Dec 6, 2007

Book Review: From Tsar to Soviets - The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917-21

Front cover of From Tsar to Soviets - The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917-21, by Christopher ReadRead, Christopher
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Christopher Read is a professor of Russian history at the University of Warwick, specializing in the intellectual history of the Russian intelligentsia between 1900 and 1925 and the social history of the Russian Revolution. Many texts that examine the Bolshevik Revolution do so from some combination of the strengths of the revolutionaries or the weaknesses of the Tsarist and Provisional governments. In From Tsar to Soviets, Read eschewed these top-down explanations, arguing instead that the Russian Revolution was “constantly driven forward by the often spontaneous impulse given to it from the grass roots.”

Echoing the nineteenth century radical populist Petr Tkachev, Read argued that “revolutions are not caused by revolutionaries,” and the author maintained that certain demographic, economic, social, and political forces created a revolutionary environment in Russia prior to the First World War. Read noted that the population in Russia nearly doubled from 1880 to 1917, rising from 100 million to 182 million people, while Russian agriculture did not sufficiently modernize in order to meet the increasing demands for grain. In addition to the impoverished lot of rural peasants, Read noted that many of the landed gentry struggled in the decades after the 1861 serf emancipation by Alexander II, and the author held that “more and more of their land was mortgaged and the class as a whole was in ever deepening difficulties.” Rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century, argued Read, expanded the numbers of three groups that would play important roles in the 1917 revolutions - the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat – while bringing increasing numbers of rural peasants into the cities looking for work. Finally, noted Read, Nicholas II consistently demonstrated his resistance to reform, even going so far as describing reform sentiments in an 1896 speech to representatives of the gentry as “’senseless dreams.’”

1913 colorized photograph of Russian tsar Nicholas II, taken in honor of the tercentenary celebrations of the rule of the Romanov dynasty in RussiaLeft: 1913 colorized photograph of Russian tsar Nicholas II, taken in honor of the tercentenary celebrations of the rule of the Romanov dynasty in Russia

Despite the revolutionary fervor of 1905, Read argued that the events of this year did not constitute a revolution, as the political structure of Russia remained relatively unchanged. The author held that the question historians should ask, however, is how the autocracy managed to survive the myriad mutinies, riots, strikes, and acts of terror in 1905 and shortly thereafter. First, noted Read, the Tsar benefited from the continued loyalty of the armed forces, despite the isolated mutinies, and this ability to marshal armed forces permitted “punitive repression of uprisings.” Pyotr Stolypin pushed through changes in the electoral laws that created what Read described as a “more malleable majority” based upon a system in which “the preponderance of votes lay with the propertied classes.” Conversely, despite the autocratic tendencies of Nicholas, it was “the tsar’s prolonged absence [in his role as Commander-in-Chief] and the ensuing decline in the importance of decisions taken in Petrograd” that ultimately gave revolutionaries their opportunities in 1916 and 1917:
Thus, by 1916, the basic elements of tsarism’s final crisis were in place. There was bitter division within the elite over the form of government and growing discontent among the ordinary people on account of the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. Had the autocracy been prepared to make a major gesture of reconciliation with the Duma a new start might still have been possible, but nothing illustrates the entrenched obtuseness of Nicholas II and those around him better than the events of the last months of the dynasty. There was a vast difference between the government and any form of “liberalization” such as that advocated by the Progressive Bloc.
Ultimately, argued Read, “it was not the social revolution that brought about the collapse of the Russian state, but the collapse of the state that facilitated the social revolution.”

The February Revolution of 1917, in which the Tsar abdicated and a Provisional Government took power, has been interpreted by historians in a variety of manners. Traditional Marxist historians view this as a necessary bourgeois revolution, one that preceded the eventual socialist revolution, while those of a classical liberal orientation tend to emphasize the anti-authoritarian and democratic nature of the revolution. Read, however, argued instead for a “third way,” in which the Bolsheviks “would not be quite so emphatically in charge of history but would themselves be, in large part, shaped by the historical forces of the time.” Read noted that the Bolsheviks declined to provide support to armed demonstrators during the July Days, and that Lenin spent most of the summer in hiding, “initially in a straw hut in a damp and muddy Finnish field, only emerging fully in the midst of the October revolution.” The author also noted the public split in the Bolshevik Party in the weeks prior to the October Revolution, and quoted reports from party functionaries that “only half-hearted and scattered support for an armed uprising could be expected” from regions outside of Petrograd.

