This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution of 1917, one of the most important geopolitical events of the 20th century. The revolution was a product of several domestic factors and the First World War, which was especially destructive for Eastern Europe.
Several of the major players in World War I were empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the German Empire and Tsarist Russia. Historian Joshua Sanborn says in some ways, World War I was the decolonization of Eastern Europe.
“The war really helped to unhinge the societies in those old empires, and to transform them politically. So the best way to think about what's happening in Eastern Europe over the course of the war is to think of this as kind of a period of decolonization in Europe,” Sandborn said.
Sanborn is a professor and department head of history at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and has written a number of award-winning books and publications regarding the Russian Revolution, including Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925. He recently spoke to KGOU’s World Views regarding the history, and impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
In 1915, Russia would suffer one of its most devastating military losses, displacing three million people, and setting off the processes that lead to the revolution in 1917.
“We’re seeing brand new social groups, refugees, soldier wives, that hadn’t really been formed before, now becoming very important features of the Russian political and social scene,” Sanborn said.
The context within which the revolution occurred in 1917 had less to do with charismatic leaders pushing for change, and more to do with the fracturing of the state and its institutions, leading people to fight for a new socio-political system.
“By the time you get to 1917, most regular Russians…blame the elites of their society for what has occurred to them, both for the war which they see as being alien to their interests, and for the economic crisis that they think they’re being taken advantage of, by the rich who are profiting from the war while they suffer,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn emphasizes to not see the revolution as a product of influential revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, but rather as the result of much larger political crises. These political crises that led to state collapse were then taken advantage of by figures such as Lenin, but only after much larger crises had unfolded.
The unifying nature of military conscription:
It meant that the Russia that was built was actually in many respects multi-ethnic, not simply ethnically Russian, because Russia was an empire so you had Ukrainians, you had Kazakhs, you had others in this army that you're serving alongside. So it was a multi-ethnic nation that they were building. But it also meant that the practice of violence was at the heart of being a citizen. And this is one of the things that is true in many regimes with universal military conscription, is that the prerequisite to being a citizen, is the willingness to commit violence for the nation, to suffer violence for the nation obviously too.
The women who catalyzed the 1917 revolution:
In February and March of 1917, as the revolution that unseats that Tsar, that ends the Romanov dynasty. That’s led basically by street protests, not by any socialist parties, and not by any famous revolutionaries that anyone knows. These are basically, they’re led by urban women who are protesting the war, and the conditions they’re living in are really quite terrible, in Petrograd and really throughout Europe.
American understanding of the Russian “strong leader”:
But it's really important for Americans to recognize that even if Putin were to disappear tomorrow, Russia would not fundamentally transform. They're going to face the same economic, political, social, and global issues that they face today. And many people would solve them in similar ways to that that Putin would. So it's not it's not as if there's one dictator that tells everyone what to do. There's no there's a functioning society, and political system that that is supportive of what Putin is doing.
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Suzette Grillot: Josh Sanborn welcome to World Views.
Joshua Sanborn: Well thanks for having me.
Grillot: I'm really interested in this topic. 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. You've got an interesting perspective, but let's kind of get this little historical background maybe set up for us on kind of what was happening at that time early 20th century, when the Great War the First World War was coming to an end, and the Russian Revolution was heating up and kind of overlapping a little bit here. Can you kind of give us some historical context?
