Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Russian Revolution - Sheila Fitzpatrick

As one of the most complex, traumatic and seismic episodes in recent world history, the Russian Revolution can be a daunting subject to tackle. For such topics, a well-written, authoritative and compact account is always valuable and welcome. This requirement has been fulfilled for me by Sheila Fitzpatrick's excellent work, simply entitled "The Russian Revolution".

When I picked up this book, I expected it to deal almost exclusively with the events of 1917/18, with perhaps some coverage of the Civil War. To my surprise and delight, it also encompasses the "revolution" in its broader sense, taking a look at various phases of development leading up to the eve of World War Two.
Fitzpatrick does a solid and credible job of setting the scene for the upheavals, and observing how the state of flux in Russia's economic and social development provided fertile soil for revolutionary sentiment to thrive and flourish. The nature of dissent and organised opposition in the late Tsarist era is also outlined, and how the forceful personality of Lenin began to make its present felt. Contrary to what many people might imagine, the fortunes of the various opposition factions fluctuated. Ultimately, however, the course of events was going the way of the Bolsheviks, and they were usually quick to capitalise on these trends, and prod matters actively further forward.
Reading this book, one has to wonder whether the "liberal" elements opposed to the autocracy treated the workers patronisingly, and how much they attempted to use the "lower orders" in order to try and save their own skins. They were also probably victims of their own scrupulousness on certain matters, their own bourgeois sensitivities, and of course a failure to fully comprehend the importance being placed on an early end to Russian involvement in the First World War.
Once the Bolsheviks had grasped what had occurred in February 1917, they kept their eyes firmly on the prize, and refused to dilute their principles and demands, knowing that things were developing to their advantage. Of course, a healthy dose of revolutionary ardour, and an absence of scruples or prevarication did the rest.
What I really like about this book is that it doesn't bother slavishly relating every minute twist and turn, and does not try to give dramatic accounts of some of the supposedly iconic moments in the story of the revolution. Instead, it concentrates on scrutinizing the political background to each stage, and the possible explanations for how the participants behaved. This can leave the revolution appearing to lack overt drama and even grandeur, certainly in comparison to the version with which most of us were inculcated in our younger days. When one looks at the how revolution unfolded, in its early phases at least, it was perhaps not as spectacular and explosive as we sometimes imagine. How much this has to do with a "post-Soviet" reappraisal is open to question.
I found the most enlightening and illuminating sections to be those dealing with the period between February and October 1917, the ebbing away of the Provisional Government's credibility and power, and its eventual impotence and demise. There is also some musing on just how much support the Bolsheviks actually commanded around October/November 1917. 
The Civil War is also given due prominence here, but more in the context of how it affected the domestic situation and the power struggles in Russia than of military events. Particular note is taken of how the conflict led to the regime becoming more authoritarian and militaristic, and also of the importance of the peasantry.
We are given a clear and persuasive analysis of how the Bolsheviks handled the reins of power once the situation had become relatively settled and stable, and I was intrigued by the question of the balance between the involvement of the party in the implementation of government, and that of the bureaucracy.  The New Economic Policy is also an integral part of this portion of the book.
"The Russian Revolution" concludes with a look at the power struggles after Lenin's death, and the subsequent "revolution from above" overseen by Stalin, including the Five Year Plans, the collectivization of agriculture, and of course the purges. There is an interesting summarization of the changes which overcame Russian social, economic and cultural life in these times, and whether they did indeed represent the realisation or accomplishment of real socialism and the vindication of the revolution.
This was an instructive read. Clearly not the definitive tome on the subject, but admirable all the same. A good "one stop shop" summary or refresher, and a possible stimulus for deeper research.

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