A New Story Recalibrates the Villains of the Russian Revolution

Although McMeekin acknowledges that the real villains are the ruthless Bolsheviks, he reserves most of the criticism for hapless liberals. Leaving Kerensky’s motives during the events of July largely unexplained, he only touches on the common justification for Kerensky’s refusal to prosecute the Bolsheviks: deeply unpopular among liberals, he needed leftists on his side, believing that the most great threat to his government came from the right. wing leaders aiming to restore Nicholas to the throne. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, shrewdly pursued Lenin’s master plan to “blush the armies”, encouraging mutinies and desertions with their promise to end the war and redistribute the land. “Given Kerensky’s impotence, the only truly surprising thing about the course of events is how long it took the Bolsheviks to act,” McMeekin writes.

After taking power, the Bolsheviks turned on the soldiers and unwitting peasants who were among their staunchest supporters, unleashing a violent campaign of terror that seized land and grain, and turned into a permanent class war targeting ever broader categories of “enemies of power”. people.” Heedless of Russia‘s ultimate fate, they pursued their greatest goal of world revolution.

McMeekin depends on a surprisingly narrow lens to make his overarching argument, eschewing the analysis of deeper social and political forces necessary for any in-depth study of the revolution and its lessons for us today – as radical political groups are once again relying on subterfuge and populism to force a fundamental change in the world order. Yes, Russia was reforming rapidly at the turn of the century as its economy grew – and revolution was far from inevitable. But there were reasons the empire had so much catching up to do, which involved uniquely Russian characteristics like its sprawling landmass, terrible climate, and poor soil. This made it difficult to earn a living and difficult to govern. The symbolic role of the patron—whether in the form of a village elder or the tsar—provided crucial stability for a society in which most viewed individual freedoms as a threat to group survival.

Of the three-quarters of the population classified as peasants by a government census in 1897, the vast majority were illiterate – very conservative people with a long tradition of highly centralized government for whom drastic changes mainly in urban centers were deeply destabilizing. McMeekin leaves no doubt that chance certainly played an important role in the rise of the Bolsheviks, but it is no mere coincidence that, after the revolution’s dramatic destruction of the ruling elite, centralization Bolshevik extreme succeeded in restoring Russia’s traditional political culture by the 1930s.

This pattern repeated itself six decades later. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which ushered in 10 years of destabilizing Westernizing reforms, another autocratic leader who seized power by chance managed to consolidate it by returning the country to its long-standing political roots. One hundred years after the revolution, Vladimir Putin’s Russia still faces many of the same basic problems: rigid authoritarianism, widespread poverty and deep-rooted corruption. It’s no wonder the Kremlin has struggled to downplay the revolution’s centenary celebration this year.

What are the lessons of this history a century later? McMeekin points to what he calls a resurgence of Marxist-style philosophy, warning readers to beware of ‘openly declared socialists’ like Bernie Sanders – as if right-wing ideologies had played no part in the convulsions of the 20th century. . It’s a particularly bizarre conclusion as rising nationalism and a global shift to the right threatens the post-war liberal order today. As Putin and Donald Trump again exploit popular insecurities, the real lesson of the Russian Revolution must surely be that, however unlikely their rise, populist tyrants ultimately succeed when rapid social change, even in times of peace and relative prosperity, alienates the masses enough to rebel against their ruling elites.