Russian Studies

Fall 2005


What Was Done

The Russian Revolution of 1917 (The Dirty Commie Rats took over.)


I.                     Interpretive Introduction (Historiography)


Explanations for what happened in 1917 range across the political spectrum. What happened? Who dunnit? What shape or direction did the events take?


a.       Marxists

                                                               i.      Orthodox        

Marx’s prediction was that socialist revolutions would take place in highly developed capitalist countries (like Germany, Britain or France.)  Russia was neither developed nor capitalist, yet it was the site of the first successful socialist revolution.

                                                             ii.      Revisionist

Revisionist Marxists emerged after Marx’s death. They argued that a socialist society could be brought into being democratically and peacefully through the legislative process and through the pressure of trade union collective bargaining. (They believed that violence would pervert the development of a socialist state. They believed that decisions should be made by all workers in a democratic fashion.)

                                                            iii.      Leninist

Lenin argued that Russia, like other 3rd World countries, had been exploited indirectly by the great capitalist powers. A world-wide revolution could be provoked by revolution in Russia.  This revolution would not be led by the workers (who are too ready to compromise on collective bargaining agreements), nor would it be led by the peasants (who are not educated well enough to understand their best interests.) A successful revolution would only take place if it were spear-headed by an elite, secret group of professional revolutionaries totally dedicated to pulling down the system and replacing it with a highly centralized, authoritarian government.


b.      Liberals

Liberals wonder why Russia failed in its brief existence as a liberal society.  (1905 Duma; 1917 Provisional Government).


c.       Modernizers

Modernizers believe that Russia in 1917 was backward. Its major task was to catch up with the West by any means necessary. Whatever works! (Did the Russian Revolution work?) Modern state can be defined as possessing an efficient, productive and competitive economic system which produces enough wealth to provide functioning social services (health, education, pensions) as well as projecting power overseas in the great game of world diplomacy.)



d.      Conservatives

                                                               i.      Entropists

In the tradition of Hobbes and Edmund Burke, conservatives argue that all revolutions follow the same pattern: when authority is overthrown, things fall apart. Too much freedom encourages social unrest and can lead to the nightmare of civil war. (The Time of Troubles III)

                                                             ii.      Ideologues

Americans portray Lenin and Stalin as Commie Rats who created a rogue state which played havoc with our security for nearly eighty years. Anything that can be done should be done to avoid the creation of another state which embraces an ideology in opposition to our fundamental beliefs in natural rights. (life, liberty, property) We will support any government which provides law and order and creates the conditions where business can get done.

                                                            iii.      Accidentalists


“Hey, s**t happens.” The stars aligned in the perfect formation to allow a tiny minority like the Bolsheviks to seize power. Pure luck. It is a stretch to attach a meaning to an essentially random act.


II.                1905 Revolution


a.       Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)

Catastrophic military defeat in the Far East results in a national humiliation, the loss of territories, and the revelation that the vaunted Russian military could not compete even with another “3rd World” power, much less the Germans or the British.

b.      Bloody Sunday

Jan. 1905 slaughter outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; outrages the populace and strikes spread


c.       October Manifesto

The tsar concedes. The autocracy ends; a constitutional monarchy is installed which promises real power to the Duma (legislative assembly) and promises civil liberties. At long last, liberalism has come to Russia!


d.      The Duma


Bolsheviks                    SR’s                 Mensheviks                  Cadets             Octobrists

Slavophiles, not Marxists;

Peasants not workers; radicals and moderates



Liberals who accept terms of limited constitutional monarchy


Constitutional Democrats. Liberals


Revisionist Marxists: pro-Duma


Not in play: a tiny minority





And its usurpation

Ministers became answerable to the tsar not the Duma. The effort to create a market economy over rode political concerns.


