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Book review

by Peter M. Hill

Revolutionary Russia: new approaches to the Russian Revolution of 1917
edited by Rex A. Wade

Published by Routledge, 2004-05-07
ISBN 9780415307475

This volume, which appears in the series ‘rewriting histories’, is a collection of ‘revisionist’ views of the Russian Revolution. It consists of reprinted articles and book extracts that together provide a detailed treatment of the topic. Traditional accounts of the October Revolution, whether western or Soviet, have emphasized the role of Lenin to the exclusion of social history; strange for western historians, and un-Marxist for their Soviet colleagues, to concentrate on Lenin to the exclusion of other factors. ‘Revisionism’ means exploding some myths – such as that of a meticulously planned and executed seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin – and of filling in the details from below’, i.e. an examination not only of the political events but also of social history. Diane P. Koenker’s and William G. Rosenberg’s ‘Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917’, which not only gives a feel for the widespread revolutionary ferment and revolutionary consciousness among the working class in Russia in 1917 – the basis for the (as it emerges from Wade’s article) largely fortuitous seizure of power by the Bolsheviks – but also demonstrates convincingly what a significant role was played by women.

In ‘National Revolutions and Civil War in Russia’ Ronald Grigor Suny examines class and national consciousness in pre-Revolutionary Russia, taking as examples Ukraine, Latvia and Georgia. Unsurprisingly, he notes that: ‘No matter how sincerely patriots extolled the virtues of the peasantry, making actual converts among villagers proved to be as difficult for the followers of the Ukrainian patriotic poet Taras Shevchenko as for the disciples of Marx’ (p. 123). However, ‘in Ukraine nationality coincided to an unusual degree with economic class. Except for a small intelligentsia, Ukrainians were almost entirely peasants; the landowners and officials were Poles or Russians, whereas the commercial bourgeoisie was largely Jewish’. Hence, ‘the ethnic and socioeconomic grievances of the Ukrainian peasant proved mutually reinforcing and provided the foundation for a political movement which combined nationalism with a populist social program’ (pp. 124 ff.; the latter sentence from Steven L. Guthier).

The two most important pieces are undoubtedly the first, ‘Petrograd in 1917. The view from below’ by Steve A. Smith and Wade’s ‘ “All power to the soviets”: The Bolsheviks take power’. Together they provide a clear overview history of ‘revolutionary Russia’. Smith writes social history, painting a vivid picture of Petrograd in 1917 and concluding that the working class itself, including housewives and working women, rather than the Bolshevik party, was the major factor in politics in 1917. Factories were democratized, with factory committees either taking them over or at least playing a significant role in running them. Wade explodes the myth of the ‘storming’ of the Winter Palace, so familiar from paintings and motion pictures. The ministers of the Provisional Government actually ordered the cadets guarding them not to resist. By the time of their arrest, however dramatic, the city was completely in the hands of pro-Soviet forces and the Congress of Soviets already in session, while Kerensky had already fled Petrograd. Apparently no one ever bothered to ask why such a spectacular military ‘storm’ had produced no casualties. Lenin was in hiding for most of the time leading up to the October Revolution and his role on 25/26 October was essentially that of channelling events that were unfolding without him, a popular uprising against the Provisional Government. There are a number of other articles that round off the picture, including one that gives us an insight into events in the provinces, Michael C. Hickey’s ‘The rise and fall of Smolensk’s moderate socialists’. The book closes with a re-evaluation of the All-Russian Constituent Assembly.

One section of the book has three articles devoted to ‘language and identity’. Boris Ivanovich Kolonitskii analyses the concept of ‘democracy’, which came to be used as the antonym of cenzovye èlementy, pravjaščie klassy or buržuazija. Orlando Figes examines the language of the Revolution in the villages. The leaders of the democratic revolution spoke what was a foreign language to the peasantry. Gosudarstvo was misunderstood as a new dictatorship, the rule of a gosudar′. Worse, what the revolutionaries said was often translated by the peasants into specific peasant forms: the idea of the state and its coercive power was reconstructed and inverted to serve the peasants’ interests. Despite this ‘linguistic turn’, other contributions seem little interested in language. At one point (pp. 225 ff.), Wade examines the 10 October resolution of the Central Committee of the Party, which calls for an armed uprising. ‘What did this resolution mean, or not mean?’ asks Wade. In order to answer that question it would have been useful for the reader to see the original text and the context.

The book contains some useful maps, an invaluable glossary and an equally invaluable chronology of the events of 1917. An index makes it easy to use as a reference book. No student of Russian, of modern Russian history or of revolutions can afford not to read this book.