Today marks the 104th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. For those of you studying Russia at either GCSE or A Level you will be aware that this was the second revolution in less than a year. At the beginning of 1917, Russia was losing the war and the home-front was a chaos of starving workers and disgruntled politicians. The Tsar, seeing that he no longer had any meaningful authority, abdicated and a new Provisional Government was created to fill the void.
This government, led in the first instance by Prince Lvov and then later Alexander Kerensky, was hobbled by its inability to end Russia's involvement in the war and the power it had given to the Soviets (a type of worker's council that had sprung up across Russia). The intention was that the government was there purely to create the circumstances that would allow a proper democratic election to take place, the winners then forming a Constituent Assembly which would lead Russia. But they missed their moment, instead deciding to give the war one last big push which achieved nothing beyond emboldening the Bolsheviks who could see an opportunity developing.
This is the big picture story: the story of powerful forces creating decisive change. It is also a story of failure: a government who had an opportunity to reform Russia and botched it. We historians like to give big sweeping reasons for events, we like patterns and the smug application of hindsight. It is easy to forget what history is like when we actually live it. One way to develop a more human understanding of the past is to look to the people who made it. Biographies (not memoirs), interviews and letters can help us gain an understanding of how the world looked to the people who inhabited it.
For me, the most fascinating character of this period is Leon Trotsky, a journalist activist who somehow developed into an incredible military strategist, leading the Red Guard first to the successful take over of Petrograd and then to defeat the White Army in the Civil War that followed. He was an intriguing character: immensely talented but also unbearably self-satisfied in the flesh. He was enormously intelligent and yet somehow lacked the wit to play the necessary political games of the period. It was not altogether surprising that he ended up with an ice-pick in the back of his head.
But for all his flaws, for me, Trotsky was the heart of the revolution, despite his late arrival to the cause (he was unconvinced by Bolshevism at first and anyway not a natural follower). Lenin was the charismatic face and the brain of the takeover but it was Trotsky who built the army that would carry out his wishes. Without Trotsky it is questionable whether the Civil War would have been won, perhaps even whether the October Revolution would have been successful.
It is not uncommon for exam boards to ask questions about the reasons for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution and those big picture factors of war, failures of the Provisional Government and the increasing power of the Soviets are all immensely important and deserving of discussion. But spare a thought for the individuals who were there on the day, making decisions, risking their lives, getting things wrong, getting things right. Sometimes, the individual really does change history.
EYEWITNESS: 1917 The Russian Revolution as it Happened. Ed. Mikhail Zygar.
This is a fabulous collection of letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspapers from a wide variety of Russians (and others) who were witness to the revolution.
TROTSKY. Robert Service.
Service is the go-to historian for biographies of the significant figures of the revolution. This is a little dry in places but it is immensely detailed and creates a wonderfully rounded picture of this flawed genius.