Why Russia? Why Bolsheviks? Why Not?

The Russian Revolutions and the subsequent Civil War was a uniquely Russian affair. Whether the creation of a communist state in Russia was a result of, or was in spite of the country’s unique social, cultural, political and historical nature remains a matter of controversy. Professor Porter-Szucs noted that Russia’s cultural and geopolitical affiliation is neither European or Asian, but a unique admixture of the two. Russia’s elite aristocracy sought to emanate their Western neighbors, but the face of Russia outside the four major urban centers of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Odessa and Warsaw remained uniquely Russian.

Perhaps Russia, with its ethnic diversity, immense gap between the rich and poor, and colossal size would be uniquely ripe for a revolutionary change, as in its complexity any number of political ideologues could transpose their principles into a Russia framework. While in original Marxist thought the Russian Empire, as a pre-capitalist autocracy, was not nearly as close to the communist stage of history, circumstance enabled Russian communists to seize the moment, theory be damned. Manifold political ideologies have cited Marx, as so complex were his works, so often self-contradictory, that it essentially is irrelevant that in theory Russia should not have been the birthplace of communist revolution.

It is important to distinguish between the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover. The Revolution was about the disestablishment, rather than a purposeful transfer, of power. The Soviets that emerged out of the mass of unorganized workers had no homogenous political ideology, if they had any at all. After the initial Revolution in February 1917, the masses of workers communes constituted an almost organized chaos. Within the general framework of committees and meetings, the environment in these nascent de facto political groups was pandemonium: “They would reflect nothing but chaos and ‘emergency reports’ about every possible danger and excess we lacked the means to combat.” (Pethybridge 123) The Mensheviks, who at first dominated the Soviets, were gradually discredited by their political inaction, a result of their zealous upholding of original Marxist doctrine. In the almost organic evolution of the Revolution, there was no initial aim, no means to an end. It appeared more a national (though primarily metropolitan) outpouring of frustration towards the status quo than anything else. Thus when the perennial conundrum of Soviet history, whether Russia was ripe for communism, is almost irrelevant. The Bolsheviks neither initiated, nor drove the Revolution, they were merely its chief beneficiaries.

While the Revolution began as an entirely unorganized, chaotic movement, it was eventually partially contained, and given some direction through the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government, composed of Duma members and other established elites sought, with only limited success, to capture the allegiance of the Russian people. In this effort, the government appointed socialist Alexander Kerensky, but their failure to end the war and stabilize the economy undermined their legitimacy. In the period between the February Revolution and the Bolshevik coup in November of the same year, Russia remained on the brink of collapse, in the starving cities, in the terrorized countryside, and on the frontlines.

That the Bolsheviks eventually emerged victorious from the revolutionary period had far more to do with the nature of Russian society than anything else. While Russia proved the birthplace of communist revolution, this does not vindicate any Marxist or Leninist theories that have predicted as such; they remain only theories, and even if proven in certain respects by the initiation of its predictions, context and circumstance render these theories irrelevant. Were the Mensheviks to have reformed its political idealism and taken early action, generations of historians would have argued perpetually over how they had won, and why in Russia. That the Bolsheviks eventually took the reins of power, and in a few short years moved from the political wilderness to the center is what is uniquely Russian about the Revolution.

For centuries, high society in Russia had sought to imitate Western culture and practices. This served to further isolate themselves from the peasant masses and engender growing discontent. At the same time, the aristocratic nature of Russia hindered the development of a Western liberal tradition, and thus political life would either be suppressed, or carried to the fringes. Without a moderate alternative, Russian political life as it emerged was defined by extremist elements. It was Czarist versus Communist, Anarchist versus Autocrat. That the Duma in 1917 tried to create a constitution testifies to the inexperience the Russian people had with practical politics. That Alexander Kerensky defined his role as Prime Minister in a Western European fashion that was impractical in a Russian context, indicates the absence of an indigenous political life.

The Revolution was not communist, nor socialist, nor liberalist… it merely was a rejection of the traditional power structure. What made it so chaotic was the lack of a true political life. Most Russians remained disenfranchised, and in only 1861 had been freed from serfdom. Those who could vote for Duma members, continued to have their political freedom qualified by the final word of the Czar. While the emergence of the Bolsheviks as the most powerful political entity in the Russian Revolution seemed unlikely at first, it is not entirely surprising. While history could have proven any number of charismatic political parties and leaders victorious, any such political entity would most certainly have been “revolutionary” in the western sense of the term.

Thus in the absence of an organized political tradition, Russia proved ripe for a Bolshevik seizure of power. Not because of any sort of socio-economic or political arrangement which Marx or Lenin could have predicted, but because in the absence of a political life, the people of the Russian Empire could easily reorient their allegiance to a group which offered them hope. The Bolsheviks did just that: ending the war (at an immense territorial cost), promising bread, and pledging their support for the soviets. The Bolsheviks did not win the Revolution and the subsequent Civil War because they were communists. They simply did not represent the status quo, and were at the right place at the right time.

 

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