Breaking Out of the Vicious Circle

25 december 2017

The Fate of Revolutions in Russia

Sergei Dubinin is a Professor and has a Doctoral Degree in Economics.

Resume: Everything seems to have changed in Russia over the past one hundred years. The social and economic systems were scrapped and built anew twice, and the political system was overhauled three times. Yet the answers to the main questions “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” remain pretty much the same as before.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 has to be assessed in a broad historical context. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, European countries were completing their transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Until then, their economic activities had been based on capitalist market relations. Practically everywhere the transition sparked sociopolitical revolutions. As a rule, they occurred in major European cities and industrial centers under the slogan of modernization. This notion entailed renovating social life on the basis of rule of law principles, individual freedom, and political equality. Objectively speaking, public discourse on “modernization,” “modernity,” and “new times” was overloaded with positive assessments. The progress of social development was associated entirely with the self-identity of free individuals. Liberation was triggered by a growing diversification in spheres of activity for every individual who was free to choose his own way of life regardless of religious beliefs, social group conventions, or family traditions. The future was proclaimed as a priority and the past as something to obliterate, which was not always justified.

Contrary to “urban” revolutions, in continental Eurasian empires—the Chinese, Russian, and Ottoman—resistance to the authorities stemmed from the peasantry. Peasants made up the majority of the population that opposed attempts by the elites to carry out “modernization from above;” that is, “rural” revolutions were inspired by calls to preserve traditional social relations. In these social groups, the past was an inalienable part of the present. Children and grandchildren were expected to travel the same way their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had travelled, or at least not to challenge their values. “Rural” revolutions, of which the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911-1912 is a typical example, precipitated civil wars and could continue for decades.  

A third component of the drive to revolutionize society in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries was the growing national consciousness of European nations, which previously had been divided between neighboring empires (Italians and Poles), as well as of non-European nations in colonial and dependent territories. Revolts among the military played a major role in national liberation revolutions. Nationalist fervor was common among officers. 

Naturally, there were no “chemically pure” revolutions in real life as factors, driving forces, and slogans all became mixed up. “Urban” factors and political forces prevailed in Western European countries. Simon Bolivar’s liberation movement in Latin America was a mixture of national liberation and “rural” forces. Oligarchic clans of landowners teamed up with the military to fight monarchies and won. As a result, the situation did not change for a long time and modernization of society slowed.  

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Russian Empire was closer to Asian than European societal patterns. The overwhelming majority of people lived and worked in the countryside. Peasants did not recognize private ownership of land. Any government that tried to break “the people’s will” was faced with sabotage or open rebellion. The European culture of elites was alien to most people as “seigniorial” and hostile. The mass relocation of peasants to cities did not alleviate this contradiction, but, on the contrary, made it even more manifest. So, unique as it was, the revolution in Russia proceeded similarly to other such societies. 


In February 1917, workers in the outskirts of Petrograd revolted for economic rather than political reasons. The revolution started as a typical “urban” revolt. The city garrison troops took up positions on the bridges across the Neva river to keep the protesters from the downtown area. But people walked across the river on the ice and flooded the streets. The troops refused to fire at them. Soldiers and sailors, most of whom were mobilized peasants, eventually joined the uprising and played a critical role in determining the course of subsequent events. The  Russian Revolution of 1917 started as an “urban” movement, but quickly turned into a “rural” insurgency and civil war.

Parliamentary political parties made an attempt to lead the revolution and offered purely modernization slogans, such as political freedoms and social and legal equality. But the soldiers and peasants did not accept them. By entering World War One, Tsar Nicholas II and his government doomed the country to irreversible changes. The government had basically armed the peasants. No matter which events of 1916-1917 are taken as the starting point in the history of the revolutionary outburst in Russia, desertion and the subsequent demobilization of armed soldiers and peasants cannot go unnoticed. They went home, taking their arms with them, and no one could stop them. 

