Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Russia in Revolution: 
An Empire in Crisis 1890–1928

by S.A. Smith
Oxford University Press, 2017

The Russian Revolution is one of—and arguably the most significant—sequels of the Great War. Russia In Revolution is the 38-year story of an empire whose chronic state of crisis led to a series of revolutions that transformed its country and shook the world. From the 1860s and especially the 1890s Russia's aristocracy strove to maintain its nation's status among European powers by industrialization, development of agriculture, expansion of railroads, and modernization of the military. While contributing to the Russian economy, this energy also created new social classes such as more prosperous peasants, industrial workers, commercial and industrial capitalists, and professional middle classes whose demands for their day in the sun destabilized the traditional societal balance.

Shooting During the February Revolution

One clear point from Russia in Revolution is that it was war that undermined the stability of the Russian state. The progress being made in Russian society raised expectations but did not prevent the critical mass of discontent that made revolution inevitable. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the slaughter of the Great War heated the civic borsch to the point of overflow.

The 9 January 1905 march of 150,000 workers and their families to the Winter Palace to present a petition to the tsar was met by troops who opened fire killing 200 and injuring 800. Word of Bloody Sunday spread throughout the land, setting off months of strikes, rebellions, demonstrations, and political organizing. The fusion of labor movements with the educated middle class and gentry raised demands for a constitution, civil rights, and an end to the war with Japan. Loyalty of the generals provided time for the tsar to promulgate the concessions, establishing a Duma that eased the pressures and enabled the modernization of the country to resume.

The outbreak of war brought a surge of patriotism and fealty to the tsar. As visions of victory receded from view the lengthening casualty lists, food shortages in what, at the advent of the war, had been the world's greatest exporter of grain, and rampant inflation led to strikes that disrupted war production and gave greater cohesion to the voices of discontent. Demands for an end to the war and economic improvement, particularly in the renamed capital of Petrograd, resulted in more troops firing on protesters, the organization of political committees, and intrigue within the Duma. The generals, who had held the line for the tsar and his regime in 1905, switched to the Duma, forcing the abdication of the tsar on 3 March 1917, after only 12 days of unrest.

May Day, 1917: Posters Calling for a World Proletariat and the End of Capitalism

The March revolution was more of a disintegration of the regime than a defeat by an organized opposition. The pieces were picked up by the Duma-authorized Provisional Government, in which Alexander Kerensky played a major role along with military groups, labor unions, local soviets, and regional authorities. The challenge facing the Provisional Government was to consolidate power in its hands by gaining support from splintered power centers advancing disparate and conflicting policies. Lenin arrived in Petrograd on 3 April, a month after the abdication of the tsar, on a sealed train provided by Germany to transport him from exile in Switzerland.

The Provisional Government's determination to fulfill its obligation to the Allies by continuing the war led to the Kerensky Offensive of 18 June to 6 July that was a disaster on both the military and the domestic political fronts. Dissatisfaction with the war gave the Bolsheviks and other groups an issue with which to consolidate opposition to the Provisional Government, resulting in the October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Once in power Lenin sought to extricate Russia from the war in a way that would wreak the least havoc on the country he now governed. It is pointed out that he justified some of the territorial concessions demanded by Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, at least in part, because of his belief that revolution would spread across Europe, erasing national boundaries through the withering away of the state that would follow the ascension of Communism.

The Bolshevik triumph was neither thorough nor final. Through October 1922 the "Whites," consisting largely of officers and supporters of the ancient regime, fought with Western aid and intervention, to restore Russia as it had been; however, the support of the population for the Reds finalized their victory and a hold on Russia that would last for over 60 years.

Author S. A. Smith has drawn upon recently released documents along with other materials to compose in Russia in Revolution. He examines the revolution from all facets, including ideological, political, ethnic, economic, military, and personal. Readers will find themes that figure so prominently in other accounts of the revolution, such as the contribution of Empress Alexandra and the role and murder of Rasputin, dispatched in a very few paragraphs. Smith has provided us with a thorough study of an empire that tore itself apart and slowly put the pieces back together again into a country that would immensely affect history, doing so in the course of being an historical cul-de-sac going from capitalism to communism and back to capitalism. Smith concludes that the Russian Revolution ended in tyranny, raising questions about justice, equality, and freedom, spawning revolutionaries (including Ho Chi Minh) who took its spirit to other lands. Despite the magnitude of the Russian Revolution's ideals and tragedies, Smith posits that future historians may find the great revolution of the 20th century in China, not Russia.

James M. Gallen

1 comment:

  1. What were some of the book's findings based on those recently released documents?