Tag Archives: Russian revolution

Revolutionary memories

And while we’re on the subject of the Russian revolution, here’s a photo I took 30 years ago in Minsk on the 70th anniversary:

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I confess that I had absolutely no sense at the time that it was all about to come crashing down.

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Counter-revolution

As we mark the 100th anniversary today of the Great October Socialist Revolution, pundits are laying out what they believe are the lessons of the tragic events which befell Russia and its people in 1917. As my contribution, I would like to draw attention to something a little different: namely, that in Russia revolution means counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks’ usurpation of power in November 1917 didn’t end the political struggle within Russia. Rather, it intensified it. Counter-revolutionary groups sprung up throughout the country, and before long civil war resulted. The violence which followed inflicted enormous damage on Russia. Bolshevik supporters who imagined that their party’s coup would lead to ‘peace, bread, and land’ proved to be cruelly deceived.

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The White Warrior slays the Bolshevik dragon

And so it often is with revolutions. The revolutionaries like to imagine that all they have to do is topple the old order and all will be well. They will establish themselves firmly in authority. They don’t imagine that a significant portion of the population might object to their unconstitutional seizure of power and take up arms against them, and that the revolution, however well-intentioned it may be, will have terrible results. But when a self-appointed elite seizes control in this way, people very often do object, and on occasions do so vehemently enough to do something about it.

We can see this in Ukraine. Those who jumped up and down on Maidan thought that if they toppled the existing regime everybody would just accept what they had done. But, of course, they didn’t. A portion of the Ukrainian population took up arms against the new government, leading to the loss of Crimea and much of Donbass, as well as to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of physical damage.

Now, I don’t think for one instance that there will be a repetition of Maidan in Russia. I’m one of those who doesn’t believe that the ‘Putin regime’ is about to fall. But let’s just imagine that such a thing could happen, and consider how the Great October Socialist Revolution led to the Civil War, and how Maidan led to anti-Maidan. Mark my words, if there were to be another revolution in Russia, there would be another counter-revolution. There are more than enough modern-day Black Hundreds and lesser opponents of Western liberalism to ensure that any attempt to impose a Western liberal order on Russia by revolutionary means would be met by force. The Russian anti-Maidan would make the Ukrainian version look like a teddy bear’s picnic. It would not be pretty.

Revolutionaries, of course, will say that counter-revolution isn’t their fault; it’s the counter-revolutionaries’ fault. But my point here isn’t to say whether counter-revolution is right or wrong (although regular readers will probably recognize that I tend to be on the counter-revolutionary side). Rather, my point is to say that after revolution, counter-revolution is inevitable, and if it were to happen in Russia, it would be horribly destructive.

It’s something those who call for ‘regime change’, not just in Russia but in a host of other countries, should bear in mind.

The popular Romanov

Today is the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Given the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks it is easy to see the February/March revolution which overthrew the Tsar as founded on the Russian people’s desire for ‘peace, land, and bread’. But this is to confuse one revolution with another. It is not even clear that in February/March 1917 Russians were rejecting the Romanov dynasty. Certainly, this was the demand of the more extreme elements who led the way in the capital Petrograd, but elsewhere in the country the situation was not the same. To understand this, it is worth looking at what happened to another Romanov in this period – Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

The Grand Duke had been Supreme Commander of the Russian Army until August 1915, when he was dismissed and sent packing to the Caucasus to be Viceroy. In one of his very last acts as Tsar, Nicholas II reappointed Nikolai Nikolaevich as Supreme Commander. In Petrograd, the appointment caused outrage among the more radical socialists who dominated the revolutionary mob. Elsewhere, though, the reaction was very different.

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Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.

Continue reading The popular Romanov

Charismatic legitimacy

In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’. On the one hand, proof that an Emperor had such a mandate came from his success. On the other hand, if the Emperor was unsuccessful, that was evidence that he did not have a mandate from heaven, in which case rebellion against him was justifiable.

In an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the February (March, new style) revolution, Russian conservative thinker Boris Mezhuev has developed a somewhat similar theory regarding the legitimacy of Russian government. Mezhuev notes that the revolution of February/March 1917 went beyond overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and resulted in the complete destruction of the monarchy. Theoretically speaking, this didn’t have to happen, he says. It should have been possible to replace Nicholas with somebody else. Indeed, that was most people originally had in mind – some sort of revolution or coup d’etat which would result either in a change of government under the same Tsar, or in a substitution of one Tsar for another, while at the same time possibly producing a new more democratic form of constitutional monarchy. Why then, Mezhuev asks, did the revolution instead result in the creation of a republic?

The answer, he says, lay in Russians’ shallow understanding of monarchy and political legitimacy. Mezhuev calls this a ‘weakness of institutional thinking’. Russian government, he claims, was based upon a form of legitimacy which he terms ‘charismatic legitimacy’. This was focused on the personality of the ruler and perceptions of his success. A successful Tsar was legitimate. An unsuccessful one wasn’t.

