The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this installment, the author explores the reason for the 1917 Revolution and concludes that the Bolsheviks did not win the battle for power; rather, the Provisional Government lost by rejecting an alternative to Bolshevism and thereby missing its opportunity to exclude Bolshevism from the game.



By March of 1917, following the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the situation in Russia had changed dramatically. Before the war, the country had fluctuated at the edge of an abyss, and in March 1917, after almost three years of a pointless and unsuccessful war, it came crashing down. Might it have been possible to keep the country on the edge? Was there, in other words, an alternative to the cruel national humiliation of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, to a bloody civil war, to the famine and devastation dealt by war communism, to the “Red Terror”—to everything, in short, that the Great October Socialist Revolution brought? Again, we have to answer ambiguously: Yes, in principle, an alternative to the Catastrophe existed even in 1917, at least until July 1. But, alas, as in 1914, there was no one who could implement it.

How could this happen? It would be more honest to ask, how could it not happen, when even such a brilliant intellectual and remarkably sincere man as Nikolai Berdyaev wrote: “I ardently supported the war to the bitter end, and victims didn’t scare me ... I thought that through the terrible suffering the world was coming to the solution of world-historical problems of the East and the West and that Russia would play the central role in this solution.” (Emphasis mine.) Compare this impassioned tirade with the dry statistics: by the end of May, two million (!) soldiers, not wanting to see the war to the bitter end, had already deserted from the army. Yes, the soldiers were going home, but the government still shared Berdyaev’s enthusiasm. Especially about the “central role of Russia.”


A Bit of History

There are two major schools of thought in the world historiography of the 1917 Catastrophe. The most influential of these is the school of the “Bolshevik plot,” which asserts that a gang of leftists seized power in unwary Russia. Accordingly, the school has focused its study on behind-the-scenes developments—on the twists and turns of the radical left’s movements, and on the Social Democratic Party conventions, the culmination of which was the formation of a conspiratorial Bolshevism. They were focused on what Dostoyevsky named in one word – “evil spirit.” The other school is the revisionist school of “social history,” which asserts that the Catastrophe was not the result of a conspiracy, but of a spontaneous popular revolution spearheaded by the Bolsheviks.

Blinded by the tribal myth and its vision of Constantinople, the Russian elite drew the country into an unnecessary and unbearable war (giving arms to fifteen million peasants dressed in soldiers’ uniforms).

It is clear that, as followers of Vladimir Soloviev’s theory of Russia’s “national self-destruction,” we also demonstrate that there is no need to search for causes behind the scenes of Russian life, when the disaster was building in full view, in the bright light of day. It was building from the moment that the post-Nicolas political and cultural elite decided they did not want to become Europe in the time of the Great Reforms.

In an era when the ownership of private property by peasants was widespread in Europe, the Russian elite locked their peasants in communal ghettos, depriving them of their civil rights and preserving them in an atmosphere of antediluvian Moscovian harshness (a decision that backfired with Pugachev’s Rebellion half a century later, the same one that revisionists called the “people’s revolution”). At a time when Europe was attaining a constitutional monarchy, these elites reconciled themselves with preserving an archaic “sacral” autocracy (triggering two revolutions in the twentieth century—in 1905 and in February 1917).

Things went from bad to worse. Blinded by the tribal myth and its vision of Constantinople, the Russian elite drew the country into an unnecessary and unbearable war (giving arms to fifteen million peasants dressed in soldiers’ uniforms). And until its last moments in power, the Russian elite could not conceive that the only hegemonic idea in the minds of this huge armed mass was not that of mythical Constantinople, but of the parceling of the landowners’ and state’s land (in 1913, 47 percent of all the arable land in the country did not belong to the peasants).

Amidst all these monstrous and fatal errors, the reader could hardly be surprised by the conclusion that the Russian political elite handed over the country to “demons” for pillage, committing, as Soloviev predicted, collective suicide, “self-destruction.” Let’s see now how this played out at the finish line.



Since the Duma was the only legitimate institution in the country after the dissolution of all imperial institutions, a provisional government (“provisional” because the constituent assembly, elected by popular vote, had to determine the fate of the newly-fledged republic) was formed from Duma faction leaders. From the first day, the government faced two insurmountable problems.

