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Bolshevik Revolution

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Soviet Russia (1917-53) →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188907661 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Was the 1917 Bolshevik uprising in Russia truly a popular revolution?

Viewpoint: Yes. The Bolsheviks gave voice to the concerns of the Russian masses and harnessed their discontent to bring about a successful revolution.

Viewpoint: No. The Bolsheviks had much less popular backing than they later claimed and succeeded only through terrorist tactics and the incompetence of their opponents.


World War I doomed Imperial Russia. By March 1917 its armies were suffering defeat, its internal order was collapsing, and its monarchy had fallen. The Provisional Government that assumed power failed to solve the country's many problems, and within just a few months it teetered on the verge of collapse. On 7 November 1917 revolutionary forces of the radical Bolshevik party seized power in the capital, Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg). In the weeks and months that followed, the Bolsheviks spread and consolidated their authority over much of Russia. By late 1920 they were the undisputed masters of most of the territory of the Russian Empire.
Part of the Bolsheviks' founding ideology was the claim that their victory resulted from the genuine popularity of their ideals and the freely given support of the Russian people. According to the Bolsheviks, the great majority of Russians had made a conscious "choice" in favor of the world's first socialist government. This explanation for the triumph of communism remained an important part of Soviet ideology, and many Western scholars have found evidence of mass support for Bolshevism and legitimate popularity of its ideals.
Other scholars have argued, however, that Bolshevism was forced on a largely unwilling Russian population. These critics of the Soviet system point to the almost immediate appearance and long duration of armed resistance to the Bolsheviks as an indication that many Russians did not favor socialism. The new government's use of a secret police and concentration camps, its reliance on terror and coercion, and its suppression of civil liberties and the democratic process, they argue, demonstrate that it might not have engendered widespread popular support.
An assessment of the degree to which Russians welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution offers insights not only into what became of the Russian Empire but also into the popularity of socialism and communism throughout Europe. It also allows students of history to understand the emergence of one of the two Cold War superpowers and the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Viewpoint: Yes. The Bolsheviks gave voice to the concerns of the Russian masses and harnessed their discontent to bring about a successful revolution.

The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 was not sudden and unexpected. It resulted from the fifty-year failure of the Russian monarchy to address pressing social concerns. Even after being defeated in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, tsarist Russia did not abandon its adventurous foreign policies. Instead of building on the efforts of Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) to reform rural society, public life, and the autocratic political system, his successors, Alexander III (ruled 1881-1894) and Nicholas II (ruled 1894-1917), preserved the basic features of the autocracy and remained deaf to the demands of an increasingly radicalized society. The ideology of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Patriotism" accompanied renewed political censorship and repression in the reign of Alexander III. Nicholas II's brutal suppression of domestic unrest, his unwillingness to create a genuinely democratic parliament, and his imprudent involvement in wars against Japan (1904-1905) and the Germany-led coalition in Europe (1914-1918) were all steps by which he deprived himself of historic opportunities to prevent revolution and civil war. The never-implemented "reform from above" had to give way to a "revolution from below."

Alexander II's reforms provided an opportunity to narrow the growing gap between a socially and economically backward Russia and a rapidly modernizing Europe. The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War resulted from its insufficient domestic capital, its poorly developed infrastructure, its predominantly rural economy, and its extremely small middle class. Attempting to remedy these problems and responding to the growing acceptance of constitutional principles in Europe, Alexander devised a far-reaching reform agenda. He abolished the institution of serfdom by formally allowing peasants to leave their noble overlords and find other employment. He initiated policies of glasnost (openness) in public life and encouraged education, particularly in rural primary schools. By establishing elected local governments and an independent judiciary, he made critically important steps in reforming the autocratic political system. Had he not been killed by a terrorist bomb in 1881, the Russian Empire might have evolved into a constitutional monarchy with a state council--an advisory body--as a protoparliament. In fact, his key adviser, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, recommended the creation of a state council to address the problem of domestic terrorism and provide "the government's attentive and positive response to the needs of the people." Though these reforms were incomplete, they might well have put the country on the path of economic development and liberating social initiative. Alexander II's foreign minister, Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov, also pursued a relatively moderate external agenda and emphasized that the important lesson of Russia's defeat in the Crimea was the need to concentrate on domestic issues and social reform.

