Looking Back at 1917 from the Post-Soviet Period

simon-photo-1Simon Pirani is a socialist writer and historian. His books include The Russian Revolution in Retreat 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (Routledge 2008). This article is based on a paper he delivered at a conference on “Twenty Five Years After the USSR” at the German Historical Institute, Moscow, 10 June 2016.


British perceptions of the Russian revolution and its outcomes have changed considerably during the post-Soviet period. Focusing on the United Kingdom’s labour and socialist movements, broadly defined, this paper will consider three interrelated questions:

First, how the collapse of the Soviet Union changed perceptions of the Russian revolution. Second, how professional historians’ work on the Russian revolution has changed, and what influence that has had. Third, how views of the Russian revolution have changed during the last couple of years, as relations between the Russian and western governments have deteriorated.

How the collapse of the Soviet Union changed perceptions in the labour movement

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian revolution was still seen by many people on the left wing of the labour movement as an example to follow. The Communist Party was smaller in Britain than in many other European countries, but the feeling that the Russian revolution had opened up an alternative path of development in opposition to capitalism went far beyond that party’s ranks. For the left wing of social democracy, for the Trotskyists, and for others, sympathy for workers’ uprisings against Soviet power in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland did not negate their conviction that 1917 had been a historical breakthrough and that the Soviet Union and the other “workers’ states” comprised an anti-imperialist pole of attraction.

The break-up of the Soviet Union forced people to reconsider. The ideological frameworks that they had used took a severe hammering. To my mind this ideological disruption was tremendously positive. It is very difficult to generalise about this issue, so now I will refer particularly to my own experience.

I started visiting Russia in 1990 because of my activism in the labour movement. I was working with the British mineworkers’ union, editing its newspaper. That union’s one-year strike in 1984-85, against mine closures, was the most important confrontation between workers and the British political elite of the post-war period. In 1989, the Russian mineworkers fought a battle of similar importance, over labour rights, with the Soviet authorities. Trying to establish links between these movements seemed like a good idea.

The second, and more important, reason for the visit was that I was a Trotskyist. I arrived at Sheremetyevo airport with a suitcase full of pamphlets by Trotsky that had been reprinted by some east European comrades. In August 1990, together with a friend from the Memorial association, I helped to organise a meeting here in Moscow to mark the 50th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination.

Trotskyism had shaped my view, and many other people’s views, of the Russian revolution, in the 1970s, when we became active in radical politics amid social crises in the western countries. Trotskyism provided an ideological framework through which we could treat the Russian revolution as the forerunner of revolutionary change in our society, while rejecting the Soviet dictatorship that was in front of our eyes.

Anti-war demonstration assembling in Petrograd on 4 July 1917. Actions such as this revolt against the horror or war should be at the centre of our understanding of 1917.

Anti-war demonstration assembling in Petrograd on 4 July 1917. Actions such as this revolt against the horror or war should be at the centre of our understanding of 1917.

One keystone of our thought was the centrality of the October seizure of power, and the Bolsheviks’ role in it – as opposed to, for example, the February revolution or the civil war. This view of Bolshevism was something of a distorted mirror image of the views of many of the more conservative political historians. In those historians’ view, the Bolsheviks manipulated the workers and peasants; in our view, the Bolsheviks led the workers and peasants; in both views, the workers and peasants were considered only as secondary actors.

A second aspect of our ideological framework was the assumption that the Bolsheviks’ dealings with the broader workers’ movement and other working-class political parties had been determined by historical necessity. More than half a century after the event, I held stubbornly to my conviction that episodes such as the breakdown of talks on an all-socialist coalition government, or the break-up of the constituent assembly, had been the necessary outcome of the struggle for power. I was as sure that the Kronshtadt uprising of 1921 had been inherently counter-revolutionary as anarchists were sure that it was a third revolution.