The first was the questionable legitimacy of the Duma itself (because of Stolypin’s manipulation of the electoral law in 1907). I remind the reader of its essence: The voice of one landowner was equal to those of four rich capitalists, to sixty-five middle-class citizens, to 260 farmers, and to 540 workers. As a result, 200,000 landowners received 50 percent of the votes in the Duma. Is there any wonder that it was perceived as a “bourgeois” and not a popular government?

The second problem arose out of the first one. On the same day that the provisional government was established, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was also established in the same Taurida Palace. It was a popular, if you wish, representative body, and the result was that there were two bears in one lair. The situation was not, however, as scary as it might sound. Two bears, it appeared, could get along well. In fact, the provisional government was approved by the Petrograd Soviet (Executive Committee). The explanation is quite simple: the executive committee consisted of moderate socialists, who, based on the fact that there was a “bourgeois revolution” in Russia, judged that it had to be led—under the control of the people, of course—by a “bourgeois” government.

The bears fought, of course, continually. There was, for instance, the famous Order Number 1, published by the executive committee in spite of the provisional government. But there was only one irreconcilable disagreement between them: the question of the termination of the war. The government wanted “war to the bitter end,” the executive committee wanted immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. Therefore, when Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov mentioned Constantinople in a telegram to the Allied Powers in April, the executive committee made a big stink in Petrograd about the “capitalist ministers” and Professor Milyukov, although he wasn’t a capitalist, and he had to give up his ministerial portfolio (they forced Minister of War Alexander Guchkov to resign as well).


Vladimir Lenin (center) managed to win the information war.


That same April, Lenin returned from Switzerland. Through his years of exile, he had adopted Trotsky’s idea of ​​permanent revolution and immediately demanded: “All power to the Soviets!” The Soviets did not need this gift, though; in order to gain power in a climate of “bourgeois revolution” the Soviets hoped to persuade the provisional government that the continuation of war would be fatal for Russia. And it seemed that all the cards were in their hands. First, they were able to demonstrate their power by mobilizing the masses and ousting the “hawks” from the government. Secondly, Lenin and the Bolsheviks could now be used as a scarecrow. And thirdly, and most importantly, across the country peasants had begun to illegally seize landed estates and divide them, without waiting for the constituent assembly’s decision. Keeping the soldiers in the trenches now seemed hopeless, when the land was being divided at home.

This was especially true because the army was already falling apart and the front was now hanging by a thread. Desertion figures reached grotesque dimensions without Order Number 1, and those who did not desert slept with the enemy. Watching this phantasmagoric picture unfold, the German commander of the Eastern Front, General Max Hoffman wrote in his diary: “I ​​have never seen such a strange war.” For Russia, this strange war was going badly, even hopelessly. The offensive strategy failed, as General Yury Danilov predicted, in the first weeks of the war. The French got help, but the Russian Army was defeated. Their losses amounted to tens of thousands: 30,000 dead, 125,000 surrendered. On other fronts, things were no better. All ten western forts, which the Duma “patriots” had blustered about, were fallen. They had to give up Poland. Finland, too.

It seemed that the government was about to capitulate to the specter of all-out anarchy. The facts had them beat. The country could not fight any longer; one had to be blind not to see it. This, I think, explains the crushing victory of the moderate socialists at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets in June. The Bolsheviks had 105 delegates against 285 Social Revolutionaries and 245 Mensheviks. An immediate transition to the socialist revolution that Lenin had called for seemed a bad fantasy. And the masses—with the support of the moderates—lusted for peace and landowners’ estates, and not for some obscure “socialism.” Alas, they both underestimated Lenin.


Moment of Truth

Even before the convention, the moderates were dealt a winning ace. On May 15, the Petrograd Soviet once again delivered an impassioned address to the “socialists of all countries,” urging them to demand from their governments immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. The same day, they got their answer from—who do you think?—German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who offered Russia immediate peace on the Petrograd Soviet’s terms without annexations or indemnities. A country with a crumbling army, which was unable to fight anymore (the Germans knew this better than the Russian ministers), got an offer of peace on honorable terms.

