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Two Years That Shook the World

The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd

by Alexander Rabinowitch
Norton, 393 pp., $14.95

The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization

by John L.H. Keep
Norton, 614 pp., $19.50

Class Struggles in the USSR: First Period 1917-1923

by Charles Bettelheim, translated by Brian Pearce
Monthly Review Press, 567 pp., $18.95

The File on the Tsar

by Anthony Summers, by Tom Mangold
Harper & Row, 416 pp., $12.50

The Secret Police in Lenin’s Russia

by Lennard D. Gerson
Temple University Press, 368 pp., $15.00

Nearly sixty years have passed since the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd—traditionally on November 7, 1917, because that was when the Second Congress of Soviets voted them into power. Actually power had been in their hands for some time before, but it is regarded as more democratic to stress the vote of the Congress rather than the military coup d’état, and hence the myth of the date, one of many, which has become firmly rooted in the popular presentation of the Russian revolution. Seizure of power without enacting any democratic pantomime was Lenin’s determined plan: he was opposed on this by Trotsky and others, who realized that there was a wide divergence between Lenin’s intention of establishing communist party rule, disguised as democratic, mass rule, and that of the “masses” concerned who wanted power to be taken over by the Soviets, which they saw as a coalition of numerous left-wing parties, both communist and socialist.

It is not possible to establish on available evidence (and not even the late Professor S.P. Mel’gunov, the leading historian of 1917, succeeded in doing it) whether the way things actually worked out was the result of chance or design. The Bolsheviks Come to Power is largely concerned with the way in which Lenin maneuvered his supporters in the capital in order to achieve what he wanted, rather than what they believed was happening. The second book under review, John L.H. Keep’s The Russian Revolution, is also concerned with the way in which Lenin dealt with the “parliamentary illusions” which long outlasted the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Bolsheviks survived, at times very precariously. But the Kronstadt rising in March 1921 showed that these “illusions”—that the Bolshevik revolution had been intended to install rule by the popular councils called Soviets and not by the communist party—had considerable vitality in the popular imagination.

In spite of their titles, neither of the two books on the revolution in fact deals with more than some aspects of it. Professor Rabinowitch covers the story in detail as it unfolded in Petrograd from the July 1917 rising until the seizure of power in October. He has amassed an immense amount of material which has been published in recent years in the Soviet Union, and there is no doubt that his work illuminates many details in the story that have hitherto been unknown. I am not sure that it throws any real new light on the main events. Dr. Rabinowitch claims to have put right “many” or “most” Western accounts in three respects: by showing that the October revolution was neither a “historical accident” nor a “well-executed coup d’état without significant mass support,” nor yet the work of a “united, authoritarian, conspiratorial organization effectively controlled by Lenin.”

But where are these Western accounts to be found? Not so far as I am aware among serious historians. I should have thought that most historians who have studied the sources (I disregard those who have merely repeated Soviet propaganda) are broadly agreed that in Petrograd (and in a number of other cities) the Bolsheviks had substantial popular support, or at the least benevolent neutrality, because the “masses” of the workers and the soldiers in the garrison believed that they were the main hope for ensuring the victory of the Soviets and the defeat of the “counterrevolution” which, in large measure thanks to Kerensky’s hysterical behavior, they associated with General Kornilov.

As to the party, I should have thought that most reputable studies of 1917 agree that it was neither united nor disciplined—how on earth could a party which had grown from around 24,000 in January 1917 to around 240,000 by August, recruiting all kinds of rabble in the process, have been disciplined? Both the judgments which I have summarized are fully borne out by Dr. Rabinowitch’s analysis, but they are not new. (If I may be forgiven for speaking pro domo sua, I tried, in a modest way, to establish these two propositions over twenty years ago).

