What were the necessary preconditions for the Russian Revolution? This essay seeks to answer this question by considering theories formulated by historians covering three distinct viewpoints, specifically the liberal, soviet and revisionist viewpoints. This means that the analyses of Leon Trotsky, Orlando Figes and Sheila Fitzpatrick are examined.
The Russian Revolution actually refers to two different revolutions in 1917, which resulted in the dismantling of the Tsarist autocracy. The first revolution concluded when Emperor Nicholas II abdicated in February (the Julian calendar was in use at the time, corresponding to March in the Gregorian calendar) and a provisional government was installed in place of the previous regime; in reality, however, the provisional government shared power with a nationwide network of workers’ councils known as ‘soviets’ in what became known as the period of ‘dual power’. The second, or Bolshevik Revolution, occurred during October of that same year, overthrowing the provisional government and sparking a civil war which eventually led to the foundation of the Soviet Union (Trotsky, 2008; Figes, 1996; Fitzpatrick, 2005). There are several different views on the causes of the Revolution, most notably the soviet, the liberal and the revisionist, corresponding respectively to the three authors cited above.
Trotsky was a well-known representative of Soviet Russia so pointing to some of his connections with the Soviet regime will illustrate his ideological perspective. During the 1917 October Revolution, Trotsky actively engaged in passing political power to the Soviets. He was one of the seven members of the Politburo, established in 1917 to manage the Bolshevik Revolution. Alongside him stood renowned Bolsheviks like Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Sokolnikov and Bubnov (Volkogonov, 1994). He was the founder and leader of the Red Army and played a major role in the Bolshevik victory in the civil war. Clearly, his representation of the Russian Revolution was highly influenced by his political involvement in the event. While Trotsky’s perspective does not provide an objective interpretation or explanation, it offers an inside view of the revolution as seen through the eyes of one of its most prominent actors. He offers a moral and ideological justification of the actions consciously conducted by revolutionary leaders, as well as a contemporary source illustrating their perceptions of the historical context (and forces) operating at the time.
Secondly, the conservative perspective of Orlando Figes in relation to the revolution is examined, explained and critically analysed. Figes (1996) offers a generally negative assessment of Lenin, an opinion which scholars suggest is rooted in his largely conservative viewpoint (Haynes and Wolfreys, 2007). Finally, the Russian Revolution is also reviewed through the eyes of Sheila Fitzpatrick (2005) who, unlike Figes and Trotsky, is less concerned with discussions over class and more focused on the individual, the social aspect of the revolution and its causes. This being so, she provides the revisionist perspective in this essay. Her view is largely focused on considering the revolutionaries’ own understanding (or lack thereof) of themselves and how this contributed to the revolution.
Soviet – Leon Trotsky (2008)
Trotsky’s presentation of the Russian Revolution starts by setting the scene of the Bolsheviks’ victory. During January and February of 1917, the Romanov monarchy was still in power in Russia; eight months later the Bolsheviks had taken over, despite having been relatively unimportant up to then. Moreover, the Bolshevik leaders were still under indictment for treason when they took over, making this one of the most dramatic changes in leadership over a huge population (150 million people) in history (Trotsky, 2008:4).
Regarding the origins of the revolution, Trotsky (2008) states that these can be found in the rapid, sweeping and intense psychological shifts undergone by the social classes formed before the revolution (Trotsky, 2008:5). His view can be read as being similar to that of Figes (1996) who also considered that the roots of the Russian Revolution are not found merely in the specific 1917 events, but in Russia’s long established social and political profile. Background oppositional criticism is present at all times within societies, Trotsky argues, but only exceptional conditions independent of the participants are able to transform this underlying opposition into insurrection. Revolutions are not the result of a pre-organised plan, but the consequence of an unbearable state of being. Trotsky admits that revolutionary leaders can emerge from insurgent movements and that they can act according to an organised agenda. However, he argues that their success or failure is just as unpredictable as the emergence of the revolution itself. This is because such plans need to resist “the test of events, and the approval of the masses” (Trotsky, 2008:7). Although revolutionary leaders are described as bearing little strength, they are also described as necessary forces. They are, in Trotsky’s view, the people who need to understand the needs of the masses and to orient them towards meeting those needs. Lacking an organised leadership, the momentum and will of the masses would dissipate all too easily, “like steam not enclosed in a piston-box” (Trotsky, 2008:8). This assessment can be read as a justification of Trotsky’s own role as a leader in the Russian Revolution. However, he argues that if a leader is able to become aware of the forces moving the masses towards revolution while it is happening, then a historian trying to recognise the mechanism after the event was completed should have the same insight.
