When Russia had a YUGE revolution

March 2, 2017

Jonathan Valenti looks at a different Trump-Russia connection: The eerie parallels between the U.S. president and the Russian Tsar who was overthrown 100 years ago.

MARCH 8 is International Woman's Day and the 100th anniversary of Russia's February Revolution that overthrew Tsar Nicholas II and eventually led to the October Revolution and the first lasting glimpse in human history of what working class power and socialism could look like.

For all of the crises and political tumult that Trump has brought about today, our situation doesn't look a lot like Russia in 1917--a country where the First World War had killed over a million Russian soldiers and created a grave economic crisis. Large sections of the population were members of revolutionary organizations, and militant strikes had become a regular occurrence.

But there is one glaring similarity between their situation and ours: Both Donald Trump and Tsar Nicholas II are bumbling, incompetent half-wits who believe they have a mandate to rule, despite never being democratically elected.

Both men claim to read books, but are oddly silent about which ones. As Leon Trotsky famously pointed out in his History of the Russian Revolution, in his diaries, Nicholas simply wrote things like "Read" and "Read all evening". In one interview, Trump pointed to some books in his office and said he's read "some of them right over there."

Tsar Nicholas II and Donald Trump
Tsar Nicholas II and Donald Trump

Trump would have loved the Romanov's gold-plated Amber Room. And they both retreat to their own Winter Palace--Nicholas' was in St. Petersburg, while Trump has to travel to Palm Beach, Florida.

But what probably makes Trump most disturbingly reminiscent of Tsar Nicholas II is, in the words of Count Sergei Witte, their "leprous court." While Trump surrounds himself with far-right anti-Semites who fetishize violence, like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, the Tsar had an inner circle that included members of the Black Hundreds, who led murderous pogroms against Jews.

The sheer incompetence of both men led to plots to undermine them among sections of the state apparatus. Members of the officer class of the Russian military assassinated Rasputin, an alcoholic buffoon of a monk, who the Tsar and Tsarina viewed as a prophet and made their most trusted adviser. Trump today is seeing his close confidants smeared by a steady stream of leaks from inside the White House and intelligence agencies.

When Michael Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Adviser and Trump spent the next few days on an unsuccessful quest to find someone to take the job, it was reminiscent of something that Nicholas was told by the president of the Russian parliament, Mikhail Rodzianko: "Your Majesty, there is not one reliable or honest man left around you; all the best men have been removed or have retired. There remain only those of ill repute."

WE CAN only hope that the similarities between Trump and Nicholas continue to play out over the coming months and years the way they did for the Tsar a century ago.

The February Revolution--so called because it began in February, according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time--started with female textile workers in Petrograd going on strike on International Women's Day over demands for bread and milk.

By the next day, half of the capital was on strike and calling for an end to Russia's involvement in the war and an end to the monarchy. On the third day, the vast numbers of protesters completely outnumbered the police, who were chased from the streets.

The Russian military was deployed to quell the uprising, but soldiers were hesitant to use violence against workers who were pleading with them to put down their bayonets. By the fourth day, many of those soldiers had joined the movement against the Tsar. On the fifth day Nicholas II was overthrown, and marchers would take the Tauride Palace.

Just as Democratic politicians talked about finding common ground with Trump, even as Democratic voters took to the streets in protest against his election, the bourgeois parties in Russia neither called for the abdication of the Tsar nor wanted to assume power.

During the February Revolution, Rodzianko pleaded with Nicholas to put down the movement. "I am no rebel," he wrote. "I have made no revolution and do not intend to make one... I am no Revolutionary."

Meanwhile, the people of Petrograd were creating their own system of governance of workers councils to democratically run their city. Within weeks of the February Revolution, it was these councils, known as the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, that controlled the workplaces in St. Petersburg, or Petrograd, and had the true governing power.

"The Provisional Government has no real authority at its disposal," wrote the Minister of War to one of his generals. "And its decrees are carried out only to the extent this is permitted by the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies."

Just as many protesters today continue to put their faith in the Democrats who betray them, the workers in the soviet asked Rodzianko and the rest of parliament to form a Provisional Government and take power. This would prove to be a costly mistake when the new government continued the Tsar's policies of war and starvation.

But the lessons that many workers learned about their ability to organize themselves would be the driving force behind the second revolution in October, which led by the Bolshevik slogan of "All power to the soviets!"

We're a long way from forming soviets in 2017 America. But it's a welcome sight to see the return of mass protests, wildcat strikes like the Day Without Immigrants, and the prominent role of women's protests--including the call for Women's Strike that is making a new generation in the U.S. aware of International Women's Day.

As we build these protests, let's remember the lessons from 100 years, when the people of Russia fought a ruler just as dim and cruel as Donald Trump. We can't rely on our modern-day Rodziankos to fight on our behalf. Instead, we're going to have to discover the power and organization that lies inside us as a class.

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