A third conviction that was very important to us was that the October revolution was the first step toward an international revolution. The corollary of this view was that other phases of that international revolution, for example in Germany, or in Britain during the 1926 general strike, had been betrayed by Stalinism and social democracy. This, in turn, served as a basis for a belief that the working class faced a “crisis of leadership”, which would be resolved by building an alternative to these traitors. For me and many other Trotskyists, the key motive force of history was thus ourselves, the builders of this alternative, rather than wider social forces.

Today the Russian revolution looks to me like the really central event of the twentieth century because it brought millions of people on to the stage of history, seeking to change their own lives, in a way that no previous event had done. But I no longer accept many of the ideological assumptions I have recorded here, in particular those about the Bolsheviks.

These assumptions were not mine alone, but were quite widespread in the labour movement as a whole. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 really shook them up, and forced upon us new ways of thinking about the Russian revolution and the state founded by the Bolsheviks.

For a few diehard Stalinists in both the UK and the former Soviet states, the break-up of the USSR was easily explained: it amounted to a counter-revolution. But for much wider swathes of opinion it was a more complicated story.

At the risk of generalising, I would argue that, to a large extent, discussions in the British labour movement about the Soviet Union’s collapse revolved around another, underlying question: the extent to which the mass of people outside of political and economic elites – whether defined as the working class, the crowd, “social movements”, or whatever – were a key force in bringing about social and political change.

For those who saw the crowd as a passive object of change, the loss of the Soviet state was to be mourned. That state had been proof that a non-capitalist elite could create a better life for its citizens, one that compared favourably to the inequalities of capitalism. It had been a bastion of opposition to the USA, whatever dictators it had itself supported.

For those who saw the crowd as a motive force of history, things were more complicated. From this point of view, a central function of the Soviet state had been to suppress the crowd’s potential, and in that respect its collapse could be celebrated. Certainly the suffering of working-class people in former Soviet countries, after the collapse, was horrible – but, nevertheless, the collapse opened up the possibility that working class people could organise independently of the state, as the mineworkers had done. The potential for a new generation in the former Soviet states, who overnight gained relatively free access to literature and information of which their parents could only dream, seemed significant.

I identified with this second trend. And that also informed my changing view of the Russian revolution. I was not alone in this change.

The changing perception of the Russian revolution by professional historians

In my view the crucial shift in writing the history of the Russian revolution in western universities came not in 1991 but about two decades earlier, when social history and labour history blossomed. This “history from below”, which shifted the focus away from political elites to society at large, was loosely identified with the radical politics of that time. Social historians researched the activity of the mass of people in the Russian revolution much more rigorously and analytically than had ever been done before.

8 of March 1917: despite the protests of their own union leadership, the female workers of Petrograd went on strike, spearheading and leading one of the most important revolutionary transformations in history ... Three days later the Tsar abdicated.

8 of March 1917: despite the protests of their own union leadership, the female workers of Petrograd went on strike, spearheading and leading one of the most important revolutionary transformations in history … Three days later the Tsar abdicated.

By the late 1990s, when I started researching the social history of post-revolutionary Moscow, the western social historians had broadened their field of study in all directions – geographically (out from St Petersburg to the countryside, Russia at large and other parts of the old Russian empire) and socially (out from the working class, their first interest, to the peasantry, to the role played by women, and in many other directions).

The collapse of the Soviet Union opened up new avenues. Access to archives expanded; Soviet-era restrictions on scholars in the former Soviet countries disappeared. Russian social historians could contribute much more to international discussion. For my own study of workers’ organisations in Moscow, for example, the work of the late Sergei Yarov on St Petersburg was hugely important.

Did these advances in historical research make an impact outside academia, and on the labour movement, in Britain? It is hard to say. History is a view from the present, and in Britain in the 1990s the present context was the retreat of the left in politics and a reaction to much of what had been radical in the universities.

