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The book under review History of the Russian Revolution was written by Lev Trotsky in the 1930s. Lev Trotsky was a public and political figure of Russia in the period of revolution at the beginning of the XX century. After reading the book The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky can be fully appreciated as a historian. Though this paper cannot display Trotsky’s thought in its depth and detail, it may have the virtue of tracing his most important ideas and views essential for understanding the historical events described in his book.

Lev Davidovich Bronstein – only as a young revolutionist he adopted the name of Trotsky – was born in 1879, the son of Jewish farmers living near the Black Sea. The life of the Bronsteins was somewhat unusual for Russian Jews: they worked a large farm instead of trading in cramped ghetto villages, they became well-to-do kulaks. Leon Trotsky was Jewish Russian agitator, journalist, revolutionary, and Soviet People’s Commissar for War, founder of the Red Army and architect of its military victory in the 1917–20 Russian civil war, which he had helped start. He then fell out with Stalin, was exiled, erased from Soviet accounts of the civil war and the formation of the Red Army, and even from photographs, and ultimately murdered by a Soviet agent in Mexico City in 1940. Years of Soviet propaganda never managed completely to obscure his key role in creating the Soviet armed forces.

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The History of the Russian Revolution is the book about the events related to the Russian Revolution and witnessed by the author himself. Trotsky in this book not only describes certain events but also gives their thorough analysis and estimation. He focuses in details on the causes that provoked different implications for the history in the period of Russian revolution of 1917.

 

The book begins with the analysis of peculiarities of Russia’s development. The fundamental and most stable feature of Russian history was the slow rate of its development, with the economic backwardness, primitiveness of social forms and low level of culture resulting from it. Under pressure from richer Europe the Russian State swallowed up a far greater relative part of the people’s wealth than in the West, and thereby condemned the people to a twofold poverty. Such kind of country could be governed only by the method of Asiatic despotism. Agriculture was the basis of the whole development. In the process of economic development a new class, working class, appeared. However, the reservoir from which the Russian working class formed itself was not the craft-guild, but agriculture. Its base was not the city, but the country.

 

In Russia the proletariat did not arise gradually through the ages (as in England), but in leaps involving sharp changes of environment, and a sharp break with the past. It is just this fact – combined with the concentrated oppressions of tzarism – that made the Russian workers hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought.

 

These two circumstances, according to Trotsky, that is progressive working class and tzarism oppressions, were the exact causes of the Revolution. Thus, Trotsky states: “In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena … and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime.” (Trotsky, xvii)

 

But in distinction from the older bourgeois revolutions, the decisive force then was a new class formed on the basis of a concentrated industry, and armed with new organizations, new methods of struggle. Ruling Communist Party headed the proletariat.

 

At the first stage of the revolution the workers were covering the whole country with soviets (the organizations that played the role of governing bodies) including in them the soldiers and peasantry. In Trotsky’s opinion this gives the grounds to assert that Russian revolution was democratic in its base.

 

The facts and events of Revolution are described by Trotsky in full and particular account using solely own reminiscences and experience. The both volumes of the book present the picture of very short period stretch, February – October, 1917. Throughout the whole narration Trotsky does not make a single reference. The only source for this book was Trotsky memory. This prolific with details account of Revolution events occurring in Russia presented by one of its leaders bears a great significance for the history. In view of report limitations I will address only those events of Russian Revolution which I regard the most important.

 

To begin with, Trotsky notes that revolution that took place in Russia in 1917 was actually a series of overlapping revolutions occurring in rapid succession. First, early in 1917, the Liberal or Political Revolution of the middle classes and part of the intelligentsia attempted to create a constitutional order. A provisional government, self-selected by leading members of the old tsarist parliament, the Duma, tried to govern the country and guide the revolution along a moderate track while keeping Russia in the war against Germany. Social polarization and growing discontent with the war and the policies of the provisional government attracted many workers and soldiers to the Bolshevik party. The Workers’ Revolution of October 1917 led to the establishment of Soviet power and a government under Lenin. Among its first acts, the new government encouraged the growing peasant movement to seize the lands and eliminate the economic and social power of the old aristocracy. The Peasant Revolution of 1918 culminated in massive land seizures, the expropriation of the nobility, and the equalization of landholding. Finally, the multiple revolts of the non-Russian peoples of the empire – the Revolutions of the Nationalities – resulted in the establishment of new nation-states.
The final blow to the fragile structure of the empire came in the bloody test of strength from 1914–1918 with Imperial Germany when Russia’s technological and productive backwardness proved inadequate to stand up to its enemies, carry on the war, and supply its cities with fuel and food. Current situation could not last long and eventually it burst out with public protests. The 23rd of February, the day considered by the Bolsheviks as International Woman’s Day became the first day of Revolution. As Trotsky relates: “the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat -the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives” (102). The women decided to go on strike and marched to other factories shouting “bread.” By noon twenty-one factories and 50,000 workers had joined the strike. Bread shortages inflamed those in bread lines, and they joined the strikers. By the second day, 24th of February, one half the industrial workers of Petrograd were on strike. “The slogan “Bread!” is crowded out or obscured by louder slogans: “Down with autocracy!” “Down with the war!” (103) Cossacks refused to shoot down the workers. In the Duma the liberals now called for a government responsible to parliament. Once soldiers joined the workers’ rebellion, tsarist power collapsed in a few days.

