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From Autocracy to Anarchy: Reflections on the February Revolution

by Sergei Roy

ON 27th February 2007, you could not buy the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Moscow for love nor money – something unheard of since the heady days of perestroika. The reason for the furor? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s article ‘Reflections on the February [1917] Revolution’, pegged to the 90th anniversary of that event. Originally written in 1980-93 as part of the mammoth, multi-volume (and totally unreadable) epic The Red Wheel, it was printed in Russia in 1995 in the literary journal Moskva and passed quite unnoticed at the time. So why the frenzy now?*

The reason is fairly straightforward: it touches on some raw nerves in present-day Russian society. Looking back at the downfall of Russia’s monarchy in February 1917, today’s political groupings are asking themselves about the relevance of this moment to the current situation. Was February a Good or a Bad Thing? Should we celebrate the overthrow of Russia’s autocracy by freedom-loving forces – and perhaps prepare ourselves for further battles in the cause of liberalism and democracy? Or should we curse and mourn the event – as Solzhenitsyn does – and opt for stability, sovereignty, and the supreme value of Russia’s statehood?

The two types of questions are expressive of the views of present-day Russia’s two political camps, distinctly unequal in strength. The gosudarstvenniki or ‘statehood-niks’ – supporters of the ‘sovereign democracy’ ideology – prevail both in their own numbers and in terms of electoral support. The oppositionists, though very vocal and well-represented in the media, are clearly outnumbered and represent ever dwindling sections of the electorate (as recent provincial elections have demonstrated). Like all schemata, this division is a simplification, but an overview of the recent and still raging debate evidences that there is a case for drawing such a line of demarcation.

For Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Unity in the Name of Russia Foundation, “February 1917 is not the kind of date that is worth celebrating. In the space of several days Russian statehood was destroyed, and with it, a great country”. This can also be taken as the gist of the Solzhenitsyn pamphlet, although Mr. Nikonov insists on disagreeing with some of his points.

Contrariwise, Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party (no longer represented in parliament), states of his own party: “We are the heirs of February 1917”. In short: “There was a monarchy in Russia, and it collapsed without any violence at all because it failed to adapt to the new realities. It had wavered for 17 years, setting up the Duma, then dispensing it, and ultimately resulting in the Tsar’s abdication. Then, at a time of extreme hardship and disintegration, our country began building a modern, European state, making preparations for a Constituent Assembly, a Constitution, and conducting elections. But when one of the parties, the RSDRP(b) [the Bolsheviks], lost in the polls – receiving a mere 20 percent [actually, 25 percent] – it up and grabbed power by force”. In other words, let us celebrate the ‘liberal’ revolution and take up where the ‘Februarists’ left off.

As ever, there is a third party to scorn “A plague o’ both your houses!”. Sergei Shelin accuses both Solzhenitsyn and Yavlinsky of exaggerating the historical role of political parties and of the educated classes in general: “Interestingly, the writer and the politician are in accord with each other in many respects. Both of them believe that the main historical players in this country have been, and still are, the ‘educated class’ and the powers-that-be, while the lower classes are mere objects manipulated by both. Solzhenitsyn states this outright, while Yavlinsky implies it… There is nothing surprising about this. Our ‘educated class’ has always exaggerated its own role. Only – the greater part of it has been accustomed, just like Yavlinsky, to paint the educated class’s contribution to any event in the most radiant hues, while the smaller part prefers, along with Solzhenitsyn, a gloomier palette”.

There is much to be said for this critique. Often, not only in Russia but here especially, a vast majority of those who observe the governing classes are engrossed, as now and much more so a few years ago, in the serious business of physical survival; Nam by vashi problemy, they mutter: ‘We wish we had your problems’. Nonetheless, one is compelled by political choice: to be a Februarist, as Mr. Yavlinsky, Academician Sakharov et al., or an anti-Februarist – and if so, what kind? Like Mr. Solzhenitsyn? Or like – who?

