The horrific famine of 1921 confronted the Soviet government with an inevitable decision: to recognize the disaster and accept foreign aid. Within a short time, more than twenty agreements were signed with international organizations that had expressed a desire to help Soviet Russia. Third on the list was an agreement between the People’s Commissariat and the Quakers. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, is a Protestant Christian church whose history of interactions with Russia dates the seventeenth century. From 1916 to 1931, the Quakers were able to cooperate quite peacefully and fruitfully with all the authorities: with officials of Tsarist Russia, with the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, and with the Bolsheviks. This cooperation helped save hundreds of thousands of people, people who survived thanks to Quaker rations, doctors, tractors, and horses. In Russia, almost nothing is known about this assistance: the names of the saviors have been forgotten, and their good deeds have been consigned to oblivion. Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia and a researcher of Quaker history, is committed to restoring historical justice with his book. The book features an introduction by Vladislav Aksyonov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History (RAS) and a member of the Free Historical Society, which situates the Quakers’ efforts in the socio-political context of the era.
Sergei Nikitin has written an amazing documentary book. We are taught that we are surrounded by enemies, but this book is about how this isn’t the case at all. We are taught people do everything only for their benefit, but it turns out that there are people who live quite differently. Books like this change the world.
Boris Grebenshchikov, musician
This book by Sergei Nikitin, a long-time representative of Amnesty International in Russia, is dedicated to one of the most important values of human civilization—love for one’s neighbors, no matter how close they really are geographically, ethnically, or politically. Religious feeling and compassion lead thae book’s characters, British and American Quakers, to distant Russia to help the starving and dying. The author opens this page of Russian history for the first time, carefully and thoroughly extracting hitherto unknown facts. This is not just a chronicle of humanitarian aid, but a history of humanity.
Mikhail Fedotov, lawyer and civil rights defender
No matter how you look at the story told by Sergei Nikitin, it contradicts commonly held notions in modern Russia: the English and Americans help refugees and starving people in Bolshevik Russia; Quakers cooperate with the Soviet government to combat hunger and establish health care; a religious society serves as a channel of communication between a diplomatically isolated country and the outside world. The book also discusses the commonalities between the Communist utopia and Quaker ideals, and whether it is possible to emerge victorious based on your own idea of what should be done, despite the framework in which you are placed by politicians at home, the host government, and even those you help. These are deeply personal stories, intertwined with the history of our country—a history that we need to know.
Ivan Kurilla, historian
Sergei Nikitin talks about his book How the Quakers Tried to Save Russia
Claudia Chadova, a young woman, 19 years old, worked at a factory for 3 years. After joining the RCP, she expressed a voluntary desire to engage in military training and stayed in the barracks for 1 month.
Having been stationed in the barracks, she was sent to the front to fight bandits in Ukraine. After staying at the front for about 8 months, she was captured by bandits and ran back towards the Reds, who did not find out that she was a Red, and hacked her to pieces. Comrade Chadova laid down her young life for the cause of the working class.
Source: Mass Grave: A Biographical Dictionary of Deceased and Killed Members of the Moscow Organization of the RCP, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1923), p. 176
Arkady Rylov, Vladimir Lenin in Razliv, 1934. Oil on canvas. Collection of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Why the Bolsheviks Won
Konstantin Tarasov Vedomosti
November 3, 2017
The question of why the Bolsheviks won in October 1917 was meaningful to the revolution’s contemporaries and has lost none of its relevance today. Over the past one hundred years, numerous mutually contradictory causes have been identified: from the fanaticism of a cohesive band of conspirators to searching for Bolshevism’s roots in the popular consciousness, from conspiracy theories to official Soviet historiography’s stance on the October Revolution’s objective preconditions.
After the February uprising, the most influential leftist parties were the SRs and Mensheviks, who led the Petrograd Soviet and the majority of provincial Soviets. They formed a moderatel socialist bloc that advocated a long-term transition from capitalism to socialism. The SRs and Mensheviks stood for social partnership between the classes and supported the Provisional Government while also striving to control its actions in order to consolidate the February Revolution’s gains. They agreed on the notion of “revolutionary defencism,” i.e., continuing Russia’s involvement in the First World War while rejecting expansionist goals.