Lenin’s hour had struck; he was the great master of interception and cooption. In the fateful month of July, 1917, Lenin coopted from the moderates the slogans that were comprehensible to the masses: immediate peace and land to the peasants.

What more do you want? What are you waiting for? For the army to collapse completely and for the Germans to take Ukraine from us, as they took Poland? This is what executive committee representatives argued in a dispute with the ministers. Don’t you see that Lenin is trying to achieve exactly this? And that while the ministers babble, Russia’s honor is at stake? And that the country cannot let down its allies? The executive committee got a strong response: There is someone who will take care of the allies’ fate; the U.S. Congress has already voted for America’s entry into the war. Fresh and full of enthusiasm, the U.S. Army would be a much more reliable aid to the Allies than our demoralized front. Either way, America will take care of the Allies’ fate. But who will take care of Russia’s fate?

The argument, you see, cast iron proof: the allies would not be lost, but Russia would be lost. The government decided to wait until the Soviets’ convention (which ensured the victory of the moderates). But when the Germans continued to insist—they offered a truce on all fronts—and the Russian government rejected it, it became clear that the government had something else in mind, that it was not preparing proposals for peace, as everyone had assumed, but was instead preparing for a new offense. Lenin’s hour had struck; he was the great master of interception and cooption (the entire agrarian Bolshevik program was, as you know, coopted from Social Revolutionaries. In the fateful month of July, 1917, Lenin coopted from the moderates the slogans that were comprehensible to the masses: immediate peace and land to the peasants. He’d spoken of these things in the past, of course, but from July 1st, he proved that his party was the only one that the government would never be able to deceive. For the soldier mass, that was the moment of truth. Much more would happen in 1917, but it would not change anything.


Brusilov’s “Breakthrough”

What, in fact, the Russian government sought to prove with its July démarche on a tiny eighty-kilometer section of the front will forever remain a mystery. The strike was concentrated in eastern Galicia and was made up of the 131st Division with the support of 1,328 heavy guns. On July 1 it broke the Austrian front, seventy kilometers east of the city of Lvov. It was a strange attack. In the words of British correspondent John Wheeler-Bennett, whole battalions “refused to go forward, and officers, having exhausted the threats and entreaties, gave up and went on the attack alone.” They certainly did not make it to Lvov; as soon as General Hoffman had overthrown the German Army, the Russians rolled back. Then the retreat turned into a rout.


Brusilov's breakthrough was Russia's temporary win in World War I.


Thousands of soldiers left the front. Dozens of officers were killed by their own forces. The Russian government became dismayed. Prince Lvov resigned from the prime minister’s post. He was replaced by Alexander Kerensky. Lavr Kornilov was appointed in place of dismissed general Aleksei Brusilov. All of these rearrangements, however, did not matter. The moment was lost. Lenin was the real winner in the Brusilov “breakthrough.” Modern British historian Orlando Figes agrees with this assessment: “More than anything else, the summer offense turned soldiers to the Bolsheviks, to the only party which stood uncompromisingly for an immediate end of the war. If the Provisional Government could take the same position, starting peace negotiations, the Bolsheviks would never have come to power.”

And the public in the capital had no idea that its fate was sealed. Theaters were full, and card games lasted until morning. Tickets to the ballet with Karsavina went for a fortune. Chaliapin was “the voice,” and there was a full house at the Bolshoi every evening. People are people, what do you expect? It is more interesting to address the puzzled remark by another British historian, Geoffrey Hosking: “No member of the Provisional Government ever understood why the soldiers left the trenches and were heading home.”

How can this be?


