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
Ilya Orlov The Field of Mars: Revolution, Mourning, and Memory
We are on the Field of Mars in Petersburg, at the Monument to the Fighters of the Revolution. That is the official name. The question immediately arises: to the fighters of which revolution? This is not specified in the official name. The epitaphs, penned by the first Soviet minister of education Anatoly Lunacharsky in 1919, are more lyrical than informative, referring to previous revolutions and historical figures, including the Jacobins and the Paris Communards. Only this humble gravestone refers to the primordial event: here lie the victims of the February Revolution of 1917.
I doubt whether anyone pays attention to this gravestone. If you ask passersby what this place is, they are likely to reply that it is some memorial to the victims of some revolution. This is not surprising. Historically, the October Revolution eclipsed the February Revolution. This eclipse happened in Soviet times, and it was reflected in Soviet historiography. And there have been so many other historical events subsequently that now society has almost no memory of this revolution and its victims. In the 1990s, students from the nearby Institute of Culture grilled sausages over the eternal flame at the center of the monument. I have heard such stories firsthand. Perhaps this was a spontaneous denial of Soviet monumentalism and Soviet ideology. But the paradox is that this monument, which was more a revolutionary than a Soviet monument, was created by the revolution. Not to glorify state ideology, but on the contrary, to memorialize those who fought against the state’s tyranny. In this sense, the Field of Mars is a “place of memory, overgrown with grass,” despite this imposing granite monument.
But the shape of the memorial dates to March 1917. Here we see four L-shaped stelae: they were built a year later, in 1918. The L-shape is not accidental. Under the stelae are four L-shaped mass graves containing 184 victims of street fighting between protesters and police in February 1917. The rest of the burial ground—the quadrangular space formed by the stelae—was established soon afterwards, but during a completely different period, after the October Revolution of 1917. Here lie a number of combatants in the Civil War, mostly Bolsheviks, and most of their names are known. Our task today is to recall the original tenor of this memorial site, the tenor of February and March 1917.
The February Revolution was the first of two revolutions in Russia in 1917 (although some historians consider them parts of a single revolutionary process). After spontaneous bread riots, mass strikes and demonstrations in Petrograd (then the capital of the Russian Empire), soldiers from the city’s garrison sided with the protesters. The revolution resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government came to power, its members, mostly liberals and conservatives, drawn from the State Duma (the former monarchy’s parliament). At the same time, local socialists formed an alternative authority, the Petrograd Soviet, which ruled alongside the Provisional Government. There were thus two centers of power, both with problems of legitimacy. It was a very unstable situation, which Lenin defined as a diarchy (dvoevlastie).
The new authorities decreed political freedom, ended capital punishment, released political prisoners, and abolished ethnic and religious discrimination. The result was total euphoria. But such important issues as Russia’s involvement in the First World War, social and economic problems, and labor issues remained on the agenda. Also, the question of the country’s future political constitution was unclear. The new authorities were not ready to answer these questions and deferred their consideration until the future Constituent Assembly met. In 1917, the idea of the Constituent Assembly, a “future master” that would be able to solve all problems, was a sort of fetish. It was, in fact, convened in 1918, but was soon dissolved by the Bolsheviks.
So the beginning of March 1917 was a time of economic crisis and instability, a hard situation at the front, universal euphoria over revolutionary liberation, total uncertainty about the future, and potential social fissure. This is the context in which the Petrograd Soviet raised the question of organizing a gigantic nationwide political manifestation—a solemn funeral for the victims of the revolution.
The February Revolution was not bloodless. How many people were killed or wounded? The exact number of dead and wounded has never been precisely determined. According to early Soviet historiography, the total number of casualties did not exceed one and a half thousand. Of these, no more than two hundred people were killed. In later historiography, the numbers increased. But this information is also unreliable, because not all the victims were recorded.
There is also uncertainty over the number of people buried in the mass graves on the Field of Mars. Sometimes, the figures vary even within the same newspaper article. But the maximum number found in the historical sources is 184.
The nationwide funeral of the victims of the revolution or, as it was called, the “great funeral,” was planned by the Petrograd Soviet soon after the victory of the revolution. According to their plan, it was to be a grandiose funeral demonstration, meant to unite all the forces of the revolution, a “parade and review of all the revolutionary forces.” Preparations for the ceremony took more than three weeks. The plans were finally implemented on March 23, 1917.
Contemporaries described the events of that day as completely unprecedented. From morning till late night, endless columns of demonstrators relentlessly marched from different quarters of the city to the Field of Mars, carrying red coffins containing the bodies of the victims of the revolution. One after the other, the funeral processions arrived at the Field of Mars. It was a kind of political demonstration where various political, social, ethnic, professional groups and identities were broadly represented. There were columns of workers from different factories, military units, columns from educational institutions, columns made up of workers from various professions and trades, columns from leftist parties (for example, the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries), columns representing different ethnic groups, and columns from ethnic leftist parties, for example, the Jewish Bund and the Armenian Dashnaktsutyun party. There were also columns from grassroots organizations, civic committees, and other groups of citizens, including, even, a column of blind people. In a certain sense, it was a symbolic repetition of the revolution itself.
