Russian Revolution History Lecture

London F38

In the late afternoon of Tuesday 7th March, a small but dedicated band of A level History students and their tutors set off to the Museum of London to hear a lecture by Professor Dominic Lieven on the February Revolution in Russia to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of that event. Professor Lieven has had a long and distinguished academic career: he has held academic positions in Britain, Japan and the United States and has published extensively. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. For the avoidance of confusion, it should be pointed out that in 1917 Russia still adhered to the Julian Calendar, so their February Revolution occurred in what to the West was actually March. The same was true of the October Revolution.

Professor Lieven began by emphasising the importance of understanding the Russian Revolution in its international context. In 1905, when Russia was convulsed by its first modern revolution, Tsarism came close to collapse. Had it been overthrown and replaced by a left-wing regime, Germany would have intervened to protect the lives and property of Baltic Germans and other ethnic Germans. Other European states would not have tolerated the existence of a left-wing regime in Russia. The forces of reaction in Russia at this point were strong. In 1917, by contrast, the situation was totally different: Germany wanted a Bolshevik takeover so that Russia would be taken out of the war.

Professor Lieven then went back in time. He said that Russia had remained a great power up to and including the Napoleonic period. Thereafter, it had gone into decline. The Crimean War revealed Russian backwardness, prompting a programme of modernisation by Tsar Alexander II. The Russian leadership was aware that states which failed to modernise would be partitioned by the other great powers. In this connexion, he cited the example of the Ottoman and Persian empires. The emancipation of the serfs was an illustration of how a neutral bureaucratic regime can implement wide-ranging social change. A point he did not make, but might have done, was that Tsarist Russia abolished a major social institution without recourse to civil war, unlike in America at the same time. Further change in Russia was put on hold until the Stolypin era, that is, after the 1905 Revolution. Land was controlled by the mir, or ‘village commune’. Only 13% of land was privately owned in Russia; the remainder was communally owned. Tsars had two sources of advice. Some advisers recommended liberalisation – Russia should follow a western path; others warned about the dangers of this and advocated a maintenance of autocratic methods.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, said Professor Lieven, Russia was the fourth most industrialised nation in the world, behind the United States, Germany and Britain. Per-capita GDP, however, was more similar to Spain. Russia also overtook the United States as the world’s largest exporter of grain at this time. Russia is best seen as a ‘second world’ European nation, comparable to Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Balkans, all of which experienced turbulence in the 20th Century. He mentioned P.N.Durnovo, a minister of the Tsar. Durnovo warned against the dangers of Russian involvement in a war – Russia would not cope. There would be a revolution and a dictatorship of the left rather than a liberal regime. Orlando Figes has made the same point in his study of the Russian Revolution, as the students well knew, having studied extracts from this text in class.

Tsar Nicholas’ assumption of command at the front, we were told, coincided with a stabilisation of the military situation. The war was in fact run by the Russian Chief-of-Staff General Alekseev. Rasputin was a British myth – he had no impact on policy. He was however bad for the regime’s image. The cause of the downfall of the monarchy was political: the Russian people had lost confidence in the regime. The liberal elite in Petrograd convinced the generals at the front that the situation was under control. Had they not done so, the generals might have attempted a counter-revolution. Professor Lieven made a comparison with Louis XVI in July 1789: we do not know what might have happened if a determined attempt had been made to use military force to suppress the mounting unrest. Getting the Tsar and his family out of Russia would have been difficult, even if King George V had allowed the Tsar to travel to the United Kingdom. The journey would have been difficult and the Petrograd Soviet would have been opposed to such a move. It is also known, though Professor Lieven did not make this point, that there were worries in Britain about giving refuge to the Russian royal family: Tsar Nicholas II had a terrible image as the bloody oppressor of the workers; his presence might easily have caused unrest among British workers who were vital to the country’s war effort.

In the question-and-answer session, one of our History tutors raised an issue that he had been discussing earlier with his students in class, namely whether the Provisional Government might have been able to cling on to power had it not launched the disastrous military offensive of Summer 1917 that finally destroyed morale in the Russian Army and undoubtedly facilitated the Bolshevik seizure of power in October.  Professor Lieven conceded that the Provisional Government might thereby have been able to cling on until the end of the war but would most likely have been overthrown during the inter-war period. A liberal regime would almost certainly not have survived the Great Depression. A right-wing dictatorship might then have come to power. It was a bad thing in some ways, he said, that the Germans did not win the First World War. Had they won, they would have been dominant in Eastern Europe and the Second World War in the East would not have needed to be fought. In 1918, the Germans established a puppet regime in the Ukraine, which had agrarian resources and raw materials. Subsequent events, however, saw the disappearance of German influence until the Second World War.

All in all, the students derived a great deal of benefit from the lecture. Most importantly, perhaps, it was good for their confidence to be able to attend a lecture by a leading expert in the subject and be able to follow most or indeed all of what was said as a result of what they have learnt in class. Another facet of the lecture they picked up on was the way in which historians have to keep constantly in mind alternative ways in which events might have developed – what happened was not necessarily what was always going to happen! A positive experience for all and one that we are resolved to repeat before too long!

Richard McMillan