Bolsheviks, as admitted not only by historians, but also by participants in those events, seized the initiative in the sporadic insurgency, as Vladimir Lenin pointed out in his writings. They sent insurgents to the Red Army and won the Civil War. The Bolsheviks brought together those who viewed revolutionary violence as the most effective way to transform society. In October 1917 they did not just seize power, but led the spontaneous mass violence against the hated “seigniors” and “exploiters” and turned it into an organized movement. This devotion to unlimited violence made it possible for the communist party to gain total control over the anti-modernization peasant insurgency and crush the old elites’ resistance during the Civil War.

When fighting ended, the Bolsheviks had to compromise with the peasant majority. Its concessions were reflected in the New Economic Policy (NEP). But it soon became clear that the alliance between the Bolshevik dictatorship and the anti-modernization peasantry blocked not only the social development of Russia, but also its industrial renovation. The deadlock could have been broken by building a market economy, but the Bolsheviks chose a different way, more natural for them, and launched an all-out attack on the rural way of life. Long-term development required technological modernization, which was carried out by a Bolshevik dictatorship during forced collectivization and grain expropriation across the country in the 1920s-1930s. The Russian Revolution became truly communist and unique only after 1928, with the beginning of forced collectivization and total state control over rural areas. 


Before the Civil War, the fate of political power in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1917 hinged entirely on what was happening on the fronts in World War I. But Russia’s military potential and wartime strategy also depended on the government’s stability. Apparently, until the winter of 1917-1918, Russia had the chance to keep the Russian-German frontline from complete collapse. In the summer of 1917, the military could have formed a stable government in Petrograd. General Lavr Kornilov could have seized power either through a takeover or an agreement with the Provisional Government. If forces had been used reasonably and attempts to begin an offensive abandoned, stability could have been preserved until the German defeat in 1918. With the U.S. joining the war and Russia continuing to fight, Germany might have capitulated even sooner, perhaps in the summer of 1918.

It is important to remember that not only soldiers, but also officers played a crucial role in the early days of the revolution, at first by demanding the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. They were subsequently joined by Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Muravyov, who led Petrograd’s revolutionary troops against General Kornilov in the summer of 1917. The left-wing Socialist Revolutionary Muravyov later headed the campaign to establish Soviet power in Ukraine, commanded the Eastern front against the Whites, led an uprising in the Volga region against the Bolsheviks, and was eventually killed by Red Latvian Riflemen.

The biggest portion of the pre-war officer corps died during World War I. They were replaced by civilian intellectuals—engineers, students, teachers, and medics. These were people of cadet liberal, rather than monarchic, views. According to various estimates, some 40 to 60 percent of imperial army officers joined the Reds. The participation of the Russian military in insurgencies has deep historical roots. Throughout history, career officers have engaged in revolutionary violence. Prince Ivan Khovansky is not only the protagonist of an opera, but also the leader of a Streltsy (seventeenth-century Moscow guardsmen) uprising, just one in a long list of similar characters. During the revolution of the 1990s, two former Soviet army officers led the rebellious republic of Ichkeria—Air Force Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev and Colonel Aslan Maskhadov, both of whom were previously Communist Party members. In the fall of 1993, former Soviet Air Force Major General Alexander Rutskoi suggested bombing the Kremlin. He was neither a liberal nor a dissident. He had been elected Russian vice president and was named acting president by the Russian parliament in September 1993.

In the same year, power was thrown to the streets and to top military officers. Those officers still controlled part of the army and supported President Boris Yeltsin, not Rutskoi. In much the same way, armed men in ancient Rus’ decided who should be put on the throne in Kiev or Vladimir. This is how guardsmen chose the head of the Russian Empire in St. Petersburg in the eighteenth century. And this is how it was during the Decembrist uprising in 1825.

Although history claims it has no subjunctive mood, all kinds of twists and turns can occur because of purely subjective factors or accidental events. There can be variants in the short-term, but it is historical regularity that comes into play in the long-term. However the Bolsheviks’ rise to power in 1917 was not the latter case. 

Let us just imagine that the Bolshevik leaders had been physically destroyed or had been forced to leave the country in July 1917. Any other non-Bolshevik central government would have faced the same choice between suppressing the peasants’ mutiny and accepting its outcome. The Civil War probably could not have been avoided. There would have been fewer casualties without the “Red Terror,” but a lot of blood would have been shed anyway, and sooner or later any government would have had to accept the equalitarian distribution of land. 

