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Imperial and Soviet Continuities

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188914363 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Were there substantial continuities between Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union?

Viewpoint: Yes. The Soviet regime failed to alter meaningfully the authoritarianism of Imperial Russia.

Viewpoint: No. The Soviet state was radically different from its predecessor; it monopolized political power and economic development, restricted civil liberties introduced before the Revolution, and instilled a reign of terror unthinkable in Imperial Russia.


A leading argument about Russia, famously defended by the prominent scholar Richard Pipes, maintains that despite the revolutionary change the country experienced in 1917, little changed in practice in Russia's government and society. In both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, he suggests, the state was run by a managerial elite that favored autocratic philosophies and opposed independent initiative and institutions functioning within society. Both states kept up a secret police, a militarized society, government leadership in the economy, a rigid social structure, and other items that suggest more continuity than change.
The counterargument holds that the revolution did in fact bring fundamental reorganization in its wake. Tsarist institutions were destroyed or radically transformed. Old elites were marginalized and ostracized. The tolerance that appears more and more to characterize the latter decades of the old regime gave way to inflexible persecution and rigid nationalization. Entrepreneurial initiative gave way to state economic controls. Increasing civil liberties were replaced by a wholesale deprivation of freedom.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Soviet regime failed to alter meaningfully the authoritarianism of Imperial Russia.

Within the course of just nine months Russia witnessed two--not one--fundamental historical transitions: the first occurred in February 1917, when the centuries-old imperial system crumbled as a result of popular demonstrations; the second followed in October, when the Bolshevik Party assumed control of Petrograd and put an end to the short life of the Provisional Government. This dual transition--from absolutist rule to an initially popular liberal regime and finally to the "rule of the proletariat"--had been predicated on multiple and fundamental discontinuities; in fact, the notion of a "revolution" used on both occasions alluded to the desire of those involved to draw a definite line and shed the historical weight of the past with a view to building anew the foundations of modern Russia.

How is it then possible to talk of "substantial continuities" between two regimes that were separated not by one but by two cataclysmic revolutions? In theory, the Bolshevik regime heralded the era of "proletarian revolution," whereby rule would be exercised by the leadership in the name of the people, revoking traditional privileges, promoting socio-economic justice, and putting an end to the imperialist aspirations of the tsarist system. Its mandate appeared to emanate from the Soviets themselves, in the cities and the countryside alike, feeding from the unpopularity of the Provisional Government or simply the unwillingness of many citizens to defend its liberal institutions against a further revolutionary or counterrevolutionary assault. The slogan that Vladimir Lenin and the party leadership had used throughout 1917--"bread, land, peace"--resonated with the desires of the majority of the population and had been instrumental in turning the tide in favor of the Bolsheviks during the summer, when the obstinacy and paranoia of Aleksandr Kerensky alienated him from the majority of the population. It might be that the proclamation of Bolshevik rule at the end of October 1917 was not greeted with enthusiasm by the majority of the Russian population--in fact, the battle for assuming control of this vast country continued in some parts for months before descending into the abyss of the Civil War. It was also the case the even inside the ranks of the Bolshevik Party there were voices (Lev Kamenev and initially even Leon Trotsky) urging against a premature "revolutionary" assumption of power, stressing that Russia's historic social and political backwardness would distort any attempt to establish a genuine communist system and lead the hopes of the proletariat astray. What mattered in the political vacuum of October 1917 was political astuteness, determination to act, overcoming reservations, and galvanizing popular support. In this crucial respect Lenin proved the indisputable master of the situation with a momentum that eventually forced the party to act--in the name of defending the gains of the February revolution against "counterrevolution" and fulfilling the Marxist prophesy of an inevitable historical transition to proletarian rule.