Let me enumerate some of the merits of Dr. Rabinowitch’s book. It is very well written—and nothing is more tedious than good research spoiled by bad writing. Dr. Rabinowitch handles the great amount of material which he has amassed with great skill, and his book is enjoyable to read. I know of no previous work which has so skillfully presented the fluctuating state of the mood of the “masses” in the Russian capital in those fateful months. In his treatment of the planning of the insurrection he brings out fully the dominant and decisive role played by Lenin. However, in giving all credit to Lenin as a revolutionary leader one is well advised to keep a sense of proportion. Had the insurrection taken place in the way Lenin intended, and frantically tried to persuade his colleagues to accept—in other words, as a military coup d’état unconnected with the forthcoming Congress of Soviets—it could have failed. Whether by luck or by design (one element of luck was the postponement of the opening of the Congress for a few days), the coup was camouflaged sufficiently to hoodwink the “masses” into believing that what they wanted—a Soviet government—had been achieved.

In a work which is so complete and detailed there are some surprising omissions. There is very little, if any, analysis of the policy of the leaders of the Provisional Government—if such it can be called. Dr. Rabinowitch scarcely discusses their attitude to the Red Guards—the private army first clandestinely and then openly maintained by the Bolsheviks (which, however, as Professor Keep shows, was not nearly so important as Soviet legend would have us believe). Nor does Rabinowitch discuss their policy toward the Constituent Assembly, the land problem, or the war. True, these issues were not specifically related to Petrograd. But they were vital factors to Lenin’s success. And since Bolshevik policy in 1917 (as Soviet policy today) was almost entirely improvised as a reaction to their adversaries’ mistakes rather than based on any overall rigid plan, a Bolshevik revolution without some adumbration of the Provisional Government’s catalogue of inanities is a bit like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. There is no full analysis of the money supplied to the Bolsheviks by the Germans, which Dr. Rabinowitch (unlike Professor Keep, who regards the question of German money as still open) accepts as proved, but not very important. It obviously was not the decisive factor in Bolshevik victory. But there is evidence in Soviet sources to show that the money flowing in from various channels to the Bolsheviks from the Auswärtiges Amt was used by the Bolsheviks in a special fund (managed by Molotov) for intensive propaganda in the army—surely a not insignificant factor.

I also very much regret that Dr. Rabinowitch has not analyzed in any detail the morale of the vast Petrograd garrison. This idle, demoralized, and corrupt mob had a vested interest in revolution since so many soldiers and sailors had murdered so many of their officers and would have been hanged in the event of a failure of the revolution. The Petrograd garrison has often been assumed to have been a decisive factor in the Bolshevik victory, but was this so? One would have liked to see the evidence analyzed.

Dr. Rabinowitch’s treatment of the Kornilov affair and its effects covers three chapters of the book. It is the fullest analysis to date of a vital turning point in the Bolshevik revolution. This was set off when Kornilov, the commander in chief after the February revolution, sent troops to Petrograd in August 1917. He was dismissed by Kerensky, who called on the Bolsheviks to oppose him.

It is unfortunate that S.P. Mel’gunov died before completing the study of the Kornilov affair which he was planning. It is no disparagement of Dr. Rabinowitch’s work to say that one misses Mel’gunov’s cool and balanced judgment. Dr. Rabinowitch has certainly labored hard to settle the controversy about whether Kerensky deceived Kornilov, or Kornilov deceived Kerensky, and seems to treat this issue fairly. Where he appears to me to lack detachment is in his assumption throughout his narrative that Kornilov really was a “counterrevolutionary”—as Kerensky proclaimed far and wide once he realized that Kornilov was not prepared to let the politician continue at the helm of Russia after he and the army had taken over.

But “counterrevolutionary” suggests someone who wants to restore the monarchy—and there has never been a jot of evidence to support the view that this was Kornilov’s intention. All the evidence that I have seen suggests irresistibly that this simple soldier (“with the brains of a sheep,” according to an estimate quoted by Dr. Rabinowitch) was above all anxious to restore discipline and order in a country that was galloping toward anarchy under the weak leadership of the Provisional Government. It may have indicated the brains of a sheep to believe that this was possible: but there is no evidence to support the view which Dr. Rabinowitch seems to hold both expressly and by implication that Kornilov had “personal ambitions.”