The Bolshevik Party was not a significant force as of February 1917. In the preceding years, the left wing of Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had been weakened by the denunciations, arrests, transportation, and exile of its most influential leaders. Many rank-and-file party members had retired from the cause due to persecution by the authorities. Even after the events of February, there were no more than 25,000 Bolsheviks in Russia.
The Bolsheviks had stood out from the broad spectrum of political parties from the get-go. Before February 1917, they had put forward the slogan “Down with the war!” and been heavily involved in the antiwar and defeatist movements. After the overthrow of the monarchy, the Bolshevik leadership argued that the new “bourgeois” government was pursuing its previous goals nor had the nature of the war changed. Disputes among the Bolsheviks touched on the question of power. The party’s Petrograd organization was inclined to refuse supporting the Provisional Government. However, after the return from transportation of the influential Joseph Djugashvili (Stalin), Mikhail Muranov, and Lev Rozenfeld (Kamenev), the party was more inclined to supported the new regime’s decisions if they met the interests of working people. Bolshevik leaders were ready to reject factional differences and unite all currents of social democracy.
Circumstances changed when Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) returned from a long period of exile. He proposed an unexpected program to his comrades: breaking with the moderate socialists supporting the Provisional Government, ending the war, and overthrowing the regimes in all the warring countries. Lenin was certain the so-called bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution was over, and it was time to proceed to the socialist stage. The emergence of the Soviets, which ensured the presence of workers and peasants in the government, facilitated the possibility of a rapid transition to socialism. During April 1917, Lenin persuaded the party to adopt the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” and accept the bulk of his so-called April Theses.
However, it was not the radical program that made Lenin’s name really famous, but the hype caused by his return to Russia via Germany, which was still at war with Russia. The party’s leader was accused of aiding the enemy and declared a German spy. The claims heightened the tension in society. Bolshevik campaigners were often arrested and beaten. This discredited any criticism of the Provisional Governmment. The moderate socialists in charge of the Petrograd Soviet rose to the defense of Lenin’s views until they went beyond campaigning.
By June 1917, the Bolsheviks numbered around 240,000 people in their ranks. By way of comparison, by the summer of 1917, the SRs had 800,000 people in their ranks, although the vast majority of them were so-called March SRs, i.e., people who had joined the party after the February Revolution. Membership of the Socialist Revolutionary Party did not require paying dues and being involved in party work, so it makes no sense to speak of a unity of action and purpose among its members. The SRs had become the “party of power,” so many of its new members were guided by career ambitions when they joined.
Circumstances had shaped up differently for the Bolsheviks. In early 1917, the party had found itself in a minority in most Soviets. Its members argued with the more influential moderate socialists and often risked life and limb by speaking at rallies. In addition, according to their charter, a person could join the party only on the recommendation of two members. This consolidated the Bolsheviks and brought the stances of its different factions closer together.
Time was on the side of Lenin and his party. A series of political crises and the government’s refusal to implement serious reforms before the Constituent Assembly was convened had weakened the coalition of socialists and liberals. The failure of a July offensive on the front, spearheaded by the socialist war minister Alexander Kerensky, strengthened antiwar moods in the army. The Bolsheviks called for the re-election of deputies who did not defend the interests of voters. By the summer of 1917, large left-wing Social Democratic factions had taken shape in many Russian cities. However, during this period, the Bolsheviks were unable to gain a majority over the moderate socialists in most Soviets.
On July 3, 1917, a spontaneous uprising meant to persuade the leadership of the city’s Soviet to take power broke out in Petrograd. Seeing that the uprising was following its slogans and afraid of forfeiting its influence among the masses, the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to join the demonstrators. July 4 was marked in many Russian cities by Bolshevik-led demonstrations chanting the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” The moderate socialists, however, believed Lenin’s supporters were trying to exert armed pressure on the Soviets and supported the Provisional Government’s pacification of the capital. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Pavel Pereverzev published documents denouncing the Bolsheviks’ alleged ties with Germany.
