Dec 2, 2007

Book Review: The Russian Revolution

Front cover of The Russian Revolution, written by University of Chicago historian Sheila FitzpatrickFitzpatrick, Sheila
New York: Oxford University Press, 1994 (1982)

Sheila Fitzpatrick is a Russian historian at the University of Chicago who has written or contributed to over ten books on modern Russian and Soviet history. One of Fitzpatrick’s best-known works is The Russian Revolution, which will soon be released in a new third edition. This text is a deceptively slim volume that brings readers thoughtful analysis and an engaged sense of historiography in its treatment of the October Revolution. Unlike most historical accounts of the rise to power of the Bolsheviks - which tend to conclude with either the 1917 fall of the Provisional Government or the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922 - The Russian Revolution includes the Stalinist revolution and the Great Purges of 1937-38 as the “final internal convulsion” in the transition from Tsarist autocracy to Soviet-style communism.

The book’s introductory chapter contains a wealth of historiographical references, succinctly capturing the major trends of interpretation regarding the Bolshevik Revolution. In addition, Fitzpatrick described the three major themes of the revolutionaries that are skillfully interlaced throughout the text. The first of these is that of industrialization and modernization, goals that every significant Bolshevik viewed as what Fitzpatrick called “revolution as a means of escaping backwardness.” In addition, the author argued that class struggle was more than a mere Marxist slogan of the Bolsheviks, and that this theme functioned as the primary obligation of both the proletariat and the party. Finally, Fitzpatrick argued that “revolutionary violence and terror” was a continuous motif in revolutionary Soviet history, both as historical fact and – more importantly – as modus operandi for the Communist Party.

The rise of widespread revolutionary sentiment in Russia before 1917 was somewhat of a contradiction with the theories of Karl Marx on the stages of historical development, as the overthrow of capitalism required a high density of an urban industrial proletariat. The population of pre-revolutionary Russia was overwhelmingly comprised of rural peasants, and Russia would have likely been viewed by Marx as unprepared for revolution due to this reason. Fitzpatrick argued that this seeming inconsistency could be explained in a number of ways. The author maintained that the unexpected strength of revolutionary fervor among the Russian working class benefited from attacks on trade union movements by the state, which had a “large stake in Russia’s native industry and the protection of foreign investment.” Moreover, noted Fitzpatrick, the Russian peasantry was much less conservative than the stereotypical peasants of Western Europe in Das Kapital, as exhibited in over two centuries of Russian peasant revolts. In addition, many peasants were also employed as industrial workers (otkhodniki), migrating to towns and cities in search of seasonal work to supplement meager farm incomes. The result of these conditions was a Russian peasantry much more willing to embrace revolution than Marx had foreseen, and this provided Vladimir Lenin with a crucial ally in the October Revolution.

1920 painting entitled Left: 1920 painting entitled "Bolshevik," by Russian painter Boris Kustodiev

Fitzpatrick disagreed with the traditional Western interpretation of the 1917 successes of the Bolsheviks, which often attributed the victorious October Revolution to the organizational strengths and internal discipline of the Bolshevik Party. Instead, the author argued that the insistence by Lenin to disavow the Provisional Government and his decision to embrace “intransigent radicalism on the extreme left of the political spectrum” meant that the Bolsheviks would ultimately be seen by the populace as the only party not corrupted by the “politics of coalition and compromise.” Moreover, noted the author, there existed little in the way of party discipline in a period when most of the Bolsheviks were in exile, prison, or laying low in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, argued Fitzpatrick, benefited by staying out on the streets with the “irresponsible and belligerent revolutionary crowd,” leaving the party in the perfect position when opportunity later presented itself to Lenin and his followers.

The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, maintained Fitzpatrick, was merely the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War had profound influences on the nature of the evolving Soviet state. The war “militarized the revolutionary political culture of the Bolshevik movement,” argued the author, leading the Bolsheviks to rely upon political coercion, centralized administration, and authoritarianism as a means of survival, characteristics that would continue to be hallmarks of the Party in the coming decades. In addition, as a minority party, the Bolsheviks found themselves ruling by fiat almost as a political necessity, and Fitzpatrick argued that the Party’s heavy reliance upon soldiers, sailors, and workers meant that the Bolsheviks had become an organization of individuals much less concerned with the politics of “tactful persuasion.”

