1960s >> 1967 >> no-753-may-1967

50th Anniversary Russian Revolution

The Curtain Raiser
On March 8th 1917 (February 23rd by the old Russian Calendar) on the streets of Petrograd, a demonstration exploded into a riot, and the riot into a revolution. It was the kind of classic situation that would appeal to a romantic—a spontaneous uprising against tyranny with strikes and demonstrations, the massing of the workers on the streets, and the slow crumbling of authority as regiment after regiment swung over to the insurgents. In just over a week the Tzar had gone and with him the whole apparatus of the State. The scene was set for the much more famous October revolution. It was indeed a curtain raiser.

How could such an event have happened? It was completely unrehearsed and unorganised. Thee workers and soldiers, in whose hands the city lay, were unled and the revolutionary parties were every bit as surprised as the authorities. They trotted behind events as confused as everybody else, and only when the last vestige of authority had gone and the impetus had begun to slacken, did the masses start searching for somebody to take over the controls. What had led up to this situation?

Tzarist Russia was an autocracy at once repressive and inefficient. There was no serious political authority except that of the Tzar, operating through the Army, the Bureaucracy and the secret police. The Church was servile to an extent rarely found elsewhere. The Tzar was backed by a close knit landowning aristocracy immensely wealthy, powerful and cultured. Their wealth and power rested on a peasantry, not far removed from serfdom, who were poor, illiterate and superstitious. The peasantry made up over 80 per cent of the population, and so were the dominant factor in the situation. There was a small class of merchants, government officials and capitalists, and a small but rapidly growing industrial working class.

The system was completely unbending and incapable of compromise. Ministers of State were mere functionaries, who could be dismissed at will by the Tzar, while the Court, as is inevitable in an autocracy, was rife with intrigue. Groups and individuals strove to sway the Tzar and Tzarina, who alone could make ultimate decisions. The most famous of these was Rasputin; among a Court crawling with adventurers, he was merely the most successful. No member of any liberal or revolutionary party had been able to obtain any political experience prior to 1905, and not very much after, this factor combined with a constant, though inefficient, policy of suppression, resulted in political parties and groups existing in a vacuum, out of touch with the realities of politics. This inexperience was to show itself plainly at a later stage, when the liberals were confronted by a realist of the calibre of Lenin.

Capitalism had come late to Russia, but when it did arrive it made rapid progress. The population at the beginning of the 19th century consisted almost entirely of peasant serfs, with a nobility and a middle class of merchants, officials and professional people. There was also a tiny city population.

By the beginning of the 20th century enormous businesses had been established mainly in the metallurgical, mining and textile industries. The railways had arrived and serfdom had vanished. A pushing middle class, whose social habits resembled those of the bourgeoisie of Tudor England, had emerged, as well as a growing industrial proletariat.

Much of this was achieved by foreign Capital — mainly French, British, German and Belgian. This was one reason for the political weakness of the native capitalists; foreign capitalists were not unduly worried about internal conditions, as long as the profits flowed. The number of industrial workers in 1801 had been under 100,000, but by the end of the century the number topped one and three quarter million. In a mere 9 years between 1861 and 1870, the urban population jumped from 4½ million to 6 million. But even so by 1917 there were still 16 peasants for every worker.

The gulf between industry and agriculture was immense. Agricultural methods had hardly changed since the 17th century, while industrial methods and organisation in Russia were comparable with those elsewhere. More important was the fact that owing to outside capital being used, the enterprises that were set up were large concerns. In countries where capitalism had developed from within, the usual sequence was for small concerns to grow slowly into large ones. This process was by-passed in Russia—a fact which had great political significance; large numbers of workers under one roof were easy to organise politically. Workers’ solidarity in the factories was consequently great.

The peasants on the other hand were politically non-existent. They were the rock on which much political theory foundered. The limit of their aspirations was to own the land that they worked. Discontent had been accumulating for centuries, exploding into countless peasant uprisings which, being without any clear aim, were easily crushed. The revolts were violent and bloody, and they were suppressed in the same way.

The tangled web of Russian political thoughts in the 19th century had divided into two main camps—Liberal and Revolutionary. The Revolutionaries were divided into Populists and Marxists. Constant suppression, and the complete disinterest of the peasantry, kept them all very small in numbers, and led to fragmentation and dispute. The fact that the peasants were the bulk of the population put them into the main stream of political thought.

The Populists who emerged in the later half of the 19th century looked to the peasants for salvation; their slogan was “Go to the People”. Needless to say the “noble” peasant, as envisaged in the drawing rooms of Petrograd, had little connection with the real article. The Populists sought to establish a kind of agrarian Socialism based on the village commune. During the summer of 1874 thousands of young men and women dressed up as peasants, and went into the countryside to rouse the peasantry. They urged them to adopt modern methods of agriculture, so that they could emerge as a force in the land. They hoped that a vitalised peasantry would give rise to a spontaneous mass movement.

The peasants treated these interlopers with contempt and hostility while the police, who did not have the sense to leave them alone to break their hearts on this brutish mass, arrested them in thousands. However the Populists had another side to their theories—terrorism. The assassination of the Tzar in 1881 was a Populist action. Out of the Populists came the “Social Revolutionary Party”, which was to play a great part in the events of 1917.

