One Hundred Years Ago: the Eve of the February Revolution 1917

One Hundred Years Ago: the Eve of the February Revolution 1917

The Russian Revolution marks its centenary this year.  If the Soviet Union still existed, there would be huge celebrations, re-enactments, films, and local celebrations across the country.  But the USSR is gone and the Russian government does not seem to be too interested in remembering what really happened 100 years ago.  It is an embarrassment for some «liberals» in Moscow who would like to bury the embalmed corpse of Lenin, dig up the graves on Red Square, and forget the past.  The Russian Orthodox Church has canonised the last tsar Nicholas II; some people even want to restore the monarchy. 

Apart from a small, privileged minority, there was another Russia, which included most of the Russian population and was a much more sombre place.  The people who lived there had no time for concerts, art galleries and novels

To rehabilitate the Romanovs, you have to forget or rewrite much of Russia’s history.  That’s nothing new of course for Russians or for people in the west for that matter.  Stalin rubbed out the old Bolsheviks in the history of the Russian Revolution and western elites rub out the Red Army from the history of World War II.  In the Baltic states, Poland and in the Ukraine, monuments are destroyed, street and places names changed and Red Army cemeteries sometimes desecrated.  For the west Stalin is the culprit who started World War II along with Hitler, although these days the fuehrer barely rates a mention in some western political narratives.  And the Red Army which played the principal role in destroying the Nazi Wehrmacht is practically invisible in western histories of how Churchill, Britain, or more usually the United States «won» World War II. 

There were workers too, who laboured in factories, mines, steel mills, in the most appalling conditions, treated like little more than beasts or convict labour, working long hours in dangerous conditions for derisive pay

So I propose that we look at a little genuine history of the Russian Revolution.  Before 1914 Russia was not a felicitous place to live for most Russians in spite of recent efforts by  amateur historians to make tsarist Russia look like a more vibrant and progressive place.  It might have been for the Russian elite and the rare progressive people amongst that elite, who were musicians, artists, writers and rich eccentrics and philanthropists. That was one Russia, but there was another, a second Russia, which included most of the Russian population and was a much more sombre place.  The people who lived there had no time for concerts, art galleries and novels.  They were illiterate peasants mostly, who could barely eke out a living for themselves and their families, but who knew a thing or two about justice and how little of it they got from the tsar and his servitors. 

There were workers too, usually not so long ago peasants themselves, who laboured in factories, mines, steel mills, in the most appalling conditions, treated like little more than beasts or convict labour, working long hours in dangerous conditions for derisive pay (workers, pic here).  Labour unions were illegal and those who tried to organise them were tracked, beaten, sometimes killed, often jailed or sent into Siberian exile.  Workers too could tell you a thing or two about justice and the lack of it in their Russia.

In tsarist Russia, workers too could tell you a thing or two about justice and the lack of it in their Russia

Of course, in 1861 Aleksandr II, the «tsar-liberator», had freed the peasants from serfdom in a process that benefited the aristocracy more than did it did the peasantry.  The landed nobility got money to pay off their debts and live well.  Obliged to appease the aristocracy to keep it loyal, the tsarist government evaluated land, especially fertile land, at inflated prices for which the peasants had to pick up the bills.  They had to pay more for land than it was worth, paying a premium in effect for their freedom, such as it was.  In many cases, where the land was black earth and fertile, the peasants ended up with smaller plots to cultivate than they had had before «emancipation».  While the aristocracy got the money, the peasantry got saddled with debts impossible to pay off. 

There were thus two Russias, one, composed of a small, privileged minority, which lived well in a glittering environment; and the other, composed of peasants and workers, who did not live so well, who were discontented, perpetually angry, given to passive, or open resistance to a system which had relentlessly exploited them for centuries. Not that the peasantry had simply accepted the tsar’s repression.  They periodically rose up under leaders with names like Bolotnikov, Bulavin, Razin, Pugachev.  The rebellions never succeeded and always provoked savage repression.  Russian history taught that a successful revolution would need skilled leaders and experienced cadres to triumph.

Russia was a pyramid at the top of which sat the tsar, supported at its base by Russian peasants and workers

Russia was a pyramid at the top of which sat the tsar, supported at its base by Russian peasants and workers.  The inequalities of Russian society were exacerbated by two wars.  The first, the Russo-Japanese war, provoked the abortive Revolution of 1905.  A Soviet of workers’ deputies was set up in St. Petersburg; eventually electing as its president Lev Davidovich Trotsky.  An extraordinary Russian revolutionary, born in the Ukraine, Trotsky, at age 26, became one of the most important leaders of the first revolution.  The tsarist aristocracy was shaken but not toppled by the 1905 Revolution, which was ruthlessly crushed by the tsar’s still loyal armies.  «The revolution is dead», Trotsky said after it was over, «Long live the Revolution!»  There will be other opportunities, he meant, to overthrow the tsarist autocracy.