The fierceness of the armed struggle in Russia stemmed from the seizure and distribution of agricultural land, and from national rebel movements. The former occurred in central regions, the latter in the outlying provinces. The rebellion of armed people against the central government was inescapable.  

Under any military or revolutionary scenario, Russia’s state ten years after it entered World War I, in 1924, could have been described as follows:

Firstly, the land issue, which had been a real curse for economic, political, and intellectual life in Russia for the six decades after the abolition of serfdom, was solved in favor of the peasants. All agricultural land in the European part of the country was seized and divided according to the number of people in a family. The estates, no longer owned by noblemen, but by wealthy people, had been burnt down. The so-called kulaks, or well-off peasants, had to return to communities or flee to the cities.  

Secondly, the political regime in Russia was repressive. Elections to the Constituent Assembly and the State Duma had been postponed. Real power was in the hands of the military dictatorship. 

Thirdly, many ethnic peripheral regions had fallen away. Plans to acquire territories in the Balkans as well as Constantinople and the straits had to be abandoned.

Fourthly, all these changes did not take place because of decisions made by the Tsar or the State Duma or in talks. They were the result of a bloody civil war, or rather a series of armed clashes between guerrillas (armed gangs) headed by field commanders. When more or less stable governments were being formed in regions and provinces, they took employment with those who could provide for their needs and arm them. When a capable central government was formed in Moscow and Petrograd, it organized former guerrillas into an army and took vast territories of the new Russia under control. 

These were the results of Russia’s turmoil in the first several decades of the twentieth century. Lenin and Trotsky ended up at the helm of the country even though Savinkov, Muravyov, Yudenich, Kornilov, Kolchark, Denikin, Guchkov or someone else could have taken their place. The enthronement of a member of the Romanov family would have been the least likely scenario, but even in this case real power would have been held by a military dictator, whether a prime minister or a commander-in-chief.

The Russian government of mid- and late 1917 would most probably have continued the revolutionary rhetoric, engaged in repressions under the pretext of protecting freedom from “German agents” and “enemies of the people,” and announced a crackdown on “counterrevolution and anarchy.” Saving the Fatherland required harsher methods of government. They were promptly introduced in cities: elections were abolished and reserve regiments were moved from Petrograd and Moscow to the Volga and Urals regions for regrouping, where they used to repair railway tracks and were engaged in other work. Eventually these soldiers were allowed to go home. 

By the summer of 1917, the first groups of police support volunteers had begun to appear in cities to maintain public order. The result was arbitrariness and violence, but this helped curb crime. Former tsarist government officials were offered positions in regional and city administrations. The transition to democracy was postponed until the war with Germany was over.  

All talk that the future of the state system in Russia was “not predetermined” can easily be forgotten. Power in the country could have been seized, for example, by a government called a Supreme Military Revolutionary Committee headed by the supreme ruler of Russia. It was critical to ban the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. The government could have tried to work out an agreement with the workers and merge soviets at industrial enterprises with military-industrial committees or labor unions, but they would have been pushed out of political life anyway.


Economic devastation in Russia during World War I, fatigue, and disappointment after a series of military defeats spurred popular demand for a change of government. Another contributing factor was the widely held view that instead of defending legitimate rights, it was necessary to rectify some moral “untruth.” Vasily Rozanov, a hardline conservative Orthodox publicist, wrote shortly before the revolution: “Sometimes you feel your knees shaking even if you act by law, whereas another time you defy all laws, but your heart sings for joy.” Both the right and the left showed disregard for law and formal procedures.

Throughout the Soviet Union’s history, the leadership always gave an unambiguous answer to the question “Do we exist for the law or does the law exist for us?” Naturally, the Soviet legal system was consistently constructed on the basis of “revolutionary expediency,” where the law was only an instrument, not the main principle.

The majority of the best educated members of Russian society have leftist views. For the past one hundred and fifty years, since the days of Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, intellectuals have sought justice for people through the redistribution of property. It is only natural that these ideas always attract interest when incomes decline, especially after a period of growth. In pre-revolutionary Russia, communal ideology as the foundation of Russian life was recognized and supported not only by Tolstoyans, but by almost all the educated class. Conservatives viewed the community as the most important source of support for the monarchy; revolutionaries believed it was the future of socialism in Russia; and philosophers spoke about the soul of the “God-bearing people” striving for collective life, justice, and equality. 

