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Russian Revolution 2: The October Revolution and the Civil War

Why did the Bolsheviks come to power? is obviously one of the fundamental questions of the revolution and is as old as the events themselves. Answers have often been highly politicised especially during the Cold War. At that time Bolshevik ruthlessness, the leadership of Lenin and the dictatorial underpinnings of the movement were emphasised (Pipes, Schapiro). Curiously, the Soviet view shared many of these characteristics though the language was different. The Bolsheviks were united and determined, Lenin’s leadership unquestioned and decisive. From the 1960s and 70s revisionists began to show the party was not as organised and disciplined as its supporters and opponents suggested. Instead, it had no blueprint for revolution and came to power as a result of contingent factors, not the mandate of history. (Mel’gunov, Daniels, Service et al.). The role of workers came into focus in the 70s and 80s (Smith, Rosenberg, Bonnell, Koenker et al), but it was only in the 90s and 00s that peasants were the object of serious study (Moon, Figes, Retish, Badcock) and the role of the ‘popular movement’ in the revolution was made central (Read). Since then, many local studies have appeared that almost to the point of deconstructing the central revolution (Hickey et al). The debate about how the Bolsheviks retained power and the impact of the Civil War has revolved around suggestions that the ‘democratic’ aspects of Bolshevism were squeezed out in favour of military centralisation born of necessity and were partially restored by Lenin in 1921, through the adoption of the New Economic Policy, only to be consigned to the dustbin of history by Stalin later in the decade (Fitzpatrick, Cohen). Other writers have pointed to a ‘second civil war’ between the Bolsheviks and the ‘popular movement’ as a more significant feature than the struggle against the White counterrevolutionaries, a process that culminated in March 1921 in the ruthless suppression of the Kronstadt sailors who had been a bedrock of Bolshevik power in 1917 (Getzler, Read).

Seminar Questions

  1. Why did the Bolsheviks come to power?
  2. How democratic was the October Revolution?
  3. Was there a second civil war?
  4. Was centralisation necessary after 1917?

Core Reading

Further Reading

  • Mawdsley, E The Russian Civil War (London, Sydney, Wellington, 1987)
  • Read, C From Tsar to Soviets: the Russian People and Their Revolution 1914-21 (UCL Press, London and Oxford University Press, New York, 1996) chs
  • Read, C War and Revolution in Russia 1914-22 (Palgrave, London and New York, 2013) Chs
  • Pipes, Richard Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-24 London 1994
  • Pipes, Richard The Russian Revolution London 1990
  • Schapiro, L. B. 1917: the Russian Revolutions and the Origin of Present-day Communism, London 1984
  • Schapiro, L. B. The Origins of the Communist autocracy: political opposition in the Soviet state: first phase, 1917--22, London 1955
  • Daniels, R. V . Red October: the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 London 1968
  • Smith, S. A. Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917--18, Cambridge 1983
  • Retish, Aaron B Russia's Peasants in Revolution and Civil War : Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922 Cambridge, New York 2008
  • Brovkin, V. N. Behind the front lines of the civil war: political parties and social movements in Russia, 1918--22 Princeton 1994
  • Brovkin, V. N. The Mensheviks after October: socialist opposition and the rise of the Bolshevik dictatorship Ithaca and London1987
  • Getzler, I. Kronstadt 1917--21: the Fate of a Soviet Democracy Cambridge 1983
  • Cohen, S article in Tucker, R (ed) Stalinism 1978