Episode 101: The Bolshevik Revolution at 100

Host: Joan Neuberger, Department of History
Guest: Sheila Fitzpatrick, Distinguished Service Professor Emerita, University of Chicago and Professor of History, University of Sydney

It’s been 100 years since the Emperor of Russia was overthrown by a group of left wing revolutionaries espousing a radical change in politics and economics, who turned the Russian Empire into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The echoes of 1917 reverberated around the world, and, at the close of 2017, historians did what historians tend to do: look back at what happened and try to encapsulate the global significance of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Today’s guest, Sheila Fitzpatrick, discusses some of the myriad interpretations that have been given to the 1917 revolutions, judgments about its success and importance, and offers insight into Russia’s own subdued attitude toward the centenary.

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“The Bolshevik,” Boris Kustodiev (1920)

We’re going to talk about 1917. This is the centenary – it’s been 100 years since the 1917 revolution, and there have been a lot of books and a lot of conferences all over the world, looking back at 1917 to see if there is something new that we can say about it, trying to understand its impact on the history of the 20th century.

We’re not going to focus on the events of 1917, because when we first started 15 Minute History two of our first episodes did just that, so we encourage you to listen to Episode 1 and Episode 7 to learn more. We’re going to look at what historians have been saying about the significance of the events of 1917 during this centennial year.

So, let’s start with 1917 itself. What kinds of things are new or interesting? What kinds of things are people writing about 1917? How are people representing the Revolution today?

You’d expect, given that it’s a centennary, that there’d be some sort of excitement, and people would be meditating on the significance of the Russian Revolution, and while that has been true about its global impact, its impact on Russia has not provoked the same kind of excitement in historians. In fact, there’s a strange tendency in recent literature to say two things: first, that the Russian revolution was a failure. Now, in a sense all revolutions are failures – but failure, even in the cold war we didn’t run around saying it was a failure. People then, I think, saw it as a success in its own evil terms, in the US – that would be the standard. But now we talk about failure, and perhaps I should exempt myself from this, but in the field in general.

In what way is it seen as a failure?

Well, the word – it seems almost as if the word has to be used, and the basic justification of that is, I think, that it led to Stalinism. That it led to Stalinist repression, and therefore, its ideals were betrayed.

The second thing, which is, in a way, even odder, is that it didn’t matter very much. In other words, people are treating it as not all that significant, and there’s a bunch of books, some of which give the impression that they were written because they were commissioned for the centennary, and others of which are basically dealing with 1917 from every angle except the revolution itself. I’m thinking there of Mark Steinberg’s-he’s got a nice 1917 book, basically the revolution itself is not his subject, but the things that we didn’t notice when we were concentrating on the revolution. So, we get empire, so we get the church, so we get women, so we get every day life, we get crime on the streets–all of the things that indeed belong to 1917, but are not part of the revolution per se.

So, you mention that it’s the international impact that seems to be most interesting to people today. Are historians arguing that it was important, globally? You said earlier that a lot of historians are saying that it wasn’t that important.

No, I think there’s a distinction between historians who are writing about the Russian Revolution and its impact on Russia, or perhaps one should say on the former Soviet Union as a whole, and people who are writing about its impact on the world. When they’re writing about its impact on the world, I mean, a few people are sort of doing a real overview and they tend to say, yes, it had a big impact, but other people are working from a base of specialization in a particular and say, well, all sorts of people were moved by the Russian Revolution, came and observed part of it, took back to their country a message and continued to be influenced by it. Of course, particularly in the Third World, but not only.

In Russia today they’re having a very hard time deciding how to respond to the revolution. It’s been very muted. How do you explain that?

Well, I found that fascinating, actually. I was trying to follow that from the lead up to the Revolution. I see that they’re very late in announcing what they’re going to do, and then in December Putin says … well, he creates a committee

— in December 2016

–to make preparations for something. He didn’t make it very clear what kind of celebration, but some marking of it. And then, nothing much happened, and then in March, you got this rather roundabout statement coming from a Putin representative speaking to the New York Times, not to any Russians, saying “We’re going to sit this out. We’re actually not going to have a celebration of the revolution, and we’re not going to have an official line on it.” Which, in a way, is great. The Russians have been so bad over the years about having official lines on things, but this time not. So, I had a look into whatever Putin had said that would shed a light on this, because I had previously thought, I think, without really examining – I’d assumed that he would be somewhat in favor of the Revolution. After all, he’s somewhat in favor of Stalin, and normally if you’re somewhat in favor of Stalin, you’re somewhat in favor of Lenin–