Professor Keep is concerned with an aspect of the Russian revolution that has hitherto received very little attention from historians, who have for the most part concentrated on events in the capital. He has investigated, on the basis of immense and meticulous research, the urban and peasant mass organizations across the country, their function in 1917 in relation to the Bolshevik victory, and the various ways in which, during the first six months of the regime, the Bolsheviks dealt with the disillusionment among workers and peasants which their victory swiftly brought. His work thus complements Dr. Rabinowitch’s in that it studies at a different level the effects produced in the country when the Bolsheviks, while pretending to effect a Soviet victory, in reality produced a party victory.

Dr. Keep shows, with an objectivity and impeccable scholarship which place him easily in the first rank of historians of modern Russia, the skill and ruthlessness with which Lenin’s policies adopted toward the peasants in 1917 and 1918 were designed to neutralize a potentially hostile peasantry during the crucial months when the power struggle was being decided in the towns. (The words are Lenin’s, at the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party in March 1919.)

Dr. Keep, in a fascinating hundred pages or so, shows the growing revolt of the countryside in 1917, which played so vital a part in bringing about the “revolutionary situation” that the Bolsheviks could exploit in the cities—not that the peasants were politically minded so much as intent on settling private scores or making use of the breakdown of order to grab what they could. In this context, Dr. Keep is fully aware of the responsibility of the Provisional Government in bringing about this breakdown of order, though I do not think that he sufficiently stresses the populist sentimentality of the members of this government which really destroyed any resolve to maintain order. There is an equally important section on “neutralizing” the peasantry after the seizure of power, by a mixture of force and bribery—a story which has never before, so far as I know, been told in English.

The rest of this impressive book, apart from a valuable introductory section which examines the social background leading to the February revolution, deals with the urban organizations, again on a national scale—the factory committees, the Workers’ Militia out of which the Red Guards emerged, the trade unions, and the Soviets. As in the case of the peasants, Dr. Keep discusses these organizations first during the period of the Provisional Government and then during the six months after the seizure of power. Bolshevik aims in the two periods were, of course, different: in the first to unleash the greatest possible chaos and disruption, in the second to impose Communist party discipline on industry and Soviets and to get the workers accustomed to the idea that what they had achieved was not a worker-run state, but a party-run state. There is evidence of worker resistance right up to 1922 or 1923, at any rate. Solzhenitsyn has published one document with such evidence recently.* A largely worker army of up to 50,000, organized in the industrial towns of Izhevsk and Votkinsk, fought against the Bolshevik regime until 1922. In 1920 a delegation of the British Labour Party which visited Soviet Russia actually witnessed something of the repression of worker democracy and brought back documentary evidence of resistance to this repression. All of it remained unpublished, no doubt in the interests of “true socialism.” Even so, one cannot help wondering (and Dr. Keep does not supply the answer) how it came about that a whole working class proved unable, or unwilling, to put up more effective opposition to a creeping tyranny.

Charles Bettelheim’s Marxist analysis does not seem to me to provide any kind of realistic answer to this perennial Russian problem. Bettelheim, like so many Marxists who have the honesty to admit it, is concerned to explain why, in spite of public ownership of the means of production, the USSR is not a socialist state. This book is only the first volume of a projected monumental trilogy which will take the story up to the present day. He is, very laudably, opposed to applying “rigidified” Marxism to the interpretation of Soviet reality. The problem I find is to see any relevance of any Marxism in the interpretation of Soviet politics.

Bettelheim argues that the abolition of private property does not of itself do away with the bourgeoisie, a view once forcibly argued by Djilas, and long before him by Preobrazhensky. He lays great stress on an analysis made in 1922 which shows that only a small percentage of government functionaries favored the Soviet regime. I dare say. But what has lack of support of the Soviet regime got to do with “bourgeoisie”? One does not have to be “bourgeois” to object to the Cheka, concentration camps, atheism, and arbitrary violence. In fact, the real opposition to the Soviet regime came mostly from the working class and the peasants. Arguments by Marxists that the Kronstadt rising, for example, was caused by “petty bourgeois” prejudices, and similar nonsense, by implication suggest that communist rule was the only true “proletarian” rule. But this is what Bettelheim actually starts off by denying. So where are we in the end? I very much hope that we shall one day get a more convincing explanation of the triumph of Bolshevik communism from historians like Rabinowitch and Keep.