Alexander III, however, interpreted Russia's external and domestic situation differently from his father. He rejected the idea of developing a state council as a protoparliament. The tsar's tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was also procurator of the Holy Synod (the chief administrative official for religious affairs), recommended instead that Alexander emphasize the old "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Patriotism" and introduce new censorship and repression of dissidents. Pobedonostsev referred to the idea of a state council as a "foreign falsehood" and the first step on the dangerous road to Western-style constitutionalism. Externally, Russia continued to expand in the Far East despite the growing tensions in its relations with Japan.

In many ways Nicholas II continued Alexander III's policies of domestic repression and external overstretch. When he came to power in 1894, Russia was going through growing political instability, as well as economic and social polarization. Leading Russian intellectuals were pointing to widespread poverty, corruption, diseases, and low morale, trying to warn the tsar about the possible consequences of social discontent. In 1898 the Marxist Social Democratic and Labor Party, which later spawned the Bolshevik movement, was established and awaited chances to capitalize on the tsar's inconsistencies and unwillingness to accommodate the social needs of the population. Such opportunities soon began to present themselves.

In 1903 Nicholas dismissed a key economic reformer, Finance Minister Sergei Witte, and the following year he went to war against Japan, suffering humiliating defeats both on land and at sea in 1905. Reputedly encouraged by Interior Minister Viacheslav Plehve as "a little victorious war to stop the revolutionary tide," the Russo-Japanese War instead caused tremendous losses for the ill-prepared and poorly led Russian military and, even worse, immediate domestic unrest. In 1905 Russia went through its first revolution, which included strikes by urban workers, widespread peasant uprisings, and forcefully articulated political opposition. The revolution, which further narrowed chances of preventing the 1917 revolution, was sparked mainly by two events. The first was the tsar's brutal suppression of a peaceful workers' demonstration on 9 January 1905 ("Bloody Sunday"). Despite the moderate demands of demonstrators (shorter working hours and better labor conditions), the local police and military authorities ordered the army to open fire. At least 130 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured. The second factor was the losses of Russian forces in the Far East, particularly the defeats on land at Mukden and at sea at the Tsushima Straits in the spring of 1905.

Nicholas II's response to the 1905 revolution was grossly inadequate, failing to address any of the population's serious concerns effectively. Politically, the tsar promised more freedoms and established the Duma, a quasi-parliament. A step in the right direction, the Duma was never able to articulate the vital needs of Russian society and, instead, became a facade in front of the old autocratic regime. The first two Dumas, elected on a restricted, yet somewhat inclusive, franchise, were dismissed by Nicholas as too reformist for their advocacy of a constitution and the redistribution of land to the peasants. The third Duma, which was elected under a more conservative election law and excluded the lower classes, somewhat satisfied the tsar and Prime Minister Petr Stolypin. The proposed land reform was unable to satisfy popular expectations, as it allowed peasants to separate from the traditional communal tenure of agricultural land, which had the effect of reducing resources for peasants who remained in the communes. A defender of the interests of nobility and landed property, Stolypin argued against taking land away from nobles without compensation, but he provided no answer as to where the mostly poor peasants, the majority of the Russian population, were supposed to raise the money to buy their own land.

Perhaps the worst failure of tsarist state policies was the involvement in World War I against Germany. Bound by previous alliance commitments to Serbia and France, Nicholas and his advisers insisted that Russia fight on the side of France and Serbia. The war became domestically unpopular. Poorly armed, Russian soldiers were being slaughtered. (In 1914 about one-third of the Russian army had no rifles.) Most felt they had no reasons to be in the war. In a primarily rural country, most soldiers were peasants hungry for land, and the idea of fighting a brutal war with Germany to honor alliance commitments had little appeal for them. While Nicholas was at war, Russians grew to hate Empress Alexandra, who was German-born and reputed to favor her native land.

