The red dawn: the October Revolution

On the centenary of the October Revolution, which swept Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks to power in Russia, four historians tackle our questions on what was one of the most explosive events of the 20th century

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, depicted in an undated Communist poster. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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The revolutionary unrest that swept Russia in 1917 was the culmination of decades of mass disaffection at the rule of Tsar Nicholas II, the weak leader of an autocratic regime, who treated the poverty of Russia’s people with indifference.

It was in 1905 that this disaffection first manifested itself on a large scale, via a wave of strikes and protests which were brutally suppressed by the tsar’s troops. Nicholas now approved a series of reforms that were too feeble to satisfy many people’s thirst for change.

In February 1917, with Russian troops suffering terribly in the First World War, revolution erupted again. As protestors teemed onto the streets, Nicholas II felt compelled to abdicate, and was replaced by a Provisional Government.

The new administration was undermined by its refusal to withdraw Russia from the war. Just eight months later, it was swept from power by the Bolsheviks, a faction of revolutionary socialists led by Vladimir Lenin, in the so-called October Revolution.

By 1922, after a bloody civil war, Lenin was the leader of a huge new polity, the Soviet Union. From its decisive contribution to the Second World War (during Josef Stalin’s brutal period of rule) to the stand-off with the west in the Cold War, the USSR would have a massive impact on world affairs until its implosion in 1991.

The panel

Orlando Figes is the author of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (Bodley Head), which was republished in a centenary edition earlier this year

Catherine Merridale is a writer and historian specialising in Russia and the Soviet Union. Her most recent book is Lenin on the Train (Allen Lane, 2016)

Steve Smith is professor of history at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 (OUP, 2017)

Sheila Fitzpatrickis a professor of history at the University of Sydney. Her books include The Russian Revolution, a new edition of which is being published by OUP

To what extent was the first Russian revolution of 1917 brought about by the personal shortcomings of Nicholas II?

Orlando Figes: If any individual can be made responsible for the collapse of the monarchy in February 1917, it is Nicholas.

He was not up to the job of ruling Russia – and he knew it. He might have made a good constitutional king in a place like England but the Tsar of All the Russias was not a task for a person of his limited intellect, nervous temperament and lack of political imagination. He did not know how to make the tsarist system fit for the challenges of the modern world.

His ideology prevented him from compromising with the democratic forces of society: even in the 1905 revolution, when he made belated political concessions to save his throne, he would not concede to the demands for a constitution. Reactionary forces in the court, the landed gentry and the church blocked the reformist programme of his best prime ministers, Sergei Witte and Petr Stolypin. He lacked the will to rid the court of the mystic Grigori Rasputin, whose alleged influence and treasonable behaviour in the war proved very damaging to the monarchy once rumours of these spread. Above all, it was Nicholas who took Russia into the First World War, which made a revolution very likely, if not unavoidable, particularly after his decision to take over personal command of the armed forces in 1915.

Catherine Merridale: The origins of the revolution lay well before the time of Nicholas II. The pressure for political and social reform had been building since the early 19th century. But a more enlightened and agile leader might have guided Russia more safely into the 20th century. Nicholas II was unusually stubborn, ignoring advice and deluding himself about his people’s love and sacred duty to their tsar. His behaviour in the final hours of his reign was decisive. At every stage – until he had no option but to abdicate – he avoided facing facts, responding to legitimate popular anger with clumsy panic.

Why did the Provisional Government that succeeded the tsarist regime fail so utterly to keep hold of power?

Steve Smith: The Provisional Government, comprising members of the parliamentary opposition from privileged backgrounds, threw their support behind the February Revolution in the belief that this alone could guarantee victory in the First World War. From the first, their power was constrained by the fact that workers and soldiers looked to the Petrograd Soviet [one of a network of workers’ councils dotted across Russia] as the real authority, as representing the interests of the people.

The new government instituted civil and political rights (women got the vote), but it baulked at carrying out social and economic reform, especially in a time of war. Its failure to tackle the land question and its inability to get to grips with an imploding economy were doubtless factors that undermined its authority, but the crucial cause of its failure was its determination to continue a futile war.

