On February 25th 1917, two days into the February Revolution, a crowd of 6,000 “workingmen” marched from Samsonievskii Prospekt in Petrograd. As they approached Nizhnii Novgorod Street they were met by Cossacks and Tsarist police. According to Okhrana (the Tsarist secret police) reports, the crowd pulled the police chief, Shalfeev, from his horse and “began to beat him with sticks and an iron hook used to switch railway points.” At that moment, the police “fired into the crowd and the shots were returned from the crowd.”1 The crowd met fire with fire. The Petrograd garrison sided with the revolution in the following two days. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated half a week later.

In the following months, Petrograd newspapers were filled with reports of gunfire, looting, assault, mob justice, vandalism, and crowds liberating prisons and ransacking armories. Alongside the chaos were paeans to newly acquired freedom. One reporter overheard a teenage boy shouting, “I was freed from prison. Revolution! I am free! I will not steal anymore!”2 Mikhail Serafimovich, reserve cavalry private, wrote, “Long live free Russia / The joyous cry floods my soul / Long live our freedom / The red flag stills my heart. / A leaden weight has fallen, / The world dreams a shining dream . . . /I’m young again, my body drunk, / my soul replete with feelings. . .”3 The February Revolution unleashed what one police official reported in January 1917 called a “wave of animosity against those in authority in wide circles of the population.”4 Last year, the meaning of the Russian Revolution was ruminated and reminisced in the popular press. But the agency of the crowd and the voices of those that filled it—the workers with their sticks, the teenage boy and Mikhail Serafimovich—were mostly silenced, if not forgotten. Instead, commentators rehashed old arguments or reenacted ideological shibboleths. It was as if, even after a hundred years and despite the wealth of social histories and archival sources that give voice to the subaltern, many are still missing the point of 1917.

That point is not about Marxism, Lenin, the Bolsheviks, or even communism. Nor is it necessarily just about Russia. Rather, it’s about how people, particularly lower-class people, made sense of revolutionary times. Thankfully, we have some access to these mentalities thanks to letters, poetry, literature, art, proclamations, memoirs, diaries, newspapers and a whole host of other texts. The voices of the subaltern are the legacies the Russian Revolution give us today.

Yet, finding histories that put those voices front and center is a reoccurring frustration. In 1983, in a seminal essay, historian Ronald Suny lamented the tendency to write 1917 backwards from Stalinism, to overemphasize personalities, parties and politicians, use the West as a yardstick to assess success and failure, to insist happenstance, or to pinpoint what-ifs that inevitably were-nots. Instead, Suny called for histories of “deep and long-term social developments that provided both the context and the momentum” for the Bolshevik’s victory.5 Granted, the complexity of the Russian Revolution is impossible to capture in a single narrative. It was a series of overlapping revolutions that stretched across the Eurasian landmass. Though historians have an excellent oeuvre answering Suny’s call, it’s sad to say that the popular understanding of 1917 remains stuck as a contest between “great men” or a key front in the forever ideological war between socialism and its critics. Last year, these old tendencies appeared in likely places. No one, for example, should be surprised by the occasional screed warning the world of Bolshevism’s phantasmagoric return. Nor with the attempts to reexamine whether Lenin was a German agent or books that update old theses of how “the events of 1917 were filled with might-have-beens and missed chances.” Or simply that “it has taught us what does not work” i.e. Marxism. Liberals and conservatives have a long track record of regurgitating and repacking narratives to delegitimize the Russian Revolution in general and October in particular. For them, the Revolution was a tragedy at best and at worst the birth of evil itself.

But old narratives found voice in unlikely places as well. China Miéville’s otherwise moving October never strays too far from a history from above even as he vividly captures the emotions and chaos from below. Ultimately, his narrative is one where revolutionaries made and destroyed the revolution. Though a proud partisan for 1917, Miéville unnecessarily gives credence to its opponents by using the final pages to quickly narrate 1917 to 1937 to avoid “the risk of repeating such mistakes.” Yet, the mistake of any narrative of 1917 is to write it in the light of Stalinism.