Front cover of the 1923 New Economic Policy decree - Новая экономическая политика - Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika or НЭПLeft: Front cover of the 1923 New Economic Policy decree

The privations wrought by the war also forced the Bolsheviks into what Fitzpatrick described as “the discipline of retreat,” necessitating the abandonment of the economic policy known as War communism in favor of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). This move to a semi-capitalist system did not mean, however, an overall atmosphere of liberalization, and Fitzpatrick argued that NEP marked the beginning of a new phase of “Lenin’s eagerness to crush actual or potential opposition.” The author also took aim at nostalgic-minded historians who have misinterpreted NEP as anything more than a desperate political strategy by the Bolsheviks to hold power, noting that to Communists themselves “NEP had the smell of Thermidor.” It was within this context of Bolshevik disillusionment that Josef Stalin saw political opportunity, and Fitzpatrick noted the philosophical consistency between Stalin’s drive to industrialization and earlier Bolshevik attraction to a highly industrialized society. Stalin’s reign represented much more than tweaking policies, noted Fitzpatrick:
As in Peter the Great’s time, the people grew thinner as the state grew strong. Stalin’s Revolution had extended direct state control over the whole urban economy and greatly increased the state’s ability to exploit peasant agriculture. It had also greatly strengthened the state’s police arm, and created Gulag… The persecution of “class enemies” in collectivization and the Cultural Revolution had left a complex legacy of bitterness, fear, and suspicion, as well as encouraging such practices as denunciation, purging, and “self-criticism.”

Using a metaphor borrowed from Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution, Fitzpatrick described the Russian Revolution as a series of fevers and relapses. The February and October Revolutions in 1917 and the Civil War “constituted the first bout” of fever, while the Stalinist revolution and the Great Purges were the “relapses” suffered by the Russians before the revolution finally passed. Echoing Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, Fitzpatrick argued that the terror of the Purges represented a “direct line of continuity” against those deemed as class enemies by the Communist Party. In a disconcerting way, Stalin’s Purges actually served as a testament to his revolutionary purity, noted Fitzpatrick, as it would be difficult to argue that Stalin was a “Thermidorian reactionary, a betrayer of revolution, after this demonstration of terror that dwarfed even that of the French Revolution.”

The Russian Revolution is a synthesis, drawing principally from secondary texts by Soviet and Western historiography. The book follows a chronological approach to the revolutionary events, and referential material is provided in an endnote format for readers interested in further research on a given topic. The author included a seven-page bibliography of primary and secondary resources, and the cross-referenced index contains no significant omissions. The second edition of the text, developed by Fitzpatrick in 1994, incorporates newer research based on primary source materials opened up to historians after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution is well suited for undergraduate and graduate students seeking a concise history of the October Revolution that also interacts with the essential historiography on the subject. General readers with interest in the Bolshevik Revolution will also find this text to be a useful introduction to the topic, although some prior knowledge of the period and revolutionary Marxist theory would both be helpful. Fitzpatrick’s talents as a write and a historian shine in The Russian Revolution, which is one of those rare historical texts that can bridge the chasm between disciplinary excellence and rhetorical virtuosity.


Brian Schwartz said...

I always hoped Richard Nixon would write a book on Russian history. He was an authority on the subject.

I once had an in-class argument with Dr. Larry Wilcox of UT's History Department (possibly the finest professor I ever had) about Nixon's qualifications to write such a book.

Wilcox's contention was that Nixon was not a scholar. My contention was that Nixon had not only made an extensive study of Russian history, he spent decades MAKING and SHAPING Russian history.

Perhaps his would not have been a scholarly tome, but it would have provided a unique perspective on the subject. Nixon was an excellent writer.

Anonymous said...

I love this review! I just finished reading the book and had to write a review (something I am awful at) and couldn't even think of where to start! But this inspired my own review! Thank you so much! (I promice I only used this as inspiration as I said I'm awful at reviewing books and this was just what I needed to get my own creativity flowing) I'm in A.P. World History right now and have to do a book report for Era 5, this book caught my attention and was an amazing read, but when I started writhign my reveiw I found mmyself basically re-writting the book (not good) so this helped me generalize my thoughts so much!