Like Figes (as seen below), Trotsky suggests that the causes of the Russian revolution are to be found by analysing the country’s peculiarities: its characteristics that set it apart from others. The greatest surprise, Trotsky feels, lies in how a backward country was the first to produce a proletarian leadership (2008:8). Therefore, as Figes (1996) would agree, considering the country’s historical, political and cultural profile can help explain this particular moment in its history.
According to Trotsky (2008), Russia is best characterised by its backwardness, slow development, primitive social forms and modest culture. The country’s backwardness determined what Trotsky (2008) defines as “combined development”, a characteristic specific to countries which, unable to keep up with international modernisation norms, adopt some of modern developments without going through all the prior stages of evolving them.
Trotsky also refers to the 1905 revolution as an important “condition” of the 1917 revolution. He argues that in between the two events, a backward Russia was forced to evolve according to the principles of combined development. Therefore, the period between the two revolutions promoted a more acute conflict between Tsarism and the demands of historic and economic development, an economically stronger bourgeoisie which relied on foreign capital and assumed a more sceptical position towards authority than prior to 1905 and a democratic intelligentsia with a lack of social support and which was highly dependent on the bourgeoisie. “In these circumstances only the youthful proletariat could give the peasantry a programme, a banner and leadership,” Trotsky (2008) states.
Overall, Trotsky makes a strong argument that the active role of the revolutionary leaders was critical (even if this time they are referred to as a class) and that it was the specific profile of the country that allowed, through combined development, the soviets to rise. The massive responsibility thrust onto the proletariat led to a sudden need to set up a revolutionary organisation capable of quickly coordinating popular groups and movements and preparing them for worker-led revolution. It is for this reason that the soviets of 1905 grew so quickly and greatly in power in 1917. It is a valuable analysis as it offers an insight into the moral and ideological justifications invoked by those engaged in the event, not only as active participants, but also eventually as proactive leaders. “The soviets…are not a mere child of the historical backwardness of Russia, but a product of her combined development” Trotsky says (1996). Obviously, Trotsky’s narrative has a particular bias and is no more a complete analysis of the Revolution and its causes than any other account, despite its first-hand insights. Figes and Fitzpatrick, as seen below, offer contrasting views.
Liberal – Orlando Figes (1996)
“It was their tragedy that just as Russia was entering the twentieth century they were trying to return it to the seventeenth.”
Orlando Figes (1996:11) described the Russian Revolution as being “at least in terms of its effects, one of the biggest events in the history of the world.” This historical moment managed to abruptly reshape much of the world. In one generation, a new ideology was imposed, bringing approximately 30% of humanity under Soviet power. In Figes’s view the Russian Revolution is an event that covers more than three decades. He identifies its roots in the 1890s and establishes its final stage as the year 1924, the year of Lenin’s death. The historian is aware that his stance is different from that of other scholars in the field as he ascribes a larger than accustomed time period to the revolution. However, he explains that the first collision with the tsarist autocracy took place in 1891. That conflict was sparked by the 1891 famine. In 1924 the revolution was completed, as at this point all institutions associated with the Stalinist regime were well established. Figes assumes an extended perspective on the Revolution; he believes that focusing solely on the events that occurred in 1917 narrows understanding of the contributing factors of the revolution’s realisation as well as that of the associated consequences.
Figes disagrees with the view that the Revolution could have resulted only in the Bolshevik dictatorship. He argues that a limited perspective on the events determines such a view, one focused solely on the year 1917. Figes argues that analysing events prior to 1917, along with those which flowed from 1917, can reveal crucial reasons why the direction could have changed and led to a more democratic outcome. Contributing factors in the revolution were the fact that the Tsar’s despotism was not counterbalanced by state-based forces/institutions, the Russian village’s inherent backwardness and violence, the need to acquire better living conditions determined the transfer of peasants from the country to the industrial cities and, finally, the “strange fanaticism of the Russian intelligentsia” (Figes, 1996: 12).