Left: mob forming in January 1917 outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg

While noting that Russian factories became “the engine-room of worker organization and of integration into political parties,” Read cautioned against making oversimplifications about the revolutionary nature about industrial workers in Russia. Workers did voice radical political positions, agreed Read, but worker-management tensions “often coincided with major political crisis points.” In addition, there was a significant amount of differentiation within the Russian working class, with skilled workers being more inclined to abandon revolutionary politics in favor of reformist movements. Instead, Read argued that historians should view the Russian working class as a component of the narod ("the people"), with the result that workers, soldiers, and peasants saw themselves as part of a larger struggle of the narod against the burzhui ("elites" - a corruption of bourgeoisie). Workers, maintained Read, were only “weakly identified with political parties,” and such affiliation that occurred was volatile in nature. The basic demands of the narod – better working and living conditions, and a measure of control over their own destinies – remained relatively unchanged, and it was the “failure of their leadership” to facilitate these demands that caused workers, soldiers, and peasants to shift allegiance to radical groups like the Bolsheviks.

Similar to his analysis of Russian industrial workers, Read also examined the Russian peasantry on the eve of revolution. With over 100 million peasants from dozens of major ethnic groups spread across over 8 million square miles of territory, generalizations about Russian peasants is admittedly a precarious venture. Still, the author made a solid case for a number of features shared by most Russian peasants. Chief among these was what Read described as the “battle for the surplus,” as peasants faced the efforts by the Provisional Government and its Bolshevik successors to “re-establish the grain funnel, drawing produce out of the village.” Moreover, argued Read, there existed continuity in the philosophical beliefs of Russian peasants with regard to control of land, with the result that most peasants believed that “land should belong to whomsoever worked it.” Finally, Read noted that institutions such as the commune, the mir, and the skhod (village assembly)demonstrated the “universality of the peasant revolution and its drive for self-government.”

Read took issue with traditional generalizations of soldiers and sailors as “peasants in uniform,” as well as Marxist efforts to depict members of the military as members of the proletariat. Read instead argued that it was the “oppressive structures of everyday experience in military service” – namely, brutal discipline and a desire for peace – that motivated soldiers and sailors. The author noted that delegates to military conferences rarely belonged to political parties, and were more focused on issues and policies than to particular political parties:
In other words, the mass of soldiers would offer their support to whomsoever was more likely to carry out the programme they favored. They would go along with the government insofar as it remained committed to the search for peace, the setting up of army committees, the redistribution of land, the defence of workers’ living standards and rights and the democratization of the country by means of the Constituent Assembly. The growing inability, or unwillingness of the Provisional Government to pursue these aims set the scene for the deepening of the revolution in the army as the months went by.
Read attributed the eventual victory of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War to a number of factors. White Army forces, he argued, “were not as formidable as they appeared,” and the number of reliable forces that could be counted on was limited. Whites had an inadequate amount of support from the foreign interventionists, and faced a great deal of difficulty in communications and logistics. Red Army forces, argued Read, “always held the highly populated heartland,” and were able to draw on a core demographic of 60 million people, as well as “the remnants of industry and the majority of the military stockpiles from the world war.” In addition, the author made a convincing argument that the Bolshevik decision to send home the soldiers from the front was less driven by peace as it was by a “frantic desire to deprive the old elite of the power to strike at the revolution.” Ultimately, though, the Bolsheviks possessed what Read described as the “trump card” in winning any support among the peasantry: the Whites could only promise a return to the old order, while the Reds were able to offer property redistribution.

Red Army forces attacking the naval fortress of Kronstadt in 1921Left: Red Army forces attacking the naval fortress of Kronstadt in 1921

From Tsar to Soviets is a synthesis, drawing heavily from Russian as well as Western works, though the author also includes a significant amount of archival source material. The book follows a thematic approach to the topic, and referential material is provided in an endnote format for readers interested in further research on a given topic. Appendices include a seven-page chronology and an eight-page bibliography, and the cross-referenced index contains both English and romanized Russian terms. While some previous familiarity with the Russian Revolution would assist readers in textual comprehension, From Tsar to Soviets is accessible to the literate general reader, and this reviewer additionally recommends the book for both undergraduate and graduate scholars seeking a social perspective on the Bolshevik rise to power.

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