Russian Revolutions by Mike Duncan
Mike Duncan covers a ton of ground on the events, people, and the necessary background to understand the Russian Revolution.
I appreciated the time spent on pre-revolutionary Russian history, and ideas and learned a lot about Russian anarchism. In particular, Bakunin's ideas of collectivist anarchism are appealing, because Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.
One may balk at Kremlinology, Putinology, and now Prigozhinology, but understanding the main players deeply is important, especially when events are contingent and individual actions can determine the fate of whole countries. Here too, Duncan does a good job providing more personal color than a dry history lecture might.
Feel free to read my working notes, or listen to the podcast yourself. What follows is an incomplete summary of themes I found novel and compelling.
A chain of embarrassing defeats lead up to the revolution
- Defeat in the Crimean war (1850s), embarrassingly shows how backwards Russia was, supposedly a military powerhouse.
- Defeat in Russo Japanese war (1905). Lost Port Arthur and the whole pacific fleet.
- Poor performance in WW1, which found Russia "grossly unprepared" and with far worst logistics than Germany, infighting, and distracted by lofty goals like taking Constantinople.
Russia's Turkish ambitions
That's right, Russia had an explicit goal of taking the city of Constantinople away from the Ottomans. That would give Russians both the second and the third Rome! This was incredibly ambitious and in retrospect unrealistic. Despite Russia's sub-par performance in the war, some Russian leaders in the provisional government attempted to keep the conquest of Constantinople as one of Russia's military goals. Even as late as February 1917!
- Curious to see how important the Jewish Bund is to the whole revolution, both in the labor movement and Russian Revolution.
- The reactionary forces set in motion by the 1905 Russian Revolution mostly targeted Jews. Jews were very closely associated with Bolsheviks because most of the Bolshevik leaders were Jews. The internationalist orientation of the Bolshevik party, only helped antisemites confirm that Jews were foreign agents. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were a Russian invention, first printed in 1903.
- "Death to the Yids!" was as common as "Death to the Bolsheviks" during these times. This rhymes with the Jewish Bolshevism conspiracy used by Nazis to justify the Holocaust, which I first read about in Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.
- Yet leaders of all colors, red, white, and black constantly distanced themselves from the pogroms on the ground. They would condemn antisemitism in words only, without ever actually doing anything to stop it.
Russia's early industrialization
Sergei Witte successfully led Russian railway modernization in the late 19th century. He argued that the tsarist regime could only be saved by transforming Russia into a modern industrial society. Some of his rapid industrial reforms were very successful and showed that Russia was well on its way to industrialization. This played well into the Marxist narrative that a first revolution was necessary for the socialist one that was to follow.
Russia's archaic farming system
The "open-field system" was the prevalent agricultural system in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Large fields, usually several hundred acres each, were divided into many narrow strips of land and doled out to peasants. A lucky family might own several independent strips in different regions, which was very inefficient.
Because Russia freed the serfs only in the mid-19th century, this system remained in place far longer than in other European countries. And it wasn't until Stolypin's reforms in 1905 that the system began to slowly phase out.
After the revolution and during the 1920s, the Great Depression in the West reduced popular confidence in capitalism. Thus, western investors turned to the Soviet Union whose brave new economic model was not yet discredited. Its economy was shaky at the moment, but had a bright future ahead.
Impressive growth rates during the first three five-year plans (1928–1940) are particularly notable given that this period is nearly congruent with the Great Depression. During this period, the Soviet Union saw rapid industrial growth while other regions were suffering from crisis. (Wikipedia)
The Soviet Problem with Two "Unknowns": How an American Architect and a Soviet Negotiator Jump-Started the Industrialization of Russia was a worthwhile paper I read on this subject a few years ago.
Russia was never democratic
Wow, the color of the political climate between 1905 and 1917 makes me really reconsider the position that Russia had this period of democracy between 1905 and 1917. Something like 2000 people were murdered by the state as part of punitive actions conducted by the tsar following the revolution of 1905. The first Duma Congress was not real democracy, by any stretch of the imagination, and multiple Dumas were created and dismantled by the tsar.
So the actual precedent of liberals in power in Russian history is very small, possibly just Gorbachev and Yeltsin?
