Not a riot but a revolution

November 13, 2017

Elizabeth Terzakis reviews a collection of firsthand accounts of the Russian Revolution of 1917 edited by SW contributor Todd Chretien, published in time for its anniversary.

EYEWITNESSES TO the Russian Revolution is a must-read for anyone who wants to change the world completely and for the better, whether you've spent your life studying Marx and participating in social justice activism or heard the word "socialism" in a positive context for the first time when Bernie Sanders launched his presidential campaign.

Editor Todd Chretien provides all the tools necessary for Russian Revolution neophytes to get the most out of their reading experience: in addition to a careful curation of firsthand accounts, Chretien's introduction and contextual notes--both lucid and concise--allow a wide-angle view of the period as a whole and an orienting understanding of each individual contribution.

The book also includes a chronology of major events and a comprehensive glossary of organizations and names--pocket guidebooks for the historical traveler embarking on a first trip to Russia in 1917.

But it is the eyewitness accounts themselves that make the book crucial reading as they illustrate a phenomenon that has never been witnessed before or since: the taking of power and the shaping of their own lives by ordinary working people.

Factory workers in Petrograd pose for a photograph after an organizing meeting
Factory workers in Petrograd pose for a photograph after an organizing meeting (Viktor Bulla)

THOSE WITH prior knowledge of the revolution will recognize classic passages like Bolshevik Party leader Leon Trotsky's "Five Days: Scenes from the February Revolution," excerpted from his monumental History of the Russian Revolution, in which he describes the women of St. Petersburg leading the way in protesting, striking and compelling the Tsar's soldiers to come to the side of their class:

A great role is played by women workers in the relations between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command, "Put down your bayonets; join us!" The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful "Hurrah!" shakes the air. The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals[;] the revolution makes another forward step.

"April Theses," in which another Bolshevik Party leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, calls for working class rule through true democracy, will also be familiar to the more experienced revolutionary reader. In his theses, Lenin lays out the rationale for what was to become the Bolsheviks' primary slogan: "All power to the Soviets" (soviet is the Russian word for "workers council").

As Chretien points out, the "April Theses" also put to rest the utterly false but oft-repeated charge that Lenin advocated a coup. Knowing that calling for workers' power was not a majority position at the time, Lenin makes clear that party members have their work cut out for them:

Our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.

Although the collected texts come, in the main, from the revolution's actors and sympathizers, critics of the revolution, like French military officer Claude Anet, are also included and often corroborate the accounts of the revolution's supporters, albeit from a different and decidedly unsympathetic perspective.

In "February 24--A riot? A revolution?" Anet, who hated the Bolsheviks, confirms Trotsky's account of soldiers turning against the Tsar. And in "April 4--The reddest of the red," he verifies the Bolsheviks' commitment to peace, the primary demand of the Russian working class:

[Lenin] wanted peace, peace at any price, and without delay, and no matter what kind it might be. That was the thesis which he came to defend in the frightful confusion of the present hour in Russia.

Chretien allows Alexander Kerensky--leader of the Provisional Government from whom Lenin argued that the working class must be patiently convinced to take power--to speak for himself by including Kerensky's description of his attempts to reverse the effects of Bolshevik agitation in the army.

Given the opposition of the peasants, the working class and the army to the war, Kerensky's reflections demonstrate a startling cluelessness:

For the sake of the nation's life it was necessary to restore the army's will to die. "Forward to the battle for freedom! I summon you not to a feast but to death!"...These words were...the keynote of all my addresses before the troops in front-line positions."

Inspiring stuff. You can see why the soldiers chose to follow Lenin, who wanted peace at any price.

WHILE ACCOUNTS by the more widely known actors in the revolution will no doubt inspire curiosity in those new to revolutionary politics and refresh the commitment of those who have been in it for the long haul, it is the inclusion of lesser-known and more humble voices that make this book particularly exceptional and exciting.

An interview with Gertrude M. Tobinson, who experienced the impact of American troops coming to crush the revolution in Siberia, explains how the Siberian Soviets nationalized the local fleet, took over the mines, and freed revolutionaries arrested by the counterrevolutionary White Army "with hammers and hatchets and wood and whatever they had in their hands..."

She also notes changes in worker-run schools:

[T]hey improved them greatly. [They] tried to bring the free spirit into the schools. They tried to learn to know every individual child, and they would go home to the mothers and learn their life at home and they would find out the child's position and the child's background, and would act accordingly with the child.

In the classes every morning the children would elect their own chairman for the day, and the teacher would just sit aside and watch them. Then if anybody had to be punished they wouldn't come to the teacher, but would call a meeting--a revolutionary tribunal--and decide what to do...but the children would rarely do any mischief because they would be ashamed before each other.

