The October Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 were among the most decisive events of the twentieth century, and historical accounts of this period have reflected the diversity of interpretations and ideological standpoints from which several generations of writers and scholars have approached the subject. Yet in a definite sense Medvedev’s work is distinguished by a unique and original outlook. A dissident historian who still lives and works in the Soviet Union, Medvedev has written other books on Soviet history exposing the terrorism and violent excesses of Stalinism; while he has often taken issue with the official school of Soviet historiography, he has also disagreed with other Soviet dissidents and émigrés, and he remains committed to the ideals of the October Revolution. Neither so pedantic as doctrinaire Soviet Marxists, nor so detached as Western scholars, Medvedev’s treatment of Lenin and the Bolshevik seizure of power is sympathetic but not uncritical; his approach yields a sensitive and discerning discussion of the events of 1917 from the viewpoint of an independent Marxist and a native Russian.

As much an essay of interpretation as a narrative history, Medvedev’s work seeks to uncover the historical meaning of the Russian Revolutions while considering the validity of Soviet and non-Soviet views of this turning point in Russian history. For Medvedev, the position of the Czar’s government, particularly after the outbreak of World War I, had become increasingly untenable; with widespread unrest both in urban centers and among the peasantry, and with the manifold hardships and deprivation imposed by wartime conditions, the breakdown of the old regime was all but inevitable. The February Revolution, which toppled the czarist regime, was a spontaneous mass movement that moved Russian political life onto a new plane. The ensuing struggle for power revealed the inability of the army high command and of politically active elements of the Russian bourgeoisie to impose their interests on the country. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, which in some ways had anticipated the means of resolution of the land question, was slow to bring its agrarian program before the country. The Bolsheviks, contrary to the claims of official Soviet historians, were divided among themselves and did not mobilize the forces in their favor until Russia’s Provisional Government had lost public support; here Lenin’s leadership was the crucial element in the decision to seize power. Although strictly speaking not inevitable, the Bolshevik Revolution had a firm social basis and was well prepared in the tactical sense.

Nevertheless, a number of problems remained for the revolutionaries, and here Medvedev quite forthrightly points out some of the theoretical discrepancies that arose from the Bolsheviks’ reading of Marxist doctrine, and that resulted in the erratic course pursued in the early period of their regime. Lenin’s views of the socialist state his party was to construct were based on Utopian and, in some cases, downright mistaken premises. The elimination of money and trade and the formation of an amalgamated state syndicate embracing all branches of economic activity were envisaged. While financial concerns were forthwith placed under state ownership, both political and economic complications followed in the wake of the Bolsheviks’ policy toward the countryside. Lenin had also assumed that, once the proletarian revolution had taken place, questions of political authority would recede in importance and the state would wither away; as it was, the Bolsheviks’ handling of political institutions was in some respects inept.

Western writers have often denounced the Bolsheviks for the dissolution of the constituent assembly, the parliament that was elected by a nationwide vote and then summarily disbanded after its opening session in January, 1918. Medvedev does not argue that the assembly could have formed the basis for a democratic Russian government; he does, however, express some dissatisfaction with this episode, and not merely because the Socialist Revolutionaries won an absolute majority of delegates to the assembly. The elections, which were held in a country with widespread illiteracy and poor communications, occurred before the social and economic policy of the Bolshevik government could be made known in the Russian countryside; all the same, the Bolsheviks’ dispersal of the assembly was in some ways more harmful than other alternatives and gave rival parties a rallying point during the Russian civil war.

The major economic problem,...

(The entire section is 1871 words.)