Liberals in the Duma were fearful of the spontaneous rebelliousness of the masses. Pavel Milyukov, leader of the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets, Partiia Narodnoi Svobody), later admitted that they did not want revolution, and they had desperately struggled so that this would not happen. They formed their own government, while the workers created a Soviet (“Council”) of Workers’ Deputies. Instead of a single center of power in Russia, the February days ended with two rival centers – one holding formal power and representing the middle and upper classes, as well as liberal public opinion; the other holding real, physical power, commanding the soldiers and workers. The new political institutions of the “dual power” (dvoevlastie) reproduced the social polarization of prewar tsarist society. A new system of the government of a state signalized the cessation of the First Russian Revolution.

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However, these two forces that arrived to power were antagonistic. The collision between them was only the matter of time. Trotsky describes the event which actually was the last common action conducted by the supporters of those two antagonistic forces and could serve as the last example of the national unity. This event was burying the victims of the February revolution. Trotsky says: “Everybody went to the funeral: both those who had fought side by side with the victims, and those who had held them back from battle, very likely also those who killed them-and above all, those who had stood aside from the fighting. Along with workers, soldiers, he and the small city people here were students, ministers, ambassadors, the solid bourgeois, journalists, orators, leaders be of all the parties.” (332) However, nobody imagined that the next weeks would ruthlessly tear off the shell of national unity from the revolution. The menacing event was suddenly upon them. The stimulus was given by the foreign policy of the Provisional Government, i.e., the problem of war.

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The matter was that the Provisional Government wanted to carry war to a victorious end and acquire the imperial fruits of war (e.g., control over the Straits) promised by the Allies to the Tsar. But the Soviet demanded a “democratic peace” with no annexations or indemnities. Officially Provisional Government declared its intent to end the war as soon as possible. Nevertheless, as Trotsky recalls, later it turned out that the official position shielded the plans to carry on with the conclusive warfare. The society got to know about these plans and on April 21 the masses broke out with the surge of protests and demonstrations.

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This is how Trotsky describes what was happening: “that day was not in the least like a manifestation of national unity. Two worlds stood face to face. The patriotic columns called into the streets against the workers and soldiers by the Kadet Party consisted exclusively of the bourgeois layers of the population-officers’ officials, intelligentsia.” (347)

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When demonstrators surged into the streets to protest Foreign Minister Milyukov’s note on war aims, the government fell. A coalition government was formed with a number of Soviet representatives from moderate socialist parties. The Bolsheviks remained outside the government and championed the notion of Soviet power, a government made up only of representatives of the lower classes. It was the first clash between the two centers of power.

Through May and June workers became more discontent with rising prices and falling real wages. The initial cooperation of the factory owners dissipated, and workers blamed the owners for their worsening situation. Soldiers were tired of the war and turned against the government when it attempted to launch an offensive in the late spring. In early July radical workers and soldiers attempted a coup in Petrograd, but the Soviet, led by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, managed to put it down. Bolsheviks were arrested, and Lenin went into hiding. But this short-lived dip in Bolshevik support ended with the attempt by General Lavr Kornilov to seize power and reestablish discipline in the army. The question of power acquired its final form: “Kornilov or Lenin”. The revolution actually left no more room for the empire of the golden mean. The counter-revolution was saying to itself: now or never. However the troops deployed against Petrograd by Kornilov were defeated without a fight, capitulated without an encounter. Trotsky gives such comments to it: “What variant after that still remained unused, untried, untested? The variant of Bolshevism. Actually after the Kornilov attempt and its inglorious collapse, the masses stormily and decisively swung over to the Bolsheviks” (461).

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By early September Bolsheviks held majorities in both the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets, and Lenin urged his followers to seize power. On 25 October 1917 (7 November), the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, now led by Aleksandr Kerensky, and proclaimed a Soviet government.

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A spontaneous workers’movement, aided at key moments by the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, was the key agent in the February Revolution. The October Revolution was much more of a planned, military operation, initiated by the Bolshevik leadership, though widely supported in Petrograd by workers and soldiers. The broad alliance of social forces – workers, soldiers, some local middle-class elements in the towns, and a part of the peasantry – that had come together to support Soviet power in the fall of 1917 soon disintegrated as Russia withdrew from the war, soldiers left for home, and industrial erosion took its toll on an already-weakened working class.
State capitalism (1917–1918) briefly replaced legal private capitalism, only to give way to a system of nationalized economy later called “War Communism” (1918–1921). Within the new Soviet republic ordinary people, particularly workers, eventually became part of a new ruling class of bureaucrats, party officials, and military officers. Out of the chaos of the radical democracy that had begun to flourish in 1917, the Bolsheviks created a new and authoritarian state, which they considered to be “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

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Trotsky’s book presents the events of Revolution vividly and with excitement, as he himself was a part of this revolution. Unfortunately, the short report cannot convey the mood evoked by the book during the reading. This book can be fairly regarded as a unique manual on history for it helps to gain the understanding of the causes and sense of Russian Revolution and its implications for the history of Europe in the early 20th century. Having read that book I understood that the Russian Revolution had been the classic example for Marxists of a successful workers’ revolution. Almost immediately after this revolution there was a drift from a more democratic form of Soviet rule to the one-party dictatorship of 1918 and the civil war years had begun. Then international isolation followed resulting in collapse of the old economy. Unfortunately, Trotsky leaves this dramatic chapter of Russian history out of his consideration. Nevertheless this fact does not downgrade the significance of his work.

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Bibliography

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Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution. Transl. Max Eastman. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1957

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