What did the Siberian Soviets do when they captured people conspiring with the counterrevolutionaries? According to Tobinson: "[D]uring the nine months that the soviet was in power there wasn't a single execution...We were most all of us against capital punishment. We had them in prison, those that were dangerous...As soon as the soviet felt that they wouldn't do any harm, they let them free."

MANY OF the texts presented are poignant and compelling, but none is more so than Albert Rhys Williams's account of "The Red Convicts of Cherm."

Williams, an American Congregational minister and journalist, notes the degraded state of a column of liberated prisoners marching towards the "warm, luxurious parlor car" in which he and the other members of his delegation from America had arrived at a penal colony in Siberia:

Here were the cannibal-convicts of Tolstoy, slant-browed and brutal-jawed. Through sleet and snow, winter blast and summer blaze they had staggered along. Torture chambers had racked their limbs. Gendarmes' sabers had cracked their skulls. Iron fetters had cut their flesh. Cossack's whips had gashed their backs, and Cossack's hooves had pounded them to earth.

Williams reveals his stereotypical fears when he notes the ease with which these hardened and despised men could have taken control of the train: "Three minutes, and they could leave this train sacked from end to end as though gutted by a cyclone. How sweet for once to glut themselves!"

But the convicts do nothing of the kind. Instead, they pledge their solidarity with the mineworkers of America and begin to sing "The International":

With broken voices, and out of tune they sang, but in their singing one felt the pain and protest of the broken of all ages: a sigh of the captive, the moan of the galley slave lashed to the oar, the groan of the serf stretched on the wheel, the cries from the cross, the anguish of myriads of the condemned, well up out of the long reaches of the past.

If Williams's account of the "Red Convicts of Cherm" is the most likely to bring tears to the eyes of the reader, his "Retrospective," the last entry in the book, provides revolutionaries of today with the clearest idea of our current task.

Williams notes that while the revolutionists "did not make the revolution"--the rising of the people was accomplished by hunger, economic collapse, and war--they:

made the revolution a success. By their efforts they had prepared a body of men and women with minds trained to see facts, with a program to fit the facts and with fighting energy to drive it through. There were a million of them--perhaps more, possibly less. The important thing is not their number, but the fact that they were organized to act.

WILLIAMS' ACCOUNT of the battles through which the revolution was protected and the counterrevolution was defeated is also noteworthy. It demonstrates the inhuman viciousness of the capitalist countries that organized the counterrevolution, which, once defeated, "turned their retreat into an orgy of destruction. With torch and dynamite they laid waste the land, leaving behind a black wake of ruin and ashes."

Williams' description of the Civil War also illustrates what a near-miss was the long-term success of the revolution: The Allied troops, challenged by the entreaties of the Red Army soldiers to desert their oppressors and join their class, fought without commitment, Williams wrote:

They mutinied. The Whites, in tens of thousands--whole battalions and ambulance corps--came over to the revolution. One after another the armies of the counterrevolution crumpled or melted away like snow in a Russian spring. The great steel cordon tightening around the revolution was smashed to bits.

Williams admits that while the revolution was able to defeat the counterrevolution, it was not able to save itself:

The revolution could have sustained the further loss in manpower--for Russia is vast. But it could not afford the loss in brain-power and soul-power, the wholesale massacre of its directing, energizing spirits--the Communists. It was these Communists who bore the brunt of the fighting. They were formed into shock battalions. They were rushed into gaps to stiffen the wavering line. Captured, they were always killed. In the three years' war half the young Communists of Russia were slaughtered.

Williams lists the achievements but also the compromises forced on the new Soviet government by the brutality of the counterrevolutionary forces. Still, in the words of English journalist Arthur Ransome, "If they fail they will fail with clean shields and clean hearts, having striven for an ideal which will live beyond them."

Reading Williams' retrospective, it is difficult not to imagine what might have happened--if the German soldiers had turned their guns on their generals, if the German Revolution of 1918 had been successful, or even if antiwar movements in the U.S. and other Allied countries had prevented them from sending their troops, already exhausted by the First World War, to destroy Soviet Russia. Perhaps we would all have attended schools where we were recognized as individuals.

Perhaps the millions of prisoners currently incarcerated in the U.S. would be free to express their solidarity with workers abroad. Perhaps we would have free childcare and health care and abortion on demand.

Perhaps we would have experienced the power to shape our daily lives in a humane way that enabled the revolutionaries of Russia to raise themselves from the depths of the exhaustion that had made them oppose the First World War with every fiber and jump back in the trenches to defeat the counterrevolution with their last ounces of strength.

Further Reading

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