October 25 Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution

Russian revolution poster
October 25, 2017

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Daily Shot writers caught up with Wellesley’s Nina Tumarkin, the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor of Slavic Studies and an expert on Russian history. Professor Tumarkin shared reflections on the revolution and its seismic aftermath that, to this day, continue to influence not only Russia but the entire world.

Q: What made the revolution so earth shaking?

A: John Reed, the American journalist and socialist activist, called his renowned eyewitness account of the October Revolution Ten Days That Shook the World; and the revolution was indeed earth shaking. It brought to Russia and, within a few years, to much of the rest of the former Russian Empire a regime that expanded a political revolution into a social revolution that also implemented a radically new economic system. The Bolshevik project sought to realize an extravagant social goal that some at the time called “utopian” and most today deem destructive and unrealistic: the transformation of human beings into embodiments of socialist ideals.

Only a dozen years after the wrenching transformation begun by Lenin in 1917 - which introduced the systematic use of violence to address social problems and achieve political goal - the brutal Stalinist order unleashed bloody campaigns to force tens of millions of peasants onto collective and state farms, to realize a reckless program of rapid industrialization, and to purge the Communist Party in a bloodbath that expanded into a policy of mass terror.

After his victory in World War II, Stalin exported his system - and political domination - into Eastern and Central Europe in the second half of the 1940s, and Stalinist socialism served as the model for the People’s Republic of China established in 1949. The Cold War between the USSR and the West was thus unthinkable without the Russian Revolution. Indeed, moving back in time, Nazism, which saw Bolshevism as its main enemy, would likely not have come to power in Germany without the Russian Revolution, and therefore, without it there would have been no World War II.

It is safe to say that the Revolution of 1917 defined the arc of 20th century history.

Q: What would you say are three of the most enduring regional and international legacies of the revolution? 

A: 1. CHINA: The Chinese communist system was from the outset closely modeled on the USSR.

2. EUROPE: The European order too was determined after World War II, with the presence of the Red Army in much of the eastern portion of the continent enabling rapid Sovietization. That order collapsed after 1989, but the continuing struggles of many former Soviet satellites to build and maintain democratic institutions surely come from decades of imposed - jand assimilated - socialist rule.

3. THE COLD WAR: The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was, of course, unthinkable without the USSR. That conflict, which lasted for almost a half century, was played out globally, with conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and, after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, in the Americas as well.

Q: How does the Bolshevik Revolution and its immediate aftermath inform our understanding of Russia today? 

A: I would rephrase the question a bit to address an assessment of how October 25, 1917 and its aftermath informs Russian politics today. Lenin insisted that the Bolshevik Revolution - which must be understood as a coup - had to take place on October 25, 1917, in advance of a Congress of Soviets that would have brought together delegates from several socialist parties.

Determined to avoid a coalition government and to destroy the liberal Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky, Lenin maintained that the Bolsheviks must come to power only by force. Moreover, only weeks after the October Revolution, the fledgling state created its first secret police, the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, known as the Cheka. The lack of liberal democratic institutions and the over-reliance on a powerful secret police are both salient features of Russia today.

Also the Bolshevik Revolution was followed by the brutal civil war of 1918-1920, which took millions of lives. It traumatized the government and many people into believing that in Russia uprisings will lead to civil war and must not be tolerated. In the West, the Russian Revolution might seem a distant and exotic event, but in Russia it is hard to shake, especially with the embalmed Lenin still on display in the Mausoleum in Red Square. Moreover, to perhaps a tiny portion of young people, the 1917 Revolution might serve as an inspiration for the kind of governmental overturn they would like to effect.

Q: Does Vladimir Putin fear revolutionary tensions from the Ukraine that could destabilize his government?  Does that explain, you think, his heavy-handed policies there?

A: Vladimir Putin feared “revolutionary contagion” from Ukraine during and after the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which brought in an anti-Russian regime, and then again in 2013-2014, when popular protest chased Viktor Yanukovych out of the presidency and replaced him with the West-leaning Petro Poroshenko.

But Moscow’s aggressive interference in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea were also driven by the Kremlin’s territorial imperatives, its determination to retain a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and its historic special relationship with Ukraine, which it has a hard time viewing as a fully sovereign nation.

To Vladimir Putin, the Russian Revolution was a catastrophic event. In February 1917 a largely spontaneous popular uprising overturned the Tsarist monarchy and destroyed the great Russian Empire and its army, leading to an ignominious Russian defeat in World War I. So that revolution was about the overthrow of legitimate state power as well as military collapse. Moreover, the Bolshevik Revolution of October 25, 2017 led to the creation of a “failed state,” the Soviet Union, that itself imploded in 1991. So for Putin, the 1917 Revolution was a total disaster that twice resulted in the dismemberment of a powerful and unified Russian state, which for Putin represents his most sacred value. He would gladly skip any commemoration of this crucial event if that were possible. To date he has made no major comment about it.

On October 25, Wellesley presents “REDS! What the Bolsheviks Seized When They Seized Power,” a lecture by William G. Rosenberg, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. The talk, which will be held at 8pm in the Clapp Library Lecture Room, is sponsored by Russian Area Studies, the Department of History, and the Department of Political Science.