What should we make of Russia’s revolution now?

Date

10/26/17
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Russia’s world-changing revolution came 100 years ago this November, but our view of it has been shaped by the repression and massive death that came in its wake, as well as by decades of Russian-U.S. conflict. History professor Mark Steinberg is taking a fresh look at the events of 1917, both in a book on the revolution and through a series of talks this fall, including stops in Moscow and at the Chicago Humanities Festival. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Nov. 7 marks the centennial of the Bolshevik or communist revolution. Yet it was not the first Russian revolution, even in 1917. What was driving this unrest?

Among the deeper roots were enormous social inequality; rapid industrial modernization, which raised hopes and desires that could not be met; an autocratic monarchy that refused to allow civil rights and democratic participation; and the spread of alternative ideas of what society and politics could and should be.

Twelve years before, in 1905, thousands had marched to petition Tsar Nicholas II for basic civil rights and freedoms, a constitutional and representative political system, legalization of trade unions and strikes, and improvements in working and living conditions so that all Russians could “live like human beings.” The revolution that resulted forced him to grant some of these demands, though he then did all he could to limit these concessions.

Even with these raised hopes and persisting frustrations, many historians believe that Russia might have avoided further revolution and enjoyed gradual reform were it not for the stresses of World War I. We will never know.

We do know that patience ran out. In early March 1917 (late February on the Russian calendar), strikes and protests over food shortages combined with a huge march by women. This was the end for Nicholas II and his monarchy, which fell in a wave of protests and mutinies, replaced by a “provisional government” and a rising informal network of elected councils, or “soviets.”

How would you describe the atmosphere in Russia following the February Revolution?

People poured into the streets when they heard that Nicholas II had fallen from power. Strangers embraced, wept and kissed. One writer felt that this was just “like Easter – a joyous, naive, disorderly carnival paradise.” A physician and activist for women’s rights wrote on the first day after the abdication that “Russia has suddenly turned a new page in her history and inscribed on it: Freedom!” One newspaper, suddenly free of all censorship, declared these days to be “a springtime of resurrection and renewal. A springtime of freedom.” You get the idea. The problem was, “now what?” The energy released by the revolution made solutions to all of Russia’s terrible problems seem within reach.

What did the Russians hope for?

The simple answer is “freedom,” a word that was constantly used. But what is freedom? There was no agreement. For some people, freedom meant liberation from all constraints. For many others, and probably most in the lower classes, freedom meant more than the liberty to pursue happiness, but guarantees of the conditions for happiness. This meant ending the war, providing food, controlling prices, rebuilding industry, ensuring jobs, giving all of the land to the people who worked it, expanding education, etc. What sort of freedom could there be, people asked, without peace, food, land?

So why the second revolution of 1917, the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks or communists to power? And why did they succeed?

It’s not crazy to imagine that in different circumstances, a liberal-democratic, social-democratic, pluralist society might have lasted. But the circumstances were not different. The war continued. Economic suffering continued. Land was not distributed to the peasants who worked it. As a result, many blamed the bourgeoisie for continuing problems. And many looked for a new answer with the Bolsheviks, the only political party that boldly declared “All Power to the Soviets” and “Peace, Bread and Land.”

The Bolshevik seizure of power in early November (late October on the Russian calendar) was a daring gamble in an almost impossible set of circumstances. Most Marxists believed Russia was not ready for socialism and this was courting disaster. But the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, was exceptionally flexible – though some would call it a cynical lack of principles. He was willing to do anything necessary to protect Soviet power, aided by important allies such as Leon Trotsky, also a pragmatic genius.

First and foremost, the new Soviet government gave the people what they demanded: peace, bread and land. It made peace with the Germans, endorsed the de facto seizure of all the land by peasants and nationalized most of the economy in order to try to make it work again.

Equally important, Lenin and his allies did not shy away from authoritarianism and violence. Repression and even terror were accepted not only as necessary but as a virtue when used for desirable ends. Many Bolsheviks warned that this was a dangerous path away from the liberating and democratic spirit of the revolution. But Lenin and Trotsky responded simply: If you accept the ends, you cannot refuse the means.

How is Russia marking the centennial?

At the top, President Vladimir Putin has tried both to downplay the centennial and control the narrative. Politically, he is opposed to, and fears, anything that smells of protest and revolution. Stability, order and authority are his watchwords.

In educated society, there are numerous talks and conferences on the revolution. As long as this stays in the politically harmless world of academia, the state does not care.

And then there is popular culture, which is full of movies, TV series, magazine stories, novels and other examples of storytelling about the revolution. In these the general mood is both sensational and largely negative: Dramatic personalities! Evil men and their victims! Bloody events! Tragedy! Catastrophe! But entertaining.

To reach Mark Steinberg, call 217-300-4104; email steinb@illinois.edu.

Steinberg’s book “The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921” is available from Oxford University Press.

