Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution

Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution

Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution

Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution


How better to understand history than through the words of those who lived it? Competing Voices from the Russian Revolution: Fighting Words presents documents that underscore the extraordinary richness of public discussion about key events and issues during the 1917 Russian Revolution, one of the pivotal events in modern history. Carefully edited and annotated, the documents help clarify the issues while revealing the broad range of ways in which Russians understood the events unfolding around them.

Focusing on public rhetoric and debate in Russia from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 through the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the documents present the views not only of key political figures, but also of ordinary men and women—mothers, soldiers, factory workers, peasants, students, businesspeople, and educated professionals.


This book begins with two chapters of documents from July 1914 to February 1917, documents that represent voices in conflict over World War I. Before turning to those documents, we need to survey ways historians have explained the origins of the revolution that broke out in Russia in February 1917. This survey is followed by a description of conditions in Russia during World War I, as background for the documents in chapters one and two.

In late February 1917, a revolution erupted in Petrograd (Russia’s capital city) that ended three centuries of the Romanov family’s rule over Russia.2 What caused that revolution? Popular histories, general textbooks, and television documentaries usually confidently tick off several factors: Russia’s “hopeless backwardness”; the repressive, unjust rule of the Romanovs; the “iron will” of the revolutionaries (and especially of Bolshevik leader Lenin); the inept way that “weak-willed” Tsar Nicholas II and his “overbearing wife” Tsaritsa Alexandra ran the country during World War I. Popular histories also tend to devote a great deal of attention to the scandalous influence of the mystic Gregory Rasputin over the royal family, which is, after all, a fascinating story.

The causes of the February Revolution typically mentioned in popular and general histories are important, but they often do not take into consideration insights from recent research by specialists on modern Russian history. It can take years for general or popular histories to incorporate shifts in the ways that specialists understand a topic, in part because the complex arguments of specialists can be difficult to summarize and “translate” into a popularized form. Most specialists on the revolution would not reject the list of “popular” ideas about the revolution’s origins, but they would point out that the details are more complicated and often more contradictory.

For example, recent historians of the Russian Revolution generally agree that the state’s organizational weaknesses and the country’s relative economic underdevelopment help explain why Russia broke under the strain of modern “total” warfare in 1914–1917. But few specialists today describe Russia as exceptionally backward. It is now more common for historians to stress the similarities, as well as the differences, between developments in Russia and those elsewhere in Europe. Russia might have been on the eastern fringe of Europe, but it certainly was not isolated from the great economic, social, cultural, and intellectual transformations that swept the continent during what historians call “the long 19th century” . . .

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