What happened in reality was an altogether different matter, however. The popular, country- wide "revolution" that was meant to sweep away the last vestiges of the imperial and "bourgeois" past never took place; at best, the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks became possible on the basis of a relatively small popular mobilization in Petrograd and on widespread apathy across the country vis-à-vis the Provisional Government's collapse. Even in cities where Bolsheviks held proper majorities in soviets, their authority was more often than not combined with a commitment to work with the other like-minded political forces of the revolutionary movement (for example, left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries) and ensured a representative model of Soviet rule. Until early January 1918 Lenin kept up the appearance that his regime would defend the truly representative institutions that it had inherited. The decision to allow democratic elections for the new Constituent Assembly in late November 1917 was instrumental in allaying initial fears of a Bolshevik dictatorship, but above all it purchased invaluable time for the leaders of the new regime at a time of insecurity and lack of clear direction. The result of the elections, in which the Bolsheviks failed to get more than one-quarter of the popular vote, must have convinced them that it all came down to a simple choice: either rule of the party against the wishes of the majority or acceptance of the popular verdict and loss of political power. Again, appearances were kept: the Assembly met on 6 January 1918, despite the Bolsheviks' hostility and intimidation, and debated proposed legislation until the early hours of the next morning, when it adjourned. The following morning the delegates found that the assembly had been terminated by the Bolshevik rulers. The decree stated that:

The Right Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties are in fact carrying on outside the Constituent Assembly a most desperate struggle against Soviet power, calling openly in their press for its overthrow and describing as arbitrary and unlawful the crushing of the resistance of the exploiters by the forces of the working classes, which is essential in the interests of emancipation from exploitation. . . . It is obvious that under such circumstances the remaining part of the Constituent Assembly could only serve as a screen for the struggle of the counter-revolutionaries to overthrow Soviet power.

The fate of the Constituent Assembly reflected once again the familiar pathology of parliamentary institutions in Russia since the Revolution of 1905. Although even then the tsar had allowed the Duma to convene and continue its deliberations for some time--no doubt, under pressure from the revolutionary movement and fearful of the consequences of an immediate revolution--he had embarked on attempts to subvert its political power. Its first two sessions were denied any real effect and quickly dissolved when the debates became too contentious. Much of Russia's governance was dictated through emergency decrees when the Duma was not in session. In 1907 the Duma's election laws were arbitrarily rewritten to strengthen conservative representation, which dominated the body until 1917. Even during the nine months of the Provisional Government, the Duma was gradually edged out of the political forefront by the cabinet and its main rival, the Petrograd Soviet. In this respect the Bolshevik decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly was a further chapter in the long history of autocratic concentration of power at the expense of representative institutions; the only difference was that this time it also signaled the end of this constitutional experiment in Russia.

It is not difficult to identify further similarities--not just between the Imperial and Bolshevik periods, but also with regard to the interregnum of February-October 1917. The Provisional Government had witnessed the rise of Kerensky as its indisputable star before watching his transformation into an autocratic figure, intent on salvaging his own authority at all costs. Lenin had been equally eager to use his personal authority to impose a single political strategy on the Bolshevik party and then seize full control of the whole socialist movement. The so-called cult of personality, so evident in the popular attitudes toward the Tsar personally (even at the height of agitation against the regime in February 1917), was kept alive during the period of the Provisional Government through Kerensky's megalomania and was delivered largely intact to Lenin before reaching unprecedented heights during the Stalinist period. Many have attributed this striking vulnerability of Russian political structures to autocratic distortion as the long-term legacy of centuries of tsarist rule. For others this same pathology has been regarded as a largely essential, if unpalatable, feature necessitated by the sheer extent (and geography) of the country and the impossibility of managing it through a Western-style liberal system. Be that as it may, this was a formula that suited Lenin and the Bolsheviks well.

The manipulation of "counterrevolutionary fear" by Lenin, Kerensky, and the tsar alike provided the alibi for striking a lethal blow to the embryonic and largely immature Russian liberal democracy. Nicholas II had used the argument of "conspiracy" against the regime in order to justify the coup against the 1907 Duma. Kerensky manipulated the "July Days," a supposed socialist coup attempt, and the "Kornilov affair," an ostensible military coup, in the summer of 1917 to strike blows against the allegedly sacrosanct legacy of the February Revolution, violently persecuting the Bolsheviks and turning against some rightist groups that had antagonized him. Lenin duly took his turn in invoking the principle of "revolutionary defense" to justify an otherwise authoritarian initiative. In December 1917 a new organization had been set up with the title "All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Fighting Counter- Revolution and Sabotage"--but known in its acronymic form, Cheka. The new organization was headed by the brutal Feliks Dzerzhinsky and was instrumental in launching the Red Terror during the Civil War. Its activities were the basis for the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and the activities of its eventual successor, the Committee of State Security, or KGB. But the Cheka merely reconceptualized the tsarist-era Security Service, the Okhrana, against the regime's political opponents. The Cheka's first operational manual was literally the Okhrana's manual with the cover torn off.

