The revolution in Russia was inevitable until 1917

October Revolution

Leonid Luks

To person

Dr. phil., born 1947; Professor for Central and Eastern European Contemporary History at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Central Institute for Central and Eastern European Studies, Ostenstrasse 27, 85072 Eichstätt.
Email: [email protected]

On August 21, 1991, the Russian Democrats took a kind of revenge for the debacle the Bolsheviks had caused them in October 1917.


Ninety years ago the Bolsheviks in Russia eliminated a system that Lenin had described a few months earlier in his April theses as "the most liberal in the world" [1]. In its place they established the first totalitarian regime of the modern age.

The failure of Russian democracy at that time is often attributed to the peculiarity of the Russian mentality or to a historical "special path" that is fundamentally different from the path taken by the West. In most epochs, Russian history is characterized by the omnipotence of the state and the impotence of society. The autonomy of the estates or the cities, which in the West represented a counterweight to the power center, has hardly developed in Russia. The Russian historian Pavel Miljukov says in this context: In the West, the estates have the state, in Russia, on the other hand, the state created the estates.

Can the collapse of the "first" Russian democracy be traced back to the fact that the society that liberated itself from the tsarist authoritarian state after the fall of the Romanov dynasty was unable to organize itself and perished from its political inexperience? All of this played an important role in 1917, but not an exclusive one. The failure of the system established after the February Revolution also had causes that went far beyond what is specifically Russian. In Russia, for example, the first confrontation between a democratic community and a totalitarian party took place, which unscrupulously exploited all the freedoms of democracy in order to destroy them. About five years later, the Italian democracy and 15 years later the Weimar democracy would fail because of similar challenges, in the midst of peace and not in the fourth year of the war, as was the case in Russia. The failure of the "first" Russian democracy anticipated the deep crisis of the democratic systems in Europe.

Was the defeat of the Russian Democrats inevitable? Are historical determinists, not least of all Marxist provenance, right when they describe the victory of the Bolsheviks as the only possible outcome of the Russian crisis? I would like to question this explanatory model, at least in part. For in 1917, despite the unscrupulousness and demagogic virtuosity of the Bolsheviks, the Russian democrats had political potential at their disposal, which, however, for whatever reason, did not make sufficient use of it. In the camp of the moderate socialists, who formed the backbone of the system established after the February Revolution, especially the Petrograd Soviet, there were politicians who recognized the essence of the Bolshevik danger at an early stage. One of the leaders of the Mensheviks, Irakli Cereteli, was of the opinion that the greatest danger threatening the Russian Revolution came not from the right, as the majority in the Soviet believed, but from the left: "The counterrevolution can only get through a single goal, that of the Bolsheviks. "[2] That sounded almost blasphemous to the ears of the moderate socialists. They viewed the Bolsheviks as an integral part of the "revolutionary-democratic" front. As a result, disarming the Bolsheviks was seen as a weakening of their own camp, as a betrayal of the revolution. Cereteli wrote in his memoirs: The non-Bolshevik majority of the Soviet had wanted no power in order not to be forced to take action against the Bolsheviks not only with words but also with deeds. [3]

Cereteli's theses, however, need to be corrected. In the course of 1917 there were certainly situations in which Russian democracy tried to defend itself against the left-wing extremist challenge, and with success - especially during an attempted coup in early July that ended in a debacle for the Bolsheviks. [4] The events showed that the determined actions of the young Russian democracy had a downright crippling effect on the extremists. Despite this devastating setback, why did the Bolsheviks come to power about four months later? The fact that the Bolsheviks tried to overthrow the existing order by force did not lead to their exclusion from the camp of so-called "revolutionary democracy". The representatives of the Soviet majority rejected too harsh a crackdown on the Bolsheviks. Since the Provisional Government relied on the support of the Soviet, its bourgeois ministers had to take into account the concerns of their socialist coalition partners.

This mildness of the democratic state towards its extreme opponents was interpreted by the Bolsheviks as weakness. Lenin later said the Bolsheviks made a number of mistakes in July 1917. Their opponents could have taken advantage of this in the fight against them: "Fortunately, our enemies at that time had neither the consistency nor the determination to act like this." [5] The miserable failure of General Kornilov's attempted coup (at the end of August) showed that the army was no longer suitable for fighting its own population. [6] Russian democracy did not need the help of left-wing extremists to successfully counter the danger from the right. Nevertheless, the moderate socialists' fear of the counter-revolution was so great that they grossly underestimated their own strengths. Not least because of this, they again gave arms to the Bolsheviks, who had been disarmed as a result of the failed July coup.

This was the most disastrous consequence of the Kornilov affair. After that, the Provisional Government and the moderate socialists lost political initiative. As if paralyzed, they watched the determined action of the Bolsheviks, who now masterfully demonstrated how to use democratic freedoms to eradicate democracy. The system of dual power established as a result of the February Revolution (the bourgeois Provisional Government and the Soviets) revealed its essence - it consisted in the destruction of the state's monopoly of violence, in the creation of two different military and administrative structures that paralyzed each other. This benefited the Bolsheviks. Only because of this they were able to conquer sole rule in Russia against the will of the most important political groups. [7]

One of the most precarious problems faced by the Bolshevik regime after the coup d'état of October 1917 was its inadequate legitimacy. But what ensured relative stability for the Bolshevik regime for about seventy years? The Bolsheviks' belief in their historical mission. They did not feel obliged to "fickle" majorities, but to history and its "only valid" Marxist interpretation. The forces that threatened to endanger this "mission", even if they were the "working masses" in whose name they ruled, they announced an irreconcilable fight. Nikita Khrushchev was the last Soviet ruler to defend this "creed" in an unshakable manner. His successors only imitated the belief in the "bright communist future". This erosion of belief undermined the regime's ideocratic legitimacy. A dangerous ideological vacuum was created. Only the return of the democratically legitimized institutions to the political stage could have helped Russia to overcome the legitimization crisis, that is, the return of institutions that the Bolsheviks so carelessly threw onto the "rubbish heap of history" (Trotsky) in October 1917 / January 1918 were thrown.

