External Affairs

On the Russian Revolution’s Centenary, Will History Defeat Rhetoric?

Perceptions of the Russian Revolution today are firmly linked to the the triumph and decline of brands of official communism in the 20th century – at the cost of complex aspects of the original event.

The chequered character of the tumultuous years 1917-21 in Russia and her neighbourhood demand a different reading. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The chequered character of the tumultuous years 1917-21 in Russia and her neighbourhood demand a different reading. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years ago, the Russian revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century

As in the case of other social revolutions of the modern world, the October Revolution in Russia has become hostage to the success and defeat of the regimes that derived legitimacy from it thereafter. Remembrance of the revolution at its centenary is shaped by this more recent past, to the detriment of larger implications that are worth attention. Closely linked, the history of the revolution in 1917 itself, and its immediate aftermath, has become the focus of harsh rhetoric, overlaying interpretation and evaluation: a consequence of the revolution’s position as a point of reference in the Cold War and, later, in the national self-perception of Eastern European states breaking with Soviet hegemony from 1989 and independent states emerging from the USSR in 1991.

Just as the French Revolution has come to be identified with the Terror and Napoleonic despotism, and the Chinese Revolution with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Russian Revolution has accumulated associations with Stalin’s Russia, the Brezhnev bureaucracy and forces that led to the collapse of the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev. The moment of revolution itself is linked to the Civil War. The traumas have been brilliantly outlined by Boris Pasternak, its uncertain origins more idiosyncratically by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Red Wheel corpus.

Complex aspects of the original event are forgotten in much of this. Not least among the casualties are social aspirations and a sense of hope, as the revolutionary momentum gathered from a pivotal incident, the Bolshevik coup of November 6, and an overwhelming sense of transition, recognised locally and globally

For Indians, the results of habits abroad of oblivion and critique regarding the revolution, generalised by a globalised publishing industry, have been consolidated by communism at home: the tendency of communists to firmly denote Bolshevik socialist civilisation, defined by communist parties, as the leitmotif of the revolution and to utilise it ritually in current struggles. The revolution is firmly linked to the the triumph and decline, evils and achievements, of brands of official communism in the 20th century and very little else. To a more select group of culture professionals, it is further associated with a particular form of avant garde in art, music and literature. But this is confined to a heroic past that has seen its time and its context is seldom reviewed.

In all cases, for a larger public, the event has a ritually structured past – and little profile in the present as history. Academic exercises and doctoral dissertations have hardly affected the social aphasia that polemical exchange has generated in dealing with the revolution outside the domain of rhetoric. The capacity of the event to compel reflection has fallen victim to its firm location in arguments for and against communism.

The chequered character of the tumultuous years 1917-21 in Russia and her neighbourhood demand a different reading. And at least three aspects of what transpired require attention.

First, and a point generally understated, the October Revolution must be seen in conjunction with the February Revolution that preceded it in 1917. The association is not solely causal, but refers to the character of the event and the importance of the euphoria for democracy that, as the Russian historian Boris Kolonitskii has shown, the aftermath of February 1917 generated. In supporting the Bolshevik coup of October (November 6-7) members of the All Russian Congress of Soviet and others saw in the occasion an instrument for securing a transition away from Tsarism – a means of avoiding an incipient coup from the Right, to be led by the army and Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky. It was under the new Bolshevik and Soviet aegis that the Constituent Assembly elections were conducted – the first universal adult suffrage based elections in the world. Even after dismissal of the assembly in January 1918, Bolsheviks in the succeeding period had to live with expectations and contend with the consequences generated by the February Revolution.

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Peterburg), Russia, during the February Revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A demonstration of workers from the Putilov plant in Petrograd (modern day St. Petersburg), Russia, during the February Revolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Second, firmly to be avoided are easy categorisations of the revolution, merely as “a people’s tragedy” as Orlando Figes would have it, and as post-communist rhetoric in Russia and elsewhere has chosen to assert. True, in the territories of the Russian Empire, both in the core 34 provinces as well as in the viceregal districts in the Caucasus, Siberia and Turkestan, the revolution spelt civil war. The “Volunteer Army” of the pro-Tsarist “white” forces, “green” peasant insurgents and “interventionists” from Britain, France and Japan were ranged against the Soviet Bolshevik government. Disruption of the harvest cycle in three consecutive years, collapse of rail, road and shipping infrastructure, and irregularity of communications undermined the tempo of industrial production and the regularity of commerce.