In Different Languages

The first thing that comes to mind when trying to solve this mystery (which proved fatal to the Russia of 1917) is this: the members of the provisional government and the soldiers, who in the midst of the war were heading home, lived in different countries, but they thought that they lived in the same one. Russian thinkers of the Slavophile inclination intuitively guessed this long before the war. I could provide many examples, but I will refer only to the most authoritative. What, in your opinion, was Dostoevsky referring to when he wrote: “We (educated Russia) are a very strange people, narodik, very shallow, very demi-semi men”? Does this not describe the situation in 1917: two people, living side by side, who do not understand each other because they speak different languages? One of these people lived in Europe, the other in the “peasant’s Kingdom”—in Moscoviya. This is, in fact, the secret of how Moscoviya prolonged its existence in Russia for another three or four generations after the October Revolution: at the time of the epochal crisis, the educated Russian, the “narodik,” deceived himself, imagining that he spoke on behalf of the “peasant’s Kingdom.” Lenin, taking advantage of this fatal mistake, guessed the Muscovite’s language of the “peasant’s Kingdom” and mastered it. For a long time.

How did the members of the government perceive those other people in soldiers’ coats? They viewed them first of all as Orthodox, patriarchal patriots, for whom the honor of the fatherland was more important than peace with its enemies, and for whom holy Orthodoxy, and Constantinople, was more valuable than a piece of land of their own. In short, the government projected onto them the Slavophile’s utopian idea. To Lenin, who had lived almost all his adult life in exile, this was completely foreign. He knew that for the sake of this piece of land, the “peasant’s Kingdom” would do anything. Even if it went against the church. One episode from the summer of 1917, on the eve of the July offensive, will help us to understand the “language” problem better than any other.


The Russian Army greets Alexander Kerensky (1917).


The reader, I believe, knows that during that summer, the army idolized Kerensky. A British nurse watched with amazement as soldiers “kissed his uniform, his car, and the stones on which he walked. Many knelt, prayed, others were crying.” Apparently, they were awaiting from their idol word that peace talks had already begun, and that the truce would be tomorrow and they would be home by the autumn. Can we doubt that he was a good tsar in their eyes, he who finally came to give them peace and land? That’s why their awe vanished suddenly, as soon as they heard instead the standard speech about “Russian patriotism” and a passionate call (Kerensky was a brilliant orator) “to stand up for their country to the bitter end.” In his memoirs, he himself described the scene that followed.

The soldiers pushed a friend from their ranks—apparently, he was the most eloquent—to ask the minister a loaded question: “You say that we need to finish the Germans, in order to give the peasants land. But what use will it be to me, the peasant, if the Germans kill me tomorrow?”

Why was Russia the only country where Bolshevism won in 1917? Because Russia was the only country in which the ruling educated minority did not understand the language of the illiterate majority.

Kerensky had no answer to this question, which was quite natural coming from the mouth of a soldier-peasant who didn’t know what he was fighting for. And he ordered the man’s officer to send the soldier back home: “Let his village learn that the Russian Army does not need cowards!” As if he did not know that across the country, village communities were sheltering hundreds of thousands of deserters and no one considered them cowards. Anyway, the stunned officer was bewildered into silence. And the poor soldier fainted from the unexpected.

The officer’s confusion is understandable. What was he to do if his unit left the trenches that night and went home? And Orlando Figes, reading Kerensky’s story, concluded sadly: “Kerensky saw this soldier as an army family monster. It is incomprehensible that he could not know that millions of other people thought the same way.” This is the answer to the question that still troubles world historians: “Why was Russia the only country where Bolshevism won in 1917?” Because Russia was the only country in which the ruling educated minority did not understand the language of the illiterate majority.

Put more simply: the Bolsheviks did not win the battle for power; rather, the provisional government lost it. It led the pawn to the queen, rejecting an alternative to Bolshevism that was entirely within reach until July 1, and thereby missing its opportunity to exclude Bolshevism from the game. In this situation, the Bolsheviks were, one might say, doomed to defeat the Russians. They were, if you will, forced to win.


This outcome was the result of the whole of Russian history, beginning with the defeat of Nonpossessors and the cancellation of St. George’s Day during Ivan the Terrible’s reign in the sixteenth century, three hundred years before the serfdom, when “literacy was considered”—in M. M. Speranskii’s words—“between mortal sins,” before the peasant ghetto under Alexander II, and up to, finally, “the transformation of the tax-paying homeowner to the tax-paying poor” under Alexander III. With such a peasant history, and with the “language” deafness of the Russian government, it would be more reasonable, perhaps, to ask: how could the Bolsheviks not win in Russia?