The red line in Russia’s history

Tony Barber finds a more textured picture of the revolutionary period in the new crop of history books

The Russian Revolution: A New History Sean McMeekin, Profile Books, £25

The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution Robert Service, Macmillan, £25

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 SA Smith, Oxford University Press, £25

Like 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, 1917 is a year remembered as one of the great fault lines in modern history. The United States entered the First World War in April, a step that paved the way to US leadership of the western world in the second half of the 20th century. In Russia, the Tsarist regime collapsed in March and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in November, building a totalitarian communist system that at its peak ruled over one-third of the human race.

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the demise of Soviet communism in 1991, permitting scholars to place Russia’s fateful 20th-century experiences in a broader perspective. As Stephen Smith writes in Russia in Revolution: ‘Looked at from the vantage point of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it may seem as though the Russian Revolution barely made a dent on Russia’s political culture.’

However, knowledge of the extraordinarily violent upheavals that Russian society underwent in the revolutionary and communist periods surely contributes to a deeper understanding of today’s Russia and to more informed judgments of its leaders’ behaviour. ‘If we are to understand the combination of anxiety and ambition that motivates much Russian foreign policy, we need to know its history,’ Smith observes. Each of the three books under review paints a more textured picture of late Tsarist Russia, the turmoil of 1917, the Civil War and early Bolshevik rule than used to be the case in western accounts of Russian and Soviet history. This reflects the access that historians gained after 1991 to a wealth of primary source material, across Russia’s far-flung regions as well as in Moscow and St Petersburg, which was previously sealed in communist archives.

Under Putin such access is again becoming difficult in places. But it remains possible to unearth valuable material from western collections, as Robert Service demonstrates in The Last of the Tsars, by digging into the extensive Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University.

The latest, more rounded accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution also reflect a shift from traditional Cold War-influenced interpretations. As Sean McMeekin contends in The Russian Revolution, scholars are free now to ‘treat the revolution more dispassionately, as a concrete historical event – controversial and significant in its lasting impact on world politics, but also worth understanding on its own terms, unmediated by our current prejudices’.

In the century since 1917, non-Marxist historians have written about the Revolution as though the main question that requires an answer is why it gave birth to a secretive, monolithic one-party state, prone to political repression at most times and, under Josef Stalin, to outright terror. It is a question central to any verdict on the utopian Soviet experiment. During the Cold War, however, when the Soviet Union was the West’s adversary and standard-bearer of an ideology that confidently predicted the inevitable disappearance of ‘bourgeois’ capitalism, this approach had three consequences.

First, historians laid stress on the pre-Revolutionary conspiratorial activities and excruciatingly obscure ideological disputes of Lenin and his comrades in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, founded in 1898. Second, many portrayed the Bolshevik takeover, known as the October Revolution under the Julian calendar that Russia used until 1918, as an illegitimate coup that manipulated the unsophisticated Russian masses and cut short a promising democratic experiment begun after the Tsar’s abdication. Third, historians of the post-Revolutionary years paid more attention to Kremlin power struggles and to Stalin’s reorganization of the Bolshevik party’s apparatus than to broader Russian social, economic and religious trends.

Neither McMeekin nor Smith devotes much space to these three themes. Their books are good examples of how general histories of the Revolution have adjusted their focus since 1991. Each is a fluent, absorbing narrative, spanning roughly three decades and woven together with shrewd analysis that is open to dispute on only a couple of points.

Each asks if Russia before the outbreak of European war in 1914 was on the road to peaceful liberal change, or whether political and social tensions were making revolution likely. This debate has some bearing on today’s Russia, for if non-violent reform was a realistic prospect, then there might have been no Bolshevik takeover, no Stalinism, none of the trauma involved in dismantling communism and hence no Putin.

McMeekin quotes Pyotr Stolypin, Nicholas II’s prime minister, as saying in 1909: ‘Give the state 20 years of peace, and you will not recognize present-day Russia.’ Stolypin blended land reform and state capitalist enterprise with ruthless political and legal repression in a formula that reminds one of post-Mao China. Peasant unrest subsided after the uprisings of 1905-06, and by 1914 the revolutionary left and nationalist anti-Semitic right were less threatening.

Yet a terrorist assassinated Stolypin in 1911. Thereafter the impetus for reform stalled, not least because of the tsar himself. In a sketch of Nicholas’s character, Service writes: ‘He lived and breathed complacent extreme conservatism.’

The Tsar’s dedication to autocracy reduced the possibility that Russia might develop the full range of liberal political institutions and culture needed to accommodate the demands of peasants, industrial workers and the intelligentsia.

Still, the autocracy was in working order in 1914. It collapsed under the unbearable strain which the war placed on Russia’s society and economy.

McMeekin constructs a quirky argument to the effect that one neglected cause of the February Revolution was a turn in the weather. With the sun shining in Petrograd after two months of bitter cold, people felt warm enough to spend hours outdoors and demonstrate against the government, he suggests. However, in The February Revolution: Petrograd 1917 (1981), the most detailed English-language study of these events, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa documents the simmering unrest in the capital’s factories and shows that rampant inflation and disruption of grain supplies were angering the population weeks before the weather changed.