The state was increasingly unable to maintain social order, and its replacement by a Provisional Government in March 1917 had little effect. The slow movement of foodstuffs, which had been critical in causing the collapse of the monarchy, fell off by 40 percent in April and May 1917. Prices, inflation, and unemployment levels were growing. The number of strikes rose, almost doubling in May. In the radicalized political spectrum the new government's support for the war found little sympathy. Only the radical Left, especially Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party, argued for peace. The Mensheviks (the moderate wing of the Social Democratic Labor Party) and Socialist Revolutionaries sat in the government trying to build a compromise and close the rapidly growing gap between the upper, middle, and lower classes. Outside the government the words of Bolsheviks, who had no real voice in the political system, became louder and more convincing to workers, soldiers, and peasants. Bolsheviks opposed Russian involvement in the war, even to the point of advocating "the defeat of our own government." Although they initially had no mass support among the population, eventually--within an emerging power vacuum--they were able to draw support and seize power.

Despite their highly conspiratorial tactics, at a time of desperation and social anarchy the Bolsheviks were the only party able to offer the right slogans to the masses of peasants, soldiers, and workers. Lenin's slogan "peace to the people, land to peasants, and power to the soviets [councils]" resonated with much of Russian society. Obviously, the slogan was clever political rhetoric, and the system that the Bolsheviks eventually created was neither peaceful nor democratic--as the subsequent bloody civil war, the Red Terror unleashed by the Bolsheviks against their political opponents, the dissolution of the democratically elected Constitutional Assembly, and many other events abundantly demonstrated. Although they were not the only party who voiced mass popular feelings and aspirations--Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries also had a wide appeal--the Bolsheviks were the most prepared to act during a time of growing social anarchy. Over the stormy course of 1917 this small but tightly organized group, reminiscent of a secret sect (a "party of the new type," to quote Lenin), proved to be the only one capable of taking advantage of the social unrest and state weakness.

-- Andrei P. Tsygankov, San Francisco State University

Viewpoint: No. The Bolsheviks had much less popular backing than they later claimed and succeeded only through terrorist tactics and the incompetence of their opponents.

"Those against the insurrection were 'everybody'--except the people. But the Bolsheviks were the people," wrote Lev Trotsky in his history of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. Bolsheviks such as Trotsky argued--and may have believed--that their party's revolution represented the will of the Russian people. Yet, the facts--and some of Trotsky's own writings--indicate otherwise. If an empire-wide referendum on their plans had been held on 7 November 1917, the Bolsheviks would have received far less than 51 percent of the vote. In terms of sheer numbers of supporters, the Bolsheviks took second place, behind the more moderate socialist Revolutionary Party. In addition to the opposition they faced from members of the middle and upper echelons of Russian society--most of whom (quite understandably) opposed the installation of a regime that later labeled them "former persons"--the Bolsheviks lacked the support of large segments of the rest of the Russian empire's population. The difficulties they faced even in their strongholds, the results of post-November elections for a national Constituent Assembly, and the events of the subsequent civil war are further, definitive evidence against their interpretation of the Revolution.

The non-Russian parts of the empire wanted autonomy far more than they wanted a Bolshevik revolution. Poland, Finland, Ukraine, the Transcaucasian Federation (Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, which acted together), Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belorussia all declared their independence from Russia in 1917 and 1918. Communists in Finland lost a civil war there for control of the government. In Ukraine the newly established Rada (parliament) and the Ukrainian Military Congress responded to the news of the Bolshevik uprising by continuing to make their own plans to establish a constituent assembly for an independent Ukraine. Russian domination of Ukraine's soviets created resentment and helped to ensure Ukrainian support for their own nationalists against "Russian interlopers." It took an invasion and civil war for the Bolsheviks to gain control of Ukraine. Similarly, it took years for the Red Army to inaugurate their rule in the Caucasus and areas further east. The Soviets regained only partial control of Poland and reincorporated the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) only after Nazi Germany recognized the Soviets' hegemony over them in the 1939 German-Soviet nonaggression pact.