Sheila Fitzpatrick: It’s never a good move to call yourselves ‘Provisional’ if you want to stay around. From abroad, the Provisional Government looked as if it ‘had power’, but on the ground this was never really true, as it was the Petrograd Soviet that had authority with workers and soldiers. The Provisional Government’s commitment to keeping Russia in the war was a major liability at home.

Considering its relatively small size,what was it that enabled the Bolshevik Party to seize control in 1917?

CM: The Bolsheviks’ political programme was clear and radical. Though few understood the finer details of it, everyone knew that this was the party that talked the toughest line. Lenin’s consistent opposition to the war brought him new followers from the summer of 1917, and by autumn his party’s call to transfer power to the soviets was hugely popular. Lenin’s ideological arguments made the seizure of power appear legitimate in his followers’ own eyes; the Bolsheviks believed they had a duty to take action where other socialist groups remained hesitant.

SS: In spring 1917, the Petrograd Soviet was dominated by moderate socialists – the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries – who, unlike the Provisional Government, recognised the devastating effects that the war was having on ordinary people. They were committed to seeking a democratic peace rather than to continuing the war, but they made the fateful decision to join a coalition government that proceeded to launch a full-scale military offensive in June.

It was at this point, as mass sentiment radicalised, that the Bolsheviks picked up popular support. By denouncing the war as an imperialist war, by condemning the Provisional Government as one of ‘capitalists and landlords’, by calling for power to pass to the soviets, they gave political direction to the anger of workers, soldiers and, less decisively, of peasants.

Revolutionaries armed with rifles, Russian Revolution, October 1917. Artist: Anon
Revolutionaries armed with rifles, Russian Revolution, October 1917. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

How important was Lenin to theBolsheviks’ ability to seize and maintain their grip on power?

OF: Absolutely vital. No Lenin, no October. It was Lenin’s intervention on the night of 24 October – when he came out of hiding and made his way incognito to the Bolshevik HQ at the Smolny Institute in Petrograd – that tipped the balance of the revolutionary forces in the capital from one of defence to offence. Even Trotsky was arguing for defence on the evening of the 24th.

But Lenin wanted power seized before the Second Soviet Congress convened the next day – when Soviet power was proclaimed by a unanimous vote of all the delegates. By seizing power first, Lenin provoked the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik leaders into walking out of the congress, leaving the Bolsheviks in command of the Soviet executive.

Lenin’s coup was as much against the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks as it was against the Provisional Government. He did not want to share power with the other socialists. He ruled through Sovnarkom (the Bolshevik-dominated government of commissars) rather than the Soviet. He established the Cheka (the political police) and arrested rival socialists. When the Bolsheviks did not win the November elections to the Constituent Assembly, he closed down the parliament.

SF: Lenin was crucial. He was the one pushing the intransigent position; without him, there would have been no October. Then, from October on, he was the one who turned out to have a real interest in setting up a government and making it work. This aspect of Lenin is generally not given sufficient emphasis.

How far was the Bolshevik regime truly Marxist or communist?

SF: The Mensheviks – the Bolsheviks’ Marxist competitors – made much of deviations from Marxist orthodoxy in Bolshevik practice, notably in ‘prematurely’ seizing power and in their concept of the party as vanguard, but that seems to me to be dogmatic hair-splitting. The Bolshevik leaders had truly internalised Marx’s emphasis on class war, as well as his understanding of historical progression (socialism to replace capitalism through proletarian revolution). They (and I mean Stalin as well as Lenin) thought like Marxists on the key importance of the economic base and the means of production.

SS: This is a question whose answer depends entirely on how you define ‘communist’. In the course of the civil war, the Bolsheviks came to believe that the implosion of the capitalist economy, combined with the destruction of the wealthy and privileged classes, were proof that they were creating communism (even though they dubbed this ‘war communism’). Whether Marx and Engels would have recognised this highly centralised system of state control as ‘communist’, coming as it did out of the utter devastation of war, is moot.

Crucial to Marx’s conception of socialist revolution was that it should be the ‘self-emancipation’ of the working class. Russia in 1917 had witnessed spectacular levels of working-class militancy and organisation, but little of this survived once the Bolsheviks were engaged in a life-and-death struggle to maintain their regime. The one-party, authoritarian regime they created allowed them to win the civil war (and probably saved Russia from utter disintegration) but it was far from what the founders of Marxism had supposed communism would look like.

