by Thomas Wood
University of Cambridge

The Russian Revolution didn't happen sooner than 1917 - despite, one must say, the best efforts of assorted tsars and ministers to bring that fate upon themselves in the preceding decades - because the people weren't ready. It happened when it did because the people were ready. Losing a war in 1855 was not enough to ready the populace. Successive decades of misery, misrule and famine were not enough. Being pressured to abandon a traditional lifestyle and join an industrial workforce under deplorable working and living conditions: still not enough. Losing a war in 1905 was almost enough, but not quite. Embarking on a war in 1914 for which the army was entirely unready, and from which soldiers deserted en masse, was, together with all the other factors, enough to convince the Tsar to pack it in. But all those factors were still not to turn a revolution of one order into a revolution of a more rarefied order - a world-shaping tragedy of a significance comparable to that of the French Revolution. For that, you need Lenin.

Take away any one of scores of factors, and 1917 might not have led to the ruin of Russia. Lenin had been agitating in St. Petersburg in 1905, for instance, but conditions had not ripened enough for him to sway the direction of events. Tsar Alexander III would only have been 72 years old in 1917; had he not died young, leaving the woefully inadequate Nicholas II in charge of the country, even a marginally stronger leadership might have steered the nation through the shoals. Russia's best generals knew the country was not prepared for a long war in 1914 but thought it would be ready to fight by 1917 if war could be forestalled that long. Some key economic indicators before the war suggested that Russian industrialization might yield a much-improved standard of living if growth could continue for a few more years. But none of these things happened, and each notion is mere speculation today.

One 'what-if?' scenario, though, has particularly occupied the imaginations of historians in recent years: What if war had not broken out in 1914? Would the Revolution have happened anyway? Did the war actually delay the revolt, or was the debacle of Russia's participation in the conflict the last straw in creating a situation ripe for Lenin to seize power? It's a poignant question, since Europe had averted numerous crises in the decades before the First World War, and since many observers at first thought the controversies of July 1914 could be settled by diplomacy. Lenin himself doubted in 1913 that Austria and Russia would come to blows, useful though such a conflict would be for the cause of international revolution: 'it is hardly possible that Franz Josef and Nicky would give us this pleasure' (Rogger 1983: 251). The world almost didn't have a war, then. Was Russia that close to avoiding catastrophe?

Timing is everything

The question of why the Revolution occurred when it did inevitably merges with the question of whether it was avoidable at any particular moment in the years prior to 1917. Social historian Orlando Figes thinks so. 'The outcome could have been different,' he asserts. 'During the last decades of the old regime a public sphere was emerging which, given enough time and freedom to develop, might have transformed Russia into a modern constitutional society. The institutions of this civil society - public bodies, newspapers, political parties - were all growing at enormous speed. Western concepts of citizenship, of law and private property, were starting to take root…. [T]here were enough signs of modern social evolution to suggest that Russia's power question might have been resolved in a peaceful way. Everything depended on the tsarist regime's willingness to introduce reforms. But there was the rub' (Figes 1996: 809).

Richard Pipes, an opponent of the recent generation of social historians addressing the Revolution, denies the assertion of Leopold Haimson (a forefather of sorts in the social history school) that Russia in 1914 was in a very unstable state and that the Revolution was coming regardless of the war - even though Russia was 'a troubled country' where neither the 1905 revolt nor Stolypin's reforms had 'solved anything' politically (Pipes 1990: 191-92). Pipes suggests there was one moment of possible coalition during the war that might have changed the course of history. By the end of August 1915, calls for reform from a wide political range of Duma members and liberals in the business community had reached a critical level of solidarity, prompting some of the Tsar's ministers to advocate a new, technocratic government of national unity. But that moment passed when Nicholas dismissed the Duma and sought to reassert autocratic authority over the country. 'Russia could have averted a revolutionary upheaval only on one condition: if the unpopular, but experienced bureaucracy, with its administrative and police apparatus, made common cause with the popular but inexperienced liberal and liberal-conservative intelligentsia…. By preventing such an alliance when it was still possible, Nicholas ensured that sooner or later both would be swept away and he along with them, plunging Russia into anarchy' (Pipes 1990: 228).

Man as the measure?

The 'great man' version of history has been in disrepute for some time now, but there's no avoiding consideration of the role of individual decisions and actions in determining why the October Revolution occurred when it did. Nicholas made his choices, ill-informed and ill-advised though they often were. Stolypin gained sufficient authority, for a while, to take actions that led to material economic improvement in Russia - and political deterioration. Kerensky made choices, by commission and omission, that helped seal the fate of the Provisional Government. And Lenin, possessed of less personal courage than any of these adversaries but more single-minded cunning, took actions that propelled the Bolsheviks to power. Each of these men was hemmed in by circumstances in taking any action, but individual choice remains a key element in the history of the Revolution.

All this is not part of a dry debate of historiography; indeed, understandings and misunderstandings of the 'forces of history' may have played a key role in the Revolution's endgame. The Mensheviks' fatal dithering over what to do after they came to power in February 1917 can be explained in part by their Marxist reading of French revolutionary history, in Figes' view. Believing that the Russian peasantry was as yet too bound by bourgeois thinking to support a socialist government, Provisional Government leaders feared that 'an urban socialist revolution would either be starved out of existence, like the Paris Commune, or, even worse, would be beaten by a peasant counter-revolution, like the Vendee or the European royalist armies of 1849.' They also lived in fear that the Tsar, like Louis Philippe, would regroup and rout them. 'They interpreted the events of 1905 and 1917 in terms of the history of 1789, 1848 and 1871, and this led them to believe that a counter-revolution must inevitably follow' (Figes 1996: 331-333). Above all, a misunderstanding of history led the Provisional Government to place false hopes in political reform - at a moment when it was too late to go down that road. 'Russia could not be another France,' Figes asserts. 'The constitutional phase of the Russian Revolution - in the classic European tradition of 1789 and 1848 - had already been played out during 1905-14' (Figes 1996: 358). In other words, interpretations of history by key players in the Revolution themselves played a role in determining when and how it would transpire.

Explicitly or implicitly, Lenin made similar calculations - but reached more viable conclusions. He clearly understood that the notion of a familiar revolutionary struggle, following a well-trodden path of history, was self-contradictory. He arrived at the Tauride Palace on 4 April 1917 with a plan designed to accomplish what the French Revolution had accomplished, but in its own new way: a complete uprooting of not only the established political regime but also the way human beings conceive of power and social organisation. Among Lenin's April Theses were calls for 'a complete break … with all capitalist interests,' 'nationalisation of all lands in the country,' and 'abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy.' Such demands, Figes says, 'went far beyond anything that all but the most extreme left-wingers in the party had ever considered before' (Figes 1996: 387).

Walter Lacquer has argued that 'the Revolution was, in the final analysis, the work of one man. Without him the Revolution would not have happened' (Lacquer 1987: 220). The explorations of social context undertaken by historians like Figes suggest a conclusion at the opposite pole of moral responsibility: everyone involved was responsible, in his or her own way. The debate verges unhelpfully on the theological. But consideration of both these strands of historical thought is necessary in order to frame the question of precisely why the Russian Revolution happened when it did - a question for which no definitive answer will ever be available.

Works Cited:

- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. London, 1996.
- Walter Lacquer, The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet History from 1917 to the Present. New York, 1987.
- Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge, 1979.
- Charles Tilly, European Revolutions, 1492-1992. Oxford, 1993.
- Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919. London, 1990.
- Hans Rogger, Russia in the Age of Modernisation and Revolution 1881-1917. London, 1983.
- Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917. Cambridge, 2000.