WW1: Europe's workers chose war over solidarity
Fascinating (socialist) perspective: on the dawn of WW1, the workers were at a cross road between two choices:
- Join together for an international communist revolution, or
- Kill each other at scale in the battlefield in the name of their respective nations.
Ultimately they chose (2). Why? International socialists ultimately embraced their national identities rather than the globalist agenda:
- By 1914 the socialist parties had been well integrated into the parliaments and could influence the government directly. They now had a lot to lose.
- Being against the war meant that opposing parties could accuse the socialists of being unpatriotic.
Marx's prophecy of two revolutions
Lenin and other Bolsheviks took Marx at his word, and thought Russia needed to undergo two revolutions. The first one to become more capitalist and industrialized to bring Russia into a state resembling the western society Marx imagined would be fertile ground for extreme inequality and worker immiseration. Then another socialist revolution would then actually bring forth socialism.
Luckily Russia was on track, and the Bolsheviks watched and waited in exile as the first revolution went swimmingly in 1905. Here are some proximate causes of the Revolution of 1905:
- Terrible performance in Russo Japanese war. Lost Port Arthur and the whole pacific fleet.
- Worker strikes in at Petersburg and general support from workers and the Intelligentsia.
- Bloody Sunday illustrated the tsar true colors and awarded him the nickname Bloody Nicholas.
Women began the February 1917 revolution
In 1916, women spent forty hours a week in bread lines. And ultimately the radicalized women galvanized the February 1917 revolution during International Women's Day. From Wikipedia:
On March 8, 1917, in Petrograd (February 23, 1917, on the Julian calendar), women textile workers began a demonstration that eventually engulfed the whole city, demanding "Bread and Peace"—an end to World War I, to food shortages, and to czarism. This marked the beginning of the February Revolution, which alongside the October Revolution, made up the second Russian Revolution
There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy. Of course, there were also other causes for the February 1917 revolution:
- Millions of casualties in an entrenched war with front lines stabilizing but still a dismal situation.
- Massive inflation due to funding the war effort leading to unaffordable living.
- Lack of food and goods due to supply chain disruptions from prioritizing war efforts.
- An unusually cold winter in 1917, leading to general misery.
- A tsar that refused to do anything in response to a chorus of voices warning him of the dire path he is on.
Still, International Women's Day was the catalyzing event.
The hemophiliac grandmother of Europe
Tsarevich Alexei, son of Nikolai II had hemophilia (non-clotting blood), a debilitating disease inherited from Queen Victoria I, known as the “grandmother of Europe” because of how many rulers were descended from her blood. Nicholas and Alexandra sought out a healer in hopes of curing their son and heir of Russia. And that is how Rasputin got an initial foothold in the Russian palace, coming recommended as a holy man and miracle healer.
Rasputin ended up being emblematic of the magical thinking so common in the last tsar's surroundings.
Defeatism and defencism
Defencists hoped Russia would win World War 1 outright. But there was also an internationalist (less charitably, defeatist) camp which hoped that Russia would lose. Lenin was more aligned with the latter, although his views are characterized as “flexible” despite bombastic delivery.
The Bolshevik membership dwindled during the war years because of their defeatist position. Because they wanted Russia to end the war and lose, they were easily painted as being extremely unpatriotic and equivalent to German agents. Lenin's flexibility allowed this to almost come true:
Lenin's German-backed voyage from Switzerland to Petrograd
The story of how Lenin got back from Switzerland to Russia on the eve of the February 1917 revolution is completely fascinating. The Germans learned that they may have a great asset in the revolutionary-in-exile, who at the time was living in Zurich. Lenin and a tight group of collaborators colluded with the Germans to orchestrate his return to St. Petersburg. They planned a clandestine operation, taking a circuitous route, and sneakily traveling in closed railway cars. The whole trip sounds like a great adventure. Surely there are books and movies written about it?
Lenin's role and historical contingency
During the "July Days", the revolutionaries themselves had to talk radicalized people down from pursuing a socialist revolution because they felt like they weren't quite ready for the events that might unfold. And if the provisional government managed to retain power after such an attempt, it would be bad news for future revolutionary prospects.
But Lenin was extremely passionate about decisive action, and managed to eventually convince the rest of the Bolsheviks. What would have happened without his drive, if the October Revolution did not play out?