The historians of the Russian revolution who gained access to readers outside the universities turned attention back, away from the involvement of millions of people in transformative social processes, to the actions of elites. In the work of Richard Pipes, those millions of people were reduced to a downtrodden mass, cynically manipulated by evil Bolsheviks. For Orlando Figes, in The People’s Tragedy, they appear as more heterogeneous, painted in brighter colours, but still – as the title suggests – as victims. The principal Russian historian whose work reached British readers outside universities was Dmitry Volkogonov, for whom social movements and their complexities meant as little as they did for Pipes.

Bringing to a wider audience the results of social historians’ research on revolutionary Russia remains a work-in-progress.

The last couple of years

The deterioration of relations between Russia and the western powers, during the military conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, has again provoked discussion in the British labour movement on the role of Russia, and of the Soviet Union before it. It may also offer us some potential to think again about the history of the Russian revolution.

Russian government support for the separatist military action in Ukraine sharply divided opinion in the British labour movement. Many people saw the military conflict as one that could not possibly advance the collective action, solidarity and internationalism that are fundamental to socialism; the only meaningful response was to try to extend solidarity to working-class communities caught in the middle of it.

There was another view, quite strong in some trade unions traditionally influenced by the Communist Party and the left, which saw Ukraine through a geopolitical prism. In this view, the main issue was not the damage done to working-class collectivism in Ukraine, but the danger that American military and diplomatic power was being further extended. To the extent that Russia is a thorn in Washington’s side, its policy towards Ukraine was to be welcomed.

I think that the roots of this approach lie partly in Soviet times. When the Soviet Union existed it was viewed as a pole of attraction against the capitalist states far beyond the ranks of the official Communist party. The assumption that the world comprises two camps – pro-American and anti-American – was widespread. Implicit was that the Russian revolution was important not so much as a manifestation of creative political activity by millions of people, but more as the means by which a pole of attraction for the anti-American camp was brought into being. A strong streak of that still persists today, twenty-five years after the collapse of the USSR.

Recent statements by President Putin have thrown valuable light on these issues. In the summer of 2014 Putin said that during the First World War Russia was “betrayed from within” by Bolshevism; he compared critics of Russia’s current foreign policy to these Bolshevik traitors of 1917. He made a similar point at a political event in Stavropol this year, speaking negatively of the Bolsheviks’ role “in the collapse of the World War I front lines”.

This focus on the anti-militarist aspect of the October revolution – on the mutiny by serving soldiers, unprecedented in modern history, which was at its heart – deserves attention. Those in the British labour movement who see Putin’s Russia as an anti-imperialist bastion, and in that respect some sort of continuation of the Soviet Union and the Russian revolution, should listen to what Putin himself is saying. He emphasises not this imagined continuity, but the opposite: he sees the damage done to the Russian state at a time of war as an essential feature of 1917, a feature now to be repudiated.

Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), July 4, 1917. Street demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt just after troops of the Provisional Government have opened fire.

Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), July 4, 1917. Street demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt just after troops of the Provisional Government have opened fire.

In my view, the revolt in the tsarist army really did damage the Russian state, as Putin acknowledges. It was these soldiers, as much as the Bolsheviks, who “led” the overthrow of the provisional government – just as it was women factory workers who “led” the February revolution. I was reminded of this a few months ago, when we were discussing the soldiers’ revolt in a course on the revolution for undergraduate students. I went back to Allan Wildman’s book, The End of the Russian Imperial Army. It paints a striking picture of the crisis in the army that mounted month by month from the February revolution, through the issuing of Order no. 1 by the Petrograd Soviet, the “April crisis” over the provisional government’s war policy, and the full-scale mutiny provoked by the offensive ordered in June 1917. Tens of thousands of these peasants in uniform met, discussed, and decided collectively to refuse orders, in some cases to lynch their officers, and very often to abandon the front with arms in hand. This struck fear into the ruling classes of all the warring nations, and fed directly into the overthrow of the provisional government.

Actions such as this revolt against the horror of war should be at the centre of our understanding of 1917. I hope that, during the next year when we mark the centenary of the revolution, not only the social historians but also the labour movement internationally will pay due attention to the part played by those actors whose names we usually don’t know – the mutinous soldiers and the women factory workers.