Lenin; drawing by David Levine

Revolutions seldom happen unexpectedly. Usually, they are preceded by unmistakable warning signs: the grand peur in 1789, the universal expectation of a revolution years before 1848. There had been ominous signs in Russia for a century before 1917. Herzen wrote in 1853 that any day Russia might be drawn into a terrible revolution. Generations of Russian revolutionaries had talked and dreamed revolution, yet when it actually happened in 1905, and again in 1917, it was without a plan or central leadership; Proudhon’s comment on Paris in 1848 applies equally to Petersburg in March 1917: “Le 24 fèvrier a été fait sans idée.” The extreme Left was no exception. Sukhanov, the Boswell of the Russian Revolution, noted in his diary that not one party was prepared. Lenin, lecturing in his Swiss exile on the lessons of 1905, ended on a resigned note: “We of the older generation may not see the decisive battle of the coming revolution.” Trotsky wrote that it had been a spontaneous uprising spurred by universal indignation; the Bolsheviks were at the time a headless organization with a scattered staff and weak illegal groups.

Dr. Katkov, in a new book on the February Revolution, does not accept the theory of the spontaneous nature of the February Revolution, which he finds “wholly gratuitous”: “The theory of spontaneity only serves to cover up our ignorance.” He is a firm believer in the thèse de complot, rejecting the thèse des circonstances, to use the terms that emerged from the discussions of the character of the French Revolution.

The reader will look in vain in Russia 1917 for a discussion of the political, social, and economic background, the repercussions of the War on the home front, the politics of the Bolshevik party and of the other revolutionary groups. The book is mainly devoted to the description and analysis of a series of plots which, the author thinks, caused the February revolution—particularly the German plot. Through Parvus, a Russian émigré and a person of some consequence in the revolutionary movement, the German foreign ministry had passed on money to the Bolsheviks and tried to foment strikes. There was the masonic plot: the impatient liberals with their campaign of slander and vilification against that saintly character, Nikolai II; the baneful influence of the voluntary organization and their many connections with the army command. There were the Jews who had reason to hate the Tsarist autocracy which had cruelly mistreated them. There were the personal intrigues of ambitious and unscrupulous politicians like Guchkov. It is only fair to say that Dr. Katkov also devotes several chapters to downgrading conspiracies that have traditionally been over-rated: the Rasputin affair, he thinks, was grossly exaggerated, the pro-German camarilla at court was without much influence, and he also shows that Myasoedov, an officer executed in 1915, was not a traitor but the victim of an intrigue.

THIS KIND of book is not new. What is remarkable about it is the diligence, the detailed references, the vastness of the material that has gone into it, and the author’s moderate language. It is the most elaborate and sophisticated attempt to apply the conspiracy theory of history to the Russian Revolution. There have been books of a similar character on the French Revolution from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s, tracing the source of all the evil to the illuminati. Auguste Cochin (on a higher level) has written about the secret groups of intellectuals (the sociétés de pensée) which originally gathered together to propagate the ideas of the Enlightenment and gradually became secret political pressure groups. After the Russian Revolution the search for the “hidden hand” assumed for a while fantastic proportions. The ominous events after the First World War were seen as an interconnected whole—so many disasters surely could not be unrelated and unplanned. Winston Churchill thought so at the time, as did Henry Ford, John Buchan, The Times, and Bulldog Drummond. The right-wing Russian émigré literature of the Twenties is full of attacks on Zhidomasonstvo (Jewish masonry), references to German gold, diatribes against the liberals who had undermined the Tsarist government.

Dr. Katkov is, of course, aware of these precursors, and he is not at all happy about them; various forgeries (he says) discouraged legitimate historical research and retarded investigation in an important field of clandestine political activities. No doubt there is a case for legitimate historical research. The sociétés de pensée played a role in eighteenth-century French politics; and it is true that the liberals were dissatisfied in pre-revolutionary Russia. Most masons wanted a constitutional regime, most Jews hated the Tsarist government. In autocratic monarchies, such as France before 1789 and Russia before 1917, any political activity outside the establishment is bound to be oppositionist and to a certain extent conspiratorial. But how important were these various plots, real and imaginary? There is a strong tendency to inflate their importance, to attribute a concerted purpose to ineffectual talk, to see sinister connections where there was at most, coincidence. So with a little help, order is brought into the apparent confusion. Several conspiracies emerge; and all the seemingly disconnected pieces fall into place. But it is a spurious order.


