Seeing the attempted overthrow of our government on January 6, I was appalled at the parallels to the Russian Revolution of February 1917. I taught Russian and Soviet history in the Russian Studies and International Relations programs in Bucknell for 20 years and I was surprised to see the parallels happening in my own country.
First, the Russian Revolution began as a seemingly leaderless coup led by a violent mob. An armed and angry mob attacked the seat of Russian government, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The mob demolished the gates, ransacked the palace, destroying everything they couldn’t steal.
By 1917, the Russian people had lost confidence in the Tsarist government because of its incompetence. For example, millions of Russian soldiers were sent to the front lines during World War I. Many were unarmed; they were told to pick up the weapons of fallen comrades. Millions have gone AWOL and returned home. They were prowling the streets of St. Petersburg in February 1917.
Much of the crowd in Russia that year was armed – soldiers returning from the front lines. Only a few of the Capitol invaders were armed. But then Russia was not inundated with assault rifles; America is. So I can see why fears of a second attempt are spreading.
The initial coup came at a time when the Russian government was weakest, while the Czar was not in St. Petersburg. The Tsar was at the Summer Palace. Rather than return to St. Petersburg, he abdicates in favor of his brother, an equally weak and feeble-minded man. After 20 years of inactive government and four years of a mentally AWOL president, the US government was weaker than it should have been.
Trump vowed to follow the crowd to Capitol Hill, but then returned to the White House to hover in the background. Vladimir Lenin, too, stayed away from the Russian riot; on the contrary, he stayed behind and set up his own government that would fill the vacuum created by the coup.
Trump had already created his own government by appointing and hiring incompetent loyalists across the U.S. administration
The outcome of the uprising in Washington was different because we had a much stronger judicial and legislative system in place and only a suspected Czar. In Russia, legislative, administrative and judicial power came from the tsar alone. So when the Russian mob overthrew the Tsar, they overthrew the Russian government. The United States, on the other hand, was protected by the separation of powers, three equally powerful branches of government established by our Constitution. It would take three coups to overthrow the US government.
Most Americans have never lived in an autocracy, where dictators control the legislature, the judiciary, the elections, and can reject any results they don’t like. My wife and I spent two years in the moderate autocracy of the former Yugoslavia and 12 months in an austere former USSR. We know where white supremacist activists are driving us, and it is not a nice place.
The events in Washington on January 6 should be taken seriously by all Americans.
Robert Beard is Professor Emeritus in the Linguistics and Russian Programs at Bucknell University.