The fall of the Romanov dynasty may have occurred in an instant, but the wheels were set in motion long before 1917. The effects of the Russian revolution were felt far beyond the borders of Eastern Europe and changed the course of world history forever.
In this centenary year, Laura Engelstein, author of Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921, takes us back to the brutal battles that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, and gives us reason as to why we need to revisit it now.
In 1913 the Romanov dynasty celebrated three centuries of rule. In August 1914, Russia went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Less than three years later, in February 1917 by the old Julian calendar, the last of the Romanovs fell from power. Incapable of prosecuting the war, the monarchy had succeeded only in forfeiting the loyalty of its subjects. In February, Imperial Russian society, from top to bottom, rose up against the autocratic regime. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and the leaders of respectable society installed themselves in the seat of power. The workers and soldiers who had brought the monarchy to bay followed the lead of moderate socialists in establishing a political arena of their own. Aware of their tenuous claim to rule, the revolutionaries of the first hour were still saddled with the burden of the war and faced with the popular unrest, now in organized form, which had enabled their own break with the past. In October 1917, as the crisis deepened, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party staged a coup d’état that dislodged the “bourgeois” officeholders, stole the moderates’ thunder, and inaugurated three years of civil conflict, ending in early 1921 with the consolidation of history’s first socialist government.
It took more than ten days to shake the world. The monarchy was ousted by the representatives of privileged society, backed by the fury of soldiers, peasants, and workers, whose long-term grievances had been pushed to the edge by the war. The men who assumed the reins of government were constitutional conservatives, aiming to control, not intensify, disorder, but in toppling the sovereign power they had taken a revolutionary step. From the beginning, the revolution held out the possibility of a democratic outcome, a potential dramatized by the remarkable turnout for elections to the Empire-wide Constituent Assembly, even after the Bolsheviks had taken command. The potential for civil war was also implicit in the revolution from the beginning. As the crisis deepened, a group of officers attempted unsuccessfully to seize control and prevent the Left from gaining ground, but it was the October coup that tipped the balance into armed warfare. The military and social establishment, which had supported the February Revolution in the hopes of prosecuting the war more successfully, rallied its forces against the usurpers, whom they viewed not only as political extremists but as pawns of enemy German power.
The Civil War was extraordinarily brutal, on all sides. Unfolding over a vast territory, the conflict consisted of many interlocking wars and caused immense material and human damage. Demographers have estimated total losses, military and civilian, between 1918 and 1922, out of a population of about 170 million, at over 15.5 million, or about nine percent. The total included 2.5 million victims of violence on and off the battlefields, two million victims of terror from all sides, six million who succumbed to starvation and disease, and the five million victims of famine in 1921. None of the contenders were able to control the conduct of the improvised forces they deployed; none shied away from forms of violence, such as hostage-taking, reprisals against civilians, summary executions, rape and torture, and the targeting of ethnic communities, considered at the time as violations of moral, if not also legal, norms. The Bolsheviks, in the end, were most effective in institutionalizing the violence they needed to win—and with which, in its organized form, they proceeded to build a new social order.
Insofar as the drama of 1917—and its consequences—have receded into the past, especially for citizens of the West, we need to be reminded of its importance, how unprecedented and monumental the events really were, while avoiding the old antinomies, in which Lenin is either a Hero or a Devil, in which the so-called masses are either paragons of high-minded dedication to a selfless cause or mere perpetrators of mindless violence. October 1917 was indeed a coup, which took advantage of and then deepened a genuine social revolution. It also suffocated the eloquent desire for democratic self-representation displayed by all segments of Imperial Russian society, in their different ways, throughout the revolutionary year and deep into the Civil War.
A hundred years is a long enough distance from which to question the terms in which to consider these world-shaking events. We live at a time in which the democracy that the trans-Atlantic world has come to take for granted since the end of World War II and the defeat of fascism may be seriously endangered. The great historical moment between 1917 and 1921 in which the cost of democracy’s failure became all too apparent deserves our renewed attention.
Featured Image: Moscow, Russia (Film Scan) by Thomas Depenbusch. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.