Letter From the Editor

Janny Wang - Editor-In-Chief
Posted on: June 26, 2019

In the latest edition of historical story time for engineers, I am proud to present a recounting of the various waves of fratricidal socialist infighting in the Russian Revolution.

The generic picture of a revolution is an angry mob festooned with red, against a backdrop of billowing smoke and ruined
palaces, with a Trotsky or a Desmoulins at their head. This picture holds well enough for the initial bout of uprising,
but after the first burst of leftist solidarity wears itself out, most revolutionaries tend to spend a rather disproportionate amount of killing their comrades rather than the old regime.

The Russian Revolution exemplifies this. Tear away the mask of Hollywood
history, with its familiar depictions of a tragic Tsar and a platoon of leather
clad commissars, and it reveals itself as a byzantine train wreck of infighting, assassination, and repression. It consists of two separate revolutions, plus two failed revolutions. Of these, only the February Revolution represented a glorious overthrow of the decadent old
order, while the other three all took place against regimes which were at least nominally socialist.

The February Revolution of 1917 was a spontaneous occurrence. Russia
was a poor and stagnant nation, only a generation removed from serfdom, which had recently topped off a centuries old tradition of repression and cruelty with three years of disastrous war. The people of St. Petersburg were without bread for the umpteenth time. Female workers seized upon the occasion of International Woman’s Day to demonstrate their
general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, by staging a protest which rapidly became a riot. The disorder spread, the soldiers defected, and- in short order Tsar Nicholas the Second was obliged to abdicate in a train car in Pskov.

To this original revolution, neither Lenin nor Trotsky nor Stalin contributed one iota. Lenin was languishing in Switzerland, Trotsky was in New York working as a newspaper editor, and Stalin was enjoying a romantic Siberian exile with his extremely underage mistress. They were also not the primary beneficiaries of this revolution. Power went to the Russian Parliament, the Duma- or at least the portion of the Duma which had not buggered off to the countryside at the first sign of trouble and to an impromptu worker’s council, called the Petrograd Soviet. The primary leaders at this stage were Kerensky and Martov.

Kerensky was a moderate socialist, who had gained a reputation as a labour activist in the days of the Tsarist regime. After the February Revolution, he was both a member of the Duma and chairman of the Soviet. By some odd turn of fate, he had grown up in the same town as Lenin and their families had been friends. Martov’s association with Lenin was even closer. He and Lenin had originally been pals in their early revolutionary days, when both had been members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The two of them had a rather bad breakup when the RSDLP fractured over doctrinaire issues, with Lenin leading the Bolshevik faction and Martov the Menshevik faction, although Lenin continued to reminisce fondly of Martov even unto his deathbed.

Martov’s plan was to transition Russia to a modern, democratic nation and from thence to socialism. In this vision, the Soviet was to be the principled opposition to the Duma, the worker’s watchdog which would ensure that there would be no backsliding or counter revolutionary floundering. This was a fabulous plan, which absolutely did not stand contact with reality.

Another important faction at this stage were the Social Revolutionaries, perpetually abbreviated to SRs. Unlike the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, who primarily concerned themselves with urban affairs, the SRs were agrarian socialists, with a strong support base in the countryside. Their pet cause was the redistribution of land and their modus operandi was assassination and terrorism- think Assassin’s Creed, with more socialism and less competence. Elections were called and arrangements were made for a Russian Constituent Assembly to meet in October. Meanwhile, the country continued in freefall.

Kerensky rapidly wore out the initial sheen of popularity when he decided to continue fi ghting in World War One, and it transpired that getting rid of the Tsar did not make bread appear in the shops. At this point, Lenin, who had by now been smuggled into Russia by the Germans on the famous “sealed train”, began agitating for a second revolution, with the infi nitely catchy motto, “Land, Bread, and Peace”.

The Bolsheviks wanted to skip the transitionary stage of Martov’s plan and skip to full socialism. Their rallying cry at this stage was “All Power to the Soviets”, notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet generally supported Martov’s plan and was not at all keen to take power. The whole thing culminated in the July Days, a semi spontaneous insurrection which broke out when a planned demonstration of far left workers spiraled out of control.