It is not accidental that the government had to enact Pyotr Stolypin’s laws designed to eradicate communal ownership of land through royal decrees, as they had no chance of being passed by the parliament. Surprisingly, Duma liberals and the left demanded political freedoms while rejecting all real measures to modernize the agrarian sector. And yet, land surveying commissions received applications for reallocation of land from 6.2 million peasants from the start of reforms in 1906 to January 1, 1916. If all family members are counted, this can be regarded as mass participation in the reforms by leaving communities or moving to Siberia. But in reality slightly more than one-third of the applicants, not the majority of peasants, actually seceded from their communities. Land reform was least welcome in overcrowded rural non-Black Earth provinces.

One of the reasons was probably that the peasants did not believe they could support their families solely by farming. Furthermore, peasants feared they could lose their jobs in nearby towns where they worked in winter after the harvesting season and where many had a second family. Peasants also feared losing the support of their communities in emergencies, crop failures, or the death of the bread winner. But the Russian authorities learned to deal with that. Of course, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal.” Who else but the government could take away everything and divide it all fairly? It was for the sake of justice that for centuries no one was allowed to enjoy the right to private property without the government’s permission. The state was remodeled and the hierarchy of estates was replaced with the hierarchy of the nomenklatura, but the never-ending redistribution of wealth continued. In this respect, it was only natural that the principles of Soviet statehood gravitated towards autocratic statehood.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ruined plans for a communist future. But an alternative civilizational project—liberal political democracy and market economy—failed to live up to Russians’ expectations too. Not only ordinary people, but even members of the elite think that this model could not be used in Russia. Moreover, they do not believe that it actually works abroad, even in the most developed countries. Skepticism about the ideals of modern times and the Enlightenment is quite prevalent in the world today. But Russian society became disillusioned with the benefits of modernity even before its economic and political systems were actually modernized. 

Unlike community ideology, which promised a better life in the future, our contemporaries prefer to liver better today. Most Russians are very conservative, but they look for traditional values in the Soviet model rather than in the pre-revolutionary past. They constantly recall the secure and comfortable, as seen from afar, Soviet way of life.

Each new period of social development spurs interest in the history of the country. Intellectuals take an inventory of the past. They do this not because of orders from the ruling class, but rather in response to demand from a wide circle of people concerned. “Lessons and examples” from the past which can best explain current events take center stage. After every revolution people inevitably tend to reject the past almost completely, focusing entirely on the future. But with time the link to the past grows stronger. In fact, in the Soviet era the authorities gradually began to mention not only rebels and revolutionaries, but also scientists and writers from the past. By the end of the 1970s, “tsars and generals” had appeared in the official history again. In fact, those who had helped to expand Russia’s territory received particularly warm acclaim. For example, Ivan the Terrible was praised for his early victories, but his defeat in the Livonian War at the end of his reign was never mentioned.

And yet, the past can provide a lot of valuable experience for present-day development. Over the past one hundred and fifty years the supreme authorities in Russia have made several (voluntary!) attempts to provide for the inviolability of inheritable private property, but those who started reforms “from above” were always castigated both during their lifetime and after their death. Tsar Alexander II, who initiated a number of important reforms and abolished serfdom, was blamed for the miserable plight of Russian peasants. Prime Minister Stolypin was only mentioned in connection with the execution of revolutionaries. His land reform, the only effective way to save the state from collapse at that time, was slammed for infringing upon the communal bonds of people’s life. We now can see attempts to smear Yeltsin’s name by depicting him as a heavy drinker, because the authorities are trying to make us forget what life was like before Yeltsin’s reforms. Naturally, top-ranking reformers were guided solely by concrete economic and political interests. They are censured for the lack of commitment to “high ideals.” But I think public interests could best be served if the priorities were reversed. Major transformations, such as the abolition of serfdom or the transition to a market economy, advanced the modernization of an entire society. The most professional part of the ruling class (the nobility in the nineteenth century and the Soviet nomenklatura at the end of the twentieth century) successfully adapted to the new rules of the game. The main purpose of modernization is to allow people without innate privileges to rise in life. The slow renovation of human capital is a clear sign of social stagnation. 