According to official figures, 800,000 people attended the funeral manifestation. According to unofficial tallies, up to two million people attended. Given that the city’s population was around 2.5 million at the time, we can assume the majority of the capital’s inhabitants were involved in the ceremony as participants or spectators.
There is still no historiography specially devoted to this event. The event, however, is well documented: all the newspapers published reports about it, and many photographs were taken. It is curious that photographs of the ceremony are still used as primarily visual matter for books and articles about the February Revolution, even if the funeral is not actually mentioned in them. This is quite understandable: the photographs depict a huge mass of demonstrators, as if this were the revolution itself.
The newspaper reports about the funeral are highly emotional. Sometimes, they even slip from prose into poetry. The rhetoric of “brotherhood” or “revolutionary brotherhood” is quite common in these reports: the victims of the revolution are often referred to as “our dead brothers.” At the same time, these articles have a euphoric tone: they often talk about the coming revival of the country, or about a great celebration of freedom.
Historians have repeatedly noted the anthropological connection between mourning, celebration, and revolution. Specifically, French historian Mona Ozouf talks about this in her book Festivals and the French Revolution. There are other numerous historical examples of this phenomenon, including the Ukrainian Maidan of 2014. Mourning and funeral processions provoke sublime feelings and mobilize people.
It is quite important to note one thing about this funeral. It was fundamentally a civil ceremony. There were no icons, no crosses, and no priests. Numerous requests from clergy to participate in the ceremony were rejected by the Soviet. For the first time in Russian history, a funeral of this scale was conducted without the Church’s participation. This civil ceremony was not just secular, however. It followed the cultural tradition of the revolutionary underground, the tradition of so-called red funerals. This tradition started after Bloody Sunday, the massacre of unarmed demonstrators that sparked the Revolution of 1905. Then, workers had begun to bury their comrades in red coffins, without the ministrations of priests. And more importantly, they turned funerals into political rallies. In defiance of the autocracy and the despotism of capitalism, they seemed to identify the sacred—death—as one of their allies. At the Field of Mars in 1917, this tradition attained official national status for the first time.
The ceremony of this huge demonstration was elaborately planned over several weeks. From the very beginning, it was clear the number of participants would be enormous. (As I have mentioned, it was as many as two million people in the end.) The organizers were afraid there could be a crush or stampede in the crowd. Therefore, they drew up instructions, layouts, route charts, and written rules that explained how the columns of the demonstrators should be self-organized, where and when they should start, how they should move, and which way they should go during the ceremony. These instructions were published before the funeral in newspapers.
The instructions were based on the idea of self-organization by district. Assembly points were located at the hospitals in the city’s six districts where the bodies of the victims of the revolution lay. There was a parallel between this scheme and the structure of the Soviet itself: both were democratic structures based on the representation of districts and small groups. The departure time of the district processions was scheduled in such a way that they arrived at the Field of Mars one after another, and only from the direction of Sadovaya Street.
The main idea of the ceremony’s planners was that the funeral procession would not stop in the square even for a minute. When a column reached the burial site, the demonstrators handed the coffins to workers who directly carried out the burials. The very next moment, the column would continue to move toward the exit, which was located on the opposite side of the field, near Trinity Bridge. This was done to prevent the crowd from being crushed.
Each time a coffin was lowered into a grave, a gun was fired at the Peter and Paul Fortress, on the opposite bank of the Neva River. To coordinate the movement of the columns, telephone wires were laid between the observation points.
The procession moved without stopping through the Field of Mars, and this also excluded the possibility of holding a rally. Therein lay the uniqueness of this mass commemoration: there were no public speeches during the entire ceremony, only funeral music, revolutionary songs, and lots of red flags.
Now I would like to draw your attention again to the structure of the burial ground—the four L-shaped mass graves at the corners of this large square. The funeral procession passed through the space between the graves. Alongside and above the graves, temporary wooden platforms (stages) were erected for the ceremony’s organizers and the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet. There were special hatches on the platforms for lowering the coffins into the ground.
I should emphasize that it was impossible to make a speech or address an audience there, because the procession passed through the square without stopping. So the politicians just stood silently over the graves.
This combination of burial ground and site of political power is also remarkable. In this structure, the political approaches the sacral. The sublime feeling caused by the funeral seemed to reinforce the politics. The sacral became a support for political power. This convergence of politics and mourning was continued in Soviet times, of course, in the structure of the Lenin Mausoleum, with its tribune above the tomb.
