The Calamity of 1917

tags: Russia, 1917 Revolution

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a regular contributor to Commentary, and the author, most recently, of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present Day(Liveright, 2013).

One hundred years ago Wednesday—on March 15, 1917—one of the most momentous events of the 20th century occurred: Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, thus ending 300 years of Romanov rule of Russia and setting the stage, later the year, for the Bolshevik takeover. Once Lenin was in power, Russia was hurtling on the trajectory toward the Stalinist terror and mass famine, World War II, and the Cold War. Russia is today on a path toward a post-Soviet future dominated by a former KGB officer who seems to be plotting to reassemble the Russian Empire the Bolsheviks temporarily tore down before rebuilding and expanding it.

It is superficially contradictory that Vladimir Putin, who in 2015 sponsored over-the-top festivities to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, is ignoring the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolutions (the “February Revolution” that toppled the Tsar and the “October Revolution” that brought Lenin to power). Those revolutions remain too contentious to suggest a simple storyline of the kind that Putin favors. He is now ruling as a de facto tsar with the same support structures enjoyed by the Romanovs.

The Romanovs are, however, hardly figures Putin can extol. The last of them was, after all, overthrown and executed along with his family. Nor does he want to embrace Lenin as his role model, because of the divisive legacy of communism in Russia. In truth, as the New York Times noted, Putin isn’t really comfortable with the whole idea of revolutions, since he lives in constant dread of an uprising such as those that have occurred in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine (both countries that he has, not coincidentally, invaded).

But even if there is no official commemoration of 1917, how should the rest of the world think about those events? Australian economist John Quiggin was onto something with this New York Times op-ed suggesting that the events of 100 years ago represented one of the great “What if?” moments in modern history. For the overthrow of Nicholas II did not lead directly to communist tyranny. It led, instead, to a brief flowering of constitutional rule, with political and press freedom allowed for the first time in Russian history—and for the last time until a brief revival of democracy in the 1990s between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin’s strongman rule.

Power passed from Nicholas’s royal hands first to Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal aristocrat, and then to the lawyer Alexander Kerensky, a slightly more left-wing but still democratic leader who had previously served as minister of war and justice. Quiggin argued that Kerensky missed his chance by refusing to sue for peace with Germany on any terms. Instead, he continued an increasingly unpopular war that Russia was losing. This led the German high command to undertake a desperate gambit with far-reaching historical consequences: As Winston Churchill later wrote, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.” He figured that this radical rabble-rouser would undermine Russia’s war effort. As it turns out, they were correct. The war-weariness of the Russian people ultimately gave Lenin his chance to seize power, forcing Kerensky into exile and ending Russia’s brief experiment with parliamentary rule. ...

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