The “rural revolution” model remains relevant today. The seven decades that have passed since the end of World War II have generated numerous scenarios of national liberation wars and rural revolutionary movements, including the creation of a peasant revolutionary guerrilla army capable of fighting a long civil war. The so-called Arab Spring and even the attempt to create an Islamic State are a new version of the old anti-modernization “rural” revolution. Previously, communists led armed struggle in such “rural” revolutions in China, Vietnam, and Laos, with the support of the Soviet Union. But the list of such countries is not very long.

Competing political forces—Mao Zedong’s Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in China, or the Bolsheviks and the left and right Social Revolutionaries in Russia—wanted to control the armed masses. Those who practiced mass repressions and unlimited violence won, and the communists gained the upper hand. But history has shown that reliance on anti-modernization forces and compromises and alliances with the conservative rural population slows development, which, in turn, generates a new wave of revolutionary movement, as a rule an “urban” revolution, or controlled reform of the stagnating system from above.

The “rural” revolution and the civil war predetermined the course of social development in Russia for decades. After World War II the center of political and economic activities gradually shifted to cities. The revolutionary events of 1991-1993 sort of drew a line under those processes.

The political and economic system in the Soviet Union was based on and followed the “rural” revolution of the 1910s-1920s and forced collectivization of the 1920s-1930s. Those events cast a long shadow over modern Russian history. The period of Soviet state development slowed down the transformation of the “rural” revolution, which defended archaic values, into a movement towards market modernization and political democracy. At the same time, it was a time when the country was building up its industrial potential and people were moving to cities. The social, economic, and ethnic multistructurality of society remained and subsequently became one of the fundamental factors in the breakup of the Soviet Union as an integral state. But it was predominantly an “urban” revolution carried out under the banner of democracy and market economy.  

The main task in the 1990s was to restore market institutions abolished during collectivization and industrialization. But the socialist economy was anti-market in terms of production structure, and a large number of Soviet enterprises were not able to work efficiently and compete in an open economy. Russia has still not yet fully reformed its economy or institutionalized its market economic environment. 

Revolutions, mass repressions, and armed hostilities resulted in large-scale causalities and caused demographic gaps for which growing birth rates could not compensate. In the Soviet era the demographic situation changed radically as women joined the workforce and did not have more than one or two children. This happened mainly in the European part of the country where people had been brought up on secular non-religious cultural traditions. As a result, different ethnic groups drifted further apart from each other and regional differences increased.

In this context, the most important legacy of the Soviet era was the universal role violence played as an instrument of solving the most complex problems in the most primitive way, which, however, produced quick results and was generally regarded as a highly effective method. Even today violence is often presented as an effective and quick solution. This explains attempts to revive the cult of Joseph Stalin, who used violence on a large scale. Undoubtedly this is the legacy of the Bolshevik tradition. The campaign to cleanse society of foreign classes, potential traitors, and enemies of the people started in 1917 and continued until Stalin’s death. Mass repressions were then stopped, but “violence as the midwife of history”—as an instrument of progress and development—was still deeply appreciated.  

Everything seems to have changed in Russia over the past one hundred years. The social and economic systems were scrapped and built anew twice, and the political system was overhauled three times. Yet the answers to the main questions “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” remain pretty much the same as before.

In brief, the first question always had and still has two, seemingly opposite, answers: foreign countries and their agents are to blame, or the ruling “regime.” But the answer to the second question is strikingly unequivocal: opponents must be dealt with most decisively, including with direct violence. This is explained either by “revolutionary expediency,” as seen by the opposition, or “national security” needs, if statists speak up. Today, just like a hundred years ago, different social strata are ready to justify violence by considerations of expediency and “ultimate goals.” A refusal to spill blood is viewed as foolishness and leads to disrespect or the loss of power by the government.