Within Russia itself, the key to a popular majority was the peasantry. As the Bolsheviks admitted, they had little support among the peasantry compared to the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Bolshevik strength lay not in the countryside but in the cities. Yet, even in urban areas the party found only partial and conditional support. In the Petrograd garrison, Trotsky wrote, "a thousand soldiers ready to fight on the side of the revolution were scattered here and there among the more passive mass." Trotsky counted industrial workers as solidly Bolshevik and most soldiers as "standing for the Bolsheviks insofar as they had a legal soviet cover." Fellow revolutionaries Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev agreed: "In Russia the majority of the workers and a significant part of the soldiers are for us. But all the rest is questionable." With workers and soldiers behind them, the Bolsheviks won a third of the votes for members of the Petrograd Soviet (a council of workers and soldiers) in September 1917, attained a bare majority (51 percent) in a mid-September election in Moscow, and took 390 of the 650 seats filled in the November Congress of Soviets by its opening day. These numbers, impressive but far from unanimous, strongly suggest that "politically conscious" peasants and more-conservative workers and soldiers sided not with the Bolsheviks but with the establishment of soviets as an institution. In fact, the Bolsheviks did not achieve easy victories in the cities. In some areas, they resorted to a kind of gerrymandering to achieve a majority in the local soviet and take power. In Voronezh only a minority of the populace, even in the party itself, was willing to carry out the Revolution. Granted, the hesitation of some Bolsheviks may have been related to the timing rather than to the Revolution itself, but it does raise questions about their level of commitment to the party. Even more damning, however, are the results of the long-awaited elections for the Constituent Assembly, which took place in the first weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks received 9.8 million votes of the nearly 50 million cast, just over 24 percent of the total. In contrast, their rivals, the Socialist Revolutionaries, received 15.8 million votes, or 40 percent. Even these figures probably inflate the level of support for the Bolsheviks. Much of the election campaign was carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation. Opposition candidates for the Constituent Assembly were subject to harassment by Bolshevik gangs before the elections and later by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret-police force, established in December 1917. When the Assembly met in January 1918, its president, Socialist Revolutionary leader Viktor Chernov, attended in defiance of a government arrest warrant. Once it met, the popularly elected Assembly refused to recognize the Bolshevik government, despite the menacing presence of armed guards in the meeting hall. On that first day the delegates had begun to pass land-reform laws when the guards forced them out of the hall and shut the Assembly forever. It is inaccurate to label as "popular" a government that has to disperse a popularly elected assembly by force in order to establish its own power.

Anti-Bolshevik protests were not confined to Petrograd. The Bolsheviks had to fight a full-scale civil war to consolidate their power. Their enemies included not only the "Whites"--a diverse assortment of political opponents including aristocratic supporters of the deposed tsar--but the population at large. In the first twelve months after November 1917, approximately one million soldiers deserted the Red Army, and, as Orlando Figes has documented, armed "Green" bands of former soldiers and peasants formed in provinces across Russia to oppose both Whites and Reds. The victory of the Bolsheviks despite such opposition can be credited to their military power, their determination, their willingness to end Russian participation in World War I, the strategic advantage of their central location relative to the Whites, and the fact that many Russians did not actively oppose them. Both Reds and Whites used force to extract grain and recruits from the countryside. To the general populace the Reds were at least no worse than the Whites. In many areas Bolsheviks benefited from White plans to return seized agricultural land to its original (often noble) owners. If they could not have the Socialist Revolutionaries, at least the agrarian masses could have the party that promised "peace, land, and bread." In general, for many Russians it seemed best to hoard as much grain as possible, cooperate with the Bolsheviks when necessary, and lay low until the civil war was over. This pragmatic passivity (which Figes has pessimistically and inaccurately called the Russians' "fail[ure] to become their own political masters") aided the Bolsheviks, but it cannot be construed as popular support. Historians such as Ronald Grigor Suny may write that the Bolsheviks "rode a wave of popular discontent and enthusiasm for Soviet power." They cannot, however, show that the Bolshevik revolution was popular. Too much evidence exists to the contrary.

-- Catherine Blair, Georgetown University


In his History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, written in February 1918, during the treaty negotiations with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, Lev Trotsky offered his perspective on the Bolsheviks' successful 7 November 1917 coup against the Provisional Government headed by Aleksandr Kerensky:

The Government was still in session in the Winter Palace, but it had already become a mere shadow of its former self. It had ceased to exist politically. In the course of November 7th the Winter Palace was gradually surrounded from all sides by our troops. At one o'clock in the afternoon, in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I announced at the sitting of the Petrograd Soviet that Kerensky's Government no longer existed, and that, pending the decision of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the Government authority would be assumed by the Military Revolutionary Committee.