III.               The February Revolution 1917


In February 1917 a spontaneous uprising against tsar was sparked by desertions and mutinies in the army as WWI dragged on. The Bolsheviks were not in play.  It resulted in a tentative move, again, towards liberal society.


a.       World War One

4 million casualties and counting; victory against the Austrians but repeated defeat against the Germans; economic turmoil at home. Tsar at the front, the tsarina and Rasputin in control at home.


b.      Abdication of the Tsar (March 15)

Now, who would gain sovereignty?


c.       The Provisional Government (control of army, capital, police and ports, ala Paul

Bremer in Iraq. Miliukov, the first head.)

                                                               i.      War Policy

The liberals resolved to honor their alliances with the Brits and the French and fight on. Their goal was a negotiated victory which would give them Constantinople in the south. Western Front was vital to allied war effort.

                                                             ii.      Land Policy

Government restricts land seizures by peasants until “after elections” ie never.

                                                            iii.      Constituent Assembly

A new constitutional convention. Founding Fathers stuff.


                                                           iv.      Kerensky to Power

                                A charismatic speaker, a Menshevik, is appointed to build                                        a bridge between the government and the Soviets.


                                                             v.      Kerensky Offensive

                                WWI offensive against the Germans in central Europe is                                          turned back: a disastrous failure, and the patience of the                                           soldiers snaps.




d.      The Soviets

Neighborhood, grass roots assemblies elect representatives to councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. SR’s dominate.   The St. Petersburg Soviet becomes a potential national government because it can influence events on the street in the capital.



                                                               i.      Order #1

                    Soldiers are given permission to disobey officers if they are not                                  consulted in the decision making process. Democracy is brought to                           the army.


                                                             ii.      Lenin’s April Theses

Lenin enters Russia in April (spirited into the country in a sealed boxcar on a German train.)

1.      “All power to the Soviets”

He immediately announces that the workers are finally in a position where they can seize power for themselves.

2.      “Land, Peace and Bread”

His slogan calls for immediate land reform, an end to the war, and the opening of the granaries to a famished populace. (Good politics!)


                                                            iii.      July Days 1917

In July another spontaneous uprising took place. Workers and soldiers in St. Petersburg sought to seize power, and no one led them. The Bolsheviks, too late, tried to step up, but to no avail. The rebellion was crushed, the energy went out of the people, and the Bolsheviks appeared too timid to the rebels and too radical for the general public. It seemed like Lenin’s moment was over.


e.       Kornilov Affair

To the rescue came this right wing general who tried to seize power to protect the country from a communist revolution and to restore the tsar to power. In response Kerensky armed the workers in St. Petersburg, (thus creating the nucleus for Red Army). The coup attempt fizzled when railroad workers alerted by the Soviets prevented Kornilov’s troops from reaching the capital.


Given a second opportunity, Lenin took full advantage of it. He could claim that the workers, not the government, had saved the country from the coup. His seizure of power was bloodless. A sizeable chunk of the people supported him.



IV.              The October Revolution 1917


a.       Council of People’s Commissars Lenin

                                                               i.      Peace initiative, land seizures, factory seizures, nobility abolished, Church suppressed, alphabet reformed, calendar reformed, Cheka


                                                             ii.      Suppression of Constituent Assembly

Vote in December: SR’s dominate. Bolsheviks get only 40%. This was the last relatively free election in Russia for eighty years.

Lenin creates one party system and has the Cheka arrest all opposition.


                                                            iii.      Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Mar 1918

Lenin surrenders and pulls Russia out of the war. He gives up 27% of the country. Russian conservatives are outraged. The allies are outraged. The Germans are happy.



V.                 The Civil War 1918-21


a.       Reds (Trotsky) v. Whites, Allies and Poland


b.      War Communism


c.       Comintern


VI.              The NEP 1921


a.       One Step Backward


b.      Lenin’s Death 1924


VII.            Stalin Revolution 1928-34


a.       Power Struggle and “What is to be Done” redux

                                                               i.      Bukharin v. Trotsky


b.      Socialism in One Country

                                                               i.      Five Year Plans

                                                             ii.      Collectivization


c.       Purges