Review of “The Russian Revolution: A New History” by Sean McMeekin

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Sean McMeekin, Professor of History at Bard College, argues that the Russian Revolution(s) of 1917 are misunderstood in the West because we have been influenced by the many accounts (such as Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed) that examine the upheaval using the concepts and the vocabulary of Marxist sociology and economics. McMeekin’s history, by contrast, is not that of the rising of an ideologically-driven mass, but rather of: (1) a populace increasingly dissatisfied with its government’s policies and prone to unrest; (2) coming out in droves in a serendipitous riot occasioned by a break in the harsh winter weather; (3) followed by nine months of chaotic juggling for power among loosely organized unprofessional factions; (4) culminating in a general subversion of authority by a highly organized and well-financed (by Germany) tight group of revolutionaries — the Bolsheviks.  

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia’s economy was growing at about 10% per year, and was the 5th largest in the world. It had a population of 125 million (the third largest in the world at the time), and only a minority were Great Russians. There were over a hundred different other ethnic groups in this huge empire that once extended from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south, from the Baltic Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean, and (until 1867) into Alaska in North America on the east.

In the tsarist empire, civil discontent, caused by enormous income and endowment disparity, was kept under control by a large, loyal army, particularly by the Cossacks (semi-autonomous military groups primarily in Ukraine and the south of Russia).

Some of the unrest was occasioned by the war Russia fought against Japan in China and Manchuria. After helping to subdue the Boxer Rebellion in northern China – a peasant rebellion in the early 1900’s, Russia decided to stay in Manchuria but granted China sovereignty over the area. Japan objected to the substantial Russian presence, and launched a war with a sneak attack. The tsar’s outnumbered troops suffered a humiliating defeat at Port Arthur in which Russia incurred about 200,000 casualties. This disaster, coupled with the tsar’s rejection of government reforms, led to demonstrations in the streets in St. Petersburg and a massacre by government troops of protestors on “Bloody Sunday” in January, 1905. McMeekin reports: “News of the massacre, in a country already on edge owing to the disastrous course of the Far Eastern war, radicalized the population.”

Bloody Sunday, January, 1905

In October 1905, the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” The Manifesto fell short of a genuine constitution, but it did represent a climb down from autocracy.

The following 12 years saw the regime’s fortunes rise somewhat, but the organizations for serious revolution were now in place. McMeekin asserts that the tsar might have been able to hold on to power for many years had he not entered World War I against the Central Powers (the German, Austrian, and the Ottoman Empires). Some western historians have said that the tsarist regime fell because its army collapsed in the war. McMeekin, on the other hand, argues that the Russian army was actually holding its own against the Germans and soundly trouncing the Austrians and Ottomans. The Russians suffered a food shortage, but it was far less severe than that faced by their opponents. McMeekin contends that although Russia’s problems in late 1916 were real, “they were made to seem worse than they actually were by ambitious politicians who claimed to have easy solutions for them.” Sound familiar?

Germany helped to accelerate social unrest in Russia by contributing substantial sums to various Russian socialists to foment dissatisfaction. Vladimir Lenin, a principal beneficiary of Germany’s largesse, led the organization of workers’ “soviets” (somewhat informal councils) to demonstrate against the government, but he was forced into hiding by the tsar’s police, and fled the country. 

Vladimir Lenin, stirring the crowds

McMeekin cites some unusual circumstances that also contributed to the fall of the tsarist government. For example, the winter of 1916-17 was extremely cold, even by Russian standards. The cold was broken by an extraordinary warming in February, with temperatures reaching the 40’s F. in St. Petersburg. The relatively spring-like weather brought tens of thousands of people into the streets. Had the weather not seemed like such a great relief, it is unlikely a critical mass of dissidents could have been organized in such a short time.

The crowds became unruly, and were induced by rabble rousers like Alexander Kerensky and Leon Trotsky to riot against the regime. This was known as the February Revolution, after which Kerensky, a leader of the moderate-socialist faction (the Mensheviks), played a key role in the newly formed Russian Provisional Government. Most of Russia’s politicians we associate with the [October] Russian Revolution were not even in the country at the time. The Mensheviks’ foreign policy included aggressive conduct of the war and an appeal to nationalist sentiment. 

Minister-Chairman of the Russian Provisional Government Alexander Kerensky

As World War I raged on, the revolution spread from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The army could not remove enough soldiers from the fight against the Central Powers to put down the unrest, and the tsar was forced to abdicate. For the next several months, numerous factions and factions-within-factions sought to assume power and form a government.

The Germans sensed they could step in once again to roil the waters among the Russian populace. They arranged to have Lenin sent back to Russia and gave him very substantial funds to publish anti-war propaganda. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, argued that the war was just a battle for capitalist interests; they wanted an immediate armistice. The Bolsheviks proved to be superb propagandists. They were able to take over the St. Petersburg soviet in October, almost unopposed. McMeekin asserts that German money was crucial to their success. From their position in the St. Petersburg soviet, they abolished the Provisional Government and were able to consolidate power over European Russia. Siberia and the Caucasus remained beyond their aegis.

Members of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma. Photo by Karl Bulla (1917)

Part of the success of the Bolsheviks, McMeekin argues, will also sound familiar to a modern audience. Kerensky’s liberal provisional government played by the rules. The Bolsheviks played dirty. And unfortunately, it is all too often the manipulative bullies who win when the other side tries to keep to the high ground.