. . . The bourgeois Press had shrieked so much about the coming revolt, the march of armed soldiers in the streets, the pillage, and the inevitable rivers of blood, that it did not perceive the insurrection which, in reality, was now taking place, and accepted the negotiations between ourselves and the Military Staff at their face value. All this time, quietly, without any street fighting, without firing or bloodshed, one Government institution after another was being seized by highly disciplined detachments of soldiers, sailors, and Red Guards, in accordance with the exact telephone instructions emanating from [Vladimir Lenin in] the little room on the third floor of the Smolny Institute.

In the evening, the second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets held a preliminary meeting.

. . . [Menshevik F. I. Dan] delivered an indictment against the rebels, the usurpers, and sedition-mongers, and tried to frighten the meeting by predicting the inevitable collapse of the Insurrection, which in a day or two, he said, would be suppressed by troops from the front. His speech sounded exceedingly unconvincing and very much out of place in a hall in which the overwhelming majority of delegates were following with the greatest enthusiasm the victorious march of the Petrograd rising.

By this time the Winter Palace was surrounded, though not yet taken. From time to time shots were fired from the windows at the besiegers who were slowly and very carefully closing in upon the building. From the Peter and Paul Fortress a few shells were fired at the Palace, their distant sounds reaching the Smolny. [Menshevik Y. O.] Martoff, with impotent indignation, was speaking from the rostrum of civil war, and particularly of the siege of the Winter Palace where, among the other Ministers, there were--oh, horror of horrors!--members of the Menshevik Party. Two sailors, who had come to give news from the scenes of struggle, took the platform against him. They reminded our accusers of the [Bolsheviks'] July offensive, of the whole perfidious policy of the old Government, of the re-establishment of the death penalty for soldiers, of the arrests, of the sacking of revolutionary organizations, and vowed that they would either conquer or die. They it was who brought us the news of the first victims on our side on the Palace Square.

Every one rose as though moved by some invisible signal, and with a unanimity which is only provoked by a deep moral intensity of feeling sung a Funeral March. He who lived through this moment will never forget it. The meeting came to an abrupt end. It was impossible to sit there, calmly discussing the theoretical question as to the method of constructing the Government, with the echo reaching our ears of the fighting and firing at the walls of the Winter Palace, where, as a matter of fact, the fate of this very Government was already being decided.

The taking of the Palace, however, was a protracted business, and this caused some wavering amongst the less determined elements of the Congress. The Right wing, through its spokesmen, prophesied our early doom. All were waiting anxiously for news from the Winter Palace. After some time, [Bolshevik V. A.] Antonoff, who had been directing the operations, arrived. At once there was dead silence in the hall. The Winter Palace had been taken. Kerensky had taken flight. The other Ministers had been arrested and conveyed to the Peter and Paul Fortress. The first chapter of the November Revolution was at an end.

The Right Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, numbering altogether about sixty persons, that is, about one-tenth of the Congress, left the meeting under protest. As they could do nothing else, they "threw the whole responsibility" for whatever might now happen on the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. The latter were still wavering. . . . But the insurrection forced them to choose either for or against the Soviet. Not without hesitation, they were concentrating their forces on the same side of the barricade where we stood.

Source: Lev Trotsky, "The Decisive Day," in his History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (London: Allen & Unwin, 1919), Marxist Internet Archive http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1918/hrr/.



Stephen F. Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Robert V. Daniels, ed. and trans., A Documentary History of Communism in Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev, third edition, revised and updated (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1993).

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

Geoffrey Hosking, The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within, second edition, enlarged (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Tim McDaniel, Autocracy, Capitalism, and the Revolution in Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990).

Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York: Norton, 1976).

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, sixth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Leon Trotsky, The Essential Trotsky (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963).

Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (New York: Norton, 1969).

Bertram D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History (New York: Dial, 1948; fourth edition, revised, 1964).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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