Revolutionary Russia, 1917

In Russia, the year 1917 witnessed, in rapid succession, the overthrow of the centuries-old monarchy of the Romanov Czars, a brief experiment in political democracy under the Provisional Government, and the seizure of power by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. John M. Thompson, a former professor of history and an expert on Russia’s turbulent past, has provided the general reader with an excellent brief overview, arranged in strictly chronological fashion, of the momentous events of that year, one that is both readable and scholarly. Although Thompson’s work is not always as dramatic, as anecdotal, or as colorfully written as the works on the revolution recently published by the journalist Harrison Salisbury (Black Night, White Snow, 1978; Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, 1978), Thompson’s is in many ways a better and more satisfying book than those written by Salisbury: it explains more carefully and in somewhat greater detail why things happened the way they did.

Ever since the triumph of the Bolsheviks occurred, there have been debates about why events turned out the way they did. One such dispute has been the eternal argument between inevitabilism and a stress on the role of free will. Was the fall of the Czar in 1917 inevitable, or could prudent reforms have saved the Romanov dynasty even at the eleventh hour? Was the failure of Russia’s liberal experiment of 1917 inevitable? Most important, could anyone or anything have prevented the triumph of the Bolsheviks, or was their victory predestined by some iron law of history?

Another argument concerns the nature of the revolution itself. Almost all students of the period, with the exception of perhaps a few embittered monarchists, agree that the fall of Czarism was the result of widespread dissatisfaction with the Romanov regime, and that, in a sense, the people, or at least the people of Petrograd, really did overthrow the monarchy in a spontaneous burst of rebellion. What, however, of the Bolshevik takeover later in the year? Was it, too, the expression of a powerful wave of popular clamor for drastic social and political change? Or was it, as the American historian Robert V. Daniels has suggested in his book, Red October (1967), simply a military coup carried out by a ruthless minority, one that had no real base of popular support?

Thompson straddles the issue of inevitability of the February Revolution. Although asserting that Czarism was not inherently doomed to die, he does concede that the presence of the weak and foolish Nicholas II on the Imperial throne and the shattering effects of modernization on traditional Russian society made its death a real possibility even before the outbreak of World War I. The massive suffering inflicted by World War I on the Russian people and the inability of the Czarist government either to win the war or to end it made the fall of Czarism much more likely than it would have been otherwise; however, Thompson shies away from any acceptance of the notion of inevitability. The author treats in greater detail the issue of the inevitability of the October Revolution, but comes to a somewhat more definite conclusion. Thompson strongly suggests that an anarchical streak in the Russian national character doomed the liberal experiment almost from the beginning. After the overthrow of the Czar, he implies, the only likely alternative to Bolshevism was some kind of right-wing military dictatorship. Yet, while believing that the failure of Russia’s liberal experiment was inevitable, he just as clearly does not believe that the Bolshevik seizure of power was inevitable. The political situation was, he argues, extremely fluid for many months after the overthrow of the Czar. For a short time following the bloody and aimless riots of July, 1917, in Petrograd, the author points out, the popularity of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir I. Lenin, accused by his foes of being a German agent, fell very low indeed. What revived Lenin’s chances dramatically, Thompson shows, was the so-called Kornilov Affair of September, 1917.

It is in his discussion of the Kornilov Affair that the author begins to deal carefully with the issue of the degree of popular support enjoyed by the Bolsheviks at the time of their seizure of power. The bungled attempt of General Lavr Kornilov to seize Petrograd and install himself as dictator, Thompson makes clear, permitted the Bolsheviks, for the first time, to pose as defenders of revolutionary ideals. By opposing Kornilov’s coup, Alexander Kerensky, the youthful Prime Minister, earned the lasting contempt and distrust of Conservative military officers and politicians. Since Kerensky had originally appointed Kornilov Commander in Chief, and since it was rumored...

(The entire section is 1931 words.)


Booklist. LXXVIII, November 1, 1981, p. 368.

Library Journal. CVI, September 15, 1981, p. 1732.