The Russian Revolution 1917-1932

Sheila Fitzpatrick


Since revolutions are complex social and political upheavals, historians who write about them are bound to differ on the most basic questions-- causes, revolutionary aims, social support and impact on the society, political outcome, and even the timespan of the revolution itself. In the case of the Russian Revolution, the last question presents peculiar problems. While the great French Revolution has a clear conventional starting-point (1789) and an end which can be no later than Napoleon's defeat and the Bourbon restoration in 1814-15, the Russian Revolution tends to be given either a very narrow definition (February to October 1917) or an open-ended one. There was no Romanov restoration in Russia. Nor, by any reasonable definition, did the revolutionary upheaval end when the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 since a civil war remained to be fought. Did the Bolsheviks' Civil War victory in mid-1920 mark the end of the revolution? Should we look further forward, to some later definitive 'betrayal of the revolution' (as Trotsky and others have suggested) or an equally definitive achievement of revolutionary objectives? Or should we perhaps accept the view, sometimes expressed by both Soviet and anti-Soviet commentators, that the revolution continues up to the present day?

In his Anatomy of Revolution, Crane Brinton suggested that revolutions have a life-cycle passing through phases of increasing fervour and zeal for radical transformation until they reach a climax of intensity, which is followed by the Thermidorian phase of disillusionment, declining revolutionary energy and gradual moves towards the restoration of order and stability. The Russian Bolsheviks, bearing in mind the same French Revolution model that lies at the basis of Brinton's analysis, feared a Thermidorian degeneration of their own revolution, and half suspected that one had occurred at the end of the Civil War, when economic collapse forced them into the 'strategic retreat' marked by the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. 

Yet at the end of the 1920s, Russia plunged into another upheaval, Stalin's 'revolution from above', associated with the industrialization drive of the First Five-Year Plan, the collectivization of agriculture, and a 'proletarian cultural revolution' directed primarily against the old intelligentsia-- whose impact on society had been greater even than that of the February and October Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-20. It is only after this upheaval ended in the early 1930's that we find increasing signs of a classic Thermidor: the waning of revolutionary fervour and belligerence, new policies aimed at restoring order and stability, revival of traditional values and culture, solidification of a new political and social structure. But perhaps even this Thermidor of the mid 1930s was not the end of the Russian Revolution. In a final internal upheaval, reminiscent of earlier surges of revolutionary terror though not involving basic structural or ideological change, the Great Purge of 1937-8 swept away many of the surviving Old Bolshevik revolutionaries and effected a wholesale turnover of personnel within the regime's newly acknowledged and privileged elite.

In setting a timespan for the Russian Revolution, the first judgement that has to be made concerns the nature of the 'strategic retreat' of NEP in the 1920s. Although the Bolsheviks' avowed intention in 1921 was to use this peaceful interlude to gather strength for a later renewal of the revolutionary assault, there was always the possibility that their intention would change as revolutionary passions subsided and stability returned to the society. Some scholars believe that Lenin, in the last years before his death in 1924, came to feel that Russia's future movement towards socialism could best be achieved by evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. Nevertheless, Russian society remained highly volatile and unstable during the NEP period. The Bolsheviks feared counter-revolution, remained preoccupied with the threat from 'class enemies' at home and the capitalist nations abroad, and constantly expressed dissatisfaction with NEP and unwillingness to accept it as an outcome or permanent settlement of their Revolution. In my judgement, NEP remained a retreat, and the Bolsheviks' mood remained belligerent and revolutionary.

A second judgement has to be made on the nature of Stalin's 'revolution from above' that ended the NEP interlude in the late 1920s. To some historians, Stalin's revolution does not deserve the name, since it was something artificial and imposed by the regime-- an assault on the nation by its rulers rather than a true revolutionary upheaval. Others reject the idea that there was any real continuity between Stalin's revolution and Lenin's. I accept the characterization of Stalin's revolution as a 'revolution from above' (that is, an upheaval produced by a ruling party aiming at radical transformation of the society and prepared to fight for it), but see important elements of continuity linking Stalin's revolution with Lenin's. However, the real question is not whether the two episodes were alike, but whether they were part of the same process. Napoleon's revolutionary wars can be included in our general concept of the French Revolution, even if we do not regard them as an embodiment of the spirit of 1789; and a similar approach seems legitimate in the case of the Russian Revolution. In common sense terms, a revolution is co-terminous with the period of upheaval and instability between the fall of an old regime and the firm consolidation of a new one. In the late 1920s, the permanent contours of Russia's new regime had yet to emerge.