The July Days had all the same hallmarks as the February Revolution a general uprising triggered by the lack of food and the rapidly deteriorating military situation. This time, however, the soldiers did not side with the insurrectionaries and remained loyal to the Provisional Government.

It is still debated what role the Bolsheviks played in this whole affair. They helped organize the original demonstration, backtracked, unbacktracked, and then spent most of the day having a collective epileptic seizure at their newspapers headquarters. Nevertheless, they were blamed for the whole affair, not entirely unjustly, and most of their leadership was obliged to go into hiding.

Fortunately for them, this meant that they were not involved in the rapidly devolving snafu of Russian state affairs. In the aftermath of the July Days, Kerensky appointed an old school offi cer called Kornilov commander of the Russian forces. Kornilov promptly about-faced his army and marched on Petersburg with the stated aim of restoring peace. This put Kerensky in the unenviable position of having to arm his enemies on the left to combat his enemies on the right. At any rate, Kornilov’s advanced was rebuffed, but Kerensky’s position was now practically untenable. He was too far left to count upon the support of the old order, too far right for an urban proletariat radicalized by Bolshevik promises, and too incompetent for just about anybody.

Nevertheless, the so called “October Revolution” was less revolution and more coup. There was no popular uprising, no general cry for regime change. The Bolsheviks simply gathered together a crack militia, took the Winter Palace without a fi ght, and sent Kerensky ignominiously slinking away in woman’s garb. Martov was allowed to wallow in obscurity for a bit, before being given permission to leave Russia in 1920.

The Bolsheviks formed a government with the far left segment of the SRs, hitherto to be referred to as the Left SRs. Unusually for the time, the Left SR faction was led by a woman, Maria Spiridovna, who had briefl y been a cause celebre in the Tsarist regime when she was sent to Siberia for assassinating a corrupt official.

Meanwhile, the Russian Constituent Assembly met in St. Petersburg. It was primarily dominated by the right leaning faction of SRs, who opposed the October Revolution, and consequently was allowed to sit for a whole two days before the Bolsheviks unceremoniously dissolved proceedings. Thus ended the high watermark of Russian democracy.

Lenin, having secured power, was now in the unenviable position of having to fulfi ll his electoral promise of “Bread, Land, and Peace”. Trotsky hoped that German workers and peasants would rise up, repudiate the war, and join the Bolsheviks in building a glorious new utopia, but when this was not forthcoming, they were obliged to settle for the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. Russia gave up vast tracts of territory, including Ukraine, Poland, and Finland, amounting in all to a loss of 34% of its population, 80% of its coalmines, and 50% of all other industries. In his memoirs, Trotsky managed to blame the Tsarist regime and Kerensky for this treaty, which he personally negotiated.

The Treaty of Brest Litovsk put the Bolsheviks at odds the Left SRs, who were very for peace in theory, but thought the terms of the treaty unacceptable. The Bolsheviks discovered the drawbacks of forming a political coalition with assassins, and still more of putting them in charge of the Secret Police, when, on July 8 1918, Left SR Cheka agents shot and killed the German ambassador with the intent of restarting the war.

This had the effect of doing absolutely nothing, whereupon the Left SRs attempted to stage a July Revolution to complement February and October, and managed to successfully re-enact the July Days of 1917. Their delegates were arrested, their headquarters bombarded, and the whole debacle petered out with such remarkable speed that it was actually a Bolshevik plot.

At any rate, the upshot of it all was that, by July 1918, the government was controlled solely by the Bolsheviks- just in time for Russia to spiral into civil war. In an odd twist of fate, the Left SR who killed the German ambassador would later become Trotsky’s secretary and confidante, and the author of a short lived Iranian Communist Republic.

If you think that my ramblings on the subject are entirely too concise, I encourage you to tune in every Monday for Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, where he has just embarked on a new series on the Russian Revolution. As always, contact me at iwarrior@uwaterloo.ca.

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