As for the majority of the Russian population, the transition from tsarist rule to the Provisional Government and then to the "dictatorship of the proletariat" under the Bolsheviks produced little short-term change in their material conditions and social status. Apart from the illusion of popular political participation through the Soviet movement--an illusion that rapidly eroded after October 1917 and was crushed completely under the emergency situation of the Civil War--the life of the vast majority of the population in the Soviet Union continued to oscillate between marginal survival and hardship. Lenin's economic experiments, first with War Communism and then with the New Economic Policy (NEP), did result in shifts in the balance of power between industrial proletariat and peasantry (besides, of course, ruthlessly targeting the "bourgeoisie") but overall had little impact in material terms. As in the final stages of the tsarist regime, when the bulk of economic activity was driven by disproportionate state intervention, socialist management differed little in this crucial respect. While economic indices started showing some improvement in the 1920s and, at least in terms of industrialization, received a huge boost through Stalin's sequence of Five-Year Plans, which began in 1928, an unmistakably authoritarian streak rooted in the traditions of the imperial period did survive the transition and compromised the alleged transformation of socio-economic structures in Russia. Large projects in industry and large-scale trade were managed and financed by institutions of government rather than private individuals or corporations.

A final and perhaps more symbolic continuity referred to the so-called nationalities question in Russia. In a vast country made up of a mosaic of groups with different languages, ethnicities, and religions, which had lived under the yoke of Russian imperial chauvinism, Lenin's discourse of respect for and independence from the various national groups proved to be one of the most significant factors underpinning initial support for the Bolshevik Party--especially since the Provisional Government had stubbornly refused to address such concerns. The appointment of Josef Stalin as Commissar for Nationalities, the military conquest of Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, and the attempted reconquest of Poland and Finland presaged the implementation of a far more authoritarian policy of coercion that would become the trademark of Stalinist rule in the 1930s. By the time that Stalin won the leadership battle, the nationalities question had been practically settled in favor of his intransigent line of autonomization (a euphemism for a higher degree of centralization and bureaucratization at the expense of the original policy of acknowledging the right of the republics up to the point of secession). Extensive purges of local authorities and violent suppression of resistance set the tone of the 1930s, starting with the strategic and troublesome case of Ukraine.

On the basis of this evidence it is, therefore, essential to qualify any claim about continuities and discontinuities between Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Despite their fundamentally different discourses and ideological foundations, the Bolshevik regime failed in practice to eliminate or in many meaningful ways alter the deep-seated authoritarian legacies of the Imperial period. This was partly the result of failures to translate its theory into reality, perhaps compromised by the extraordinary circumstances of the Civil War and absence of support from other countries; but it was at least equally the consequence of a deliberate policy, barely disguised by the alibi of defense against counterrevolution. While driven by different ideological and political strategies, Lenin and, in particular, Stalin recast some of the previous regime's most authoritarian and repressive mechanisms with a new populist veneer. And while it would be a case of ahistorical reductionism to claim that the Imperial and Bolshevik regimes were similar, it is fair to say that the reality of Bolshevik rule ended up as a far more substantial deviation from socialist doctrine and the party's own initial pronouncements than from the realities of the Old Regime it was supposed to have overthrown with the October Revolution.

-- Aristotle Kallis, Lancaster University

Viewpoint: No. The Soviet state was radically different from its predecessor; it monopolized political power and economic development, restricted civil liberties introduced before the Revolution, and instilled a reign of terror unthinkable in Imperial Russia.

