Analysis: one hundred years after the Russian Revolution

Russian Revolution

2017 will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Analysis from an expert at Universidad de los Andes.

17/11/2017
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From February to October 1917: nine months of revolution

By:
Hugo Fazio Vengoa
Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences

 

2017 will celebrate the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and I must confess that it is not an easy topic to write about. A first difficulty can be found in the symbiotic relationship that exists between the past and the present, which we can visualize in the following hypothetical exercise. If today, we have a day like the one they had half a century ago, in 1967, when the Soviet Union and the socialist camp were forces that had a hand in modeling the world, surely there would be tremendous commemoration. Both the epigones and their detractors would have to refer to it because the revolutionary feat would be part of the immediate present. The historian Eric Hobsbawm says the following in his great history of the last century, “In short, the history of the twentieth century cannot be understood without the Russian Revolution and its direct and indirect repercussions. One of the reasons for its significance is that it saved liberal capitalism and allowed the West to defeat Hitler´s Germany by giving capitalism an incentive to reform itself and to abandon the orthodoxy of the free market [1]”.
 

Another reason is the dominant scenario in the second decade of the twenty-first century. When the Cold War was finally over, when communism as either an expectation or threat belonged, at best, to a nostalgic past, the “value” of the revolutionary event had been degraded and it had lost the virtue of participating in the definition of our contemporaneity. The present is recognized in other origins, several of which date back to the end of the 1960s, and none of them go back to the great event in 1917.
 

A second difficulty derives from this first: if the germinal event in the twentieth century does not determine our present, is it worthwhile asking ourselves which event in 1917 should be commemorated today. In the past century, the answer was more than clear: the greatest event took place in October/November 1917. That event led the Bolsheviks (communists) to power as it was the event that imprinted a stamp on the development of the whole world. However, the revolution in Russia was not the only one in Russia during 1917. There was one equally as important: the February Revolution, which put centuries of imperial domination to an end. This revolution started on 23rd February, the date upon which, in accordance with the Julian Calendar that was used until the end of that year in Russia, the socialists commemorated the international day of women. Using the slogan, “bread, peace, and liberty”, on this day, many female workers took to the streets to protest against the famine and against the reduction in their income. To support them, workers of both sexes from various factories in Petrograd declared themselves to be on strike and joined the demonstration on the capital´s main streets. Several days after, the popular mobilization and radicalization reached such a level that the Tzar had to stand down, ending various centuries of Romanov dynasty rule.

 

While the October revolution led the communists to power, paving the way for seventy years of Soviet rule, the February Revolution put an end to the Tsarist regime, with its repressive organs, its bureaucracy, and State organization of society; it opened channels for the development of a new institutionality and democracy. There are many analysts who consider the February Revolution to be a true revolution, and at the same time reduce the events in October to the level of a simple coup d’état.

Presenting this contrast between February and October is a false problem as, in fact, both revolutions are linked through four large revolutionary movements that lasted from March to October in this critical year. The first was the spontaneous appropriation of the land by the peasants, the purpose of which was to rebuild their ancestral communes, known as obshchinas. This action was fundamentally aimed at undertaking an agrarian revolution: its purpose was to expropriate the properties of big land owners from both church and State in the spirit of egalitarianism. But it did not have major demands in terms of how power was to be organized. The second was an urban revolution, led by workers who were faced with the mass closure of companies by the owners. Their response was to create factory committees, representative bodies that did not question ownership of the companies but did play an important role that consisted in: making sure there was continuous employment, improving the living conditions of its representatives, and continuing with the dismantling of industrial capitalism. Soldiers’ behavior aided the third revolutionary process. They demanded the immediate cessation of hostilities and approval to return to their homes to join those who were triggering the agrarian and/ or industrial revolution. This rebellion was so huge in scale that it is no exaggeration to say that by October practically the whole Russian army had disappeared by removal (thousands of soldiers deserted). Finally, a fourth movement was carried out by the national minorities, who were eager to assert people’s right to self-determination. The national minorities were also a disruptive force that helped to create a favorable environment for the October Revolution by unraveling the remnants of the old Tsarist apparatus.
 

Within this revolutionary context, the Bolsheviks showed a shrewd understanding of the feelings of the masses. They supported their demands and they knew how to position themselves on the crest of the revolutionary wave. As such, the Bolsheviks’ arrival to power in October was not a coup d’état but the culmination of a huge revolutionary tsunami. In this way, both revolutionary events were chained together within a revolutionary climate that loomed for nearly nine months. The complete merging between revolutionary radicalism, which was represented by the Bolsheviks, and revolutionary rebellions was short-lived. Its complex evolution created another history: the Soviet history.  

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, Historia del siglo xx, Barcelona, Crítica, 1995, p. 91.

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