What justification is there to suggest that the Russian Jews helped to foment revolution? None: They benefited from the Revolution, receiving at long last equal status as citizens, as did other national minorities and indeed almost everyone else at the time. Then there is the question of German money, which is raised throughout the book. More than ten years ago, Dr. Katkov was one of the first to show, on the basis of his researches in the captured German documents, that the Bolsheviks did indeed receive money through several intermediaries from the foreign ministry in Berlin. (Communist historiography has always indignantly denied this charge, first made against Lenin in 1917-18.) It is claimed by some that the German money was of decisive importance in strengthening the Bolshevik party. But Mr. Katkov’s book is devoted to the March revolution, not the Bolshevik rising in November, and since everyone (including Mr. Katkov) agrees that the Bolsheviks did not play any significant role in the overthrow of the Tsar, it is difficult to see why the German money had to be brought in. Katkov argues that Parvus not only distributed his gold to the Bolsheviks but also had ten other agents, apparently free-lance revolutionaries, fomenting strikes and other forms of unrest throughout the Russian empire. Here the credulity of the reader is stretched beyond endurance. We do not know whether Parvus really had ten agents. He merely claimed he had. Some of them (Katkov thinks) seem to have been ordinary crooks, while others were rather inefficient. There is no documentary evidence at all for their activities, and yet time and again we are told that the continuous character of the strike movement “strongly suggests” that it was controlled and supported by Parvus and his agents, that the anti-war slogans in early 1917 were signs of direct German interference, and that eventually the fall of the Tsarist regime was the reward of the relentless efforts of the German authorities. With the same justification one could have looked for the hidden hand of the Okhrana behind the strike movement in Germany during the First World War.

THE AUTHOR seems to think that the government of a country like Russia could be overthrown as the result of the activities of ten paid agents, crooks and all. On the other hand, Dr. Katkov firmly disbelieves the theory of a spontaneous (stikhinoe) movement of the Petrograd proletariat: Why should such a movement have occurred then, and only then, in Petrograd? Never before nor since have the Russian masses shown any such capacity for concerted spontaneous action? The answer is, of course, that never before had Russia been in such a mess, and that Tsarist mismanagement and inefficiency on the military and domestic fronts had a cumulative effect. Nineteen hundred and five marked the writing on the wall, which Tsarism ignored just as Mr. Katkov ignores it in his book. There had been a revolutionary situation in 1905 and uprisings (without the benefit of German money) as the result of a short war fought on a distant front. How much more serious would be a crisis after three years of war and of bloody and costly defeats.

Lastly, the confraternity of the freemasons. Many leading politicians, including emperors and heads of state, have belonged to various lodges during the last 200 years, and the history of masonry in Russia is of particular interest. But on major issues there has been political solidarity and concerted action on neither the national nor the international level, simply because there were so many masons who belonged to all kinds of parties and interest groups. German masons fought Russian masons during the first World War, just as Austrian Catholics fought their Italian coreligionists. If, as one of Katkov’s key witnesses argues (forty years after the event), “we had our people everywhere,” it is impossible to understand why the Left Center failed so miserably in 1917. It is even stranger that the Bolsheviks, who always fought masonic influence (all lodges were dissolved in Russia after 1917), found no evidence of their nefarlous activities in the archives. They would have been only too eager to publish them. In truth there is no such evidence. There is only conjecture.

That a revolution in itself is not necessarily a boon to mankind, that it is all too often, as a nineteenth-century wit put it, a successful attempt to replace a bad government by something worse, has been realized for a long time. But it is also by now general knowledge qu’on ne fait pas le procés aux revolutions. Dr. Katkov does not agree, nor does Professor Tompkins, Research Professor emeritus of the University of Oklahoma. He deals in his new book, again in great detail, with Lenin’s “treasonable activities,” the fact that he accepted “tainted money,” the secret and conspiratorial character of his activities, the typical Russian (i.e., non-democratic) character of his revolution. Among Professor Tompkins’s sources are Les amours secrètes de Lenin and the Sisson papers (a famous 1918 forgery); there is a fullpage picture of Trotsky identified on this occasion as Lev Davidovich Bernstein, probably to prevent any confusion with that famous German revisionist, Eduard Trotsky.