The Soviet Union differed radically from its tsarist predecessor. Attempts to place the world's first socialist state in a longer, evolutionary continuum have irrationally and unfairly ascribed to Russia a "special path" of unending tyranny at home and relentless aggression abroad. Linking the commissars with the tsarists and the Soviet Union with the empire has seduced more than a few historians and analysts into the delusion that throughout its history Russia has posed a constant threat to the West and stood for the rejection of its values. Largely a product of Cold War Sovietology, this construct to a degree continues to inform Western attitudes toward post-Soviet Russia in the twenty-first century. Some more-recent studies have favored the continuity argument as a means of explaining Russia's modernization. Examining the flow of economic, social, and urban development from the late-imperial period into the Soviet era has supplied more than a few scholars with neat hypotheses that the "break" of the Bolshevik Revolution was actually more of an accelerator, which swept away stubborn barriers to development and brought Russia into modernity.

Regardless of the political purposes that lay behind these schools of thought, the plain fact is that the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were vastly different entities. The former, destroyed by the traumas of World War I, was replaced by the latter, forged by a Civil War in which it destroyed as much of the old order and as much of Russia's emerging democratic order as possible to ensure its own survival and legitimacy.

This immense process of destruction unfolded as the practical result of an ideological battle. The Russian Empire was essentially a conservative state, dedicated in many ways to preserving its monarchical form of government, its society's traditional social structure, and the primacy of its official faith, Orthodox Christianity. The Empire's conservatism never ruled out the possibility of reform, however. The abolition of serfdom, the beginnings of elected local government, and other major administrative adjustments of the 1860s proved that even an authoritarian monarchy was capable of initiating meaningful change. Its innovative sponsorship of Russia's rapidly emerging capitalist economy and increasing tolerance of its growing civil society fostered this development. The creation of a representative legislature (the State Duma) and other concessions granted in the wake of the Revolution of 1905 strongly suggested that democratization lay on the Empire's horizon.

The crises accompanying Russia's ill- starred involvement in World War I derailed this path. After a short democratic interlude, which sought to preserve some features (especially social and economic) of tsarist Russia, the Bolshevik regime worked diligently to abolish all traces of the pre-1917 order. In politics this meant the complete monopolization of state power and public discourse by the Bolshevik (Communist) Party. The practicalities of Soviet life and the Soviet Union's constitutions of 1936 and 1977 enshrined and sanctified its leading role to the exclusion of other ideas and groups. Opposition in any form was banned, be it monarchist, liberal, anarchist, non-Bolshevik socialist, or, later, even non- Stalinist Bolshevik. Actual and suspected dissidents in all of these categories were persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, and killed. In economics, apart from the short-lived and rather limited New Economic Policy of the mid 1920s, Soviet rule meant state monopolization of all production, distribution, resources, and labor. In society communism effected the elimination or marginalization of tsarist-era elites, official favoritism for the industrial working class, severe restrictions on religious practice and belief, and the complete subordination of culture, media, and associational life to the government via the Communist Party.

None of these gray features of the Soviet Union had prerevolutionary analogues. In the political realm Imperial Russia had a variety of legal political parties, many of which openly opposed the regime or important aspects and policies of it. Some of them were organized and experienced enough to assume authority when it collapsed. Radicals who committed violent crimes may have been prosecuted for them, but wholesale persecution of law-abiding opponents or dissenters was virtually nonexistent. Unlike in Soviet times, they did not fill a vast concentration-camp network, occupy the attention of hundreds of thousands of secret police officials, or die unnaturally in large numbers. Elected local government, almost immediately destroyed by the Bolsheviks, functioned freely and accumulated greater and greater power as time went on. The independent judiciary created in 1864 continued until the Bolsheviks abolished it. One of its crucial features, the right to trial by jury, only reappeared in Russia in 2003.

Although the tsarist government helped facilitate economic development by creating banks, negotiating loans from abroad, stimulating industry, and so on, these activities hardly made it distinguishable from any other modernizing state. Nothing in the tsarist approach to economics even hinted at the complete government control that characterized Soviet economics. To the contrary, private entrepreneurship in Imperial Russia blossomed in every field--from manufacturing to banking to entertainment to tourism to publishing--and developed into a robust modern economy and dynamic consumer market. The only "continuities" that proponents of the modernization theory can identify were either extraordinary or superficial. One tsarist minister of agriculture, for example, sanctioned the requisitioning of agricultural produce during World War I. Yet, despite the foreshadowing, this isolated measure hardly equaled or prefigured the vast and murderous requisitioning and collectivization campaigns carried out by the Soviet state. Similarly, tsarist government loans to heavy-manufacturing concerns had little in common with Josef Stalin's comprehensive, brutal, and breakneck-paced industrialization of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Certainly there was no equivalent in late-tsarist Russia to Stalin's abuse of tens of millions of people as forced labor. Seeing the population itself as a resource to be exploited for economic gain was uniquely totalitarian.

