The Uses of History, 25 – Russia the Long-Suffering, 7 – Revolution 1917, 2

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Russia has never outgrown autocracy and never experienced even moderately successful democracy.

Nicholas II, the last Tsar, fell from power on March 8, 1917, and there was a brief (in terms of historical time) interlude of seven months in which there was a struggle to see what would ensue. This ended in early November when the Bolsheviks, the supreme radicals among the competing factions, overthrew the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky, and, led by Lenin under the slogan “All power to the soviets!”, rapidly began to eliminate all the other factions.

Interestingly, the process is not unlike what happened in Germany just more than fifteen years later in the Nazi Revolution. The social impact of these two totalitarian takeovers in those two nations is also not so dissimilar as might superficially seem to anyone objecting to an ideological comparison of Nazism with Soviet Communism. After all, the Nazis viewed Communism as the of supreme enemy, next to the Jews, of course, whom the Nazis viewed as the authors of Communism. On the other side, Communists viewed, and still view, Nazism and other extreme rightist factions similarly. But all of this is a subject for another time.

The short life of the Provisional Government of the Russian Republic which existed from March to November 1917 was very turbulent. It began with great uncertainty about how power could be re-established after four hundred years of a Tsarism which had become increasingly absolute and utterly bound to the idea of the Tsar’s Divine Right to rule sanctioned by the State Church of Russian Orthodoxy, which had bound itself hand and foot to the Romanov Monarchy.

By February 1917, “the people”, from bourgeoisie to masses of peasants, to working class labourers, and even some of the gentry and a few senior aristocrats, had all joined in rejecting the Tsar—not just the actual Tsar Nicholas II as a weak, gullible, incompetent fool for whom they had lost all respect and veneration, but all tsars. The problem was that no one knew just what to put in the place of the Tsar as a source of authority and sovereignty. Russia had no liberal history or well-developed liberal ideology such as the doctrine of Western liberalism that “power ultimately resides in and comes from the people”, and that rulers are really, in theory, the servants of the people.

Thus, the Duma, the closest thing that Russia had to an elected legislature, but which did not in any real sense have the constitutional authority or mandate of Parliament in Britain, or Congress in the USA, or the Chamber of Deputies in France, or even the Reichstag in wartime Germany, could not simply take charge. In the vacuum a new rival organization had rapidly sprung into being—the Soviet.

The Soviet originated in Petrograd in 1905, during the near-miss revolution, as a loose assembly of delegates chosen from segments of the population such as labourers, unions, industrial workers from different sectors, army units of the Petrograd garrison, and even Women’s groups demanding women’s rights and equality. It quickly reappeared in February 1917 amidst the tumult and unrest, marches and riots that rocked the capital. The Petrograd Soviet was much more a people’s assembly than the Duma, except that it was a local organism, not a national one. Conspicuous by absence from both was any meaningful representation of the rural peasant zemstvos, or communes, and the peasants still constituted the majority of the Empire’s population.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks quickly identified the Soviet as the real road to power, although the Bolsheviks had a respectable number of deputies in the Duma as well. However, the Bolsheviks did not at first control the Soviet. Bolshevik members had infiltrated it and began to take a hand in inspiring its demands and tactics. Gradually they gained the members’ confidence and assumed leadership positions. They also set about sending agents to other major cities which had begun organizing soviets of their own, and repeated the process of infiltration and becoming leaders.

There was no inevitability in an eventual Bolshevik takeover. With more unity and visionary, determined leadership, the Duma might have weathered the storm. But Kerensky pledged to Russia’s allies that Russia would remain in the war to “defend the Revolution” and honourably fulfill its treaty obligations. In June the much-shaken army was ordered to launch an offensive. It lasted three days, then collapsed as hundreds of thousands of troops simply refused to fight any more, sometimes just shooting their officers and walking away. The Germans and Austrians made massive advances and took hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Most of the deserters were peasants wanting to go home and take land from the gentry while the getting was good, and before the harvest season came. Things were desperate everywhere, with shortages of everything. On their way out of the war, many deserters looted and raped and burned whole towns and villages in the western lands, mostly those of Jews and Poles, while bandits roamed freely. In the rural areas, the peasants, now often armed with army rifles, attacked the gentry estates, seized lands, pillaged and burned, and killed any who resisted or objected or who just happened to be in the way.

The Provisional Government had lost credibility. General Kornilov, a hard-line rightist, attempted a coup but his troops melted away when confronted by troops and armed sailors from the Baltic Fleet. With things in desperate straits, the Soviets took to the streets and were on the verge of overthrowing the government in July, but Lenin hesitated to give the order and, when bad weather set in, the mobs faded away.

For all intents and purposes, Russia was out of the war, but Kerensky still refused to negotiate a truce with Germany and Austria-Hungary. By October, Lenin and the Bolsheviks felt ready to act, as they now controlled all the soviets in all the major cities.

In the era of the Soviet Union, these days and those that followed in the Civil War and the failed Western intervention after the conclusion of World War I, assumed the status of legend. The genius of Lenin and Trotsky (whose memory and achievements would later be expunged from the record by a vengeful and paranoid Stalin) in particular became hagiography, a sort of sacred literature. The epic of the heroic struggle of the Red Army, risen as a Titan from the very soil of the people in their will to tear down the evil capitalist order and end the exploitation of the suffering people, was sacred mythology. Kerensky’s name was banished as that of an evil dupe and tool of the exploiting classes and a puppet of the bourgeoisie.

The Provisional Government was swept away in a few short days with only sporadic resistance which ceased by the end of November. In Petrograd the soviets began to act like a national government, constituting the Congress of Soviets. Executive power was delegated to the Council of People’s Commissars, most of whom were Bolsheviks from the Central Committee of the Party. Laws were passed to reinforce their hold – land reform, industrial reform, and other measures were rapidly decreed.

The moderates and conservatives finally began to wake up and realize that they had been completely outmanoeuvred. Gradually, a number of groups around the empire began to organize and coalesce to formulate plans to drive the Bolsheviks and their allies out, as they saw that the Russia that would emerge would have no place for them or for private property and enterprise. Gradually, industries and banks were nationalized, as was transportation. No compensation was offered to the erstwhile proprietors as the nationalization program took hold.

Lenin had always insisted on ending the war. With signs of internal armed resistance beginning to take shape, this became urgent. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The terms were extremely harsh to Russia. A huge area of the western provinces was handed over to German occupation as the remnants of the Russian Army were pulled back hundreds of kilometers. Lenin had not wanted to give up territory, but the Germans insisted and began a massive offensive to convince him to sign. He ordered his representatives to accept the independence of Ukraine and Finland, and the loss of Poland and the Baltic States )Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. German troops penetrated into Belorussia in order to be within striking distance of Moscow if the Bolsheviks proved recalcitrant. They were already in Estonia, in range of Petrograd.

With the peace signed, Lenin shifted his attention to raising and training the Red Army to defend the revolution from what was already forming up to become a civil war as various reactionary leaders began gathering their own forces in various locations from Manchuria to the Caucasus. As to the Germans, they now had 900 000 troops available to move to the Western Front for one last great effort to overpower the French and British before the Americans could become a major force in the battle-lines.

As the ultimate climax and crisis of the Great War developed in the spring of 1918, the Allies had already resolved that, if and when they were victorious, the Bolsheviks would have to pay for betraying them.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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