Related People

Directory

loughranTrish
Loughran
dkoenkerDiane
Koenker
hliebersHarry
Liebersohn
aespiritAugusto
Espiritu
steinbMark
Steinberg
kmcunoKenneth
Cuno
rjrossRichard
Ross
rptobyRonald
Toby
eavrutinEugene
Avrutin
kchow1Kai-Wing
Chow
aburtonAntoinette
Burton
bghamariBehrooz
Ghamari-Tabrizi
burgosjrAdrian
Burgos, Jr
dprochasDavid
Prochaska
emcduffiErik
McDuffie
hogansonKristin
Hoganson
hoxieFrederick
Hoxie
jandersJames
Anderson
jbrennanJames
Brennan
j-love2Joseph
Love
johnlynnJohn
Lynn
jwrJohn
Randolph
khitchinKeith
Hitchins
msmicaleMark
Micale
m-stuartMary
Stuart
mtodorovMaria
Todorova
njacobseNils
Jacobsen
pfritzscPeter
Fritzsche
poshekfuPoshek
Fu
rotaEmanuel
Rota
schajuaSundiata
Cha-Jua
schndrDorothee
Schneider
symesCarol
Symes
tbarnes2Teresa
Barnes
tchaplinTamara
Chaplin
ccsCharles
Stewart
crowstonClare
Crowston
koslofCraig
Koslofsky
bedwellThomas
Bedwell
jrbarretJames
Barrett
tewaMatthew
Sakiestewa Gilbert
hibbardcCaroline
Hibbard
hoddesonLillian
Hoddeson
blevine3Bruce
Levine
ralphwmRalph
Mathisen
megmclauMegan
McLaughlin
melhadoEvan
Melhado
kjoKathryn
Oberdeck
epleckElizabeth
Pleck
drabinDana
Rabin
lreaganLeslie
Reagan
abele1Michael
Abele
bean4Ryan
Bean
brinks1Michael
Brinks
burkhardRichard
Burkhardt
dharri21David
Harris
godwin1Katherine
Godwin
harris84Scott
Harrison
jpmckayJohn
McKay
j-pruettJohn
Pruett
mandru2Anca
Mandru
murphy71Evan
Murphy
peychev1Stefan
Peychev
quick2Elizabeth
Quick
rmitchllRichard
Mitchell
siebert5Andrew
Siebert
smarisc2Sonia
Mariscal
c-spenceClark
Spence
pschroedPaul
Schroeder
rmccolleRobert
McColley
warnsteiWalter
Arnstein
wsolbergWinton
Solberg
mdmyersMichael
Myers
m-spenceMary
Spence
ovburtonOrville
Burton
rmorrissRobert
Morrissey
djordje1Stefan
Djordjevic
kosovyc2Stefan
Kosovych
jalevy2Joshua
Levy
mendez3Veronica
Mendez Johnson
ruscitt2Deirdre
Harshman
mswhite3Megan
White
jdavilaJerry
Dávila
navales2Kent
Navalesi
toaliTariq
Ali
riwilsonRoderick
Wilson
kmumfordKevin
Mumford
rhogarthRana
Hogarth
bambrgr2Benjamin
Bamberger
aachmie2Agata
Chmiel
chattop2Utathya
Chattopadhyaya
rescoba2Raquel
Escobar
hfreun2Heather
Freund
drjones5Douglas
Jones
kais2Alexander
Kais
eelarso2Ethan
Larson
jcmarqu2John Carlos
Marquez
cnperal2Christine
Peralta
lputnam2Lydia
Putnam
zriebel2Zachary
Riebeling
betheby2Beth
Eby
dlehman2David
Lehman
mjsanch2Mark
Sanchez
rlpriceRoberta
Price
mlbrenn2Margaret
Brennan
kuyumjn2Marilia
Correa
harbaug2Anna
Harbaugh
harshmn2Matthew
Harshman
tkhan6Tariq
Khan
matssht2Elizabeth
Matsushita
cortega5Carolina
Ortega
rouphai2Robert
Rouphail
tollerc2Ian
Toller-Clark
ntye2Nathan
Tye
bawilli2Beth Ann
Williams
woodiii2Augustus
Wood III
pqwrigh2Peter
Wright
iasakaIkuko
Asaka
hertzmanMarc
Hertzman
shannon9Shannon
Croft
bettine2Jade
Bettine
bcmpbll2Brian
Campbell
dreier2Eliza
Dreier
lddunca2Leanna
Duncan
escanil2Silvia
Escanilla Huerta
ghanoui2Saniya
Ghanoui
kojiito2Koji
Ito
mjaimes3Marco
Jaimes
klpfnst2Matthew
Klopfenstein
mora6Juan
Mora
tsantan2Thais
Rezende Da Silva De Sant'ana
takauch2Yuki
Takauchi
pbthomp2Peter
Thompson
hwerner2Hannah
Werner
nobiliMauro
Nobili
eadamoLiz
Adamo
rallen11Ryan
Allen
candrsn5Chris
Anderson
xchen151Xiao
Chen
fcowan2Felix
Cowan
denby3Eric
Denby
vmdiaz3Valerie
Diaz
snettin2Sean
Ettinger
gniewek2Beth
Gniewek
cgreen11Christopher
Green
ohagedo2Olivia
Hagedorn
huang094Jun
Huang
kenisto2Billy
Keniston
cosei2Cassandra
Osei
rogaar2Eva
Rogaar
mjruiz2Michael
Ruiz
stvital2Stephen
Vitale
wisnsky2Catherine
Wisnosky
atyost2Franziska
Yost
cbosakClara
Bosak-Schroeder
wmathewsWendy
Mathewson
cbrossedClaudia
Brosseder
trday3Thomas
Day
lobue2Adam
LoBue
lkm2Lisa
Mercer
njortiz2Nicholas
Ortiz
adrianv3Adrian
van der Velde
tkvaugh2Taryn
Vaughn
cswrothCelestina
Savonius-Wroth
ggmacGigi
MacIntosh
gak33Gracjan
Kraszewski
mebMarsha
Barrett
eabosch2Elizabeth
Abosch
ed5Elizabeth
Dean
ctg3Christopher
Goodwin
stetson3Stetson
Kastengren
hanping2Hanping
Li
lliu80Lingyan
Liu