CM: The Bolsheviks were Marxists to the extent that Lenin believed in a forthcoming world proletarian revolution. He never expected Russia to be isolated after 1917, nor did he foresee that his government would preside indefinitely over a land of peasants.

Many German Marxists criticised him from the first, expressing particular reservations about his so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but it was only later, when Stalin began to emphasise the idea of socialism in one country, that the final link to classic Marxism was broken.

Was the October Revolution always likely to result in a totalitarian regime?

CM: It could as easily have resulted in chaos. The Russian empire was in deepest crisis by 1917 and the odds were high that it would break up (as did the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires). A civil war was unavoidable. It was never likely that the outcome would be a liberal, consensual democracy.

SF: I don’t believe in inevitability in history: there is always a range of possible outcomes. As for ‘totalitarian’, the Soviet regime may have aspired to ‘totalitarian’ control over its population, but never achieved anything like it, so I don’t find the term very useful. If the question is whether the revolution was likely to produce multiple episodes of state violence over an extended period, I’d say that was always possible or perhaps even probable.

When revolutionaries take power, they don’t know how to govern, and indeed it is very difficult to govern in circumstances of upheaval. You issue instructions and nobody obeys them, so then you start shooting people, and it becomes a habit – that is, force becomes the default position.

OF: It depends what you understand by a ‘totalitarian regime’. Certainly, the October coup was bound to lead to rule by terror, civil war and dictatorship, as the Bolshevik leaders Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev themselves argued immediately after October. But if, by ‘totalitarian’, you mean the Stalinist regime – the total crushing of all free spaces in society and individual life – that was surely not the only possible result of the Bolshevik dictatorship. There were economic and cultural freedoms in the 1920s that might have made for a more pluralist society, if they had been allowed to develop.

Were the excesses of Stalinism an aberration or a natural continuation of the revolution?

OF: That’s an old exam question. They were surely both. The rule by terror, the command system and violence of the state, the constant hunt for ‘enemies of the people’, the stirring up of mass hatreds – these were all a part of the revolution from the start. By that, I mean from February, not just October, though the Bolsheviks, for sure, intensified these violent impulses and gave them form. But the ‘excesses’ of Stalin’s rule – particularly the forcible collectivisation begun in 1929 – went beyond what Lenin would have supported. Lenin’s view of collectivisation was that it had to be voluntary and supported by the state through fiscal measures, co-operatives, agronomic aid, etc. Stalin’s policies were coercive, murderous, creating famine and driving millions of peasants into the Gulag.

CM: All revolutions end up devouring their citizens. Most are born in times of profound crisis. In the absence of deep-rooted sources of legitimacy, many rely on promises about the good times that are soon to come. When the promised utopia fails to appear, beleaguered politicians rely on claims that there is treachery afoot, quite often in the form of wrong ideas or covert opposition inside the leadership itself.

Lenin’s regime was as eager to get rid of real and supposed enemies as Stalin’s, but there were crucial differences. The slaughter under Stalin was on a much greater scale, the crisis that gave rise to it was at least partially imaginary, and Stalin himself took a personal interest in the killing.

Was the October Revolution the most important event of the 20th century?

SS: In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, this claim seems more debatable, although it is still entirely defensible. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm argued: “Very few people would deny that an epoch in world history ended with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union.”

The contrarian in me wants to counter this, since it’s a somewhat Eurocentric view. I would at least suggest that the record of the Chinese communists in promoting their country to the rank of a leading economic and political world power was more impressive than that of the regime on which it broadly modelled itself. And as the 21st century advances, I would wager that the Chinese revolution will come to seem the great revolution of the 20th century, deeper in its mobilisation of society, more ambitious in its projects, more far-reaching in its achievements, and probably more enduring than its Soviet counterpart. Certainly, more people lived – and still do today – under communist states in east Asia than ever did in postwar Europe.

SF: Eric Hobsbawm (in his book Age of Extremes) thought so, and I suppose most people up to the end of the 1980s would have agreed. Now, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the revolution seems to have lost status, meaning that, currently, scholars and commentators are less inclined to rate its importance highly. But perspectives on importance of events change over time, and this one may change again.