Similarly is Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Few Who Won” in the Jacobin’s special issue “The 1st Red Century.” Sunkara’s telling reads like a historiographical time warp. It’s a top down political history of social democracy that distinguishes between the “noble February Revolution” and the “bloody excesses of October.” The masses make brief appearances, but more as supporting cast rather than as central agents. It too is a history written backwards—a direct line from Lenin to Stalin: with a few saving grace “could haves” interspersed. “The Mensheviks and SRs could have stepped in and taken power as part of a broad front of socialist parties to create a constituent assembly and a framework for reforms. The Bolsheviks could have formed a loyal opposition to such a government, or even directly joined it.” But if the “system that emerged out of the October Revolution was a moral catastrophe” and “that Stalinism emerged from [October’s] womb is no surprise,” it could just as easily be argued that 1917 itself was a mistake since there could have been no “bloody” October without the “noble” February. By this formula, it’s not just October that was a “tragedy” but the entire revolution. In the end, Sunkara is forgiving of the excesses since “they were the first.” But there are limits. “What is less forgivable,” he concludes, “is that a model built from errors and excesses, forged in the worst of conditions, came to dominate a left living in an unrecognizable world.”

While there is little to disagree with here, it does pose the question whether 1917 has any value for us today. On this, Conner Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani are emphatic: it’s time to “move on” from the “tragic story” of 1917. It’s history is now merely a “question which interests professional historians and the far left,” while the “world’s working classes have moved on.” The Russian Revolution, they argue, functions as a mark of virtue signaling in American left circles. They write: “It’s our inability to move on from these dreams of apocalyptic rupture; fantasies of new, unfathomable worlds that will somehow spring up unencumbered by the shells of the old one.” It’s hard to argue with this. Though dispensing with 1917 because of its fetishism by cultish leftists stinks just as much. History hijacked is no reason to ditch history as such.

It’s unfortunate to see such a convergence between the Left and the Right in viewing the Russian Revolution as a “tragic story” narrated back to front. Here, it’s hard not to share Shelia Fitzpatrick’s lament that there are few today willing defend 1917. Instead, the consensus across the political spectrum is “if there is a lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, it is the depressing one that revolutions usually make things worse, all the more so in Russia, where it led to Stalinism.” There are some crucial correctives, though. One of the better books to come out last year, Mark Steinberg’s The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, offers a novel approach. He sought to “tell the story of the Russian revolution as experience.6 This is a key orientation. Though Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the Revolution’s ugliness, he still appreciates “leaps into the open air of history” if only out of an “admiration for those who try to leap anyway.” To get a sense of that leap, it’s articulation, and meaning, a focus on what people thought and felt about the times unfolding around them as agents shaping those events is paramount.

The Russian Revolution was paradoxical. Alongside people’s confusion and disorientation, anger and fear, hatred and vengeance were their expressions of love, hope, joy and freedom. Many experienced the revolution as an awakening or rebirth as they transformed overnight from subjects of the Russian empire into citizens. Citizens conveyed this sense of rebirth in elemental and religious metaphors of storms, springtime, dawn, and resurrection. As one editorial, “The Springtime of Russia,” put it, “[Revolutions] fly in, like a hurricane, and tear out freedom for the exhausted people. ‘As it was, so it shall be.’”7

Lower class people realized this new sense of citizenship in their capacity for self-organization and democratic practice in some 700 soviets that sprang up around Russia. The word “citizen” and new dignities it entailed also became calls for restraining the dark side of democracy. As one editorial declared, “Citizens. Let’s wait. Let’s take ourselves in hand. . . . Let’s not sow anarchy now after doing something so great. . . . Let’s restrain our heart-felt impulses and not allow anarchy and disintegration.”8 For some, the confidence in the people’s capacity for citizenship was short lived. As Alexander Kerensky expressed in April, “I no longer have my former certainty that before us are not mutinous slaves but conscious citizens.”9 But really, many were both mutinous slaves and conscious citizens. The Russian Revolution was born of violence as much as it was of democracy. Often there was little distinction between the two. Since 1905, a public discourse of a “new dawn” accompanied a sense of uncertainty and darkness. Histories that focus on the ascent of Russian social democracy often leave out the wave of assassinations, terrorism and “expropriations” (i.e. armed robberies) carried out by revolutionaries. From 1894 to 1916, one historian suggests that close to 17,000 people were victims of revolutionary terrorism in the Russian empire.10 When you consider this with the mass violence and death of WWI, the millions of refugees and homeless, the pogroms, the destitution and banditry, separating noble February from the bloody excesses of October is rather presumptuous.