Pereverzev supervised the drafting of a press release based on the testimony of an Ensign Yermolenko and correspondence between Stockholm and Petrograd, intercepted by Russian counterintelligence. The testimony of the defector Yermolenko, who had been recruited by German intelligence, about Lenin’s involvement in espionage aroused doubts even among his contemporaries, and the Provisional Government’s investigators failed to find evidence the Bolsheviks were funded by the German General Staff. The intercepted documents touched on business matters, and the money had been sent from Petrograd to Stockholm. The investigators had no other evidence.
However, the publication considerably altered the mood in Petrograd, and the demonstrations quickly came to naught. The government arrested the instigators, unreliable army divisions were dispatched to the front, and a criminal investigation into Bolshevik Party leaders was launched. Lenin was forced into hiding to avoid arrest. This was the most difficult period for the party. However, it purged its ranks of waverers, leaving behind only firm supporters of radical action.
The events of October 1917 in Petrograd have often been called a coup. There is some truth in this. The seizure of certain facilities in the city and the blockade of the Provisional Government on Palace Square were effected by military means. But a coup would not have led to a change of regimes without the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK), established by the authoritative Petrograd Soviet. By October, it was dominated by a block of leftist radical parties led by the Bolsheviks. All the parties delegated commissars to the committee for overseeing military units and key facilities in the city. If the Bolsheviks had attempted to remove the Provisional Government from power only by military means, events would probably have dragged on and could have ended with the defeat of the radicals.
The victory of the left-wing radical parties depended not only on events in the capital: the revolution was a large-scale, nationwide process. There were numerous “October Revolutions.” Moreover, in some places, e.g., Tashkent, Revel (Tallinn), and Kazan, the Soviets had taken power earlier than in Petrograd, while in other places they took power considerably later. Soviet power’s “triumphal march” dragged on for over a year. Circumstances depended on the balance of political forces in the regions. In the Volga River Basin, for example, the Left SRs and SR Maximalists played the main role in establishing Soviet power. In Krasnoyarsk and Kronstadt, it was anarchists who ensured the radical left bloc’s victory.
At the front in the summer of 1917, extreme left-wing forces tried to put up a fight against the moderate socialists in the army’s Soviets. They were most successful at the Northern Front, situated closest to the capital, where a left bloc uniting Bolsheviks, Menshevik Internationalists, and Left SRs from twenty-eight regiments, including Latvian riflemen, was established. At other fronts, the SRs and Mensheviks dominated the leadership of Soldiers’ Soviets at the highest level until October. The Bolsheviks succeeded in winning after the military revolutionary committees were established.
So, it would be inaccurate to say the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917. The transition to full-fledged Soviet power occurred because the moderate socialist bloc had discredited itself by governing in coalition with the liberals. Regime change was ensured by uniting the left-wing radical parties under the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the Soviets!” In this wise, the numbers of Bolsheviks did not play a big role, and the fight with moderate socialists in the Soviets continued for several months. However, Russia was already sliding toward civil war: the chance for compromise had been frittered away. The time for uncompromising struggle had come.
Konstantin Tarasov is a researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Translated by the Russian Reader
The Great October Conspiracy Conspiracy theories were as useful in 1917 as they are one hundred years later
Fyodor Krasheninnikov Vedomosti
October 31, 2017
A hundred years ago, Russia stood on the treshold of the Bolshevik coup and the subsequent long-term dictatorship of the Communist Party. How did it happen that society could summon up no forces to stop it?
If you believe conspiracy theorists, in 1917, the forces of darkness managed twice in a single year, in February and October, to pull off the same trick: to hatch a plot and overthrow the existing regime. This take on what happened a hundred years ago has become all but official, and on the anniversary of the Bolshevik coup we will be treated to it again and again.