OF: I think so, yes. It inspired regimes that ruled one-third of the world’s population within a generation of October 1917. It led to the rise of fascism, Nazism, as counter-revolutions against it, leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. It was the cause of the Cold War. More people died as a result of the ‘excesses’ of communist regimes than from all the other tragedies of the 20th century together.

SS: In bringing about what he called the ‘Great Break’, Stalin believed he was advancing the cause of socialism and, horrendous though that was in all kinds of ways, it did mark a new phase of revolution.

It also seeded revolutions outside the Soviet Union – notably in China and Vietnam. However, by the late 1930s the October Revolution was running out of steam. And despite the staggering contribution made by the Soviet Union to the defeat of Nazism, the regime by the late 1930s had stabilised into a new socioeconomic order capped by a repressive state.

OF: My own view, which I argued in my book Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991, is that we cannot really date the ending of the revolution until the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. Some historians would end it in 1921 (with the Bolshevik victory in the civil war), or 1924 (with the death of Lenin), or 1928 (with Stalin’s rise to power), or 1941 (the Nazi invasion of the USSR). But none of these dates saw the end of the revolutionary impulses or world ambitions of the Soviet regime.

The Soviet take-over of eastern Europe after 1945 was rooted in those revolutionary tendencies. Gorbachev was radical with his perestroika because he was a Leninist, a revolutionary.

How should we view the revolution now on its centenary?

CM: It is too soon to say how we should view the revolution now. Its consequences in Russia itself have yet to be faced honestly, through wide public debate. Here in Britain, we tend to see it as a great romance, a story about Reds and Whites, Romanovs and commissars. But real lives were swept along on tides that no one could control, often with heartbreaking results, while precious years were lost on promises that even peacetime governments could never keep.

There were few real winners in the longer term. The deeper questions that the revolution raised – how to make life better, how to share national wealth, how to find a just alternative to capitalism – remain to be answered. All we know is that the Soviet path was a dead end.

SS: No one looking at the Russian Revolution today is likely to overlook the negative legacy of the October Revolution, but I would argue that it’s hard for us to appreciate that the revolution also had some positive legacies – though these are aspects of the October Revolution that the Bolsheviks would have considered secondary to their aim of overthrowing capitalism. I have in mind the legal, economic and social measures taken to emancipate women; the commitment to anti-racism and to nation-building among the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union; to anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism; and a commitment to improve the socioeconomic and educational level of ordinary people through a form of welfare state.

All these things were deeply compromised but never repudiated by Stalinism. And these initiatives and commitments stand up well against the record of western powers of the time and, in many respects, foreshadow developments that did not come about in the west until the 1960s. England and Wales still do not have ‘no fault’ divorce [which requires evidence of wrongdoing from neither party].

SF: We can view it how we like, but what I find interesting is how the Russians under Putin’s post-Soviet regime view it – they are apparently so conflicted on what they think of it that they decided to avoid all public celebration of the event and not even issue guidelines on its interpretation. Putin likes Stalin because he was a nation-builder, victor in the Second World War, leader of a postwar superpower, etc. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into approval of Lenin, who, despite nation-building aspects, was also a nation-destroyer, not to mention an internationalist (as all the Bolsheviks were, until it became clear that there wasn’t going to be an international revolution and Russia would have to go it alone). For Putin the Russian nationalist, that isn’t an attractive package. But he hasn’t so far removed Lenin from the Mausoleum, though that has been suggested.

OF: We, or the Russians? We should view it as a warning – we live in revolutionary times: ‘fake news’, mistrust of authorities, anger, hatred, fear of foreigners and ‘enemies’ are all fuelling populist politics and demagoguery. These are all the currencies of the revolutionary politics of 1917.

As for the Russians, I don’t think there will be much state attention to the centenary. It is not a past the Putin regime can use. It is too divisive. Too subversive. Revolution is the last thing Putin wants Russians to think about. But in time the Russians will need to come to terms with the revolution’s violent legacies – if they want to overcome them and their own acceptance of dictatorship.

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Interviews by Rob Attar