This book therefore treats the February and October Revolutions of 1917, the Civil War, the interlude of NEP and Stalin's First Five-Year Plan revolution as successive stages in a single process- the Russian Revolution. That process, I believe, was essentially completed with the end of the First Five-Year Plan in 1932. The regime declared a revolutionary victory and began to emphasize order, stability and normalization. The population relaxed, thankful that the revolutionary struggle was over. To be sure, the relaxation was somewhat premature: the Great Purge was still to come, and the Purge had scarcely ended before the country plunged into the even greater misfortune of the Second World War. But the Purge, as this author sees it, was less an integral part of the Russian Revolution than a monstrous postscript, added under the stress of impending war. The institutional and social structure and the cultural norms that were to last throughout the Stalin period had been established before the Great Purge, and did not change as a result of it. By the mid-1930s, Russia's new regime had already settled into its mould.

As the foregoing discussion shows, even establishing the timespan of the Russian Revolution involves some subjective judgement on the historian's part. This is still more true of the interpretation of causes, effects and overall significance of the Revolution. The natural question for the general reader to ask is: What was the revolution all about? Historians, if they are willing to answer the question at all, give a wide range of answers.

The Bolsheviks believed that their revolution was a workers' revolution, leading Russia to socialism by way of a transitional period of proletarian dictatorship under the Bolshevik (Communist) Party. This scheme is reflected in most Soviet scholarly works, which particularly emphasize the links between the working class and the party. Non-Soviet Marxists have usually denied that it was a real workers' revolution, or at least that it continued to be so after the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, or after the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921. Trotsky, one of the leaders of the October Revolution, later defeated by Stalin in the leadership struggles of the 1920s and finally deported from the Soviet Union in 1929, saw the Bolshevik Revolution in retrospect as a workers' revolution that Stalin betrayed. In Trotsky's interpretation, the outcome of the revolution was not socialism but a dictatorship resting on the support of an essentially bourgeois bureaucracy. This interpretation has had great influence on Western Marxists, and also (perhaps surprisingly) on Western Soviet scholarship as a whole.

In Western scholarship, however, the political and ideological aspects of the Revolution have been much more prominent than the social ones. Viewing the Stalinist dictatorship as the most significant outcome of the Revolution, scholars have investigated its possible origins in Lenin's concept of the party and his pre-revolutionary writings on party organization, treated the October seizure of power as a Bolshevik coup rather than a popular revolution, and seen the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' established in October 1917 as nothing more than a facade for the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party. In the decade after the Second World War-- the period of rapid development of Soviet studies in the United States-- Stalin's dictatorship was described as 'totalitarian', implying a close similarity to Hitler's Nazi regime in Germany, and the Revolution and the early years under Lenin's leadership were seen as part of the progression towards totalitarianism. Recently, a number of scholars have objected to this characterization of Lenin and the Revolution. But it is still generally accepted for the Stalin era, and the resulting discontinuity has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

Political analysis has often come uncomfortably close to political partisanship in Western Sovietology, and this clearly has some connection with the impact of the Cold War on the formative years of American Soviet studies. But it has outlived the Cold War, and in fact was never the exclusive prerogative of any one ideological group. Unlike historians of the French and American Revolutions, or even of the European fascist regimes of the 1930s, historians of the Russian Revolution remain preoccupied with questions of moral judgement. A strongly negative moral judgement was always implicit in the totalitarian model; and those scholars who now reject it often seem more interested in changing the moral judgement (rescuing Lenin and the Revolution from the condemnation that, they feel, only Stalin deserves) than trying a less judgemental approach. The failure of one eminent British historian, E. H. Carr, to make explicit moral judgements or even agree that this was the historian's proper task was widely criticized, sometimes in terms of outrage and indignation.