By narrating the Russian Revolution from below, it’s easy to see the bloody excesses were already present in February. And not just in particular politicians, political parties, and ideologies, but throughout the body politic. Popular rage and class revenge ruled the day. Near the town of Bezhetsk, in just one example among many, peasants locked their landlord inside his manor and burned it and him alive. The novelist Ivan Bunin described the summer of 1917 in his diary as “the Satan of Cain’s anger, of bloodlust, and of the most savage cruelty wafted over Russia while its people were extolling brotherhood, equality and freedom.”11 In May 1917, Maxim Gorky wrote, “We live in a turmoil of political emotions, in the chaos of a struggle for power; this struggle arouses, along with good feelings, some very dark instincts.”12

It was the failure of the Provisional Government’s and the socialists heading the Petrograd Soviet for most of 1917 to establish a sovereign authority—in Russian, vlast—that opened the door for the Bolsheviks to ride those dark instincts into power. As Lars Lih recently concluded in an insightful article, “After the February Revolution, people immediately put ‘the crisis of the vlast’ at the center of attention, and there arose what Plekhanov somewhere calls ‘a fierce longing [toska] for a tough-minded vlast.’ The Bolsheviks proved unexpectedly, even paradoxically, able to respond to that fierce longing.” If there was a tragedy to 1917, it’s that when vlast was lying on the floor, no one except the Bolsheviks had the gumption to pick it up. So, what role should we assign the Russian Revolution today? How should we understand it a hundred years on?

First, in a time where diagnosing the “working class” is a cottage industry among American liberals and leftists, the Russian Revolution provides a history of the inspiration and horrors of the “people” unleashed. It is a window into what the Annales School called mentalités. Sure, Russia a hundred years ago is not the United States today (it’s not even present day Russia), but it does say something about the human condition in extraordinary times. This might drive some toward firm partisanship for reform over revolution, but 1917 was not orchestrated. It was a storm, and elements are impossible to contain as their centrifugal forces batter all ideologies into irrelevance.

Second, power—or vlast— in a revolutionary situation is there to be seized. It is not bestowed but taken. The Russian Revolution is one of many revolutions in the last two hundred years where political expedience and opportunism is the stuff of revolutionary politics. In this light, 1917 was not the Bolsheviks to win but everyone else’s to lose. The Russian Revolution isn’t a template for social change, and it’s unfortunate that so much of its centenary was devoted to punching old phantoms. Daring “leaps into the open air of history” are few and far between. Instead of condemning the jump, we’d do better to find inspiration and foreboding in the cries of joy, hope, fear and terror of those in flight.

  1. Robert Browder and Aleksandr Kerensky, The Russian Provisional Government, 1917: Documents (Stanford University Press, 1961), 35-36. 

  2. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution: Mob Justice and Police in Petrograd (Harvard University Press, 2017), 43. 

  3. Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 (Yale University Press, 2001), 79-80. 

  4. Mark D. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 69. 

  5. Ronald Grigor Suny, “Toward a Social History of the October Revolution,” The American Historical Review 88, no. 1 (1983): 31. 

  6. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, 1. 

  7. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, 22-23. 

  8. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, 82. 

  9. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, 84. 

  10. Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (Princeton University Press, 1993), 21. 

  11. Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 84. 

  12. Maksim Gorky, Herman Ermolaev, and Mark D. Steinberg, Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918 (Yale University Press, 1995) 7.