By considering the event from a larger socio-historical perspective, Figes’s writings allow common people to be seen as relevant actors in the Revolution. Where “common people” means the peasantry, the working class, the soldiers and the national minorities, these groups should not be labelled as “victims” of the Revolution, but as important forces contributing to its realisation. Figes utterly rejects the view that they were passive victims of the Bolsheviks’ malicious acts (Figes, 1996: 12). Research documenting Russian social life at the turn of the 20th century provides a more complete and different understanding of the connections existing between the party and the common people. Therefore, contrary to the view that the people were manipulated by the Bolshevik leaders up to the point when they discovered themselves crushed under an undesired revolution, the existing documents (monographs retrieved from Russian archives) suggest that the revolution was in fact alimented from multiple kernels and evolved as a consequence of local passions and interests. Consequently, the common people should not be perceived as victims of an exterior force which imposed its strength upon them, but as victims of their own actions whose consequences were difficult to estimate (Figes, 1996).
To provide a convincing introduction to the underlying causes of the Revolution, Figes (1996) describes the opulence that characterised the celebration of its tercentenary by the Romanov dynasty. The organisation of the event reveals strategic political intentions; the opulence went beyond the bounds of mere propaganda, as the homage took on a ritualistic cant and glorified the dynasty and its history in such a way as to instil awe and garner favour for autocracy as the ruling model. The monarchy also sought to paint the past in different shades, to turn the monarchy into a mythical element of the state, so as to push back democracy through the seemingly divine right to rule of the “Popular Tsar”. The Romanovs were essentially trying to escape into the past (Figes, 1996: 28).
The celebrations were marked by leitmotivs recalling the three principles of Muscovite Tsardom, thus emphasising the Romanovs’ desire to reinforce them . The aim was to restate their legitimacy and reinforce the power of the monarchy. The three principles are relevant as they reveal the type of relationship the Tsar aimed to maintain with the Russian people; the principle of patrimonialism, according to which Russia was literally the property of the Tsar, the principle of personal rule, according to which the Tsar’s decisions and actions could not be confined by any rules or laws as he was the representative of God on Earth and his opinions were incontestable and the principle of the mystical merger of the Tsar with the Orthodox people, according to which the latter had to obey him unconditionally (Figes, 1996).
In adopting this perspective regarding the Tsar’s power and his connection to the people, the rulers were bound to perceive any emergence of modernity, particularly the new urban social classes and the constitutional ideologies originating in the Western world (Figes, 1996: 28), as a threat to their established authority. However, the other powers in the country did not share the Tsar’s perspective. Both the ministries of the government and the Duma argued that the context had significantly changed since the Romanov dynasty had begun its rule. Moreover, the attempt to reinforce the historical legitimacy of the dynasty along with its archaic configuration of authority was a futile exercise which only made the Romanovs more oblivious to the people’s real attitude towards the Tsar and the imperial family. The rituals and customs of the jubilee had been meant to paint the dynasty as powerful and enduring, but they failed to convince anyone outside the court. Their own propaganda misled the Romanovs to the point where Nicholas was certain the people loved him after his tour of the provinces, despite much evidence to the contrary (Figes, 1996:33).
The celebrations took place against a background of significant social and political crisis. The Russian people were confronted with growing violence, suffering and repression. These circumstances led to their critical attitude towards the Tsar and his regime. Following the 1905 Revolution, the peasants’ problems were far from being solved, and their dissatisfaction was further increased by the attitude of the landed gentry. Following the revolution, the latter became even less willing to provide land for the peasants who had attacked their properties. Additionally, the people and many in the nobility were dissatisfied regarding the monarchy’s association with Rasputin; this further reduced their trust and loyalty. In addition, the Tsar’s traditional allies -the civil service, the church and the army – were becoming increasingly more alienated and less reliable as a source of support as a consequence of the Tsar’s resistance to reform.. Figes (1996:34) argues that outside the court it was dreaded but widely accepted that a catastrophic crisis was looming over the nation, even as the Romanov ruling family were basking in their false belief that their rule would persist for at least three more centuries.
The Romanov’s lack of awareness of the fragility of their rule was, according to Figes (1996) one of the main causes of the dynasty’s collapse. The historians who state that the revolution was started by the labour movements are, according to him, wrong, as are those who find its roots in the nationalist movements. These movements were a consequence of the failures at the top, rather than the root cause of change. Figes is more convinced by the influence of the peasants’ riots as these occurred in a largely rural society, but he argues that while agrarian unrest was noteworthy, it would not of itself drive a revolution. The old regime’s social system, however, was weakened and cracked by the increasing severity of the peasant problem, as national and workers’ movements started to cause further cracks in the social order. However, the new voices were barred from legitimate expression at a national political level, the area where the problems truly lay (Figes, 1996:34). Ignoring social unrest, rather than allowing it a voice, proved disastrous from the monarchy’s point of view.