In May 1917, the first Provisional Government resigned. In its declaration it stressed: “The Provisional Government has chosen not coercion and violence as the basis of political governance in the country, but the voluntary subordination of free citizens… There has not been a single drop of people’s blood spilled through its fault.” The mildest of criticism directed at the Provisional Government by its contemporaries and present-day analysts blames it for being too soft. Its opponents on both sides of the political spectrum were firm, but led Russia to a long civil war and a repressive totalitarian regime. 

Bolsheviks explained the brutality of their system because they had to build communism within the shortest possible time. However the means they used to achieve their goal destroyed the goal itself. People stopped believing in it. The contemporary world is learning to live without ambitious projects promising “a bright future.” This has certainly become a fact of life in the twenty-first century for the European Christian civilization, to which Russia undoubtedly belongs. Paradoxically, Russians have preserved their propensity to use simple solutions to solve all problems through violence.

Left-wing communism, coupled with the desire for revenge and violence, is very popular in our country. Over and over again many of those who seek to be the masters of minds consider the execution of “enemies” without extended judicial proceedings as the best way to solve acute social problems. Voices of reason can be heard too, of course, cautioning that if all strata of Russian society, from government bureaucrats to public protesters, fail to understand the importance of dialogue and compromise, history may repeat itself with a new spiral of mass violence and destruction.

This is consonant with remarks made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 2005: “In our plundered state, as salvation I would propose the national idea stated 250 years ago by Empress Elizabeth’s courtier Ivan Petrovich Shuvalov. He advised Elizabeth to make the preservation of the people the main law from which to take guidance. What a thought—preservation of the people as the main goal!”

The Russian state has long usurped the right to violence not in order to protect every person from aggression and lawlessness, but, on the contrary, in order to carry out mass violence seemingly for the sake of achieving some lofty goal and strengthening the state. In this system of values only the state that is able to scare everyone both within and outside its boundaries can be considered strong. These are false values that always led our country to bloody stalemates throughout its history. The search for enemies is dangerous not only for the life and well-being of those who are declared disloyal to the authorities, but also for the authorities themselves.

*  *  *

My analysis shows that both the February and October revolutions in Russia in 1917 were not unique, but typical phenomena. The new period in the history of European civilization, the beginning of which is traditionally associated with the last decades of the eighteenth century and the French Revolution, paved the way for the modernization of social life. At the same time, it involved both “urban” modernization revolutions and mass “rural” revolutionary revolts. The latter were essentially anti-modernization in nature. Both revolutionary movements actively used the ideas of national revival and self-determination as popular slogans. The Russian revolution and Civil War of 1917-1920 were the result of these three revolutionary trends merging together.

The October Revolution and the development of the Soviet Union in subsequent decades were a sort of transitional period, after which modernization took center stage again. The transition during the 1991-1993 revolution from a massive empire to a multiethnic, but compact state, with the same level of development and culture, was a truly historic achievement. Today, a hundred years after the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, we are following a path of modernization, but have not yet built a democratic system based on the separation of powers. We could have started moving towards this goal a long time ago, immediately after the end of that turmoil. This could have kept millions of our compatriots alive and helped focus resources on the preservation of the people instead of wasting them in pursuit of communist chimeras.

The Soviet Union’s political, economic, and social construct proved uncompetitive in the era of constant industrial and human innovations. The revolutionary period that started in Russia in 1917 ended in a new revolution in 1991-1993. Albeit mainly “urban” in nature, national liberation slogans played a significant role too.

Modern Russia is not only the legal heir to the Soviet Union, but also the successor to certain economic, demographic, and cultural processes dating back to the Soviet era. For many Russian intellectuals, achieving concrete results is allegedly less important than not having a noble impulse. The problem is endless speculations about the sanctity of suffering for the sake of a bright future. Modernization is relegated entirely to the upgrading of the armed forces and the defense industry. This has become the noblest social objective.  

The Soviet era left behind not only the memory of heroic and tragic times, but also social institutions and traditions that are deeply rooted in society and people’s mentality. The modernization project of the 1990s sought both to overcome the “Sovietness” and develop it further at the same time. Twenty-five years after the last Russian revolution, these tasks are still on the agenda.

} Page 1 of 5