In this chapter of the book ‘The Workers Revolution in Russia 1917: The View From Below’, Ronald Grigor Suny shows the many opposing views that have come to light in recent years within the historians who study the February revolutions of 1917 in Russia. Using other historians as evidence, Suny successfully portrays a new viewpoint that rather than focussing exclusively on the political atmosphere surrounding the revolution, to gather a full understanding one must look at the ‘social historical approaches to the Russian field’
Initially, Suny discusses the issues with different interpretations of the revolutions of 1917 citing many other historian’s views in doing so. One argument he makes, is that Soviet and Western historians have different agendas when talking about the revolutions- ‘Soviet historians write under the “guidance” of a political orthodoxy dictated by the party and coloured in the language of Marxist-Leninism.’ Whereas, western historians Suny states are more interested in a ‘cool objectivity’. Backing up this point is the view of Ian D Thatcher, who also explains that ‘Soviet historians were at the forefront of historical studies of the Russian Provincial Government of 1917.
Amongst a seeming indifference amongst western historians’ . In addition to this, further evidence to support this view comes from Fedor. A. Gaida who states ‘historians in the West, some of whom lacked adequate insight into Russian conditions, have often sought to equate the February Revolution with eastern European revolutions.’ Overall, there is a clear consensus amongst historian’s that any views about the revolutions have to be carefully examined as depending on the authors social and cultural environment, the way in which they write will differ greatly.
Moreover, Suny states that the ‘dominant model of interpretation of the Soviet system, the totalitarian model, is precisely the kind of theoretical construct that begins and ends with the political, with the all-encompassing power of the state, to the neglect of consideration of extra political components of the system’ . Effectively arguing that other historians have often looked to deeply at the political factors that led to the revolutions rather than examining the societal issues facing the everyday Russian people in the mundane life of 1917 such as class divide, the economy, the war and protesting their rights.
Suny addresses the lives and actions of workers throughout this excerpt stating that it was ‘a largely spontaneous action by thousands of hungry, angry and war-weary women and men who had lost confidence in the government of Nicholas II’ that lead to the revolutions, the overthrow of the tsar and the establishment of the provisional government in Russia.
Furthermore, Leopold. H. Haimson backs up this idea of workers and class divide being the cause of the revolutions by explaining there was a process of ‘dual polarisation’ happening well before any of these events took place in the first place: ‘a growing discontented and disaffected mass of industrial workers, now left largely exposed to the pleas of an embittered revolutionary minority’ . Moreover, Suny explains that Lenin was most likely a factor in the uprising as people saw him as charismatic and he was ‘the man most sensitive to the growing radicalisation of the workers and soldiers who rode the wave of social discontent to an easy and nearly inevitable victory’ therefore arguing that the Bolsheviks were an attractive option to the Russian people who had spent years under an ineffective tsarist regime.
Additionally, Suny cites class conflict as another aggravating factor for the February revolutions as there was ‘a deeply rooted social antagonism, particularly on the part of certain social groups of workers, against the propertied classes’ . Furthermore, Haimson argues that this polarisation had clearly been happening long before the revolutions since he states as early as 1914 ‘a dangerous process of polarization appeared to be taking place in Russia’s major urban centres’ additionally, Gaida appears to agree with this view however, states that this is a view that ‘exerted perhaps the greatest influence on the development of the historiography of the February revolution was that offered by Lenin… focused on establishing a class based contrast between the revolution just completed and the revolution to come’ .
Suny further states that due to the social polarization taking place in this time, different groups of people in society were beginning to set up their own class organisations and committees in order to defend their interests against the Duma Committee and the Provisional government of whom the lower echelons of society were highly suspicious. This further added to the tensions building before the eruption of the revolutions leading to the Russian people almost unanimously agreeing a change in power needed to take place within their society.
Moreover, Suny addresses the economic climate in which the revolutions took place evaluating this in terms of the peoples unrest. Serious differences within the dual power on how to approach the economy contributed in the downfall of the short-lived system and the eventual outbreak of the revolutions due to a discontent amongst the people- ‘the first Congress of Trade and Industry called for restoration of “free trade”… Menshevik economists favoured price regulations and state control of the economy’ .
