April of Discontent

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It would seem intuitive perhaps, that the revolution which led to the establishment of Communism in Russia happened with a bang, not a whimper. But when Lenin in his April Theses called for “all power to the soviets” there was no great conflagration–the Red Guards seized key government buildings and infrastructure, Kerensky fled, and the Soviets went about the business of constructing a new government–the fire that led to revolution had already been burning for decades. The provisional government, which enjoyed the recognition of the international community, and espoused liberal values like freedom of the press and popular sovereignty more or less faded away. To understand how Lenin’s dramatic plan as outlined in his April Theses was orchestrated, we must look at the political, societal and economic dynamics that gave much of the Russian people the resolve for dramatic and rapid change.

By the time the provisional government capitulated Russia had already seen the rejection of a deeply flawed October Manifesto and the abdication of an Emperor. The manifesto was passed grudgingly by Nicholas II and did little to address the massive social unrest and dissatisfaction that caused its passage in the first place. The Manifestos limitations included the absence of universal suffrage, equal representation and above all else the infamous article 87: which allowed the Tsar to dissolve the Duma and enact laws before new elections were held. In short, the institutions Russia were deeply flawed, and semi-democratic at best.

Though the Tsar probably thought that the October Manifesto was an extraordinary concession, it was not nearly enough. For decades unrest had been growing in the countryside and in the city. Peasants demanded land reform, but the parliament was ill suited to the task. Finally, in a bid to bolster support for the Tsar, Stolypin, the Prime Minister, contrived a plan whereby land controlled by the communes would be given to individual peasants. But this also did little to placate the peasantry. Instead of giving them land belonging to the gentry, it only divided what they already had. In addition to this it drove a wedge between peasants who owned their own land and those who worked in the commune. Along with the dissatisfaction of the peasantry there was also considerable unrest in the cities. Workers felt the strain of industrialization and strikes were as prevalent as the workers were underpaid, unsafe and unsanitary.

Along with the inefficacy of the parliament, and the dissatisfaction of workers and peasants, Russian politics was also as fragmented as was Russian society. At a time of strikes, famines, protests and wars, there were as many ideologies as there were issues in society. Marxists, monarchists, liberals, fascists and moderates were all struggling to effect change in a system with severe limitations–only leading to more disillusionment and anger.

As if these reasons alone were not enough to pave the way for a vanguard led revolution, war was certainly enough to push people over the edge. After their embarrassing defeat in the Russo-Japanese war the power and prestige of the imperial government—and of the Tsar himself—was seriously damaged. It was no coincidence that the revolution of 1905 happened after this war. Perhaps the stars were conspiring against the status quo in Russia during the early twentieth century, because the onset of World War I was all that was needed to doom the autocracy and provisional government. The possibility that the provisional government would stay in a “predatory imperialist war” was too much for the Russian people to stomach.

These factors, all working in concert paved the way for the implementation of Lenin’s Theses. He had clear answers for the issues facing Russia: he condemned the war, called for nationalization of all land, placed power in the hands of the working poor and peasants, and called for the abolishment of the government bureaucracy—and all of this was to be done immediately.

At a time when rapid technological and social changes could have presented exciting new possibilities, neither a Tsar ordained by God, nor a provisional, moderate and coalition government could have averted crisis. Compared to Lenin they were ill equipped to address decisively the issues facing Russia. So, we see in a matter of months the end of a 300-year-old dynasty and the beginnings of one of the ideologies that would dominate the world stage for the rest of that century.

Sources:

Russia A History, Third Edition. Gregory L Freeze

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.

http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/evidence_detail_31.html

 

 

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Portrait of Imperial Russia

Prokudin-Gorskii-15 “Melon Vendor” –Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

We typically do not associate the Russian Empire with images like this one. Taken in 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, this photograph depicts a man at work as a melon vendor, dressed in the traditional Central Asian attire of a turban and flowing tunic. In the waning days of the Romanov Dynasty, Prokudin-Gorskii was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to capture–through photography–the vastness, diversity and rapid modernization of the Russian Empire.

This photograph was taken in Samarkand, which has always been something of a crossroads. Located in modern-day Uzbekistan, it flourished due to its location on the Silk Road, and was the capital of Tamerlane’s powerful Islamic empire in the 14th century. It was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire and eventually the Soviet Union.

This image is representative of the fledgling modernization of the Russian Empire. At a time when advances in transportation and technology allowed this vividly colored photograph to be taken, the subject matter is decidedly unmodern and un-Russian–the melon stand looks more like something Indiana Jones would hurtle through than a depiction of life in the twlilight days of Imperial Russia.

More than anything though this photograph draws attention to the complexity of the Russian world. Russia has always suffered something of an identity crisis–touching Europe, Asia and the Middle East–it is composed of a complex amalgamation of people, religions, cultures and ideologies. On the eve of war and revolution, Russia found itself pulled in multiple directions by these competing facets. Prokudin-Gorskii’s photograph lends a distinct spice of diversity to a Russia on the edge of dramatic and rapid change.

Sources:
Murano, Dan. “Perspective | What Russia Looked like before 1917 … in Color.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Apr. 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-sight/wp/2016/04/19/what-russia-looked-like-before-1914-in-color/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.d38a8d2171fa.
Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich. “The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia People at Work.” People at Work – The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated: The Empire That Was Russia | Exhibitions – Library of Congress, 17 Apr. 2001, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/work.html.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 2018.
“Tamerlane.” Tamerlane, autocww.colorado.edu/~toldy3/E64ContentFiles/HistoryMidEastAsiaAustralasia/Tamerlane.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Samarkand.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia
Britannica, Inc., 19 Apr. 2017, http://www.britannica.com/place/Samarkand-Uzbekistan.