McMeekin is on stronger ground when he describes how the Tsar’s authority was undermined not only by popular discontent but by anti-German hysteria, spy mania and intrigues on the part of slippery politicians such as Alexander Guchkov, Pavel Milyukov and Mikhail Rodzyanko.

Some Petrograd-based foreign diplomats and journalists felt as early as December that a revolutionary atmosphere was building up, but not a certain political exile in Zurich. Out of touch with the mood at home and sounding a little despondent, Lenin famously said: ‘We old-timers may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution.’

The Tsar’s fall and the establishment of a shaky liberal-socialist Provisional Government, its control over events weakened by the more radical Petrograd Soviet, galvanized Lenin into action. The government in Berlin, bent on crippling Russia’s war effort, let him travel through Germany to Petrograd, where he arrived in April and set up agitation and propaganda operations aimed at radicalizing factory workers and spreading ‘trench Bolshevism’ in frontline Russian military units.

At this point Smith makes his book’s most astonishing claim. ‘Despite the volley of accusations made at the time and since, there is no evidence that the Bolsheviks were in the pay of the Germans,’ he writes. But the point is that the Soviet government is thought to have destroyed a great deal of the evidence. As McMeekin shows, enough survives in the Communist Party’s archives to blow Smith’s assertion apart.

McMeekin describes how Yevgeniya Sumenson, a Bolshevik agent, ran an import business in Petrograd that served as a cover for German money transfers wired to her account from Danish and Swedish banks. Together with laundered profits from Sumenson’s business, the Germans funded Lenin’s party to the tune of 50 million gold marks, or more than $1 billion in present-day terms, McMeekin says. Lenin was so flush with funds that he splashed out on expensive printing equipment and moved into the Kshesinskaya Mansion, a grand Petrograd residence once home to a ballerina who was Nicholas II’s mistress.

Despite differing on the German role in Lenin’s career, McMeekin and Smith – like most historians today – agree the essential precondition for the Bolshevik takeover was the Provisional Government’s decision to keep Russia in the war. Coupled with the erratic leadership of Alexander Kerensky, the government’s chief minister, this decision pushed up support for the Bolsheviks, whose slogan of ‘peace, bread and land’ caught the public mood.

Strictly speaking, the Cold War verdict that the Bolsheviks seized power by means of a coup is accurate. However,

McMeekin’s conclusion summarizes modern historical thinking: ‘The Bolsheviks did not even have to push, but simply to walk in … The ease with which the government was toppled in Petrograd masked a more dramatic upheaval underway across the empire. Kerensky had few defenders for very good reason: the country he presumed to rule over as minister-president was falling apart at the seams.’

Smith devotes only one of his book’s seven chapters to the 1917 revolutions. He is more interested in how the Bolsheviks strengthened their grip on power in conditions of civil war, foreign intervention, state-directed terror, famine, disease and almost unimaginable social dislocation. In this he succeeds admirably, using material found since 1991 to illustrate Lenin’s unfaltering commitment to terror. ‘Until we use terror against speculators – shooting them on the spot – nothing will happen,’ Lenin warned in January 1918. This prompted Isaac Steinberg, his Justice Minister, to ask why then his job should exist.

Smith shows that conditions under War Communism – the ruthless methods Lenin deployed to win the Civil War – were even more brutal than once thought. Peasants murdered thousands of Bolshevik food requisitioners. Starvation and drought in the Volga-Urals region were so extreme that there were cases of mothers tying their children to separate corners of their huts to stop them eating each other. However, Smith skates lightly over Lenin’s responsibility for the murders in July 1918 of Nicholas II and his family. ‘Some historians believe that a secret order to this effect came from Lenin and Yakov Sverdlov [head of the Soviet state] … but it has never been found,’ he says.

As Service shows in his meticulous reconstruction of the events around the murders, there can be little doubt about where the responsibility lies. The anti-Bolshevik Czechoslovak Legion’s advance on Yekaterinburg, the Urals city where the royal family was under guard, sealed Nicholas’s fate. With Soviet power in this area under threat of extinction, regional Bolshevik leaders resolved to kill the Tsar.

What Service emphasizes, and Smith omits to mention, is that the regional leaders telegrammed Grigory Zinoviev, a senior Bolshevik in Petrograd, to seek approval. Zinoviev forwarded the telegram to Lenin and Sverdlov in Moscow, adding that it appeared ‘the trial’ – a code word for execution – ‘cannot because of military circumstances be delayed’. The Moscow leadership replied by telegram to Yekaterinburg. No trace of this message has ever come to light, most probably because Lenin wanted to conceal his involvement.

Nicholas’s reputation in Russia has risen since 1991. Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, labelled the decades after the Tsar’s death ‘a totalitarian nightmare’, allowing the Romanov dynasty to appear in a brighter light. Service states firmly: ‘The widespread image of him as a blameless monarch is unconvincing. In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.’

Russia was to an extent undergoing modernization under the last Tsar. This process set in motion the forces that undermined domestic order, and the war finished off the regime. None of this excuses the Bolsheviks’ lawless, murderous rule. As Smith says, ‘at each turning point the Bolsheviks made choices … We have to recognize that alternative courses of action might have been taken. In this respect, ideology mattered crucially, setting the framework within which choices were made.’ Or, as McMeekin writes: ‘If the last hundred years teaches us anything, it is that we should stiffen our defences and resist armed prophets promising social perfection.’