The Wednesday a fortnight ago was the anniversary of the October Revolution. The image ingrained into popular mythos is that of a frothing hammer-and-sickle mob, rudely intruding upon the genteel fairy tale court of the romantically doomed Princess Anastasia, plus assorted others. This is actually a conflation of two events.
Tsar Nicholas had been plucked from his throne nine months prior, in the creatively named February Revolution. History has been kind to him because he was a good father to four beautiful, tragic princesses, and also because he was shot. As a ruler, his autocratic tendencies were mitigated only by his incompetence. Had he reigned five hundred years earlier, he would still probably have met some grisly end; incompetence, cronyism, a weak and vacillating personality and dictatorial attempts are, more or less, the WebMd symptoms of upcoming Stark Syndrome, and Nicholas did a fair job of checking off all the boxes. As it was, he reigned just over a hundred years after the French had divested their king of crown and head, and seventy years after Marx published his Manifesto; he reigned during a time where the words “revolution” and “proletariat” were on every tongue- and moreover, he reigned with gilded majesty over a starving populace. He was screwed from the word “go”.
So much for our doomed tsar.
He was succeeded by the Russian Provisional Government, a hodge-podge of now-obscure leftists whose competence did not necessarily match their progressivism. Nonetheless, one cannot help but admire their ideals; to a feudal police-state, they brought freedom of press, the abolition of all class, hereditary and religious inequalities, and universal suffrage. These grand achievements were tempered by their incompetence. The Russian people wanted peace at almost any cost, a marked decrease in starvation, and to own the land they farmed. The Russian Provisional Government wanted to bury its head in the sand- or any other available material- as long as possible.
Somewhat inconveniently, a rival government- the pithily named Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies- sprung up almost immediately, and promptly relieved the Provisional Government of control of the army. Such an act ought to, perhaps, be alarming to most governments, but, before we condemn the RPG for its competitive ostrich re-enactment, it is fair to remind ourselves that they had not quite sunk to Tsar Nicholas’ level; they had one achievement- namely, the election of a governing assembly. It was not quite their fault that the assembly convened after the Bolshevik coup and consequently dissolved almost as soon as the deputies sat down.
Red October itself was almost an anti-climax; the Bolsheviks seized the crucial buildings of Petrograd, including the Winter Palace, in a bloodless event, and the leader of the Provisional Government high-tailed it out of Russia, whereupon civil war ensued. The result of that is well known; everyone fought the communists and everyone lost.
Reflecting on the entire debacle cannot but leave one with a sense of Darkness Induced Audience Apathy; do we side with the autocrats, the other autocrats, or the incompetents? Or do we wash our hands of the whole affair, and dub that entire period a screw-up with no heroes? Revolutions in general tend to produce that sort of feeling; your plucky rebel heroes succumb to paranoia or despotism, and proceed to lop off each other’s heads with great alacrity. The French Revolution set a precedent and other Revolutionaries do an unfortunately terrific job of adhering to it.
On the whole, it is tempting to say that nothing good ever comes from a revolution- but then again, revolutions never come from anything good. The real question is- where would we be without them?