity.
Between March and November, the Provisional Government struggled to gain both legitimacy and a consolidated position and mandate. Russia’s new leaders, such as Kerensky, talked of establishing a western-style liberal democracy, but, as Churchill put it:
“The very rigidity of the system gave it its strength and, once broken, forbade all recovery …. All fell headlong into the depths where Lenin, Trotski, Zinoviev, and other unnatural spirits [Stalin lurked behind Lenin as a personal shadow to him in those days] awaited their prey.”(Ibid., pp. 444, 447)
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) had been exiled to Siberia in 1897 as punishment for sedition against the Imperial government. Released in 1900, he went into exile in Western Europe, moving around in a campaign to gain control of the Russian Social Democratic Party from outside the country. When World War One erupted, he moved to neutral Switzerland. In 1916, he was found there by German intelligence agents and encouraged to work, with German backing, for the overthrow of the Tsar. When the February Revolution did that without Lenin, but failed to take Russia out of the war, the Germans offered to transport Lenin to Petrograd with ample funds to organize the overthrow of the Provisional Government by gaining control of the Soviets so as to undermine the Duma and the Cabinet Ministers.
Lenin accepted, happy to use the Germans as a tool to the greater end of creating the first Communist state in history, a base from which to bring worldwide revolution. The idea of committing treason against his Fatherland did not matter at all. In his mind, Germany would be one of the first targets for revolution once power in Russia had been achieved. Thus, in March Lenin was given a private sealed train to travel across Germany and then across the Baltic Sea to Finland, from whence he could get to Petrograd.
Between April and November Lenin and his henchmen, the main ones being named above by Churchill, worked tirelessly to infiltrate and gain control of the Soviets, first in Petrograd, then in Moscow, and then in other strategic cities. By November, their network was ready for the “real” revolution.
TO BE CONTINUED
One thought on “The Uses of History, 24 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 6 – Revolution 1917, 1”
“The Tsarist variety of absolutism would prove to have been downright benevolent in comparison to what was about to be visited on the longsuffering Russian peoples over the next 70+ years.” So tragic!
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