Fanny Kaplan attempted to kill Lenin and almost did in 1919:
One bullet passed through Lenin's coat, and the other two struck him. One passed through his neck, punctured part of his left lung, and stopped near his right collarbone; the other lodged in his left shoulder
What would have happened if she succeeded?
Duma ➡ Soviets ➡ Communists
After Nicholas' abdication, Russia was governed by "Dual Power". Under this scheme the country was ruled partly by the Provisional Government (Duma) and partly the people directly via bottom-up Soviets. The Soviet system emerged from the St. Petersburg Soviet and when they declared that they will be the Soviet of All of Russia, which eventually morphed into the Soviet Union.
The slogan "All power to the Soviets" now makes more sense in this context of the parallel tracks of a provisional government and of soviets sharing power.
Lenin sensed that this dual power system was unstable and helped quash the provisional government. Then his Bolsheviks had a unified agenda and successfully "bolshevized" the soviets.
The Russian Communist Party is just a rebranding of the Bolshevik party and retains full continuity. The split between Communists and Socialists might mirror the differences of opinion between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Why is the political left so often infighting?
The new Communist government was recognized as by many of the international powers as part of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, hastily signed by the triumphant Communists after the October 1917 revolution on March 3, 1918. The treaty was terrible for the sovereignty of Russia because it lost so many territories. This was a serious gambit on the part of the Bolsheviks, an astounding move because of how much territory was ceded. But this did not last, as the treaty was annulled by the armistice of November 11, 1918.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely
Kerensky, leader of the provisional government in 1917 assumed more and more power until eventually he took up residence in the winter palace. Flags were raised when he was at home, as was the custom of the old order. He slept in the bed of the tsar. Kerensky believed he was the right leader for Russia. By September 1917 he had effectively cultivated a dictatorship. Didn’t last long though.
Kerensky lost touch and feared a counter revolution from the right. Through a series of miscommunication Kerensky became convinced that Kornilov was planning a right wing coup and empowered the Bolsheviks to defend the counter revolution (see Defense is much more palatable than offense). This gave the Bolsheviks a second life, because at this point most were held in prison and convinced they were about to be executed.
It’s funny that the Soviets by 1919 had become quite corrupt and society was extremely unequal. Just as expected from a new elite that suddenly discovers an inordinate amount of power. This is interesting especially in contrast with the extremely austere and ideological stance of the communists just a year before.
Now this inequality meant that communist party began to attract careerists and those seeking comfort, a completely different group than ideologically driven revolutionaries. And the cycle is complete.
Russians are a passive and nihilistic population
Most Russians were neutral during the October Revolution. Few participated in the Bolshevik ideology, and few came to the defense of the provisional government.
This neutrality is deep-seated in the Russian soul. My theory is that this skeptical nihilistic stance stems from a lack of civic society. I strongly suspect that this lack of civil society is keeping Russia back politically, and that elites actively foment this stance in the population.
Reds, whites, blacks, and other colors
Despite the reactionary white's military success in Ukraine, they were universally hated by the local population. The Cossack division of the white army served as mounted shock troopers, raiding Ukrainian cities to such an extent that they were completely distrusted. The communist reds were not much better, but committed fewer outright atrocities. The people chose them as the lesser of two evils.
Lineage of the anarchist blacks
Nestor Makhno was a Ukrainian anarchist and framed as an anti-anti-Semite by Duncan. Both of those these things are interesting, and I looked more into him as a person including a grotesque depiction in an old Soviet film, and read a few articles. Quite the character.
Makhno found under the black flag, the classic anarchist symbol. He temporarily allied with the communist Reds, but only to join forces against the Whites. After repelling the White forces, the Blacks and Reds did not have enough common ground. According to a prominent anarchist Peter Arshinov,
The basic psychological trait of Bolshevism is the realization of its will by means of the violent elimination of all other wills, the absolute destruction of all individuality, to the point where it becomes an inanimate object.
Such opinions were not tolerated by the Communists, and Makhno ultimately fled to Paris.
Other color armies
Using colors as names for armies feels especially out of place when millions of people are being displaced and dying.
Russian chauvinism against Ukraine and visible minorities
The Whites completely denied Ukraine's existence, instead calling it "Little Russia" (Малороссия). They completely ignored Ukrainian autonomy and national statehood, and appointed just ethnic Russians as governors for the region.