One might expect economic interpretations to figure prominently in the historiography of the Russian Revolution, but this is not really the case. Russia's admitted backwardness and the 'premature' nature of the Revolution put Soviet Marxists on the defensive from the beginning, and their analyses have dealt less with inexorable laws of economic development than with the idiosyncrasies of Russia's situation in 1917 that made the laws less inexorable than usual. In the Stalin era, when Russia's prerevolutionary backwardness was much emphasized, the whole issue of economic prerequisites of revolution tended to be ignored: it was the political prerequisites that mattered, that is, the organizing role of the Bolshevik Party before October 1917. This approach had little in common with Marxism: in many ways, it was a mirror-image of the contemporary totalitarian-model scholarship in the West.

The one line of interpretation that does stress economic factors (though not causes) is Western, and places the Russian Revolution in a context of modernization. Here the significant outcome of the Revolution is the economic breakthrough at the end of the 1920s and the rapid industrialization of the first Five-Year Plans. Russian Marxism is seen as the modernizing wing of the late nineteenth-century revolutionary movement, the Marxists being distinguished from their Populist opponents by their belief in the inevitability of capitalist industrialization on the Western model and their urban, industrial orientation. In Russia, as later in the Third World, Marxism was both a revolutionary ideology (by virtue of its denunciation of capitalist and colonial exploitation) and an ideology of economic development out of backwardness. As Adam Ulam puts it, Stalin's forced-pace industrialization was carried out through 'terror and totalitarianism', but it was nevertheless the logical complement of Marxism, "revolution fulfilled" rather than "revolution betrayed"'. 

The themes of dictatorship and modernization- 'terror and progress', in Barrington Moore's phrase- are prominent in my interpretation of the Russian Revolution. But a third theme is also prominent, that of class struggle and workers' revolution. Finding no way to fit it neatly into either a totalitarian interpretation or a modernization one, Western scholars have often tended to dismiss the class element. But the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 as a workers' party (albeit with intelligentsia leadership, like the other revolutionary parties), and they could neither have taken power nor held it through the Civil War period without the support of urban workers and the radicalized soldiers and sailors of the old Tsarist Army and Navy. Did they really, as has been suggested, cut all significant ties with the working class as soon as the new regime had firmly established itself in power and consolidated its dictatorship?

Before attempting to answer this question, it must be said that it leads us straight into a minefield of value judgements. Historians who assert that the Bolshevik Party and the Revolution were in some sense working-class are almost invariably implying qualified approval or sympathy with the Revolution. Those who assert the contrary (even non-Marxists, for whom the question might seem neutral) are implying disapproval and condemnation. The terms 'proletarian' and 'working-class'- are applied selectively by Western and Soviet historians alike: thus, the people who organize soviets and factory committees, volunteer for the Red Army and attend classes in Marxism are 'proletarians', while those who loot, brawl, break machinery, beat up intellectuals and Jews and rape women from the old upper classes are not.

However, the fact is that the Bolsheviks' working-class support in 1917 came both from the first group (the 'conscious proletariat', in Bolshevik terminology) and the second, and both types of attitude and behaviour can legitimately be called working-class. It is possible to judge the Bolsheviks' fidelity to the workers' revolution in terms of their policies on worker self-management, soviet democracy and trade-union representation of labour's economic interests. But class hatred and a willingness to crush the class enemy by violent and coercive means was also a part of the workers' revolution. If the Bolsheviks' dictatorship served that end, it surely was to some degree a product of the revolution and an instrument of the class.

This is borne out if we look further into the proposition, generally accepted by Western scholars as evidence of a severing of the working class-Bolshevik connection, that the dictatorship of the proletariat was quickly transformed into a dictatorship of the party. In functional political terms, this proposition is obviously true, but its significance depends on whether the party could or could not be described as working-class. In 1917, a majority of party members were urban workers, but their proportional weight declined in the Civil War years, mainly as the result of peasant recruitment via the Red Army. In the 1920's, with the party's hold on power secure and the tasks of economic reconstruction and modernization before it, a quite reasonable strategy for the party leadership would have been to turn away from the working class (which was dispersed and partially disaffected, and had in any case served its revolutionary purpose) and woo the old educated elite, particularly the technical experts and managers, whose services would be most useful in the future. But the leadership did not follow this strategy. Instead, the Bolsheviks became increasingly insistent on the party's proletarian identity, and backed this up in the years 1924-32 by a massive drive to recruit workers into the party and reestablish the old proletarian predominance in total party membership. It was very difficult for 'bourgeois experts' to gain admittance to the party, even though many in this group had come to see the Bolsheviks' modernizing and nation-building objectives as congenial, and were aware of the advantages in terms of personal security and career advancement that were associated with party membership. During the First Five-Year Plan, when the experts' services were particularly needed by the regime, they were astonished to find themselves once again labelled class enemies, subject to public denunciation and police harassment.