Let me deal with the hub of the affair; first, the Solzhenitsyn article. Who does not know Mr. Solzhenitsyn – the Nobel Prize winner for literature; the author of The Gulag Archipelago that denounced Stalin’s labor camp system; the man who opened the eyes of the Western world, of its left-leaning intellectuals in particular, to the iniquities of the Soviet regime of terror; who was banished from the country in 1974 to become the “hermit of Vermont” for 20 years; who returned to Russia in 1994 to become the “hermit of Troitse-Lykovo” near Moscow; regarded by the majority (if they think of him at all, which is very rare) as a classic of Russian literature, the conscience of the nation, and the figurehead of the Slavophile pochvenniki (soil-niks) wing of the Russian intelligentsia.

As a member of the Westernizing* liberal wing of that same intelligentsia, I must avow my long-standing dislike of the man both as a writer and as a public figure. The writer makes me wretch with his slaughtering of the Russian language in an attempt to create an ‘inimitable’ style of his own, with its pseudo-folksy neologisms instantly reminiscent of the language of tenth-rate peasant-stock writers of the 1920s so beautifully parodied by Ilf and Petrov. The poet Lev Losev referred to Solzhenitsyn as an “average prose writer”. I would insert the word “below” there.

As for Solzhenitsyn the public figure, I disdain his claim to be the nation’s spiritual leader, something in the manner of an Orthodox Church father periodically descending from Olympian heights to deliver Old Testament-like castigations or a final, irrevocable verdict on the way the nation is run.

And yet, I must concede that there is little I find quarrel with in Solzhenitsyn’s assessment of the February 1917 revolution. It is, in fact, not an ‘assessment’ in any acceptable sense; not an historian’s analysis of past events sine ira et studio, but a fierce harangue against the various evil forces that brought about the February revolution – an event that opened the way to the Bolshevik coup a few months later. The best word for this harangue is perhaps “denunciation”.

He denounces just about everybody and everything. The revolution itself was “spiritually sickening; from the very first hours it introduced both enmity in the morals and manners and collective dictatorship over independent opinion…its ideas were trite, its leaders were complete nonentities”.

Emperor Nicholas II, Solzhenitsyn’s pet aversion, was a traitor to his dynasty, to the principle of monarchy, to the army, the people, the Orthodox Church… He was tied to his wife’s apron strings and cared more for his own family, especially his sick son, than the fate of the country. He committed an unpardonable error in appointing himself Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and handing over the running of the empire’s civil affairs to his hysterical German wife and her ‘friend’, the pseudo-holy man, drunk and charlatan Grigory Rasputin. Solzhenitsyn works out detailed instructions on what should have been done to nip the Revolution in the bud, and laments Nicholas for not carrying these out a few decades post factum.

A step below the Tsar, the State Duma is found guilty because “its speeches overexcited society and prepared it for the revolution”. Milyukov, leader of a parliamentary party, “slanderously accused, from the Duma lectern, the Empress and the Premier of high treason – and he was not even suspended from a single session, let alone persecuted”. It was the Duma’s top-ranking deputies, along with top army commanders, who forced Nicholas’ abdication and then usurped executive powers by setting up a quasi-government in the shape of a Parliamentary Committee. It later legitimized, without having any right to do so, the Provisional Government that slid more and more to the left until it was kicked out by the Bolsheviks.

Members of these governments – both Tsarist and Provisional Revolutionary – receive just as scathing censure; by way of an example, here’s just one portrait – of the Interior Minister Protopopov: a “psychopathic chatterer, liar, hysterical coward gone mad with power”. Reading this sort of narrative, one is minded of the remark of Lady Britomart’s husband in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara: “Your conscience is clear and your duty done when you have called everybody names”.

Recounting all this is tiring and tiresome. No one escapes Solzhenitsyn’s accusing finger and everyone is to blame – the officers, the generals, the aristocracy, the Tsar’s brothers, the Church, the treacherous Cossacks, the foreign ambassadors (especially French and British ones), the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the peasantry, the intelligentsia, Milyukov, Guchkov, Kerensky, the German spies and agents provocateurs, ditto British ones, etc. etc.

