Looking back to the Russian revolution from the 21st century

Simon Pirani marks a significant anniversary

We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.

It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.

The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the First World War, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.

Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.

After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.

In the summer of 1917, the provisional government, hoping to retain Russia’s position as a great power, promised its allies, the UK and France, that it would stay in the war. Soldiers responded with the greatest act of desertion in world history. Units at the front, inspired by those in the capital who had joined the revolution, turned on their officers, sometimes murdering them, deserted, and headed home to their villages. There, the government was hesitating about land reform, and people took matters into their own hands, burning down the manor houses and dividing the land among local families.

Meanwhile in St Petersburg, the provisional government’s power was constrained by the soviet (the Russian word for “council”) of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives, that commanded the movement’s allegiance. By the winter, the provisional government had disintegrated and the soviet, with the Bolsheviks (communists) now in a majority, took over.

This “October revolution” opened a still more radical chapter. The new soviet government immediately declared an end to Russia’s part in the war and accepted the peasant movement’s demands on land. It legislated equal rights before the law for women, decades before other European countries did so. It broke the centuries-old link between the Russian Orthodox church and the state, and swept away the empire’s legacy of racist legislation against Jews.  

The Bolshevik government even declared the right of the nations colonised by the Russian empire to self-determination … although this was one of the first promises of the revolution to be broken. During the civil war that followed the revolution – as some of the empire’s generals, supported by the British and other governments, tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Bolsheviks – Ukraine, Georgia and other non-Russian nations were pulled back under Russian rule, despite aspirations to independence.

Although the revolution was made in the name of Russia’s industrial workers, they gained least in the short run. Once the civil war ended and they returned to the factories, old management practices and limits on worker organisation soon returned – while pay took a decade to return to the level it was at before the First World War.

Nevertheless, the Bolshevik takeover had an electric effect internationally. This revolutionary government, claiming to act in the interests of working people, expropriated capitalists’ property and nationalised the banks. Across Europe, those with wealth and power were shaken. In our times, when governments are often formed by parties claiming to represent working people (whether they actually do or not), it’s easy to underestimate how explosive these events were.

The Bolsheviks, and the communists and others that they inspired elsewhere, saw this as the first step of a world revolution. With the defeat of the German workers’ uprising in 1918, and of a wave of working-class revolts across Europe in the early 1920s, it soon became clear that that would not happen. The hopes raised by the revolution were not all realised.

This brings us to another issue important for our collective memory: why the revolution failed to bring about many deeper-going changes, and why, by the 1930s, the Soviet Union sank into the nightmare of Stalinist dictatorship.

Communists and socialists have thought and argued about this for decades. A short article like this cannot provide easy answers, but can highlight some problems that were already apparent in the first few years of the new “workers’ government”.

First, the democratic forms of self-government that had taken shape in 1917 – the soviets and factory committees – soon wilted. The civil war, and hunger and disease that followed, all took a fearsome toll.

Second, the Bolsheviks did nothing to encourage this kind of grassroots democracy. On the contrary, they used state repression against their political opponents such as anarchists and adherents of Russian peasant socialism (narodniks). They silenced workers who questioned economic policy. They stamped on dissent in their own ranks. The “workers’ dictatorship” soon turned into a dictatorship over workers.

Third, the Bolshevik model was portrayed as a formula for the liberation of people everywhere, as though there were no other ways of achieving freedom from exploitation by capital.

For much of the twentieth century, aspects of the Soviet model appeared attractive from the outside. At the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Union undertook rapid industrialisation, and collectivisation of farming, with frightful brutality. It established an armaments industry strong enough to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

In the late 20th century, the Soviet Union was taken as a blueprint for economic development by many liberation movements. Other legacies of the Russian revolution – organisation from below, mass participation in decision-making, liberation of women, the aspiration to freedom from exploitative labour – were often forgotten.

Now, in the 21st century, we can start to paint a more complex, less one-sided picture of these great events.

This article was written for Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal, and also appears at peoplenature.org. here

Simon Pirani is honorary professor at the university of Durham, UK, and author of The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (Routledge, 2009). He writes a blog at https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/

Image: Women workers demonstrating in 1917. The banner says: “If woman is a slave, there will be no freedom. Long live the equality of women.”

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