It is clear, then, that a real relationship between the Bolshevik Party and the working class existed, and continued into the early 1930s. Yet in the First Five-Year Plan period, when the relationship was most emphasized (and demonstrated in practice by the party's recruitment policies and the regime's ability to rally active working-class support in its confrontation with the peasantry over collectivization), the working class as such was scarcely improving its political, social and economic position. Real wages and living standards fell as a result of the industrialization drive; the trade unions were muzzled when they tried to protest; and the powers of management vis-a-vis labour markedly increased: What were the workers getting out of the special relationship? Or, to reverse the question; what was the regime getting out of it? To find an answer, it is necessary to return once again to the elusive concept of proletarian dictatorship. In strict Marxist terms, this meant that the proletariat would rule as a class; and it was probably so understood by many workers and Bolsheviks in 1917. But its operational meaning was different. Having taken power, the Bolsheviks had to find the men to run things. The initial selection was haphazard, but the criteria were clear: party members, workers, and soldiers and sailors who had actively supported the Revolution were the most reliable organizers, and the most likely to understand Bolshevik policies and objectives. Perhaps later, when the Civil War was over, there would be time to consider fundamental organizational reforms, but for the time being it was necessary to get 'our men' into positions of authority, either replacing or sharing command with 'their men'- the officials, officers and professionals inherited from the old regime. As it turned out, this approach worked, more or less, and it lasted. The way in which workers became 'masters' of Russian society after the October Revolution was not by an abolition of the old status hierarchy. It was by moving in very large numbers into the old masters' jobs.

Thus the essence of the special relationship between the party and the working class after 1917 was that the regime got 'cadres' (administrators and managers) from the working class, and workers got responsible, high-status jobs from the regime. The party's policies of worker recruitment were part of this process: in the 1920s, a substantial proportion of workers who joined the party were subsequently 'promoted' into white-collar jobs and left the factory bench for ever. This, of course, made it quite difficult for the party to achieve its objective of making factory workers the majority group; and the party's statisticians had to introduce a special category of 'workers by social position' for those who had joined the party as workers but were now in other occupations, primarily administration. Although it took some time for the Bolshevik leaders (being good Marxists) to realize it, the regime's commitment to the working class had much less to do with workers in situ than with working-class upward mobility.

Earlier in this introduction, I raised the very broad and ambiguous question: 'What was the revolution about?' My answer could be roughly summarized as 'terror, progress and upward mobility'. But that is what the revolution (in this interpretation) turned out to be about. The Bolsheviks had other slogans inscribed on their banners in 1917- 'soviet democracy', 'power to the working class’, even the time honoured liberte, egalite, fraternite. They believed or partly believed these slogans. They were enthusiasts with great expectations. Even for a historian as 'alien, indifferent and polemically disposed' as Sukhanov, the Menshevik chronicler of 1917, there is pathos in these expectations, and their inevitable disappointment.


The Revolution has achievements to its credit as well as failures. But the cost of the achievements was very high. With revolutions, as with all reckless undertakings, there is always the question whether, had the revolutionaries been able to foresee the future, they would ever have gone out to fight, and the allied question of whether in some cosmic sense it was all worthwhile. But, as has already been suggested, the second question is dangerous ground for historians. In dealing with historical events, the judgement of worth is very close to a statement of personal preferences, and the historian is not really in the same situation as a citizen casting his vote at the polls. We may dislike dictatorship and approve of upward mobility, or conceivably even reverse these preferences. But history has not consulted us, and we really have to deal with what seems to have happened and how it fits together. The Russian Revolution is now a part of history, not an aspect of contemporary politics. In this book, I have tried to treat it as such.