The story of German agents plotting against Russia was dreamt up a hundred years ago. After the July Days of 1917, a brief revolt in Petrograd against the Provisional Government, an idea emerged in the depths of the counterintelligence service, which had been disfigured by revolutionary purges. The Bolsheviks would be declared German intelligence agents, society would be incited against them, and counterintelligence could take the gloves off. Yet no serious evidence of the charges was presented, and consequently the attempt to save the crumbling Kerensky regime by telling a lie dealt a blow to the regime itself.
After the Bolsheviks came to power and did everything they did, the story about German spies took on a life of its own, eventually fusing with the monarchist theory that Freemasons had organized the February Revolution.
Conspiracy theories are equally useful to the authorities in 1917 and in 2017 for an obvious reason: it lets them off the hook for the state of the nation. Economic downturns, foreign policy failures, and popular discontent are all ascribed to outside forces and their domestic agents. When they turn the talk to spies and conspiraces, the powers that be make their lives easier, for inflating spy mania, and encouraging people to tighten their belts and rally round the current regime, whatever it is like, is much simpler than improving the economic and sociopolitical circumstances at home and thereby raising the popularity of the regime itself.
The main lesson to be drawn from a thoughtful reflection on the events of 1917 is that the government is primarily to blame for revolutions and coups, because it generates the prerequisites for its successful overthrow. We can endlessly mourn the last tsar and his family, but the truth is that it was Nicholas II who brought things to the point where a huge empire collapsed in a matter of days for the most ridiculous reason, and the institution of the monarchy proved incapable of mobilizing its potential supporters to defend, if not the overthrown tsar himself, then at least the Romanov dynasty and the monarchical system.
By hemming and hawing, and proving incapable either of solving the most urgent economic problems or holding elections to the Constituent Assembly until state power had utterly collapsed, the Provisional Government did its all to pave the way for the Bolsheviks and their sympathizers to seize power.
No conspiracy hatched by agents could have led to the seizure of power in the vast country if the program and slogans of the Bolsheviks had not been popular, and they themselves had not been regarded as a force capable of introducing at least minimal order, launching urgent social reforms, and finally holding elections to the Constituent Assembly.
We now know that the Bolsheviks deceived the workers, peasants, and soldiers, while also failing to bring the country social justice, peace or prosperity. But as we look back a hundred years, we must judge the circumustances not from the perspective of what we know nowadays, but from the viewpoint of contemporaries of those events, who saw only growing chaos on all sides and took seriously the promises made by the Bolsheviks.
Fortunately, there is no war [sic], no “land question,” and nothing like the Bolshevik Party, with its radical leftist platform and readiness for violence nowadays, so direct comparisons are completely out of place. But attempts by the current regime to chalk up all its failures and all dissatisfaction with it to the baleful endeavors of foreign agents and fabled Russophobes do, indeed, evoke the saddest comparisons with the past.
Fyodor Krasheninnikov is a political scientist based in Yekaterinburg. Translated by the Russian Reader
“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”
Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).
Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.
But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.
If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.
What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?
I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war. In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.
Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?
The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.
In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.
So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs, despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?
There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.
Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.
Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?
It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.
The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home. Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.
By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?
There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.
Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?
It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.
You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?
It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.
What if we return to Kerensky?
The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee. He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.
What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?
Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”
Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?
I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.
The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.
The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
Thinker and revolutionary, founder of Russian social democracy, and major theorist of the Russian labor movement, Georgi Plekhanov (1856–1918) occupies a prominent place in Russia’s political history. Occasioned by the 160th anniversary of his birth, the exhibition focuses on the political biography of this talented propagandist and popularizer of Marxism, showing how his views evolved as the Russian revolutionary movement (1870–1917) progressed from the Populists to the Marxists. Avoiding both apologetics for an “outstanding Russian Marxist thinker” and Soviet-era accusations of Menshevism and opportunism, the exhibition shows the socio-economic and political conditions that shaped the revolutionary’s worldview.