But as a consequence of the terms of the Land Code of December 1917 and the regulations on urban domiciliary space entitlements of 1918-19 and spontaneous nationalisation of enterprises, bottom up, the lapse into rationing and the consequences of the economic downturn were encountered as part of common cause – albeit in a patchy manner. Heterogeneous arrangements rhetorically termed War Communism, would create regularity of a sort, giving this sense of “common cause” a shape. Revolutionary rhetoric that condemned an inegalitarian past, the rich and ribald images of political posters and enthusiasm of revolutionary lyrics were distributed widely by Bolshevik propaganda apparatus to form reference points for large masses of people.

Heterotopic spaces, peasant wilfulness and ethnic autonomies emerged within the overall aegis of Bolshevism power – in a tattered polity. Here grandiose visions of the future were aired by seasoned Bolshevik revolutionaries: but, uncertain in specifics as these notions were, they had few takers outside a growing random support. Rather, willingness to exploit new opportunities were on display: the determination of peasant and worker to make a life in circumstances unconstrained by wealth or hereditary privilege.

Among ethnic groups, meanwhile, of the Russian Empire, self determination became a reference point for the future. Among Muslim leaders, M. Vakhitov and Sultan Galiev assisted Stalin to formulate policy from the Peoples Kommissariat of Nationalities (Narkomnats). Legislation was promulgated to win over Muslim communities in Tatar and Bashkir country and in the North Caucasus and Siberia.

This was not a “people’s tragedy” but a more complex phenomenon brought on by the crisis of Tsarist modernisation.  Along with its democratic thrust, the revolution opened horizons even as it featured arbitrariness and privation.

Third, just as such “new beginnings” determined the “meaning” that socialism acquired internationally through the revolution, the revolution generated an image of itself as an anti-colonial force, through its spur to emancipatory movements in Russia’s neighbourhood. Whatever would be made of these images in future, the revolution was a game changer, indicating that imperialism can be defeated and socialism could be a guide for policy in “nationalist” states.

From November 1917, the leaders of the revolution firmly avowed their support for the cause of national liberation. This only partly dovetailed with Soviet establishment of the Comintern in 1919 to propagate Bolshevik socialism globally.

Outside the territories of imperial Russia, revolutionaries in three “nations” took the cue in their own right. In Iran, primarily in the Gilan region, groups associated with the Jangali movement endeavoured to establish an autonomous reformist order that would have consequences through the country. In Afghanistan, the revolution registered as a time of support for paths of modernisation outside those purveyed by British rulers of India – encouraging the regime of Amanullah Khan. In India, opportunities offered by the revolution  encouraged revolutionary networks that intertwined with the Bolshevik-Indian nationalist formation, shaped by Mahendra Pratap, Mohammed Barkatullah and Ubaidullah Sindhi, ultimately undermined during M.N. Roy’s operations in Tashkent. Subsequent British desperation and excess led to the non-cooperation movement in India.

Each dimension of the revolution mentioned here generated powerful disagreements, polemics and emotions, with little sense of “closure” given the violent character of the time and the poor wherewithal in terms of material and human resources for institution building. But a caesura was established in politics and society, with broad global consequences. To quarrel with the necessity of what happened or to dispute decisions is tempting, but beside the point: for such an act often involves moral judgment seldom guided by a sense of historical specificity and avoids attention to the compulsions that led to what transpired.

On the other hand to acknowledge the revolution for what it was – a tumultuous event that generated powerful change, warts and all – is a demanding exercise given the coloration that it attracts. As stated at the outset, the circumstances that have followed 1917 make engagement with the complications of that exercise difficult, and the adherence to ritual remembrance in communist circles has had a role in this.

The Russian Revolution needs to be thought of as “over”, if only to compel better evaluation than is customary; but it appears, from responses to the centenary, that the opportunity for that orientation is yet to arrive in a meaningful manner. As it stands, a critical spirit is all that can be expected.

Hari Vasudevan is a specialist on Russian history and politics. He is UGC Emeritus Professor, Deptartment Of History, Calcutta University.

  • Anjan Basu

    With all due respect to the impressive scholarship on view here, the article ‘says’ very little that a lay, but interested, reader can come to terms with. “The Russian revolution needs to be thought of as ‘over’, says the author,” if only to compel better evaluation than is customary… “. Sure, but is there any doubt anywhere that the Russian Revolution is ‘over’? Hasn’t there been wide and serious engagement, much of it even in the non-specialist’ s domain, with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the Revolution turning out in the end to be very different from its original vision? Of its inner dynamics and contradictions that achieved great feats and yet eventually imploded? True, the ‘official’ communist parties in India do not seem to be focused on these issues, but that proves nothing. The problem, it seems to me, is not that we do not yet think of the Bolshevik Revolution as over, but that we tend to think that the spirit that moved it is not relevant any more. We may not like the title of Figes’s book, but is there any denying that ultimately the Revolution did turn tragic for Russians? (Look at Russia today.)