Elena Ponomareva, Doctor of Political Sciences (Ph. D.); Professor, MGIMO-University; President, International Institute for the Development of Scientific Cooperation
In the Annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin placed special emphasis on the idea that the anniversary of the February Revolution and the October Revolution is “a good moment for looking back on the causes and nature of these revolutions in Russia. Not just historians and scholars should do this; Russian society in general needs an objective, honest and deep-reaching analysis of these events”.
Indeed, history is a great teacher giving us a variety of cases and making us draw numerous lessons. However, we need to learn from our experience and apply our knowledge to specific circumstances and particular landscape for these lessons to be more than just a tribute to the memory of the events. We must learn from our historical, political, and social errors and contribute to the state’s development.
The available data is the crystal clear evidence that the February Revolution and the October Revolution are rooted in a complex mix of internal and external factors. It should be particularly emphasized that problems leading to a coup or a revolution are not exclusively domestic ones. Still, Alexander Gorchakov, an outstanding diplomat and Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, who studied the French revolutions which broke out in 1789, in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871, quite rightly noted that “unless the government has made an error, a revolution will not break out; the government is to blame for every revolution.” Therefore, let us consider the contemporary internal political situation in the Russian Empire.
The year of 1917 became a turning point in the period of Russian history which started with the 1861 Emancipation Reform abolishing serfdom. Being the most important of the “Great Reforms,” it, however, laid foundation for future social upheavals. The emancipation of serfs, in fact, impoverished them. The reform took 20% of land away from serfs, and the size of land allotment almost halved shrinking by 43 to 50% (5.24 hectares per person earlier against 2.84 after the reform). Meanwhile, those people had trouble assimilating in a city and numerous serfs were on the edge of survival. In retrospect, it can be justifiably stated that the events of 1917 were the direct continuation of the events of 1905 and completed the earlier processes.
Secondly, the integration of the largely agrarian Russia into the world capitalist system, which started in the 1850s, adversely affected most of the population. The country experienced two opposite trends. On the one hand, foreign investment allowed introducing new technologies and constructing plants, factories, and roads, foreigners owning 90% of Russian mines, 50% of chemical enterprises, 40% of iron and factories and machine-building plants, and 30% of textile factories. On the other hand, the rising export of the resources, including capital, which were needed to support economic development, stood in the way of the emerging Russian bourgeoisie. To put it differently, foreign capital was both an engine and a brake on domestic savings, and the country was gradually giving up its financial and resource independence. As a result, industrialization went through the initial stage up till the outbreak of World War I. The industry earned the budget 6 bln. rubles while the agriculture remained the major source of national wealth with 24 billion rubles and accounted for 75-80% of the national income. Meanwhile, 70% of the population worked in agriculture, and the rural population constituted 87% of the total.
Thirdly, the revolutionary upheavals were provoked by the regime’s growing dependence on foreign loans. Russia accounted for $ 1,998 million, or 31.2%, of the total external debt which was accumulated by all countries and amounted to $6,317 mln by early 1914. However, the state remained the largest landowner, factory-owner, wholesale merchant, creditor, and so on. Naturally, capital-owners strongly opposed the situation, which fueled tension between wealthy capitalists and the state. The big bourgeoisie mainly aimed to reduce the role of the state in the economy and limit it to the extreme, and, ideally, to transform capital into power.
The fourth reason translating into large-scale demonstrations across the country was a logical extension of the above mentioned causes. On the one hand, political disgruntlement was provoked by the difficult socio-economic situation aggravated by the war. On the other hand, popular resentment was fueled by wealthy capitalists actively backing workers’ councils and establishing an extensive network of organizations. Since 1916 prices had risen four- or fivefold, and Russia saw the four-time increase in cash, with gold, in fact, withdrawn from circulation. Strike movements, unrest in villages, and rebellions on the periphery were exhausting and destabilizing the state.
Weaker government enjoying little popular support constituted a fifth, and perhaps most important, cause of the February Revolution, with the enrichment of the few accompanied by the impoverishment of the many. Specifically, Carl Fabergé received an unprecedentedly high number of orders in the crisis year of 1916.
Thus, the paralysis of the state, mostly of the national security agencies, was gripping the country. Already at war, Russia was hit by a systemic crisis, resulting in the elite’s inability to perform its basic functions, infrastructure disruptions, and ultimately overt sabotage.
As such, the revolution did not break out until the Tsar’s abdication, specifically until Nicholas II left his people and army to their own devices. Until then, the events can be referred to as a plot or a rebellion, quite reversible phenomena. However, the Emperor’s abdication unleashed irreversible – and at the same time most radical – processes, with the February Revolution followed by the October Revolution.
Finally, one should again point out that the internal factors of the February Revolution emerged full blown in the context of the world political game. The February Revolution came to be of crucial importance in the struggle for European and global primacy waged by Great Britain and its closed allied groups. Specifically, the fight was aimed at erasing Russia from the geopolitical map and reducing the country to a resource appendage, which at that time was impossible to accomplish without the deposition of Nicholas II. At the Tsar’s abdication, Lloyd George actually said in Parliament that through it ‘Britain has achieved one of its major war aims’, which testifies to the British trail.
Last but not least, the February events have a special meaning amid more frequent coups, more broadly known as “color revolutions”. Current seizures of power fit into the structural pattern of the 1917 February Revolution, as they tend to capitalize on popular discontent to cause political destabilization and breed opposition, but at least legitimate, groups. Technological innovations are shaped by globalization. While the anti-monarchy propaganda campaign was waged through newspapers and leaflets, today’s new network mass media serve a function of the press, revolutionary clubs, and strike committees. At the same time, the “Februarists” and contemporary “revolutionaries” share similar tasks and objectives, namely the overthrow of the regime. Moreover, the February events and putsches have another important aspect in common, particularly their essential requirement to neutralize, even physically, the political leader. His or her deposition (or assassination) presages chaos, civil wars, and economic and political devastation, rather than the triumph of freedom and law.