Marxist determinists argue that the “social contradictions” which characterised the Tsarist regime inevitably led to its collapse, but Figes believes that these contradictions could have been reformed. This leads to the theory that the fall of the Romanovs was not due to the contradictions but rather to the regime’s refusal to reform itself. Modernity was perceived by the Tsarist regime as a threat to its authority and strength; therefore it was ignored in favour of a shortsighted and delusional nostalgia for former glories.
While it can be argued that the Tsarist Empire was undergoing reform at the time of the First World War it is not true that the Tsarist Empire was undergoing any sort of Western, liberal reforms. The last two Tsars and the Church, gentry and Rightist political circles were never more than ambivalent towards modernisation. They were opposed to the social and political transformations such changes would demand, even as they knew that they would have to embrace the industrial revolution lest they fail to compete with Western nations economically. The tercentenary celebrated by the Romanov dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century proved that the Tsarist regime was far from recognising the benefits of modernisation, as it tried to impose an idealised image of the past and in so doing helped bring about its own demise.
Revisionist – Sheila Fitzpatrick
Sheila Fitzpatrick is a recognized expert on the history of modern Russia, especially with regard to the social changes and conditions that took place under Lenin and Stalin (Alpha History, 2017). Fitzpatrick distinguished herself as a revisionist by placing emphasis on the individuals making up the Russian people, focusing on what effects the revolution had on them and on the people’s own opinion of the revolution. Class, identity, education, etiquette, social expectations and mobility are all important themes to her, but she examined them through the lens of individual experience and understanding. Her view is that post-revolutionary Russia can be characterised by the new way of life it established, the new type of citizen she terms “homo sovieticus” (Fitzpatrick, 2005). She further dwells on the lives, opinions and position of women both during the revolution (with emphasis on the ones who participated in it) and in post-revolutionary Russia.
In her revision of that period of Russian history, Fitzpatrick criticized the hypocritical nature of some of the Bolshevik decisions, such as the legalisation of abortion and divorce even as they expressed reservations or otherwise criticised sexual liberation (Fitzpatrick and Slezkine, 2000). This, she notes, occurred despite the Russian leaders’ stance that private sexual morality was an area where the state should not interfere. For this reason, the historian notes, the Bolsheviks were seen as enemies of traditional morality and the family (Fitzpatrick, 2005). This hypocrisy, these “masks” as she calls them, were removed by the revolution. “Successful revolutions tear off masks: that is, they invalidate the conventions of self-presentation and social interaction that existed in pre-revolutionary society” (Fitzpatrick, 2005:3).
To elaborate, Fitzpatrick argues that the Russian revolution effectively shattered the conventions of self-presentation and social interaction that defined Russian society up to and during Bolshevik rule, this being something of an inevitability for all societies undergoing a revolution. During the upheaval, people had no choice but to rediscover themselves, discover the inner self that could fit in the post-revolutionary society, or, failing that, create new personae.
Because of this, Fitzpatrick terms herself a social historian and professed herself dissatisfied with how Soviet society seems invariably to be analysed through the lens of class. She also looked unfavorably upon discussions surrounding “class consciousness” as defined in Western-Marxist and Soviet ideologies (Fitzpatrick, 2005). This effectively puts her at odds with both Figes and Trotsky who, as detailed in the previous two sections, were often focused on this issue. Her viewpoint is social-centric, her focus more on the family. “The Russian workers whose story I know best were primarily interested in getting themselves and their children out of the working class,” (Fitzpatrick, 2005:7).
So what were these pragmatic social elements, these individual practices of identity that caused the Russian revolution? Setting aside the media, propaganda and educational institutions that Figes and Trotsky both analysed exhaustively, in reality, public debates and soul-searching on the issue proved very rare. What is relevant in Fitzpatrick’s view, however, is that there was no major research or debate before the Communist Party and Soviet government passed policies on class discrimination and other related matters. This silence speaks volumes. Based on contemporary memoirs and diaries, Soviet citizens had pragmatic concerns about how they presented themselves, doing their best to build a “Soviet” persona. This suggests that there was wholesale societal and individual suppression of any narrative which questioned the official state analysis of the causes of the revolution, a kind of private and public omerta. The act of suppression itself, however, is indicative of the subversive power of a more individualistic, revisionist interpretation of events leading up to the revolution and the comparative fragility of the official state narrative. .
