Between Populace and Elite: Challenging Traditional Views of Revolutionary Russia

by Beth Pennyfather

Typically, accounts of the 1917 Revolution depict a very class conscious image of Russia, reflecting the influence of Leninist concepts of revolution. However, this was not the case among the proletariat, for whom the revolution was less explicitly ideologically motivated. Rooted in issues such as inflation, general living conditions and food shortages, the Revolution was not the class conscious conspiracy it is often deemed to be.

redsqlenintrotsky
Lenin giving a speech to troops on May 5 1920, with Trotsky in the foreground.

For the majority of the Russian populace in 1917 the revolution was an expression of its frustration and helplessness regarding its social conditions, rather than a collective uprising consciously aiming to ‘overthrow the capitalist slave system’.[1] This ideological, class-based view is, however, the one that has long dictated historiography and our common understanding of events.

The ideological language associated with the Revolution, such as ‘Marxism’ and ‘Bolshevism’, would largely have been confined to those at the top of Russian society. Those belonging to the proletariat – who formed the majority of the population – lived very traditional lives, with the monarchy being the only system they understood and needed to know. They had little political freedom under the Tsar, thus meaning they did not necessarily readily understand the political language elites were using, when this political vacuum did

800px-%d0%b4%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%be%d1%81%d1%82%d1%80%d0%b0%d1%86%d0%b8%d1%8f_%d1%80%d0%b0%d0%b1%d0%be%d1%82%d0%bd%d0%b8%d1%86_%d0%bf%d1%83%d1%82%d0%b8%d0%bb%d0%be%d0%b2%d1%81%d0%ba%d0%be%d0%b3%d0%be_
Demonstration of Putilov women workers on the first day of the February Revolution of 1917

emerge. Accounts of individuals demanding the Tsar to be the head of the new democratic state exemplify this.[2] The proletariat was detached from elite, class-based rhetoric and although its actions were an expression of its anger towards a bourgeois society, peasants were not necessarily consciously aware of this. For the peasantry this expressed itself in alternative forms, such as attacking the landowning elite and participating in the seizure of land.[3]

We must also remain aware that membership to a certain class does not necessarily make you conscious of the identity it holds, individually or collectively. This is not to discredit the proletariat, presenting it as an uneducated section of society, but we are now viewing the events of 1917 in a very politicised world, so we must remain conscious of this and how it effects our understanding of events.

2nd_moscow_women_death_corp_defending_winter_palace-_st-petersburg_november_1917
Women’s Battalion of Death defending the Winter Palace, November 1917.

This sharp difference between the elite and the proletariat perspective of the Revolution is only exacerbated by academics. The nature of history means there is a tendency to compartmentalise and order vast amounts of information, which thus enforces this top down, structured view of events. Having such rigid categories over-simplifies the complex nature of an individual’s identity. We see this with studies dealing with particular groups, such as the army, the intelligentsia, or working classes, whereby all individuals are rigidly categorised according to one social group, whether they are an industrial worker, peasant or sailor. Such literature builds a direct association between class, or social identity, and the Revolution.

It would also be a mistake to differentiate between two separate revolutions in 1917, one that overthrows the Tsar (the February Revolution), and one which crushes the provisional government (the October Revolution). Whilst many amongst the elites in Russian society may have also acknowledged a distinction, the workers and peasants living in its midst might have viewed it as a longer revolutionary period. Therefore there are two very

meeting_at_the_blagovescenskaya_square
Meeting at Blagovescenskaia Square, 1917

different views and experiences of revolutionary Russia – that of the more traditional and Leninist influenced view, and that of the lived experience of ordinary citizens. The latter must be brought more clearly into focus.

As Figes and Kolonitski suggest, the proletariat did not rise as one unified force in the way we, as historians, often suggest.[4] We need to be aware of individual experiences, and complex social identities, not just those of elite groups, as this ‘top-down’ narrative completely contradicts the purpose of the Revolution. To more accurately capture the spirit of 1917, we must challenge this traditional perspective, and form a narrative where the experience of the population is better represented.

Beth Pennyfather is a second year History and Politics undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She is interested primarily in political aspects of modern history, which sparked her interest in the political language of writing the Russian Revolution.

References:

[1] V.I.Lenin, Letters From Afar: The First Stage of the First Revolution (1917).

[2] B. Koloantskii, ‘Democracy in the Political Consciousness of the February Revolution’, Slavic Review, 57:1 (Spring, 1998) pp. 95-106.

[3] S. Badcock, ”We’re for the Muzhik’s Party!’ Peasant Support for the Socialist Revolutionary Party during 1917′, Europe-Asia Studies, 53:1, (January, 2001), pp. 133-149.

[4] A. Figes and B. Kolonatskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (London, 1999), p.105.

 

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By English: Goldshtein G. Русский: Гольдштейн Г. Deutsch: Grigori Petrowitsch Goldstein (1870-1941) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 3: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 4: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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