Nicholas II’s fateful mistake, according to Mezhuev, was taking personal command of the army in August 1915. Although the Russian army ceased to retreat soon afterwards, and did win a major victory in 1916 in the form of the Brusilov Offensive, overall it failed to make significant progress with the Tsar as Supreme Commander. Nicholas thus came to be seen as illegitimate, in essence as lacking the ‘mandate of heaven.’ More than this, though, the monarchy as a whole lost its legitimacy. Failure in war ensured its downfall.

The same pattern repeated itself in Soviet times. The legitimacy of the Soviet system came to be associated with the head of the Communist Party. When the Party was led by someone who was clearly failing – Mikhail Gorbachev – not just Gorbachev, but communist rule as a whole lost its legitimacy. ‘People will look at the existing ruler’, Mezhuev writes, ‘and at the regime they lead, and ask: if you are like that, Mikhail Sergeevich, then we don’t need the USSR, and if you are like that, Nicholas II, then down with the monarchy’.

‘The problem’, continues Mezhuev, ‘is the idea that victory beats everything, that the victor should receive all. This idea destroys all institutions in a country, both democratic and monarchical. … Charismatic legitimacy is a recognition of the supremacy of the truth of revolution over the truth of historical legality’. A system founded on charismatic legitimacy carries the seeds of revolution within itself. Mezhuev concludes:

I am convinced that a republic can arise in Russia only as a result of a restoration, or more precisely, some sort of restoration or renewal of traditional monarchical legitimacy. Whether a monarch is restored or not isn’t important. What’s important is that people recognize that the power of tradition is more important than the power of force.

There is, I think, something to this. Basing the legitimacy of an entire system upon perceptions of a given ruler’s success is extremely risky. Furthermore, other sources of legitimacy such as elections can only go so far. Factors such as history, tradition, culture, and religion (which I imagine would fit within Mezhuev’s definition of ‘traditional monarchical legitimacy’) are extremely important.

Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system. Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president. So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive. But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure? At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.

If Mezhuev is right, therefore, the lesson of the Russian revolution may be that Russia’s long-term stability depends on how successful its rulers are in creating sources of legitimacy other than themselves. Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.

A dire warning

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of a warning ignored.

In autumn 1916, as the political situation in the Russian Empire worsened, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General M.V. Alekseev, penned a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, in which he wrote:

Your Imperial Majesty, I consider the minute has come when I am obliged to report the true state of affairs to You. The whole rear of the army … is in a state of ferment. … All this is leading slowly, but steadily, toward an inevitable outburst of stormy emotions among the people.

Next to alert Nicholas of impending danger was his cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, who sent the Tsar a pair of letters containing inflammatory accusations against the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Word of the letters reached the empress, who declared herself ‘utterly disgusted’ and denounced the Grand Duke as one of her ‘greatest enemies’.

Finally, exactly one hundred years ago today, on 20 November 1916, the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, turned up at the Supreme Headquarters in the town of Mogilev. On arrival, he invited the Head Chaplain of the Russian Army, Georgii Shavelskii, to speak to him. Shavelskii revealed that he too had issued a warning to the Tsar. ‘You did well’, said the Grand Duke, ‘But the problem is … her, only her [the Empress]. Take her away, put her in a monastery, and the Emperor will be a completely different person.’

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Nicholas II and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich

After talking with Shavelskii, Nikolai Nikolaevich went to visit the Tsar. Most of their conversation was businesslike, but shortly before leaving and returning to the Caucasus, the Grand Duke broached the subject of possible revolution and urged the Tsar to appoint a government enjoying the support of Russia’s parliament, the Duma. Later he described the scene as follows:

I spoke with Nicky in a very sharp manner. … He just said nothing and shrugged his shoulders. I told him straight: ‘It would be more pleasant if you swore at me, struck me, chased me out of here, rather than say nothing. Don’t you see that you will lose your crown? Come to your senses before it’s too late. Install a responsible ministry.’

According to Shavelskii, the Grand Duke pointed to the room occupied by the Tsar’s son and heir, and told him: ‘If you won’t take pity on yourself, take pity on him.’ But the Tsar refused to heed his advice.

On his way back to the Caucasus, Nikolai Nikolaevich stopped in Kiev, where he met the Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Mariia Fedorovna. On 22 November 1916, she recorded in her diary: ‘We are on the threshold of revolution. … Let us hope that Nicky’s conversations with four different people will open his eyes. Alekseev, Shavelskii, Nikolai [Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich],and finally Nikolasha [Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich], whom it was evidently hardest and most unpleasant to listen to, have all told him the truth.’

When revolution broke out in Russia two months later, the Tsar could not say that he had not been warned.

Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.

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