In 1876, Plekhanov was an organizer of the clandestine organization Land and Liberty, taking part in rallies and strikes, and penning proclamations. During the first political demonstration in Russia, which took place outside Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg on December 6, 1876, Plekhanov delivered a diatribe against the autocracy. He rejected terrorism as a means of struggle, and when Land and Will split in 1879, he headed the underground Populist organization Black Repartition. Fleeing from police persecution, Plekhanov went into exile abroad, spending a total of thirty-seven years in Switzerland, Italy, France, and other European countries.
In 1883 in Geneva, Plekhanov founded Emancipation of Labor, the first Russian Marxist group, which published the works of Marx and Engels and popularized Marxism. Plekhanov became a prominent Marxist theorist and a leader of the international socialist movement, participating in the congresses of the Second International, and producing numerous works of journalism, philosophy, and literary criticism. In 1900, Plekhanov and Lenin launched the underground newspaper Iskra. Plekhanov was also involved in founding the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, but after the party split into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903, he was at odds with Lenin.
The exhibition deals at great length with Plekhanov and Lenin’s relationship, which evolved from cooperation to confrontation. Plekhanov emerged as a political antagonist of Bolshevism and a critic of Lenin and the October Revolution. (He dubbed Lenin’s “April Theses” “nonsense.”) The exhibition has also captured the fierce polemics about Marxism that Plekhanov conducted with the Populists Nikolay Mikhaylovsky and Lev Tikhomirov, the revisionist Eduard Bernstain, the Legal Marxist Pyotr Struve, and Yekaterina Kuskova, ideologist of the so-called Economists.
The exhibition features documents, photographs, and works of Georgi Plekhanov, as well as numerous exhibits on the history of the Russian revolutionary movement, including Land and Liberty’s first leaflets from the 1870s. Paintings and drawings illustrate the events to which Plekhanov responded.
Plekhanov’s death mask and a documentary film about his funeral (provided by the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive) witness the end of his life. On June 9, 1918, Plekhanov’s coffin was escorted by students, clerks, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and workers—by no fewer than ten thousand Petrograders who refused to obey the instructions of Bolshevik leaders. People of different political views and convictions marched should to shoulder in the funeral procession, including Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, Constitutional Democrats and ardent monarchists. Only the official Bolshevik authorities demonstratively refused to be involved in the funeral. One of the greatest men of his time was thus laid to rest.
When you can’t think of anyone else to blame (and especially when you wouldn’t think of blaming your collective self), blame the Russian peasants:
Leonid Vasilyev, head of the Laboratory for History Studies at the Higher School of Economics, believes that the times are very bad not only in Russia, but throughout the world.
“Poverty and ignorance have come to the fore: they are the twin pillars of the world today. Over the past half century, the population of the Earth has increased from 1.6 billion people to 7 billion, of whom 6.2 billion are poor and ignorant. We are seeing the same thing in Russia,” he said.
Vasilyev believes that the Russian peasant commune—archaic, ignorant, inert and hostile to innovation—has now come to power in Russia. The commune has acted as a powerful canopy over the history of Russia or, rather, it has not let our country’s history come into its own.
“After all, what was the Russian commune for most of its existence? A nomadic population. The commune would use slash-and-burn agriculture to exploit a piece of land from four to eight years, and then it would pick up stakes and go cultivate a new plot. Hence the lack of horizontal ties, of solidarity, in Russia. Serfdom was a blessing for this population; it reduced the costs of encampment. Please note that the Russian commune never raised a rebellion against serfdom. Cossacks and Old Believers protested, but not the Russian commune. The folk liked living under serfdom,” the historian argued.
At the end of nineteenth century, the commune rejected the intelligentsia’s campaign of “going to the people,” but the Bolsheviks were able to reach out to peasants by giving them simple slogans and restoring serfdom in the form of collective farms.
“Eighty years have passed, and commune members have moved into the Russian cities. They have not changed much: there is still the same old archaism and ignorance. That is, they are the people whom the current regime represents. If you held fair elections, they would win a stunning victory,” lamented Vasilyev. “What hopes are there that the situation will change? Hope is almost nonexistent.” *