The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the landmark events of the 20th century. Yet when compared to some of the century’s equally momentous developments such as the outbreaks of World Wars I and II, the birth of the nuclear age in 1945, and even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the radical changes that reshaped Russia are little understood in the West.
But in recent years, a new generation of scholars has begun to mine the Communist party’s once sealed archives and that, coupled with the 100th anniversary of these revolutionary events, has led to renewed attention to the origins and impact of the Russian Revolution.
In The Russian Revolution: A New History, Bard College professor Sean McMeekin has written a superb and eye-opening account of this important chapter in 20th century history that will be indispensable reading for those anxious to learn more about this seminal event and the aftershocks that followed.
The story begins in 1905, when Russia was utterly defeated in the Russo-Japanese War. In the middle of this conflict, a protest in St. Petersburg turned violent and the "Bloody Sunday” massacre briefly radicalized the population. Later that same year, a mutiny in the armed forces and a general strike forced Tsar Nicholas II to make concessions that included, for the first time, the creation of a parliament with very limited powers known as the "Duma.” Aided by the imposition of martial law, the unrest dissipated.
Somewhat surprisingly, after this near-death experience, the regime enjoyed a resurgence of domestic prestige and the economy boomed. In the first decade of the new century, the Russian economy was "growing at nearly 10 percent annually, turning heads just as dramatically as a surging China has in the twenty-first.” This, along with modest land reform, seemed to herald a new day. But internal political stability rested on the maintenance of peace. And, unfortunately for the Tsar, when World War I broke out, Russia eagerly moved against Germany and the Austro-Hungary Empire.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the fighting was going reasonably well for the Russians. But on the home front, especially in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed to make it sound “less German” during the war), food and fuel shortages coupled with political unrest led by liberals led to the February Revolution that, after a "bewildering series of events,” quickly toppled the Tsar. He abdicated in favor of his brother Grand Duke Michael, who then immediately abdicated to "the Provisional Government.”
When the politicians finally sorted things out, 36-year old Alexander Kerensky found himself in charge. He soon faced a new challenge: Because the United States had recently entered the war, Germany wanted to get Russia out of the war to move more troops to the Western front. To do this, the Germans allowed Vladimir Lenin and a handful of aides to travel from neutral Switzerland through Germany and into Russia. Not only did they deliver him to Petrograd, they gave him ample funds to sow chaos once he arrived in April. Lenin was the German choice because he was, in the words of one German diplomat, "much more raving mad” than the rest of Russia’s socialists.
Sow chaos he did. Unlike Kerensky, who wanted to continue to fight, Lenin called for "revolutionary defeatism" – that is, turning Russian military units against the war – in hopes of forging a peace settlement. Over the next six months, Lenin's approach gained adherents and Kerensky's government proved shockingly inept. Eventually, the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd and Moscow and took charge of the government.
But the Communists did not control the country, even after they signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans. By July 1918, "Russia had been reduced to a shadow of its former self." Czechs, Slovaks, Turks, and various groups of Cossacks controlled large parts of the country and a million German troops occupied formerly Russian Poland, the Baltic, White Russia, and Ukraine. And the economy was in a shambles.
But Lenin was lucky. As the German armies collapsed on the Western front, Lenin reestablished the Russian army and, with the leadership of Minister of War Leon Trotsky, began the long and complicated task of expelling foreign armies. After the foreign powers withdrew in late 1920, Lenin moved to subdue his countrymen – mostly peasants – who had not accepted the Bolsheviks. Red Army troops beat and starved the proletariat into submission. Huge challenges remained, including famine and bankruptcy, but the revolutionary changes were in place. Lenin and the Soviets would rule Russia for the next 70 years.
"The Russian Revolution" is a carefully researched, well-written assessment of the complex and confusing events that did so much to shape the last century. McMeekin is a reliable guide to a complex story and the book moves seamlessly and clearly across a vast landscape of people and events.
Several themes dominate the book. First, McMeekin makes clear that there was nothing inevitable about the outcome. Before, during, and after 1917, all parties – the Tsar, Kerensky, and Lenin – made serious mistakes and the outcome could easily have been different.
Second, the indiscriminate and continuous use of terror that we associate with the Soviet Union was on display from the start. Indeed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were so ruthless that even the German army was taken aback.
Finally, McMeekin makes clear that a small number of key figures played central roles and that what these individuals did (or did not do) shaped the outcome. Nicholas II was hapless and hopelessly out of touch. Kerensky was simply overwhelmed. Lenin had both the vision to turn the soldiers against the war and German money to finance the project. But he was remote – and often out of the country during crucial events – and lacked the personal courage of Leon Trotsky.
Historians often debate whether individuals make history or history makes individuals. In the case of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Soviet Union, it's clear that what individuals did, or did not do, at crucial times decisively shaped the outcome.