–and was a member of the Communist Party–

–and was a member of the Communist Party! And was brought up like that. But, as I see, his attitude is quite … it makes sense. Stalin he likes as a nationbuilder. And that’s, you know, he’s basically a nationalist, so Stalin, like, Peter the Great, is on the right track. But you can’t say that Lenin … well, I suppose you can make an argument that Lenin is a nationbuilder, but he was an internationalist, building a nation was not at all his thing. Really, destroying a state structure was much more. So, it makes sense, Putin’s attitude.

He also claims to feel that Lenin gave too much freedom to the national republics that made up the Soviet Union to secede. Now, most people wouldn’t have thought that he gave them that much freedom to secede, but anyway he was not as tough in the early 1920s as Stalin wished to be. So, what Putin said is that Lenin, by inserting a provision that the Republics could leave the Union, he “laid a time bomb under the Union” and it exploded after 74 years!

The All-Russia Soviet Assembly in Petrograd, 1917

So, Putin wants to trace a history that goes back past Lenin, to the history of nationbuilding in Russia, and sort of play down the role of 1917?

I think so – what he said about 1917, and also what his minister of culture has said, is that revolutions are not good. They are disturbances, they destroy the fabric of societies, they turn brother against brother, they cause endless misery. So he’s tended to talk about the Revolution as a time of suffering for the Russian people.

Now, you’ve started off by asking us to think about whether the Revolution was a failure. Do you see it as having been a success in some ways?

Well, I mean, there are different ways of going at this. On the one hand, I think that all revolutions are by definition failures in that they are finite. I mean, you can’t keep on being a revolution forever. If a revolution takes, it gives way to something that isn’t revolutionary. In other words, I see the revolution as the period of destruction basically, and then you’ve got to get real after a while if you’ve succeeded in taking power.

Right, it’s easier to destroy than to rebuild–

Right. But then the rebuilding is non-revolutionary, in a certain sense. So, you can make that argument. It’s very difficult to know what exactly are we saying if we talk about revolutionary success or failure. You can approach it by asking, “Well, were the revolutionary goals fulfilled?” But then there are always so many revolutionary goals, and some of them are never going to be — I mean, freedom, equality, end of exploitation — these are not going to be fulfilled in any revolution. As far as the Russians are concerned, they had the notion that if they nationalized, and create a socialist economic base, which in turn would generate a superstructure which would be socialist, and they did that. They changed the economic base. Now, I wouldn’t want to push the argument further and say that the rest of their expectation was correct, but a major aim on their part was to create a new governmental institutional structure which would facilitate the emergence of socialism, and they did that.

Now, another way of thinking about their aims is that basically a lot of their understanding of socialism is rather like what we sometimes call ‘modernization.’ In other words, they wanted to develop the country quickly – and that means economically and with things like popular education, because that’s also a prerequisite, and in the pre war period they did that with some success. But talking about success or failure, we also have to ask what’s the point of vantage at which you make this judgement? If we’re going to talk about the Bolshevik Revolution as a sort of modernization revolution, then I think that if you take the mid 1930s it’s looking reasonably good, but you jump forward to, say, the mid 1970s, after the information technological revolution has convinced people that bureaucratic socialism isn’t conducive to innovation, technological innovation, so then it looks quite difference. And what used to be the great modernization achievement, that smokestack industry, it starts to look more like a blight on the environment than an achievement, but I guess I see on that line that they succeeded in accomplishing a modernization which now looks old fashioned.

The July 1917 demonstration in Petrograd

Right, so, in your book on the Russian Revolution, you argue that the real transformation or the new economic policy, but the first Five Year Plan, Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Has anything changed your mind? Does that still seem to be the most revolutionary transformation?

Maybe this is simpleminded, but I do see Lenin as doing the political revolution, and Stalin as doing what he understood to be the economic revolution. Now, the trouble with saying something like that is that it’s always taken to mean that, therefore, you think it’s a good thing. That’s not what I’m saying – I’m trying to put it in terms of the Revolution itself, in its sense of objectives.

Yes, that’s a really important distinction to emphasize, that it was successful in the terms that they set out for themselves.

Right, because after all, I wouldn’t make a revolution!

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