Messrs. Summers and Mangold have spent four years of research (and goodness knows how much money, supplied by the BBC and CBS) in endeavoring to prove that most of the Imperial Russian family were not, as hitherto believed, murdered in Ekaterinburg on July 16, 1918, along with servants and the family doctor. It is fair to say that the authors have been indefatigable in their search for evidence and that their claim to have disproved the accepted version is moderately made. Similarly, while they plainly believe that a lady now living in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, they do not go further than put forward the suggestion as a possibility. But the mass of contradictory evidence on Anastasia apart, the key to her story still lies in Ekaterinburg on July 16, 1918.

The first question one asks is why the Bolsheviks should have proved so humanitarian as to spare the women and servants. In order to trade them to the Germans is the suggested answer—though I cannot see that Chicherin would have been inhibited from tentative bargaining with the Germans for some arrangement over the imperial women even if he knew they were all dead. Be that as it may, the evidence on which the authors rely is unconvincing. They dismiss, on the flimsiest grounds, a key telegram reporting the killings from the local Commissar Beloborodov to Moscow, discovered by anticommunist forces when they occupied Ekaterinburg soon after the murder. They dismiss four Soviet eyewitness accounts of the massacre—one, by Beloborodov, they do not appear to know; two they discount; one they disregard on the grounds that Besedovsky, who published it in 1930, probably became an NKVD agent after the Second World War. They rely on the evidence of a distinguished pathologist to dismiss as physically impossible the absence of any human remains in the pit in which the bodies are said to have been destroyed. But one of the Russian eyewitnesses, Bykov, says that the remains were destroyed as far as possible with sulphuric acid, and that what was left was then cast into a bog.

The authors’ most effective argument is based on the report of the White Army’s investigator of the murder, Sokolov. Having studied the full dossier on which his report was based, now at Harvard, they were able to show that a great deal of evidence suggesting that the empress and her daughters were alive many months after they were supposed to have been murdered was apparently ignored by the investigator. Much of this evidence is very circumstantial, and, of course, the investigator should have discussed it in his report. But I suspect that he dismissed it less from a desire to blacken the Bolsheviks than because he was acquainted with the Russian tradition of weaving popular legends about the survival of dead emperors.

Certainly these omissions are the strongest part of the case presented. But it still leaves unaccounted for the subsequent fate of the imperial women except Anastasia, assuming they were not killed in July 1918. As for Anastasia, I doubt if the authors would claim that the account of her escape is very convincing. The most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter based on documents in the Public Record Office in London which have recently been opened for inspection. These show that it was not, as hitherto widely believed, Lloyd George who persuaded King George V not to grant asylum to Nicholas II and his family, but, surprisingly, the other way around.

Professor Gerson’s book is a scholarly, clear, and balanced account of the so-called “secret police” (though nothing could be less “secret”), the Vecheka and its successors the GPU and the OGPU, during the first ten years of the Soviet regime. This study has been made possible by the very considerable amount of material on this early instrument of terror (in which the Soviet authorities take great pride) published in the USSR since the celebration of the centenary of the Vecheka in 1967. The two most significant facts which emerge from this important contribution to the history of the Soviet system are: first, the way in which arbitrary and uncontrolled power, exercised in complete disregard for the law (such as it was), formed part of the political regime from its very outset; and secondly, that the blemishes usually associated with Stalin—concentration camps for forced labor and the use of arbitrary terror against political opponents, for example—were already firmly established under Lenin. Which makes particular nonsense of the fashionable left-wing view that Lenin was fine, and that it was only the wicked Stalin who spoiled everything.

  1. *

    An Extraordinary Meeting: A Document from the Archives of Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” in Kontinent 2, edited by Vladimir Maximov, Anchor Press, 1977.

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