What made this large-scale ceremony possible? And why did the Petrograd Soviet devote so much attention, time, and effort to organizing this manifestation in March 1917, when they had a variety of other pressing problems on their agenda?
It was clear what society needed: the victory of the revolution had been unexpected, and such dizzying change is always traumatic. The time was as it were “broken,” and the transition to the new life requires a ritual pattern. The funeral of the victims of the revolution may have played the role of such a therapeutic ritual. It was a kind of funeral of the ancien régime, a funeral of monarchy and despotism. It was thus no wonder it actually turned into joyous celebration of freedom, as witnesses of the event described it. They often dubbed it a “funeral celebration.”
The Soviet’s task was to mobilize society. The idea of organizing a symbolic repetition of the revolution was probably an attempt to overcome chaos and make the situation more transparent. In fact, the speakers in the Soviet clearly declared their intention to arrange a “parade of revolutionary forces,” which obviously meant making these forces visible, represented in the form of a manifestation on the square.
But the more important reason, as might be expected, was the problem of the basis for the new political authorities. Both the Provisional Government and the first roster of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet suffered from a lack of legitimacy: both were self-proclaimed revolutionary centers of power. Professional politicians had formed both. The Provisional Government had been formed by co-opting liberal and conservative members of the former State Duma. The Petrograd Soviet was made up of leftist Duma deputies and former underground leftist activists, although the Petrograd Soviet was in a somewhat better position, because its deputies had been elected. But its legitimacy had not been realized, either, because the Executive Committee had actually decided to relinquish its power, transferring most of it to the Provisional Government.
Thus, given a lack of solid ground in the present, the new authorities were forced to postpone solving the problem of legitimacy until the future, shifting it onto the shoulders of the Constituent Assembly (which was like putting it off until doomsday) or seeking support in symbolic actions and, in Leon Trotsky’s words, the “strong emotions and memories of the masses.” In fact, they tried to have it both ways. Of course, the traditional mode of sacralizing power (that is, the “divine right” of the monarch) had become impossible, so the most appropriate source of the sacral that remained was mourning—veneration of the fallen freedom fighters, the rhetoric of “sacrifice,” and so on.
Why was the Field of Mars chosen as the burial site? The funeral was preceded by a long discussion, lasting around three weeks, that took place at meetings of the Petrograd Soviet, as well as among the general public. The initial decision was to bury the victims of the revolution on Palace Square, directly in front of the Winter Palace, and for this purpose to pull down the Alexander Column. Palace Square and the Winter Palace were the very heart of the former empire, symbols of the monarchy. Palace Square was also where Bloody Sunday had taken place in 1905. To erect a memorial to the victims of the revolution in this place would have been a strong symbolic gesture, indicating the end of the ancien régime. Initially, the Petrograd Soviet voted the decision unanimously. In a revolutionary society, it was a decision that met with wholehearted support.
The next twist in the plot is almost like out of a detective novel.
Suddenly, members of the bourgeois artistic elite entered the picture. The key figures were art critic and artist Alexander Benois and the architects and artists of the World of Art group with which he was associated. This was a very influential conservative artistic movement that advocated neoclassicism and poeticized “old” Petersburg. Their objective was to maintain their influence in the realm of culture under the new government. They also wanted to establish and lead a new “Ministry of Fine Arts.” And since the architectural ensemble of Palace Square was for them the epitome of high art, they made an effort to change the Petrograd Soviet’s decision.
Through complicated intrigues, connections in the bourgeois Provisional Government, and cynical use of revolutionary rhetoric, they were able to convince the Petrograd Soviet to change their minds. Their ruse was cynical and sophisticated. They urgently drew up and submitted to the Soviet an architectural plan under which a palace to house the future Constituent Assembly would be built on the Field of Mars; hence, supposedly, the memorial to the victims of the revolution should be sited near this new building as well. They also promised the palace would be decorated with statues, “including, perhaps, statues of the current leaders of the revolution.” As a result, the Petrograd Soviet agreed to change the burial site from Palace Square to the Field of Mars.
Architect Lev Rudnev built the monument in 1918–1919. The author of the poetic epitaphs on the monument, as I have mentioned, was Anatoly Lunacharsky.
NOT VICTIMS, BUT HEROES lie beneath this tomb NOT GRIEF, BUT ENVY your fate engenders in the hearts of all grateful descendants in the terrible red days you lived gloriously and died beautifully
THE RANKS OF THE MIGHTY departed from life in the name of life’s flourishing THE HEROES OF UPRISINGS of different ages the crowds of Jacobins THE FIGHTERS OF ‘48 the crowds of Communards are now joined by the sons of Petersburg
In the early Soviet period, the Field of Mars served as a pantheon where Bolsheviks killed during the Civil War were buried. This was before the new pantheon near the Kremlin Wall in Moscow was built.