When Mikhail Gorbachev announced at the beginning of perestroika: "We need democracy like the air we breathe", he ushered in the end of Bolshevism. For the democratic principle, which the Bolsheviks had banned from their state structures, had to turn the communist system, which was programmed for complete control, off its hinges. [8] So it borders on a miracle that the party bureaucracy, which is used to rule, initially allowed the establishment of the first approaches for a civil society, albeit with violent protests. The communist state building received a crack that became deeper and deeper over time. Both structures - the ailing communist command system and the still extremely weak democratic institutions - were fed from completely different sources of legitimacy, and therefore they could not cooperate with one another. They needed a mediator, and this was Gorbachev, who had both the qualities of a reformer and an apparatchik. [9]

Every society that has not lost its instinct for self-preservation strives to eliminate the state of dual power - as it emerged in the course of perestroika - as quickly as possible. The jumble of legitimation not only makes effective reforms impossible, but also the functioning of the state mechanism as such. Thus developments in the USSR were inevitably heading for confrontation. From an arbitrator, Gorbachev has now turned into a buffer between the conflicting parties. The democrats were far more interested in the continued existence of this "buffer" than the dogmatists, because they felt hopelessly inferior to their opponents. They looked with envy at their Polish like-minded comrades who had succeeded in creating such a powerful organization as Solidarno? C '. The experience of all Eastern European countries has shown that only an anti-totalitarian mass movement is able to repel the attack of the dogmatists, said the political scientist Lilia Shevtsova at the end of March 1991. However, the Polish experience has shown that even such an organization does not represent an obstacle to the resolute and brutally acting communist apparatus. On December 13, 1981, a few hours were enough for the Polish military to crush Solidarno? C 'with its ten million members. The communists rarely paid attention to the "wavering masses" (Lenin).

On August 19, 1991, the Moscow putschists wanted to repeat the process of January 19, 1918 (smashing of the Russian constituent assembly with its democratic majority). However, they were no longer the pupils of Lenin or Stalin, but pupils of Brezhnev. The ideal they had in mind was not the rule of terror in the Leninist or Stalinist manner, but what they saw as the "golden" 1970s, that is, the time in which they could enjoy their privileges. Dealing without hesitation with mass terror against domestic political opponents and accepting millions of victims, on the other hand, presupposes an unshakable belief - in utopia as with Lenin or in oneself as with Stalin. The putschists of August 1991 had long since lost both. The communists now appeared as clumsy as their democratic adversaries did in 1917. Trotsky quotes in his "History of the Russian Revolution" the French author Claude Anet, who formulated that the Provisional Government had been overthrown "before it could say Uff '". [10] Something similar could be said about the State Committee for the State of Emergency, established on August 19, 1991, despite the fact that it controlled almost all power structures in the state.

When Boris Yeltsin - Russia's first democratically legitimized head of state - called on his compatriots to revolt against the putschists, he did so with empty hands. He had next to no means of power and only had moral arguments. In his Order No. 59 of August 20, 1991, he accused the members of the State Committee of having forged an "unconstitutional plot" and of having committed a "crime against the state". [11] This view of the coup was basically shared by the leaders of the coup. Unlike their predecessors in 1917, they felt themselves not as "winners" but as "losers of history". In the struggle between power and morality, the latter proved to be the superior winner. The victory of August 1991 was fundamentally different from that of October 1917. The Bolsheviks, unwilling to compromise with the adversaries they had defeated, built the first totalitarian regime of the modern age on the ruins of the "first" Russian democracy. The winners of August 1991, on the other hand, decided not to settle the losers in the Bolshevik manner.

The later murdered Democratic politician Galina Starowoitova considered it an unforgivable mistake of the Democrats that they had not used their victory in August 1991: At that time there was a unique opportunity to replace or radically renew the shocked apparatus of power. If the communists had triumphed, the politician continued, they would probably not have been so generous to their democratic opponents. Starovoitova represented a minority position in the democratic camp. The majority did not want to understand the events of August 1991 as a revolution, as they associated phenomena such as mass terror and dictatorship with this term.

The mildness of the Russian democrats towards the defeated in August 1991 is reminiscent of the attitude of the Weimar democrats towards the representatives of the defeated old regime. They recovered very quickly from the shock of the November defeat and returned to the political stage. The prerequisites for the dismantling of the democratic system established in 1918/19 were in place. In Russia, too, a kind of revenge is currently taking place for the groups that were partially disempowered in August 1991. Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy" symbolizes the country's transition from an open to an authoritarian society. However, despite this authoritarian turn, Russia is still connected through innumerable channels to the "open societies" of the West, and as long as these connections exist, a renewed democratic awakening in the country is by no means ruled out.