Tsarist society also differed in major ways from what replaced it. As was the case in other modernizing nations, the empire's rapid urbanization, industrialization, and consumerization went a long way toward making traditional hierarchies irrelevant. The new phenomena of wealthy peasant businessmen, impoverished noblemen adopting professional careers, urban lower- and middle-class types who fit no traditional mold, and similar chutes growing around the old social ladder led to a significant expansion in pluralism, civic identity, professional consciousness, common ground that transcended social class, and other mentalities that Russia shared with modernizing societies in Europe and North America. Apart from some old-fashioned rhetoric and a small number of pointless attempts to buck up the gentry, the tsarist government adjusted to these changes.

The Soviet regime showed no such adaptability, however. Indeed, its long-held official policies of persecution and discrimination against people and descendants of people who belonged to "privileged" prerevolutionary groups, so-called former people, showed that its concern for old-regime social classifications departed markedly from the tsarist's in seriousness and far exceeded it in rigidity. So, too, did Soviet treatment of Russia's enormous peasant majority, which had been freed from serfdom by the tsarist government, permitted to move freely about the country, allowed to accept nonagricultural work, and empowered to establish private farmsteads on land traditionally held by local communes. Soviet policy effectively re-enserfed this population by forcing it into state-managed collective farms and, after 1932, forbidding it to travel around the country without state permission.

Other facets of society also reflected more differences than similarities. The relative independence that cultural life, media, and civil society enjoyed before 1917 was quickly stamped out after the revolution. The commercial business culture that supported them naturally disappeared as the result of communist economic policy, but the political strictures of Soviet rule also did away with the free press, independent labor unions, academic freedom, commercial entertainment, freedom of movement, private charity, independent youth and leisure activities, and, to a more limited albeit quite serious degree, religious life. The contribution of these diverse features to Imperial Russia's modernization and the new public spaces they created were thus abandoned for firm state control and doctrinaire Communist Party guidance. While tsarist society was developing largely on its own, independent of the political authority, Soviet society was characterized by the political authority's domination of its development.

The governments of both tsarist and Soviet Russia faced challenges to their development, concerns about domestic stability, competition from other powers, and threats to their international status and security requirements. Yet, all states have these concerns, and it is only natural that two (or three, if one includes the post-Soviet Russian Federation) different systems of government existing in roughly the same peculiar geographic space should have to deal with them in a way that suggests comparison and the application of lessons from the past. Ultimately, however, the continuities between the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were far less remarkable than their extreme differences.

-- Paul du Quenoy, American University in Cairo


Leon Trotsky issued this decree in regards to former tsarist officers willing to serve in the Red Army:

13 October 1918

From: Kozlov

In view of changed circumstances, a certain section of the officer class is displaying its readiness to work in the service of the Soviets. On this I propose the following: in those cases where there are no direct, serious charges against the arrested officers, that the question be put to them: do they agree to serve the Red Army and the Red Fleet. That, in the event of an affirmative answer, they be put at my disposal. That, at the same time, their family position be ascertained and they be warned that, in the event of treachery or desertion to the enemy's camp on their part their families will be arrested, and that a signature to this effect be obtained from them. By this means we shall lighten the load on the prisons and obtain military specialists, of whom there is great need. Please communicate instructions accordingly to all the commissions under your orders.

Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Council, Trotsky

Source: Martin McCauley, ed., The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State 1917-1921: Documents(London: Macmillan, 1975), p. 150.



Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press/Blackwell, 1990).

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin, 1997).

Leonard D. Gerson, The Secret Police in Lenin's Russia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976).

John Gooding, Rulers and Subjects: Government and People in Russia, 1801-1991 (London: Arnold, 1996).

Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923, revised edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (New York: Knopf, 1993).

Leonard Bertram Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State, First Phase, 1917-1922 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955).

Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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