But it wasn’t all smooth-going for the Bolsheviks. To end Russian participation in the World War, the new soviet government was forced into a very unfavorable settlement with Germany — the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk — in which vast territories were ceded to the Germans. Moreover, while the Imperial Russian army simply dissolved, most of the soldiers kept their personal arms. Thus the Bolsheviks found that even though they did not have to fight the Germans, they still had plenty of armed enemies within their own country to contend with. Several high ranking officers in the old regime managed to organize independent fighting forces in the south, where they aligned themselves with some Cossacks, who were always hard to govern. Curiously, a division of Czech prisoners of war (the “Czech Legion”) were freed and then armed. The Czechs were able to commandeer and control the entire Trans-Siberian Railroad from the Urals to Vladivostok for about a year. In addition, the British and Americans landed forces in Russia’s far north (Murmansk and Archangel) to oppose the Bolsheviks.

Leon Trotsky addressing Red Army soldiers

The Bolsheviks, led at first by Trotsky, were able to reorganize the old army as the Red Army. (Red has been the color of revolution since the French Revolution. The forces opposed to the Bolsheviks and in favor of retaining the status quo were called “whites” – the traditional color of royalty.). A civil war began for Russia, as the Red Army battled numerous Russian subjects who did not accept Soviet rule. Over the next 4 years, the Red Army managed to defeat and eliminate all of the armed contingents on Russian soil.

Firmly ensconced in power, the Bolsheviks attempted to impose Marxist theory on the economy, abolishing most forms of private property and establishing collective farms. The effects of that policy were devastating, driving millions of people to the brink of starvation. Thanks in part to contributions of food from the United States, the regime eked out survival during what became known as the Volga famine.

The Bolsheviks had repudiated all tsarist debts in February 1918; consequently, the Soviet government was unable to arrange any credit. However, its war against religion (a formidable rival for the people’s loyalty), enabled it to finance its operations in part through closing the churches and selling looted precious metals, jewelry, and artwork.  

Boris Kustodiev’s 1920 painting “Bolshevik,” depicting a revolutionary with the red flag, glaring at an Orthodox Christian church.

The Weimar government, the successor to the defeated German Empire, came to the rescue of the Soviets. The German General Staff (military) was severely limited in what it could do by the Treaty of Versailles imposed on them by the victorious Allies in 1919. Seeking ways around the Versailles restrictions, they conspired with the Soviet government to exchange financial aid for permission to manufacture and test new weapons on Soviet soil in what has been named the Treaty of Rapallo on April 16, 1922.

Germans and Russians meeting in Italy to sign the Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922

McMeekin ends his narrative with the Treaty of Rapallo, which he says:

“. . . marked the coming of age of international Communism. What had begun as an alliance of convenience between the German Foreign Office and a band of Bolshevik conspirators in 1917 had come full circle, with the conspirators now recognized as equals — and curiously treated with great deference, as if they were superiors — by their German benefactors. On the international chessboard, it was a masterstroke. After a half-decade of bitter trials, Communism had proved it was here to stay. Secure in Russia, it could be exported to the world.”

Other great ironies marked the end of the revolution/civil war. The Bolsheviks’ first effort to abolish private property was so unsuccessful that Lenin was forced to institute a “New Economic Policy” or N.E.P., essentially bringing back capitalism for a time. Although many bemoaned the loss of life during the World War, what followed, between the revolution and ensuing civil war, famine, and political executions, cost the lives of 25 million people, eighteen times as many as died in the war just preceding it.

Soviet New Economic Policy poster

McMeekin concludes that the Russian Revolution was “far from an eschatological ‘class struggle’ borne along irresistibly by the Marxist dialectic.” Rather it was the result of successful, opportunistic power plays by key actors. Lenin stands out as a leader of single-minded determination to aggregate power, even though he had to make numerous compromises with Marxist principles. He may have claimed to be a doctrinaire socialist, but he (1) accepted substantial financial aid from Germany, (2) signed the highly unfavorable treaty of Brest-Litovsk, (3) used tsarist officers to reorganize the Red Army, and (4) adopted a basically capitalist approach to cure Russia’s severe economic problems with his N.E.P. His genius may have been in recognizing the opportunity presented by huge armies mobilized in wartime that could be convinced to turn against their social betters in leadership positions at home.

But there is no doubt that the deeply conservative nature of the majority of the people, who tended to be anti-intellectual, and believers in a rigid authoritarianism, had to be suppressed. Needless to say, Stalin had his work cut out for him.

Joseph Stalin, 1930

Evaluation: McMeekin’s approach is a refreshing change from an emphasis on Marxist rhetoric and from a focus on a very small number of intellectuals who clashed over “the dialectic of history.” Rather, McMeekin explores the larger themes affecting the country in a broader context. He has taken the time to explore many “what ifs” and close calls that could have materially altered the course of history. This book is well worth reading, interpreting, and apprehending.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Basic Books, 2017

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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2 Responses to Review of “The Russian Revolution: A New History” by Sean McMeekin

  1. This sounds too intellectual for me but my mom might like it.

  2. Beth F says:

    This might give me a little more insight into my grandfather. He escaped during the revolution, but he wasn’t sympathetic with either side.

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