The other stream of revolutionary thought, the Social Democrats, influenced by Marx, based their hopes on the rising working class. They argued that only when Capitalism had been fully established in Russia, and the working class were developed, could the move to Socialism take place. As with all other political parties and groups in the pre-revolutionary Russia, it is difficult to pinpoint a definite line of argument, because of constant dispute and fragmentation.

In the early days, some Social Democrats were left alone by the secret police, because their insistence that “Capitalism” must precede “Socialism” led to the misunderstanding that they were pro-Capitalist. By and large they opposed terrorism as futile and unnecessary, but again a minority leaned towards it. Others opposed aid to peasants during famine, on the grounds that it was hindering the growth of Capitalism, and thus of Socialism.

The first Russian organisation to propagate Marx’s ideas was the Emancipation of Labour group in 1883, followed by a mass of discussion groups, clubs and circles. In 1895 an attempt was made to unify these in the Fighting Union for the Liberation of the Working class. In 1903 The Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, formed in 1898, split into two wings, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The Russian Social-Democrats were steeped in venomous factional strife with constant denunciations, splits and excommunications which made the most bitter political enemies outside Russia look like a band of brothers.

Throughout the 19th century there was another division of thought which must be understood, because of its effect on later events. This was Westernism and Slavophilism. The first of these looked to the West, and thought that Russia’s path lay in catching up with Western Europe, while the second rejected the “decadent culture of the West” and looked to “native Russian institutions” as the road to salvation. These theories went far beyond the nationalism of the rest of Europe and compared with the worst racialist theories, although they were not couched in terms of “blood” but of “cultural patterns”. The division ran through all the parties, including the Social-Democrats, so that Internationalism, and a desire to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, existed side by side in the same organisation. This political dualism was amply demonstrated by the Bolsheviks when they obtained power.

The Tzarist government showed amazing resilience. By its refusal even to contemplate compromise, and by the unrelenting attack on all forms of opposition by the secret police, the Okhrana, it held off the day of reckoning. At the same time it ensured that the day, when it came, would be bloody. All the ingredients of revolution were there, but it was the Great War which destroyed the props behind the facade. In the first few weeks it became obvious that the Russian Army, although it could hold its own with the weaker Austrians, was no match for the Germans. Within a month the Russian Second Army was encircled and annihilated at Tannenburg in East Prussia. The Russians only advantage was in numbers, and the government tried to block the gap with bodies.

Fifteen and a half million men were mobilised and about eight million were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Only the vast distances to be covered, combined with the fact that the Germans were locked in a massive struggle on the Western Front, prevented a break-through. The civil population were reduced to starvation with little fuel to meet the Russian Winter.

When in 1915 the Tzar, who was incapable of organising anything properly, took absolute command of the Army, it was just a matter of time. Bureaucratic inefficiency by both the General Staff and the War Department, and out of date methods combined with a blockade, contributed to the downfall but the real reason was that Russian industry was unable to sustain a war of this magnitude.

One of the mainstays of the monarchy had always been the army. The regular army was a group apart from the rest of the population, and completely loyal. They could always be relied on to obey orders. But the terrible slaughter had largely wiped out the regulars, particularly the officer class who went over the top standing erect, and were special targets. By 1917 the bottom of the barrel was being scraped, and crack regiments were filled with men who would never have been entertained as recruits in peacetime. All was ready for the collapse.

The March revolution took place entirely in Petrograd. Once it was accomplished the rest of the country followed suit. Throughout the winter there had been a rash of small strikes. The shortages of war were accentuated by muddle and corruption, and workers and housewives often had to queue for hours for basic essentials like bread. Wartime industries had added an extra 400,000 workers to the population of the capital, and this increased both working class strength—and their problems.

The day that was to begin it all was International Women’s Day, with all the usual demonstrations, meetings and speeches laid on. None of the revolutionary parties were calling for any real action, for they did not consider the right moment had arrived. During the morning women workers in some textile factories began a run-of-the-mill strike. They demonstrated outside empty shops, as they had been doing regularly for months, and marched about shouting for bread. Other workers came out in sympathy until about 90,000 were out. They flocked onto the streets of the Vyborg district, and then drifted into the city proper. Some troops were out, but nothing much happened, and the day ended quietly.

The following day, March 9, found half the workers out on strike, and slogans attacking the war, the autocracy and the police began to appear. The Cossacks, the traditional riot breakers, charged the crowd but without any real venom. The crowds pelted the police with stones and ice, but were tactful with the soldiers. The day ended with the strange spectacle of rioters cheering Cossacks. By March 10 a quarter of a million workers were on strike, shops had closed, and tramcars stopped running, Petrograd was at a standstill. Shooting began between the crowd and the police. Later the police withdrew and the troops took their place. Already the unreliability of the army was becoming apparent.

At this stage it was still only a massive disorder, a general strike combined with mass demonstrations. No serious clash had yet taken place. What is more nobody, neither government nor revolutionaries, realised just what was happening.

The next two days provided the climax. The military commander of Petrograd, Khabalor, gave orders for a counter attack. This was the point of no return. Gradually the army swung to the side of the revolutionaries, and began to fight the police. By March 15 the city was entirely in the hands of the insurgents, and the Tzar had abdicated. The second stage was about to begin.

Les Dale