Before the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, propagandists used really disgusting overtly racist hatred of the Japanese people.
This xenophobia echoes Putin's ongoing war in Ukraine. Firstly, the dismissal of Ukrainian legitimacy is central to the whole endeavor. Secondly, visible minorities like the Buryats are much more likely to die in Ukraine because they are used as cannon fodder.
Western-backed anti-Russian forces
The White counter-revolution managed to make significant gains largely supported by the British.
There is a historical pattern emerging here from the perspective of Russia, or at least Russian propagandists. In the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War and the current Russo-Ukrainian war, allied western powers create a puppet entity, whether it's the White Army or the Polish State or the Ukrainian State, to wage war against Russia's historical integral territory. The Russians are of course on the defense in this framing, fighting for their survival. (See Defense is much more palatable than offense)
In the civil war, people on the front were not motivated to fight for the idea of communism. Instead, the rallying cry in the civil war, in Soviet-Polish war and in general focused on preserving the integrity of Russia itself. The same was true during World War II, which was framed as the great patriotic war by Stalin to appeal not to ideology or way of life, but to the powerful force of Russian nationalism.
Why did Lloyd George change his mind on regime change in Russia? Initially he was extremely anti-Bolshevik, but it seems like he lost steam over time. In 1921, at the insistence of Great Britain, the Allies ended the Russian military intervention and gave up on the blockade. Are we on track for same change of heart in the Russian War on Ukraine now in 2023?
Western relief for Russian famines
During the terrible famines in the 1920s I didn't realize how much humanitarian aid the Soviets were receiving. Twice as many people would have died if not for the external help. The most impactful and generous was the Russian Famine Relief Act funded by the American Relief Administration (ARA), which gave $2B USD (2023) to the effort, until Lenin began to export grain in 1923.
Lenin sowed the seeds for Stalin
Lenin's cruelty is often overshadowed by his famously vile successor, but Stalin was largely building on top of the foundation that Lenin had set during his tenure.
Grossman makes a similar argument in (Все Течёт (Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman)), saying that more than any of Lenin's other potential successors, Stalin best captured the essence of his soul: thirst for power.
Who, asks Grossman rhetorically, should be Lenin's successor? Would it be the brilliant, turbulent, magnificent Trostky? The charming, gifted political theorist Bukharin? Perhaps the one closest to the workers Rykov? Maybe the well-educated, confident, and sophisticated governor Kamenev? Last but not least, the one best versed in international labor, Zinovyev?
Lenin and the Bolsheviks were flexible and not bound to morals
One of the minor Bolsheviks named Bauman had an affair with another revolutionary, who became pregnant. Bauman responded by mocking her and circulating vicious cartoons. The woman later hanged herself. Most members of the party wanted Bauman expelled for this misconduct but not Lenin, citing that he was a good agent. Personal ethics was nothing to Lenin.
Early Bolsheviks would routinely participate in so-called expropriations. This was just a fancy term for stealing from the rich. The 1907 Tiflis bank robbery in particular was especially impressive and bloody, killing 40 and injuring 50. It was planned mainly by Stalin (aka Koba) and Ter-Petrosian (aka Kamo), but also involved Lenin.
Initially imagined as a multiparty system centered around the soviets, Left SRs were well represented alongside the Bolsheviks. Their presence gave the Bolsheviks plausible deniability to claim they weren’t authoritarian at all, and were just facilitating a democratic system. The left SR rebellion in 1918 changed that. They were opposed to Brest-Litovsk and wanted to usher in international communism. They were brutally repressed by Lenin in the Trial of the SRs, which paved the way for Stalinist show trials in the era that followed.
I was surprised at how early the Soviet ban on Factions began. Because it was rolled out in 1921, it's almost a foundational idea to the whole Soviet project. Fundamentally illiberal, it was effectively a ban on freedom of assembly and served to strengthen the Communist Party, by weakening the bottom-up soviets.
Lenin's own big personality is largely at fault for the Communist party's oligarchy, which tended towards autocracy. On the other hand, other Russia-specific trends point to something deeper. The tsars and the mongols that preceded presided over societies dominated by small cliques or individuals (Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great). Stalin and Lenin were just links in the same chain.