Essay: From Tsar to Soviets – The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917-21

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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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3 November 2016

From Tsar to Soviets – The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917-21. This novel was written by Christopher Read, a professor of Russian History at the University of Warwick, in Europe. He specializes in Russian history from 1900 to 1925, focusing on the social history of the Russian revolution.  In this novel Read argued that the Russian Revolution was “constantly driven forward buy the often spontaneous impulse given to it from the grass roots.” (Page 3) He also states that “revolutions are not caused by revolutionaries”. (Page 6) This novel focuses on the February Revolution of 1917, When a provisional government took over in Russia and the Tsar resigned he looks at how the different classes of people viewed the revolution through their eyes. While also giving an explanation to the end of the revolution. This novel gives the reader an in depth look into factors the influenced and sparked the Russian Revolution.

Russia was already in the perfect revolutionary environment before WWI due to demographic, social, political, and economic forces. One of those influence was that in 1880, the population 100 million people. In almost thirty years the population then rose to 182 million people almost doubling by 1917. Rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century ultimately created three groups, the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat. These groups would play major roles in the 1917. This sudden growth in population brought more and more peasants into Russian cities looking for jobs and ways of income to support themselves and there families. All the while, Nicholas II again showed his views against reform describing them as “senseless Dream”.

In 1905 there was an eagerness for a revolution in Russia. Read argued that since the political structure of the Russian government for the most part staid the same it did not equate to a revolution. There have been many questions as to how autocracy managed to stay alive during the riots, strikes, and countless acts of terror in 1905. This was accomplished by the loyalty of the Armed forces. This in turn was a major benefit for the Tsar, his ability to control the armed forces gave way to Punitive Repression of Uprisings. Despite the inclinations of Nicholas II, it was the Tsar’s lengthy absence of him being leader of Russia. Also ensuing decline in the importance of decisions taken in Petrograd. This ultimately gave revolutionaries their opportunities in 1916 and 1917: “Thus, by 1916, the basic elements of tsarism’s final crisis were in place. There was bitter division within the elite over the form of government and growing discontent among the ordinary people on account of the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. Had the autocracy been prepared to make a major gesture of reconciliation with the Duma a new start might still have been possible, but nothing illustrates the entrenched obtuseness of Nicholas II and those around him better than the events of the last months of the dynasty. There was a vast difference between the government and any form of “liberalization” such as that advocated by the Progressive Bloc.” (p 20) Read Argued, “it was not the social revolution that brought about the collapse of the Russian state, but the collapse of the state that facilitated the social revolution.” (p24)

The February Revolution of 1917, which began on the streets of Petrograd, Russia When the Tsar renounced the government and a provisional government took power. Read argues that instead of the Bolsheviks “Third way”,”would not be quite so emphatically in charge of history but would themselves be, in large part, shaped by the historical forces of the time.” (p 24) During the July days the Bolsheviks did not provide support to armed demonstrator’s during the July days, forcing Lenin to hideout for the summer months. Only to emerge from his “straw hut in a damp and muddy Finnish field, only emerging fully in the midst of the October revolution.” (27). During the weeks leading up to the October revolution many of the public split from the Bolshevik party. Some argue the factories in Russia became the common meeting grounds and mixing pots of political parties to form and articulate their ideals. Read mentioned against making generalizations about the revolutionary nature about industrial workers in Russia. The Russian working class as a component of the narod, with the result that workers, soldiers, and peasants saw themselves as part of a larger struggle of the narod against the burzhui. Workers, were only faintly identified with political parties, this association that followed was very violate. The basic demands of the narod – better working and living conditions, and a measure of control over their own destinies –for the most part remained the same, and it was the “failure of their leadership” (p47) to simplify these demands, caused many workers, soldiers, and peasants to shift loyalty to other groups such as the Bolsheviks.

With over 100 million peasants, from dozens of major ethnic groups spread across over 8 million square miles of territory, generalizations about Russian peasants is an unjustified undertaking. Peasants tackled the efforts by the Provisional Government and its Bolshevik successors to reestablish the grain funnel getting more produce from the villages. There was strong moral beliefs of Russian peasants who believed that land should belong to who eveer worked an tended the fields. Finally, Read brought to light that institutions such as the commune, the mir, and the skhod demonstrated the “universality of the peasant revolution and its drive for self-government.” Pg 63

Read saw problems with traditional generalizations of soldiers and sailors as “peasants in uniform,” as well as efforts by the Marxist to illustrate members of the military as members of the proletariat. Read instead argued that it was the “oppressive structures of everyday experience in military service” (64) much of the motivation that came from the sailors and soldiers came from discipline and a desire for peace. Read also brought up that delegates to military conferences usually never belonged to political parties. They were more focused on issues and policies, than to particular political parties: Read attributed the eventual victory of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War to a number of factors. White Army forces, he argued, were not as formidable as they appeared and the number of reliable forces that could be counted on was limited. Whites had an inadequate amount of support from the foreign interventionists, and faced a great deal of difficulty in communications and logistics. Red Army forces, always held the highly populated heartland and were able to draw on a core demographic of 60 million people. As well as the remaining industry and the majority of the military stockpiles from the world war. In addition, Read made a convincing argument that the Bolshevik decision to send home the soldiers from the front was less driven by peace as it was by a “frantic desire to deprive the old elite of the power to strike at the revolution.” (119) Ultimately, though, the Bolsheviks possessed what Read described as the “trump card” in winning any support among the peasantry: The Whites could only promise a return to the old order, while the Reds were able to offer property redistribution.  

From Tsar to Soviets identifies the historical events that made up the Russian revolution while also highlighting the many hardships the Russians faced day to day. Russia during this time struggled to find the life vest and stay afloat. Read put a spin on this book by highlighting some of the consequences that followed form the Russian revolution and how the Russians suffered and overcame these hardships.

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