C. Rice, New York Times
[JB comment: If you have the time/inclination in our busy times, please take a look at "more" of Dr. Rice's "thinking" regarding Russia.]
By CONDOLEEZZA RICE OCT. 17, 2017, New York Times
“This is where it happened,” my Russian guide declared. It was 1979 and I was a
graduate student in Moscow for the summer. A side trip to Leningrad was a must for
me, a first time traveler to the country. “Czar Alexander II was riding down this road
when the assassins struck,” she said. Almost under her breath, she added, “He was a
reformer.” Any hope for the liberalization of Russia seemed to die with the czar who
had freed the serfs and attempted to modernize the country. Alexander II’s death
brought to power his hard-line successor Alexander III, who initiated a harsh
crackdown (among those soon executed was the older brother of Vladimir Ilyich
Lenin). This would only sharpen the conflict in the country. Peasants had no bread.
Workers’ lives were miserable and often endangered. And soldiers were forced into
battle in the Great War, a fight they could not win. Alexander III’s son and successor,
the hapless Nicholas II, would abdicate in 1917. The parliamentary government of
Alexander Kerensky would survive less than a year.
From the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood it was just a short walk across
the square to the Winter Palace, where workers’ militias seized power and laid the
foundation for the Bolshevik Revolution and more than seven decades of Communist
rule. “Peace, Land and Bread,” they promised.
“Ten Days That Shook the World” captures the excitement of that moment. The
author, John Reed, was an American who made no secret of his Bolshevik
sympathies. He nevertheless provided a riveting and vivid — if not impartial —
account of the most pivotal phase of the revolution, as viewed from the ground.
From his vantage point, Reed could only tell a part of the story, however. To
fully understand the Bolshevik Revolution, one must also appreciate the long
trajectory of Russian history. Two other seminal works, James Billington’s “The Icon
and the Axe” and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “The Russian Revolution,” stand alongside
“Ten Days” as indispensable guides to these events.
“The Icon and the Axe” is a sweeping, intricate description of Russian cultural
history, spanning the pre-Romanov era through six centuries to the reign of Joseph
Stalin. Flowing with ease through time and topic — from art to music, literature,
philosophy, mythology and more — the book provides readers with an alluring
portrayal of Russia’s proud heritage. Its impressive scope and lasting insights have
made it a foundational text in Russian studies. In fact, it was this book, more than
any other, that captured my imagination and propelled me toward the study of
Russia and the Soviet Union.
Billington’s book, named for two items typically displayed in a place of honor in the
peasant home, reminds us that Russia’s vast geography helped shape its identity.
“The virgin forest was the nursery of Great Russian culture,” he writes. That made
the ax, which enabled the people of the forest to reshape their environment,
something of a revolutionary symbol.
In tracing the final years of the Romanov dynasty, Billington sets the stage for
1917 and puts Lenin’s revolutionary ideology into historical context. Even before the
popular revolt that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, there was a growing
sense that the days of old were drawing to an end. Electricity had recently arrived in
Russia, replacing primordial fire. When Lenin returned from exile to capitalize on
the chaos of the czar’s abdication, he played to this sense of new beginnings and
urged a complete and total rupture with the past. He was a firebrand to his core,
spewing inflammatory rhetoric, eschewing compromise and pushing political
discourse to the extremes.
For Lenin, “morality was not to be based on ‘idealistic’ standards of inner
feelings, but on the ever-changing dictates of revolutionary expediency,” Billington
writes. Beyond that, the primary characteristic that set him apart from his socialist
rivals was his single-mindedness: “In the midst of soaring visionaries, Lenin focused
his attention on one all-consuming objective that had not traditionally been
uppermost in the thinking of the intelligentsia: the attainment of power.”
What Lenin’s victory brought, of course, was not worker control or “all power to
the Soviets,” as he promised, but civil war and dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party.
Sheila Fitzpatrick recounts this transformation in her easily digestible “The
Russian Revolution,” first published in the early 1980s and widely recognized as one
of the best books on the topic. “The Russian Revolution” is a short book but it is
serious history, based on extensive archival research. Fitzpatrick has made a number
of updates over the years to incorporate newly available materials, but she has not
had to make any changes to her argument.
What makes Fitzpatrick’s account particularly compelling is the link that she
draws to subsequent developments, arguing, in the style of Crane Brinton’s “The
Anatomy of Revolution,” that the tumult of the Bolshevik uprising did not end until
after Stalin’s 1930s Reign of Terror. “The October seizure of power was not the end
of the Bolshevik Revolution but the beginning,” she writes.
The Soviet Union would last a little over 70 years. One might say that its end
was also a beginning. But it has not been the new beginning that many had hoped —
one of democracy and integration into the West. Rather, Russia’s rough history — so
evident one century ago — continues to haunt and shape its future. That is good
reason to remember the 10 days in 1917 that really did shake the world.
Correction: October 17, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated the name of the author of “The Anatomy of
Revolution.” He was Crane Brinton, not Brinton Crane.