It is, however, possible to object to some details of this onslaught. For instance, one could argue (as some do) that Nicholas II was an honest, cultured and decent man simply not up to the world-historical tasks facing him – a man who hated the idea of shedding his subjects’ blood, and who let things slide rather than give orders to fire at his people, as his namesake Nicholas I had done in 1825, and he himself did in 1905 – an event the memory of which was to singe his soul and make him abhor such violence.

One could note that Empress Aleksandra Fyodrovna, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, was English rather than German (the imperial couple corresponded almost entirely in English), and that in the decades since, no trace was found of her treacherous activities in support of the Germanophile party at court or elsewhere. And it could be said that the Provisional Government bunch were, like Nicholas II, disinclined to employ violence even where the use of force was clearly mandated to prevent greater excesses, such as the Bolshevik coup. Freemasons to a man, they abolished capital punishment, along with the chain-of-command principle in the army, the governorships, the police, and local administration, and committed a lot of other stupidities – all with the best of intentions.

If we take this attitude, we cannot but be shocked, or at least taken aback, by the fierce tone of Solzhenitsyn’s invectives – all the more so that their news value is now zero. These facts been before the public for decades in the vast mountains of émigré literature, and even in Soviet times one could, with a little effort, gain access to the spetskhran, the special departments at major libraries where banned literature was kept.

The wealth of this material leads us to draw quite the opposite of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s if-only conclusion. If only the Tsar had picked his generals more astutely, or merely intelligently; if only he had not been such a milksop; if only he had given orders to blockade Petrograd by destroying the railways leading to it; if only the reservists had been pulled out of the capital; if only certain telegrams had not unaccountably gone astray or been destroyed – the list of these if-onlies is practically endless and just as hopeless. In a country like Russia, with its age-old antagonism between the ruling classes and the downtrodden ones, none of these if-onlies would have worked, especially not in a time of war and hardship. Aloof from and below the stage where all kinds of political agents were acting out their jeus de scène, there was the roiling, hundred-million-plus-strong peasant masses whose sole idea of freedom was, in the words of Pushkin, “Russian mutiny, senseless and ruthless”.

Incidentally, even some of the Revolution’s leading actors understood this. Here is an excerpt from a telephone conversation between Alexander Kerensky, the future head of the liberal Provisional Government, and Zinaida Gippius, hostess of a literary-philosophical-political salon in St. Petersburg, several months before the February revolution:

Gippius: What will there be, then?
Kerensky: There will be something…that begins with an A…
Gippius [to friend]: “Kerensky is right, and I understand him: there will be anarchy.”

And realising this, Mr. Kerensky jumped both feet first in the most radically ‘liberal’ revolution the world had known. ‘Radical liberalism’ did away not just with autocracy but with Russia’s entire state apparatus, triggered off anarchy which was harnessed by Socialists and eventually by the Bolsheviks – leading, ultimately, to such exquisite touches as ‘Chinese meat’.*

So, if Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation is aimed at this kind of radical adventurism and irresponsibility, I am ready to embrace his conclusions. Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that the spirit of such radicalism is still here with us now.

Let me therefore proceed to deal with Mr. Yavlinsky’s stance. It is assumed, and sometimes stated outright in the circles in which Mr. Yavlisnky is popular, that here in Russia we are in a pre-February 1917 situation. Sergei Shelin has remarked that “…certain… nuances in today’s behavior of the upper and lower classes give rise to ‘February’, or, more accurately, ‘pre-February’ associations in many people”. Specifically, the Putin administration is said to be authoritarian and even autocratic and thus slated for an overthrow. The mere formulation of this position should make any true Russian liberal shudder – if he really holds the future of liberalism in Russia dear to his heart. It is my firm belief that no revolution in Russia, liberal, democratic, or any other, is either possible or desirable, either now or in the foreseeable future.

There cannot be a genuine revolution without something called a ‘revolutionary situation’, encapsulated in the simple formula: ‘The ruling classes can no longer rule, while the lower classes can no longer go on living as they do’. Is there anything like this now in Russia? Only in the fevered imagination of various electorally negligible, radical-minded outsiders in politics. For sure, the ‘oligarchs’ multiplying exceedingly (see Forbes Magazine) and the monstrously inept and corrupt bureaucracy are not popular (and when were they?). But are they impotent and ready to drop the reins of power from their hands, like the Tsarist bureaucracy did all too readily in 1917?