However, A.N.Bokhanov argues there is in fact no grounds for an economic basis to the revolutions in 1917 because ‘the economy was spectacular. In some areas, the annual growth rate was 15-20 per cent a year’ therefore, successfully demonstrating that while there were certainly some economic problems that needed to be fixed by the governing body and this certainly led to a lack of faith from the people, this issue alone cannot be to blame for the revolutions as other factors such as political unrest, class differences and the changing climate due to the first world war are also to blame ultimately. Suny does however, clarify that the reason for the decline of the ‘fragile dual power arrangement was not the emerging economic issue but the conflict between the upper and lower classes on the war’ . Linking again into the importance of class conflicts as can be seen in the summary killings of elite officers by crewmen
Although focussing on the social history aspect of the February revolution, it is clear that politics -regardless of social issues- played a massively important role in the revolutions and therefore, Suny also addresses this in some depth. Of some importance is that ‘with the collapse of tsarism, timing and geography propelled even the less prominent Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries into positions of enormous power and influence’ much to the dismay of the working class who didn’t want to be trapped in another ineffective regime like that of the tsar. However, amidst different political parties vying for the support of the people, Suny argues that the Duma Committee realised that real power was in the hands of the Soviet rather than the government and were therefore ‘willing to play down conflict within society in the face of a possible reaction from the right’ .
Due to the unstable nature of society at the time of the riots in 1917, ‘the Duma hurriedly turned to the need to obtain bread for Petrograd in the firm belief that this was the root cause of instability there’ in an effort to downplay the social and economic issues moreover, as Suny says the committee were calling to mind the event of 1905 ‘when the army was used to re-affirm the power of the upper classes’ and preventing a similar situation happening.
In addition to the Duma respecting the fact that power lay in the hands of the Soviet, the provisional governments reliance on the soviet was there from the first day of their coalition Suny says. Moreover, he argues that the lower classes believed in the Soviet to such an extent that their first efforts ‘were directed at convincing soviet leaders to take power into their own hands’ due to a mistrust and disillusionment with the government in place at the time and in the belief that a government run by the soviet would have the working class issues at heart rather than the bourgeoisie issues seemingly foremost in the contemporary governing body. However, the Soviet didn’t take the power the people so desperately wanted them to and as a result, there were a series of weak governments that existed until the October revolutions and the establishing of the Bolsheviks- and their eventual dictatorship of Russia.
Furthermore, Suny focusses on the radicalisation of workers as a key factor in the revolutions of 1917 he states in his opinion that in searching for an explanation for the Bolshevik consolidation of power, ‘historians have tended to overemphasise the role of political actors like Lenin and Trotsky, and to underestimate the independent activity of workers and soldiers’ .
He then further analyses the workers actions as being complex but not chaotic using David Mendel’s three strata of worker to explain the different involvement of different types of workers- politically aware skilled workers, the unskilled workers and the worker aristocracy explaining how contrary to the belief that it was mainly lower classes who protested and shouted out slogans that sounded appealing but had very little meaning to them because of their uneducated nature, it was more often the skilled workers as representatives of a more educated group of society who were ‘most radical in the political sphere calling for the early establishment of soviet power’ . Furthermore, Gaida explains further the protests: ‘not surprisingly, the socialist slogans struck an immediate chord with demoralised soldiers, striking workers and ordinary people who had taken to the streets’
Overall, this excerpt by Ronald Grigor Suny is a well-rounded argument of the reasons behind the February revolution from many different viewpoints with a focus on the social aspects of the events. Importantly, Suny goes in depth with how important the workers and class divide were to the conflicts of 1917 using other historians such as Leopold Haimson, Richard Pipes and Diane Koenker to solidify his arguments throughout, and reference the historiography surrounding the subject of the Bolskevik seizure of power. Ultimately, when analysing the events of 1917 in Russia it is very important to consider the everyday lives of the Russian people rather than just the political environment in which the events took place.