Sanborn: Sure yeah I mean World War One was an intensely traumatic event for all of Europe, and for all of the world really, but especially so in Eastern Europe. This was a territory that was controlled by big land empires: by the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by the German Empire, by the Ottoman Empire. And as a result it was these were sort of vulnerable states to massive social dislocation. And that's exactly what happened over the course of the war. The war really helped to unhinge the societies in those old empires, and to transform them politically. So the best way to think about what's happening in Eastern Europe over the course of the war, is to think of this kind of a period of decolonization in Europe. We think of decolonization usually in terms of Africa and Asia, in the post-World War II period, but what's happening in Europe in the midst of World War One shares a lot of similarities with that with that other process. So you start out with big empires, and at the end of the war you have a number of new national independent states. You've got you've got Poland, Czechoslovakia, you've got Latvia, Lithuania. You know you've got a number of those new states. And so, one way to look at what's happening in the revolution is to think about the revolution as one of the things that's happening in this really huge tectonic process, of the end of these very old venerable empires. And the Russian Revolution is one manifestation of that larger imperial collapse that's happening all over Eastern Europe.
Grillot: Well I want to get to the specifics of the revolution in a minute but I just want to pick up on something you said when you refer to massive social dislocation, and the unhinging of society. What do you mean by that specifically? The kind of stratification, the socioeconomic system, politics? I mean, kind of everything together? Can you give us some specifics?
Sanborn: Yes I'll get some specifics from the Russian case, for instance. So a number of things start happening as early as 1914. The Russian state imposes martial law on the entire western sector of the empire, and starts engaging in ethno-politics. They deport large numbers of Germans and of Jews, to the interior of the empire for suspicion of espionage. They tried to institute a new sort of martial law economy where they fix prices, they requisitioned goods at prices underneath their value. And this really breaks the borderland economy, and so you start to see real economic troubles emerging within months of the war in wartime Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, these regions that are that are in the midst of the war. So that's one part of it. The second part really begins in 1915. The Russian army suffers one of the largest defeats in the war in 1915, as a result of a joint Austro- German invasion in April and May in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, that force a retreat of Russian troops from all of Russian-occupied Poland and for much of Ukraine. This sets off a refugee crisis of gigantic proportions, about 3 million people over the course of 1915 alone, and about 6 million Russian subjects become internally displaced people over the course of the war. So that's a large number of people that have to come back, and be resettled and be supported. Many of them come back, obviously impoverished. Many of them come back that are ill, you start to see widespread of epidemic diseases, cholera typhus. And the military defeat itself calls the Tsar's leadership into question so there's an enormous political crisis in the summer of 1915. So that's when I talk about the unhinging of society we're seeing brand new social groups, refugees, soldier wives, that hadn't really formed before, now becoming very important features in the Russian political and social scene.
Grillot: Really interesting to hear you talk about ethno-politics and refugee crises, that sounds very similar to today and years later, and we're going to get to that perhaps with some of the historical legacies are for today but let's talk specifically about the revolution itself. Can you remind us about some of the major players some of their goals? What were they trying to accomplish? What are the major implications were of this revolution?
Sanborn: Sure. So the Russian Revolution of 1917 is a yearlong process, with two sort of bookends, two very famous bookends. The first one in February and March of 1917, as the revolution that unseats that Tsar, that ends the Romanov dynasty. That’s led basically by street protests, not by any socialist parties, and not by any famous revolutionaries that anyone knows. These are basically, they're led by urban women who are protesting the war, and the conditions in which they're living which were quite terrible, in Petrograd but really all throughout Europe. There is there's widespread hunger in Berlin and Vienna, urban women are suffering throughout the continent. And so it's sort of a logical place for these street protests to start, but they blossom quite quickly. So over the course of ten days, two weeks, the political crisis in Petrograd grows to the extent that the Tsar is forced to abdicate. The problem with that is that there's no government to replace him. And so you enter a period over the course of the entire year where the very nature of who's in authority in Russia, is up for grabs. And there's two basic contenders for this, Elected politicians, there was a Russian parliament. And so the leaders of that parliament asserted a certain amount of authority, but also working class leaders from socialist parties, through the through the urban Soviets. Soviet is just a Russian word for council, and so these were city councils basically run by run by workers.