The army general Andrei Nikolayev, a Duma deputy whom I interviewed a few years ago, provided me with some memorable statistics. Apparently in Moscow alone, ‘close security protection services’ are 100,000 strong. That is ten divisions - fully armed, well-paid, and ready to defend their style of living and that of their masters. This is entirely apart from the state ‘repressive apparatus’ - which has also done pretty well for itself in recent years, and is not likely to welcome any revolutionists in the streets of Moscow or anywhere else.

Now for the second part of the revolutionary situation formula: are the underprivileged classes so desperate that they can no longer live as they do now and are ready to rise up in arms or resort to civil disobedience? Clearly there is less discontent now than in the Yeltsin reign, when pensions and wages were not paid for months and sometimes years on end, when crime and unemployment were at their peak, and women staged ‘empty pan marches’ through downtown Moscow.

It was then that popular discontent erupted into violence in October 1993, but, speaking as an eyewitness and a foot soldier on the democratic side, it was a very mixed affair. The event is often portrayed as a Communist-led putsch against Yeltsin’s democratic government, but in no way was it as clean-cut as that. Even as I nursed a stinking Molotov cocktail behind a ‘democratic’ barricade near Central Telegraph on that cold, horror-filled night of October 3rd, I realized, rather dimly and shame-facedly, that we, the people on both sides, were mere pawns in a game played by two power-mad clans that went for each other’s throats over the divvying-up of the nation’s assets, soon to be privatized in what I later referred to, rather charitably, as the “scam of the century”.

Other differences between February 1917 and the current situation in Russia are even more stark. There was a two-and-a-half-year-old World War going on at that time, with a seven-million-strong Russian army fighting losing battles and bleeding copiously. Its men – peasants in army fatigues – were combustible material in the hands of the revolutionists who promised them the two things they desired most: peace, and a speedy return to their villages, where they fully expected to take part in dividing landowners’ property amongst themselves. Nothing even remotely similar is to be found in the current situation.

Lastly – and you will have to forgive my turning even more Marxian at this point – the class structure of Russian society has changed drastically, not only against Russia in 1917 (when the population was 90% peasant), but even to the country as it was in 1991. There is a struggling but ever more numerous middle class now, comprising some 30% of the populace – and middle class values do not include bloody revolutions. For sure, these people thoroughly dislike the oligarchs, but they would not mind becoming oligarchs or mini-oligarchs themselves.

Russia experienced two radical-liberal revolutions in the early 1990s: a political one, which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and a socioeconomic one in the shape of ‘shock therapy’ and wholesale privatization carried out ruthlessly, with Bolshevik zeal, by Yeltsin’s minions. To me, ‘radical liberalism’ is an oxymoron; one is either a radical or a liberal. Russia’s history, both remote and recent, provides enough proof of this truth to any reasonable observer – quite apart from Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s rancorous denunciations, and in contravention of Mr. Yavlinsky’s wishful thinking.

Sergei Roy is an author and former editor of the Moscow News.

*A note on my kind of Westernism. I am a Westernist in the sense that the culture of liberalism, historically speaking, is not endemic in Russia, and was transposed onto Russian soil from the West. Unfortunately, the term zapadnik (‘Westernist’) is now often applied – with sufficient reason – to individuals who advocate the subordination of Russia’s national interests to those of the West. I have absolutely nothing to do with this kind of Westernism; I am a Russian Westernist – and there are plenty of us over here. So far as I can judge, Mr. Putin is one; a European to the core – however hard it may be for the Western reader to accept this.

*Caution: people with delicate constitutions should not read this footnote. ‘Chinese meat’ was the flesh of those “enemies of the proletarian revolution” who were executed in the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress by the Bolsheviks (they used Chinese to do the actual shootings) and sold to the famished city populace as veal, in 1918-1920.

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