The tsarist aristocracy was shaken but not toppled by the 1905 Revolution, which was ruthlessly crushed by the tsar’s still loyal armies

Trotsky was right.  A second war began in 1914, and a second chance would arise for revolution.  Russia was in no position to fight a major war against a modern, industrialised state like Imperial Germany.  It did not have the industrial infrastructure, financial resources, or military stockpiles.  Consequently, the tsarist government lurched from one catastrophic military defeat to the next.  Casualties mounted into the millions.  For a time the army did not have enough rifles or artillery.  Soldiers had to fight with clubs or pick up rifles from dead comrades on the battlefield.  Gunners had to ration their ammunition; there were not enough shells to protect the infantry or thwart the German army.  The consequences were disastrous.  Retreat was sounded and large Russian territories were lost to the enemy.  Army morale plummeted.  Behind the front there were other calamities.  The war disrupted the Russian economy creating inflation, unemployment and food shortages in the cities.  Russia’s allies, France and Britain, provided arms and credits to keep the Russian government afloat and in the war, but the assistance was never enough. 

Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar

By the beginning of 1917 an estimated 1 million Russian soldiers had deserted and abandoned the front.  And why not?  They were tired of being badly led, and repeatedly slaughtered and beaten by the German army.  If soldiers could not read and did not know much about politics or the wider world, they knew enough to know that in their Russia, they were the scum of the earth.  «You are cannon fodder», another Russian revolutionary told them.  His name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.  Lenin was his revolutionary pseudonym.   «You are cannon fodder», he said, «for powerful capitalist elites fighting an imperialist war for imperialist booty.  Even if you survive the war intact, you will get none of the booty, reserved only for the privileged and the wealthy.  No, all you will get is your old life back and your old life’s miseries.  You have nothing to lose but your oppression and your shackles.  Turn your bayonets on your real enemies, the officers who send you to your deaths, the fat politicians and rich industrialists safe and warm in their palaces, and the tsar Romanov who rides on your backs, clothed in gilded uniform and fine leather boots, while you struggle under his weight, cold, hungry and dressed in rags.»

Even if peasant soldiers could not read Lenin’s tracts, his messages, or messages like them, passed by word of mouth in innumerable conversations at the front, whispered at first, but then louder and angrier as soldiers ceased to care if their hated officers overheard them.  The soldiers were not the only ones who were unhappy.  Workers in the cities went out on strike demanding better wages to buy bread for their families.  Even the tsar’s advisors and collaborators began to despair. 

In January 1917 the British ambassador in St. Petersburg warned the tsar of the mounting danger around him and urged him to act decisively to regain the confidence of his people.  «Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people», Nicholas replied, «Or that they are to regain my confidence?» Through the thick partitions of the tsar’s mind no sound of alarm passed.

On 9 January 1917, the French ambassador  sent an ominous message to Paris.  The tsar, he wrote, «has against him not only the all the democratic forces, all the liberal parties and all the conservative right, but even the most ardent defenders of absolutism… he retains only the support of the cabal around the tsarina [Aleksandra Feodorovna] and (I would like to be more certain of it) the army.»  So even in the Russia of shining light, the only Russia which counted for the French ambassador, the tsar’s support held by a thread.  And who knew about the army?  Would it stay loyal to the tsar, as it had done in 1905? 

Even if peasant soldiers could not read Lenin’s tracts, his messages, passed by word of mouth in innumerable conversations at the front, whispered at first, but then louder and angrier as soldiers ceased to care if their hated officers overheard them

The French military attaché in St. Petersburg had his doubts.  «The situation is very dangerous», he warned Paris: «In view of the immense losses, people are saying, and not just in the army but everywhere in the country, that it is useless to send men against machines, the infantry against canon shells, and there is a repugnance becoming more and more intenseto go on in the same way…»  To move from the present state of affairs to «absolute passivity», said this French officer, «is only a single step».

That single step was coming fast.  It was 16 February 1917.  Six  days later a revolution would begin, and not simply the collapse of a rotten government and the abdication of a dull-witted tsar, witnessed by a passive populace of workers and peasants.  What began in February 1917, now one hundred years ago, was the first expression of popular indignation and the first step in a genuine popular revolution against centuries of tsarist oppression.  That first step of the Russian Revolution, as an American journalist would later say, shook the very foundations of the European capitalist order.

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