Sanborn: So that's the first bookend. You have a continuing political and social economic crisis over the course of 1917 that radicalizes Russian society, it polarizes Russian society, and it means that the extremist parties are more likely to succeed in those conditions. So the time you get to October and November of 1917, the most radical left wing party, the Bolsheviks, the most radical of the even of the communist parties in Russia, have been able to assert themselves in the Soviets, and to have great influence among the troops. And that's enough of a base for them to basically launch a coup to unseat the provisional government based of these parliamentarians, and to assert that all power in Russia was going to be in the hands of Soviets that they controlled.
Grillot: So it's such an interesting story you're telling. And I'm thinking back to my you know study my pulling out from the back of my brain, the history that I studied years ago about this, and of course when you hear many people talk about it, I guess the Russian Revolution, you always name names, and you haven't named any names. You know there is like this image of what Lenin was doing, and Trotsky's role, and how Marxist thought was relevant here. And what you're telling me here I'm particularly compelling, street protests, the role of urban women the fact that there were these elected officials and the actual coup that happened. A very different picture. Can you can you tell me why this is the case?
Sanborn: Sure. Yeah. Well I mean I think it's, well we teach history through individuals for a lot of reasons, some of them good some of them not so good. I mean I think people do latch on to histories more when they can attach to particular people and personalities that they can understand. And these are titanic figures. I mean Lenin is a world historical figure. Trotsky is a very charismatic and compelling figure, both to his contemporaries and to historians. And they had great influence, I mean I think absent Lenin and Trotsky the Bolsheviks probably would not have succeeded, you know. But they didn't create the crisis that they took advantage of. I guess that's one way of putting it, is that the crisis was created by much larger forces, but they were able to take advantage of that crisis for their own party's political gain. And so you know Lenin and Trotsky are very important, and so too is Marxist thought, I mean there's a reason that that communism becomes appealing to Russians in the middle of 1917. That has to do with the economic crisis in which they live, it has to do with social polarization. By the time you get to the end of 1917 most regular Russians - peasants, workers, others - blame the elites in their society for what has occurred to them, both for the war which they see as being alien to their interests, and for the economic crisis that they think they're being taken advantage of, by the rich who are profiting from the war while they suffer.
Grillot: I want to talk about some of the work that you've done. Very interesting title of drafting the Russian nation because it's specific to military conscription during this early period of the 20th century. You know how that and massive war, and mass politics, all kind of come together as you said to create these forces, that then individuals came in and perhaps took advantage of, or capitalized on. So can you talk about the military conscription part of that and kind of how that plays into this as well?
Sanborn: Yes sure. That book was an attempt to come to terms with what nationalism meant in early 20th century Russia. There was there is still I think a notion that nationalism was sort of the property of the right wing in Russia in a certain way, and I was trying to expand that notion of what nationalism was, and to use military conscription as a way to think about the ways that regular Russians, especially if you imagine some peasant from a far off village, how do they get integrated into a modern Russia? A mass political Russia? There's a number of ways that happen, through schooling and other ways, but the major way it happens in Russia is through military conscription. That's where they enter the nation in a certain way, and that had all kinds of consequences. It meant that the Russia that was built was actually in many respects multi-ethnic, not simply ethnically Russian, because Russia was an empire so you had Ukrainians, you had Kazakhs, you had others in this army that you're serving alongside. So it was a multi-ethnic nation that they were building. But it also meant that the practice of violence was at the heart of being a citizen. And this is one of the things that is true in many regimes with universal military conscription, is that the prerequisite to being a citizen, is the willingness to commit violence for the nation, to suffer violence for the nation obviously too. And so that, you know I saw that as having real consequences later in the 20th century.
Sanborn: When you ask why it is that officials acting under Stalin's orders, but obviously Stalin doesn't do all the killing under Stalin personally, he does very little of it. It's other people that are doing it. What leads them in collectivization, or in the Great Terror or in World War II to have this capacity for mass violence. I saw a lot of that coming out of both the conscription regimes and the experience of total war beforehand. So that, and the other aspect of that of course is that the Bolsheviks, who were seen as anti-national because they promoted communist internationalism, actually used nationalism as a way to consolidate sort of a civic community in Russia, and they did so quite consciously. So that was what that book was largely about.
