The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
THE REVOLUTION OF 1917

For all the heat that discussions of Russia, Marxism, and the revolution generated among intellectuals and activists, there was surprisingly little self-conscious historiography, that is discussions of competing historical views, by professional Western historians. The first topic to attract speculation about possible interpretations was the revolution itself:Why did tsarism fall? How did the Bolsheviks manage to take power? And what was the meaning of the revolution more universally? Ronald Suny's essay reviews the controversies over February and October and reflects on the challenge that a revisionist social history presented to an older orthodox political history. From roughly the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution (1967) through the early 1990s, a steady series of monographs, most of them based on archival sources and informed by at least some appreciation of social historical approaches, reintroduced the workers and soldiers back into the story of 1917. Older works, informed by participants' memoirs, a visceral anti-Leninism, and a steady focus on political maneuvering and personalities, had dealt with the Bolsheviks as rootless conspirators representing no authentic interests of those who foolishly followed them. The new historiography argued that a deep and deepening social polarization between the top and bottom of Russian society radicalized the lower classes, prevented the consolidation of a political consensus, so desired by moderate socialists and liberals, and thus undermined the Provisional Government. Rather than being dupes of radical intellectuals, workers articulated their own concept of autonomy and lawfulness at the factory level, while peasant soldiers developed a keen sense of what kind of war (and for what regime) they were willing to fight. More convincingly than any of their political opponents, the Bolsheviks pushed for a government of the lower classes institutionalized in the soviets and advocated workers' control over industry and an end to the war. By the fall of 1917, a coincidence of lower-class aspirations and Lenin's program resulted in elected Bolshevik majorities in the soviets of both Petrograd and Moscow and the strategic support of soldiers on the northern and western fronts. Yet after a relatively easy accession to power, the Bolsheviks, never a majority movement in peasant Russia, were faced by dissolution of political authority, complete collapse of the economy, and disintegration of the country along ethnic lines. As Russia slid into civil war, the Bolsheviks embarked on a program of regenerating state power that involved economic centralization and the use of violence and terror against its opponents.

The social-historical interpretation was in turn challenged by Harvard University's Richard Pipes, who, in a mammoth multivolume work, attempted to dismantle

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