Russia's Failed Revolutions

Nineteenth and twentieth century Russian history, so filled with ironies and tragic paradoxes, has been covered in countless books. Yet, it continues to be a fascinating and intriguing subject matter, as previously neglected material is being presented and a more revealing light is cast on the period. Adam B. Ulam, Gurney Professor of History and Political Science and Director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, respected author of several major works on Soviet Russia, addresses anew the baffling question of why the many liberal reform and revolutionary movements have been unsuccessful. His Russia’s Failed Revolutions is an engrossing account of Russian history since 1815, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Russia has remained a repressive society with a highly authoritarian regime. Ulam contends that the inability of liberal democratic revolutionaries to make the requisite adaptation to nationalism was a crucial failure. Strong nationalistic impulses originally helped spawn oppositionist movements, yet in the end those very forces were effectively exploited by the authoritarian state to preserve itself. Thus, nationalism, rather than serving as a liberating force, bolstered the denial of freedom in Russia.

The story begins with the Decembrists, those “hesitant rebels”—mostly noble officers of the Imperial Army—who staged the abortive revolt of December 14, 1825. Their movement originated in the immediate post-Napoleonic period with the founding of the Union of Salvation, a secret society modeled after a Masonic lodge. Its members, although educated in the rationalist spirit of the eighteenth century, were also under the spell of the great romantic poets Lord Byron and Friedrich von Schiller. The stated goals of the movement included the reduction of illiteracy, the abolition of serfdom, and the establishment of a constitutional government. The latter is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that in preceding times only conspiracies to commit regicide had occurred, amounting to not much more than the somewhat futile replacement of one autocrat with another. With the Decembrists, for the first time a group organized to overthrow the institution of the autocracy itself. Unfortunately, the rebels went about their business in an irresolute and amateurish manner. Moreover, men such as Paul Pestel, one of the society’s leading intellectuals, were contentious and divisive. Bridging the gap between subversive talk and revolutionary action was a very considerable problem. The government, apparently quite well-informed of their activities, was not particularly alarmed. The sudden death of Alexander I and the succession crisis afforded an opportunity that could not be evaded. The rebels made their move, but, as Ulam describes it, it was as if their plan was programmed for disaster.

Nicholas I was determined to preserve the status quo. His reign of thirty years was a time of unrelieved oppression. A secret police apparatus came into being, the Third Section of the Czar’s personal chancellery, which kept track of subversive ideas and organizations. A powerful instrument of the ruler, the Third Section was the prototype of similar, ever more efficient, institutions flourishing down to the KGB of today. Nevertheless, there were formidable disruptive forces at work which not even Nicholas I could fully subdue. They made certain reforms inescapable. Change was forced more directly by the impact of the disastrous Crimean War. The Russian surrender after the fall of the Crimean fortress Sevastopol in 1855 was a severe blow to the mystique of the regime.

Nicholas died that year, and his son Alexander II was determined to rule differently, to break with the past. The subsequent period of the 1860’s and 1870’s was one of social turbulence and revolutionary ferment, sustained by dedicated but largely ineffectual revolutionary students. The monarch wanted to be an agent of social change. He decided upon the most extensive and complex piece of social legislation of the nineteenth century: the emancipation of the serfs. It is hard to imagine, but up to that time Russia had been, in effect, a nation of slaves. Upon emancipation in 1861 there were approximately forty-three million serfs; together with their families they amounted to about four-fifths of the population. For a short time the Czar enjoyed the acclaim of the whole society as an agent of freedom; it was the high-water mark of the autocracy. Even such well-known advocates of revolutionary change as Alexander Herzen and Nicholas Chernyshevsky eulogized the autocrat in their respective publications. Soon, however, the radical intellectuals came to reject the “phony” emancipation. The peasants’ lot had not improved materially. Indeed, in most cases they had less land for their own use than before.

A new revolutionary organization known as “The People’s Will” stressed political agitation. Alas, to shake the peasants’ uncritical faith in the Czar proved an all-but-impossible task. An active...

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