The systematic state and private suppression of individualistic expression in the Soviet Union between the 1920’s and 1930’s is well documented; people lived in conditions and had mindsets and habits no different from societies during wartime (Fitzpatrick, 2005). On an individual basis, the people lived under a regime which operated on constant direction, intimidation and punishment of its citizens. It was only with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the regime that the beginning of a reappraisal of official narratives of revolution, including the impact on private, family lives (Fitzpatrick, 2005) became possible
Before concluding, it is worth remarking on an issue highly relevant to the lead up to the Russian Revolution yet largely unexamined by the historians examined above; the impact of World War One. Russia was arguably the least prepared of the combatant nations and empires which embarked on the Total War of attrition which was the Great War; it was certainly one of the least industrialised. The war led to the annihilation of empires and brought most of the combatants to the verge of economic and societal collapse. Millions of workers and peasants across Europe and beyond were brought to the brink of starvation and death by the conflict. There were rebellions, protests and left-wing uprisings in more than one country involved in the fighting. In the circumstances, it is perhaps more surprising that there were not successful workers’ revolutions in other combatant countries than that such a revolution occurred in Russia. Russia’s internal fractures and the Tsar’s fatal mistake in taking charge of the war effort himself and therefore making responsibility inescapable on failure were perhaps the deciding factors in tipping the scales towards revolution (Pipes, 2011).
A potential answer to the proposed research question (“What were the necessary preconditions of the Russian Revolution?”) is that the cause was indeed the specific characteristics of the country’s political culture and social history. The social events ignored by the Tsar (the 1891 famine, the 1905 revolution, etc.), the regime’s resistance to change in a context in which modernisation had become a need not merely an option (to provide better living conditions for the people, to recognise the importance and authority of other state institutions), the attempt to acquire legitimacy with artificial arguments that were no longer relevant in the given social context, etc, are all aspects of the preconditions within Russia’s political culture and social history that eventually led to the Russian Revolution. Figes (1996) and, to a certain extent, Trotsky (2008) hold this view, which is significant considering their different viewpoints (liberal vs soviet). Both historians refer to the country’s historical background and to its social and political profile in explaining how the masses rebelled against Tsarist rule. However, the similarities stop here as Trotsky (2008) insists on the contribution of organised revolutionary leaders who anticipated the masses’ changes of directions, needs and objectives and directed them towards achieving their goals, whereas Figes (1996) talks about unpredictable historical circumstances and the inertia of the imperial regime in the face of necessary reforms and modernisation. Perhaps the most significant of those unpredictable historical circumstances was the impact of World War One, which threw internal Russian divisions into stark relief and brought the country to its knees both militarily and economically. Finally, as Fitzpatrick (2005) argues, an issue just as important as class, or perhaps more so, was the individual mindset of Russians and their concept of personal and national. Conditions for the Revolution, therefore, existed several years before the emergence of the Revolution, mainly due the many political failures of the Tsarist regime but also due to external factors like war, although Russian involvement in the Great War can also be traced to the hubris and arrogance of the Romanov regime.
Alpha History, (2017). Historian: Sheila Fitzpatrick. Russian Revolution. [Online]. Available at: http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/historian-sheila-fitzpatrick/ [Accessed 02 April 2017].
Figes, O. (1996) A People’s Tragedy:The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. New York: Viking Penguin.
Fitzpatrick, S. and Slezkine, Y. (2000). In the shadow of revolution. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fitzpatrick, S. (2005). Tear off the masks! 1st ed. Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press.
Haynes, M. and Wolfreys, J. (2007) History and Revolution. London: Verso.
Keep, J. (1996) “Great October?” in The Times Literary Supplement, 23 August 1996.
Pipes, R. (2011) A concise history of the Russian revolution. New York:Vintage.
Trotsky, L. (2008) The History of the Russian Revolution. [Online]. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/trotsky/history-of-the-russian-revolution/ebook-history-of-the-russian-revolution-v1.pdf [Accessed 03 March 2017]
Volkogonov, D. (1994) Lenin. A New Biography, translated and edited by Harold Shukman. New York: The Free Press.