This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. This event has often been reduced to the urban upheaval that gripped Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) throughout 1917 and culminated with the Bolsheviks seizing power in October. The Soviet Union traced its legitimacy back to this event, and many other aspiring revolutionaries were also inspired by it – some still are. nowadays. The twentieth century cannot be understood without reference to the Red October of Petrograd because of the double legacy of Bolshevik October: the founding of the first socialist state and the inspiration it provided to other aspiring revolutionaries around the world. whole.
The legacy of the revolution, however, extends beyond October. Historians have started to integrate 1917 into the long period of war, revolution and civil war of 1914-1923; diverting their attention from the events of Petrograd to what happened in the vastness of the Russian Empire. What they found was that the revolution was not a singular moment, but a process involving the collapse of the Romanov Empire and its violent reconstitution in the Soviet Union. As I have already argued, the Revolution is essential to understand the current form of Eurasia; the break-up of the Soviet Union into fifteen successor states in 1991 is intimately linked to this period of imperial break-up and to the mode of reconstruction of the empire.
Finally, the legacy of the Russian Revolution included the Soviet experience of World War II. To many participants, this conflict seemed like a continuation of what happened in 1914-23. With one major exception (Galicia), the countries the Soviets annexed behind the curtain of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 were former possessions of the Romanovs who had avoided reincorporation into the Red Empire. These include the eastern regions of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Even Finland, which escaped annexation but had to fight for its independence in the Winter War of 1939-40, was a former Tsarist domain which had gained its independence as a result of the revolution. From a Soviet perspective, therefore, the annexations of 1939-40 completed the process of regrouping Romanov lands under the red flag, a process which had started in 1919 but was aborted in the west after the disaster of the Bolshevik War. -Polish. War of 1920-21.
Stalin’s enemies also remembered this past. Historians have consistently pointed out that the German attack on the Soviet Union in World War II was senseless – a campaign against a huge country with poor roads, bad weather, and far superior resources. From the start the Soviets had more guns, more planes, more tanks, more men and more horses; they had the space to retreat to deprive the German war machine of its tactical superiority, and they had the industrial might to outshine Germany in a war of attrition. However, the Nazis ignored these facts; the Great Terror and the Finnish War were enough to prove to them that the Soviets were weak militarily. Their miscalculation was also due to their recollection of World War I of 1914-1918, when the Germans actually won due to the collapse of the Russian state and the withering of its army. Pupils passionate about history, many German soldiers thought they could reproduce this victory and see the entire rotten structure collapse.
They did not appreciate that the Soviets, too, continued to remember this story and prepared against its repetition. Stalin’s revolution from above of 1928-32 and his Great Terror of 1937-38 were brutal means of dealing with the trauma of imperial collapse. The peasants were forced into collective farms to prevent them from withholding grain from the towns, as they had done during World War I. Industry had to develop at an accelerated pace to catch up with the capitalist countries and not face the situation of relative backwardness. of 1914. Enemies inside, real and imagined, have been imprisoned, deported or slaughtered in order to prevent a repeat of the spectacle of mutiny and uprising. What the Germans faced in 1941, then, was not a rotten structure, but a ruthless war state run by hard-headed authoritarians who would do whatever was necessary to win this war. There was no organized opposition that could rise up; the majority of the population was concerned about survival; and there was an organized core of highly dedicated fighters for Soviet socialism who would lead the country to victory. The Germans, ready to fight the previous war, soon learned of the mistakes they had made.
During this time, ordinary Soviets also remembered the war and the revolution. Few people believed in the horror stories of Soviet propaganda. They had seen these Germans before, during their occupation of Ukraine in 1918, and they knew that the Soviet media rarely spoke the truth. Many remembered the German occupiers as harsh builders, but not worse than the Soviets. More tragically, even Jews sometimes reasoned this way when speaking out against the refugee’s unpredictable life. These weren’t the right lessons to be learned, but they didn’t seem unreasonable in 1941. Occupiers come and go; you can’t predict who will win; squat down and take care of your family; maybe you will survive.
The Soviets who went further and collaborated with the Germans also had in mind the events surrounding the Russian Revolution. Men like Andrey Vlasov or Stepan Bandera did not see themselves as traitors to their homeland or as collaborators of the enemy. Instead, they understood what they were doing as a temporary tactical alliance to liberate the homeland from the Bolsheviks – a continuation of the civil war after the Russian Revolution. Then, after all, cooperation with Germany was generalized. The Germans brought the Bolshevik leaders on a sealed train to Petrograd, so that they could start a revolution; they trained Finnish soldiers who returned home to win their own civil war against “the reds”; they threw the victorious Bolshevik troops out of the Ukraine, after the newly independent state signed a separate peace; The list could go on and on. Why not use the Germans again in a temporary alliance? They were gone the last time; they would leave. Meanwhile, the local winners would take the loot, just as they had before. Whether such history lessons were poor and catastrophic guides to action in the new context was quite another matter: that they were part of the calculation of the actors of the time is no doubt. The ghosts of the Russian Revolution entered the war again two decades later.
Image credit featured: Petrograd, St. Petersburg, July 4, 1917. Street protest on Nevsky Prospect just after Provisional Government troops opened fire with machine guns. Photo by Viktor Bulla. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.