The Influence of the French Revolution on Lenin's Conception of the Russian Revolution
The French Revolution was a beacon to all modern revolutions, lighting the way from the past to the future, providing inspiration and structure for frustrated radical politicians who needed to give form and historical legitimacy to their strategies for bringing about radical political change. It also became in some ways a warning light, closing off, through historical analogy some alternatives by flashing signs that they were traps or pitfalls.
The most striking degree of continuity is between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolutions of the twentieth century, perhaps because the Russian revolutionary leaders were so acutely aware of the course of the great revolution that came before. Crane Brinton, in his well-known Anatomy of Revolution, which relies heavily on the writings of Leon Trotsky while recognizing the important differences between the two, makes much of the close analogies. He suggests that there is a common pattern, not only between the French and the Russian revolutions, but also between those two and the American Revolution of 1776 and the English Revolution of 1689. 1
John Keep in a recent article goes a step further, calling his analysis "The Tyranny of Paris over Petrograd" arguing that Russia's conception of the French Revolution permeated all of educated Russian society. 2
Not that the imitation of France or French culture was a new phenomenon in Russia. Educated Russians viewed France as their cultural model throughout the eighteenth century; French was the preferred language of the Russian aristocracy and the members of the "intelligentsia who were their heirs." 3 The French Revolution had its initial impact on Russian contemporaries who suffered for their interest in and sympathy for the ideals of the revolutionaries. 4
In 1917 the belief that Russia was following in the great tradition of the French Revolution was evident everywhere, and the terminology of the French Revolution was abundant in all of the speeches of revolutionary leaders of every persuasion. 5 It was especially evident in the thoughts and actions of Vladimir Lenin who brought the Bolsheviks to victory in the struggle for power in 1917. 6 After the Bolshevik victory in Russia, Lenin would tell a conference on adult education: