Magazine article The World Today

The Red Line in Russia's History

Magazine article The World Today

The Red Line in Russia's History

Article excerpt

The Russian Revolution: A New History Sean McMeekin, Profile Books, £25

The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution Robert Service, Macmillan, £25

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 SA Smith, Oxford University Press, £25

Like 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, 1917 is a year remembered as one of the great fault lines in modern history. The United States entered the First World War in April, a step that paved the way to US leadership of the western world in the second half of the 20th century. In Russia, the Tsarist regime collapsed in March and Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power in November, building a totalitarian communist system that at its peak ruled over one-third of the human race.

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since the demise of Soviet communism in 1991, permitting scholars to place Russia's fateful 20th-century experiences in a broader perspective. As Stephen Smith writes in Russia in Revolution: 'Looked at from the vantage point of Vladimir Putin's Russia, it may seem as though the Russian Revolution barely made a dent on Russia's political culture.'

However, knowledge of the extraordinarily violent upheavals that Russian society underwent in the revolutionary and communist periods surely contributes to a deeper understanding of today's Russia and to more informed judgments of its leaders' behaviour. 'Ifwe are to understand the combination of anxiety and ambition that motivates much Russian foreign policy, we need to know its history,' Smith observes. Each of the three books under review paints a more textured picture of late Tsarist Russia, the turmoil of1917, the Civil War and early Bolshevik rule than used to be the case in western accounts of Russian and Soviet history. This reflects the access that historians gained after 1991 to a wealth of primary source material, across Russia's far-flung regions as well as in Moscow and St Petersburg, which was previously sealed in communist archives.

Under Putin such access is again becoming difficult in places. But it remains possible to unearth valuable material from western collections, as Robert Service demonstrates in The Last of the Tsars, by digging into the extensive Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University.

The latest, more rounded accounts ofthe Bolshevik Revolution also reflect a shift from traditional Cold War-influenced interpretations. As Sean McMeekin contends in The Russian Revolution, scholars are free now to 'treat the revolution more dispassionately, as a concrete historical event - controversial and significant in its lasting impact on world politics, but also worth understanding on its own terms, unmediated by our current prejudices'.

In the century since 1917, non-Marxist historians have written about the Revolution as though the main question that requires an answer is why it gave birth to a secretive, monolithic one-party state, prone to political repression at most times and, under Josef Stalin, to outright terror. It is a question central to any verdict on the utopian Soviet experiment. During the Cold War, however, when the Soviet Union was the West's adversary and standardbearer of an ideology that confidently predicted the inevitable disappearance of 'bourgeois' capitalism, this approach had three consequences.

First, historians laid stress on the preRevolutionary conspiratorial activities and excruciatingly obscure ideological disputes of Lenin and his comrades in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, founded in 1898. Second, many portrayed the Bolshevik takeover, known as the October Revolution under the Julian calendar that Russia used until 1918, as an illegitimate coup that manipulated the unsophisticated Russian masses and cut short a promising democratic experiment begun after the Tsar's abdication. Third, historians of the post-Revolutionary years paid more attention to Kremlin power struggles and to Stalin's reorganization of the Bolshevik party's apparatus than to broader Russian social, economic and religious trends. …

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