Grillot: So now when you pick up on some of these perhaps common themes, as we maybe bring you from the early 20th century to maybe closer to today, and in the early part of the 21st century. So these themes, issues of nationalism, integration, trying to manage a multi-ethnic society, a Soviet empire that brought together all of these different types of peoples, and languages, and cultures, and backgrounds. You know on the one hand you have to think, this is a very unstable place right, throughout the 20th century. But it isn't necessarily the case. I mean they fought you know a second great war they fought it even a more destructive, more traumatic second world war, lost even more people. How are we to kind of make sense of all of Russian history here over the past 100 years to understand Russia today?
Sanborn: Yeah you know it's a good question. So Russia is a large multinational state. So from the early 20th century and still today, there are many ethnicities that are living within the Russian Federation, and have lived in the Russian empire, and lived in the Soviet Union. And so ethnic issues are always going to be important, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's unstable ethnically, and really it was not ethnic nationalism that broke up the Soviet Union. It fractured along ethno-national lines when it collapsed. But really it was it was state collapse, rather than a national crisis a nationalist crisis, that that occasioned that. And I make the same argument about the Russian Revolution in World War One, that is really the collapse of the state that generates a lot of the instability, rather than a sort of nationalist conflict that's happening there. And I think we can think about that in a similar way with contemporary Russia too. If you think about the primary problems that both, that the Russian state has faced since 1991, under both Yeltsin and Putin, the crisis of the state is primary among them. The collapse of the Soviet State was an extremely traumatic event that led to large scale social problems. The 1990s were, Russia experienced a larger depression than we experienced here in the 1930s, so it was a massive loss of economic wealth, and a state that had trouble functioning. And Yeltsin was a figurehead for that, and he was an erratic, chaotic, often drunken individual. And that that sort of exacerbated this problem for Russians, and they came to see to that in order to have prosperity and security, you needed a well-functioning state.
Sanborn: And so Putin came to play that role I think quite effectively in the early 21st century. He's famously a sober individual, a disciplined individual. He focused on building state capacities. And they saw economic growth quite quickly, not simply because of Putin's actions; oil prices played role in that too of course. But when people ask why Putin is popular in Russia, I think you have to understand that strengthening the state doesn't necessarily mean creating a Stalinist state; it means creating the conditions by which Russians might possibly be prosperous. Now that has come with negative consequences too, of course. And those are ones that Russians, as well as people outside observers are quick to note. It's easy for strong States to become authoritarian ones. And that's a danger that that Russia faces today, and has faced has faced in its past.
Grillot: So very quickly just as we finish up, I'm going to I'm going to push you on this point of individuals, and that is we tend to see Putin and the state as one. I mean that's just kind of the perception. Is Russia's future really all about, will it always be about, given this history that you've so nicely described about strong leadership, in order to prevent that state collapse? Because of the major complexities, is the strong leader really important? And we're going to finish there.
Sanborn: Sure. Yeah you know it's actually, I think its state institutions that are most important. Putin is tremendously important right now, because the entire system kind of, the elite system revolves around him. If he weren't there would be elite conflict within society, and within the political system, and that would be deeply damaging. But really the big question for them, is how do you stabilize and have high functioning state institutions, and so Putin is important in that. But it's really important for Americans to recognize that even if Putin were to disappear tomorrow, Russia would not fundamentally transform. They're going to face the same economic, political, social, and global issues that they face today. And many people would solve them in similar ways to that that Putin would. So it's not it's not as if there's one dictator that tells everyone what to do. There's no there's a functioning society, and political system that that is supportive of what Putin is doing.
Grillot: Very important point. Thank you so much Josh for being here today really interesting history.
Sanborn: Thanks for inviting me. It's real pleasure.
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