PROFESSOR THOMPSON (of Indiana) covers a far more restricted area—the Russian question at the Versailles Peace Conference, Allied policy toward Russia between 1918 and 1920, and the diplomatic history of the intervention. Some of the issues involved have been analyzed before (notably by George Kennan and Richard Ullman), but Thompson brings in new materials and new aspects and has produced a useful study for the specialist. The publishers’ comments on the dust jacket of Mr. Shukman’s book can be accepted without reservation—it is a clear and concise (and, it should be added, well-written) history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, centering on Lenin and culminating in the Russian Revolution. The author has some curious ideas; he sometimes underrates the importance of ideological factors in the struggle for Russia’s future. Like Bertrand Russell, he regards Bolshevism as an “impatient philosophy,” an attitude of mind rather than a doctrine. One of his aims in this book is to show that impatient leadership was an institution of Bolshevism from its inception, rather than a quirk foisted upon it for thirty years by Stalin. This is an interesting thesis, but there is a danger of stretching it too far; there were other important differences between the Bolsheviks and their rivals, both of temperament and of ideological conviction.

Mr. Kochan’s survey is a well-written account of the social, political, and economic factors which created a revolutionary situation in Russia, He considers their origin in the last third of the nineteenth century and, rightly I believe, treats the whole period up to 1918 as a unit. Following Professor von Laue and some other historians of the period, he attributes decisive importance to the failure of modernization in Tsarist Russia, the disharmony between the resources of the state and its aspirations, the growing contrast between conditions in Russia and progress in the West, the structural crisis provoked by the modernizing urge. All this is only too true, but again if one pursues this line of argument too far the revolution appears virtually inevitable. But inevitable it was not; only Lenin, in retrospect, made it appear so. Without Lenin the revolutionary situation in 1917 might have passed, perhaps forever. Even Trotsky, a firm believer in historical materialism and not a man to belittle his own role in 1917, admits that much:

a disoriented and split party might have let the revolutionary opportunity slip for many years. The role of the personality arises before us here on a truly gigantic scale…

It is all very well to concentrate now on the objective circumstances favoring a successful revolution—the fact, for instance, that the percentage of industrial workers employed in big industrial enterprises was higher in Russia than in the West made revolutionary action easier. Or the fact that the Russian peasants desperately wanted land. All this explains only that the stage was set for revolutionary uprisings in Russia by the end of the war, not the Bolshevik Revolution itself. Even if the whole Russian proletariat had been concentrated in one giant factory, there still would not have been a Revolution without Lenin.

This brings us back to Katkov and the accidental-conspiratorial school. Should one dismiss his book as useless for reasons similar to those that made it impossible for most French historians to take Taine seriously—the omission of matters of vital importance? Or should it be regarded as a useful corrective to the prophets of inevitability both in the Soviet Union and in the West? Does not what was said about Taine apply to Katkov—that no one understands the grandeur of the revolution until he reads Michelet, nor the horror without reading Taine?

There is in historiography, as one of its distinguished contemporary practitioners has pointed out, a tendency toward the conspiratorial interpretation—the historian wants order and tidiness, and yet he comes up again and again against riddles and obscurity. In these circumstances he is only too easily inclined to ascribe to premeditation what belongs to accident and to purpose what belongs to chance.*

Dr. Katkov and other historians like him are finally concerned with trifles. It is really not important to know in detail who, if anyone, stirred up the food riots in Petrograd, just as it is not important to establish who first shouted “To the Bastille” on July 14, 1789, or what made Aulin march two detachments of the Gardes Françaises up to the main gate of the fortress. A performance of Auber’s Fra Diavolo sparked off the revolution in Brussels in 1830; the punishment by bastinado of a group of merchants was the immediate cause of the revolution in Teheran in 1905. The revolution in Munich in 1848 came as the result of a student’s cane dropping into the orchestra pit from the balcony. One could, of course, investigate the social background of this student, his subconscious, the question whether he had any assistance in dropping his cane or whether perhaps he was pushed from behind. It need not be said that all this would not contribute to the understanding of the real causes of the revolution of 1848 and of its ultimate failure. For revolutions are often sparked by trifles, but they are not about trifles.

In outline, and partly also in detail, the causes and the circumstances of the revolutions of 1917 are known. In the 1920s the Soviet archives were still accessible, and scholarship was not so specialized. Today conditions for research are far less propitious; it will probably be a long time before the Soviet archives are opened. In these circumstances Western students, for want of basic new material, are in danger of getting sidetracked in obscure and minor details. Having invested in them sufficient time and effort these may seem to them of paramount importance. Or they will be tempted to try their hand at some new interpretation of the Revolution, its real meaning, its place in history, by arbitrarily selecting some of the available evidence to buttress their arguments and by ignoring what does not fit. Important historical events are invariably reinterpreted by subsequent generations. But at present there is not much scope for fresh attempts to reinterpret the Russian Revolution; either new evidence or distance in time is needed—probably both—to open up new vistas.

This Issue

June 15, 1967