After Stalin’s death, during the Khrushchev Thaw, official Soviet ideology attempted, in a certain sense, to return to its revolutionary origins. On the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, in 1957, an eternal flame was lit in the center of the memorial.
The fire was brought from the open-hearth furnaces of the Kirov Plant, one of the major machine-building factories in Leningrad. It was the first eternal flame in the country, and it was lit in memory of the victims of all revolutions. It was from this fire that the eternal flames at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, and ten years later, in 1967, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin Wall, were lit.
For the rest of the Soviet period, the memorial was one of the most important official places of memory in the country. But it was revered as a monument to “the fighters of all revolutions,” that is, there was no emphasis on the February Revolution, to which it had originally been dedicated. The memory of February was displaced by the memory of October.
In post-Soviet times, the memorial has remained unchanged, but with each passing year it is more and more obviously at odds with the official anti-communist ideology. This has especially been the case in the past few years, given the growing dominance of rightist ideology, the condemnation of all revolutions, and the denial of the revolutionary legacy’s value.
Two years ago, in 2012, an urban development project that called for eliminating the memorial was presented at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum. The project proposed moving the graves to another location and creating a recreational area on the Field of Mars. Once again, members of the conservative intelligentsia were involved. Local historian and journalist Lev Lurie and Alexander Borovsky, head of the Russian Museum’s contemporary art department, publicly expressed support for demolishing the memorial. The argument was as follows: the revolutionaries were villains and murderers, the revolution had long been forgotten, and Petersburgers did not have enough recreational areas. A number of historians and public figures came out in defense of the memorial. I also published an article in defense of the place. In any case, for reasons unknown, the project was canned.
Perhaps the following odd episode played a part in this outcome. That same year, 2012, the city police suddenly organized a solemn commemoration at the memorial. The official statement for this strange commemoration claimed the people buried in these mass graves were not, in fact, revolutionaries, but plainclothes gendarmes who had been killed by protesters during the street fighting in February 1917, and that these defenders of the old regime were the real victims of the revolution.
The context of these recent events has been the crackdown on political freedoms in Russia. For example, Petersburg city hall has repeatedly refused to let the opposition hold rallies in the city center. As a result of this longstanding dispute between the opposition and the municipal administration, the authorities proposed establishing a so-called Hyde Park in the city center, choosing the Field of Mars as the site.
For several years now, protest rallies have been held here. As a rule, they are not well attended: the society is intimidated and politically apathetic. The protesters include everyone from liberals and leftists to animal rights advocates. And yet the historical memory of this place has almost been lost: its revolutionary history is almost never has evoked at these rallies. Perhaps it is too far in the past, hidden under numerous layers of history. Or perhaps this is a problem of today’s political movements, which have lost their connection with this great revolutionary tradition that once triumphed in Russia.
It is difficult to evaluate, either positively or negatively, the practice of revolutionary commemoration, especially when it is bound up with funerals and the rhetoric of “strong emotions,” as well as the post-revolutionary infatuation with monumentalism. On the one hand, the intention of the authorities to find support for their political power in the sacral (in mourning, in sublime feelings, in the archaic) points to the fact that the government had a problem securing its legitimacy. Paradoxically, it would seem that the most advanced political system—the revolutionary soviets of 1917—could rely on archaic feelings just like the monarchy, which used to refer to its “divine right” to rule. The infatuation with monumentalism also seems like something akin to fetishism, especially when we realize that, after many years, even a heavy granite monument is unable to retain its original meaning. In a sense, this is the counter-revolutionary aspect of revolutionary culture.
On the other hand, the monumental solemnity of this forgotten mass commemoration of March 1917 seems today like valuable know-how, even a lesson for us. The commemoration that took place here in 1917 was an alternative to the commemorations of the ousted regime, both in its form and its content. It remains just as relevant today in its separation of church and state, its reverence not for heroes but for common people, and its commemoration of those who did not support but opposed the state.
Ilya Orlov (born 1973) is a Petersburg-based artist and historian. He graduated from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) of Saint Petersburg State University, where he majored in history, philosophy, political science, and art. He wrote his honor’s thesis on revolutionary mourning rituals in 1917, and his M.A. dissertation on the aesthetics of nature in contemporary curatorial studies. Orlov’s recent artistic work has focused on cultural, social, and political issues in post-Soviet reality and the politics of commemoration.
The article above is based on the text of a guided tour Ilya Orlov led to the Field of Mars in October 2014. My thanks to him for permission to publish it here and his generous assistance in locating some of the accompanying illustrations. The text was edited by the Russian Reader. Funeral photographs courtesy of humus and statehistory.ru. Photo of Elena Osipova by Sergey Chernov. Modern-day photos of the Field of Mars (except for aerial view) by the Russian Reader