It has become customary to date the true beginning of the twentieth century not from 1900 but rather from two events: the First World War and the Russian Revolution. While scholars have long recognized the interrelationship between these two seminal episodes, few studies have analyzed their interaction. This oversight resulted in part from the revolution’s own image of itself. For seventy years, the Communist Party and the Soviet state insisted that the October Revolution marked a radical break in the history of humankind. October’s opponents inverted the Communist signifiers from positive to negative but ironically retained the underlying structuring chronology.l Communism’s advocates and foes alike dated their narratives from 1917.
There were good reasons to do so. One of the essential features of the revolutions in both February and October 1917 was the belief among their participants that they were making - and experiencing - a radical break with the past, that they were bringing about a new order. In the course of 1917, people across the political spectrum shared a belief that revolutionary politics could transform society and each individual in it. This narrative of the revolution as a foundation event elevated the Bolsheviks and their revolution above the historical context that had produced both the revolution and the Soviet state. In this way, the Russian Revolution became uncoupled from the wartime crisis out of which it had emerged. Only in Russia did a self-proclaimed revolutionary, Marxist regime emerge at the other end of the crisis that marked the end of the Great War throughout central and eastern Europe. This gulf in outcomes had the effect of drawing a line between Russia and the rest of Europe.
Contemporaries and subsequent analysts telescoped Russia’s path through the common European deluge (1914-1921) into its period of revolution. As a result, Russia has largely fallen out of the general story of the Great War and twentieth-century European history. Yet reinserting the Russian experience is crucial for understanding the First World War in general. Russia’s 1917 revolutions exerted a reciprocal impact upon the European wartime ecosystem. The Russian Revolution served as a major precipitant for the wartime “remobilization” after 1917 that took place across Europe. It had an equally great impact upon the politics of war aims and peace making.
Some contemporaries underscored this linkage between war and revolution. In November 1919, in the middle of the Russian civil wars, Peter Struve - one of Russia’s preeminent political figures, who had traveled the path from legal Marxism to opposing the Bolsheviks - delivered a lecture in Rostov-on-Don, one capital of the anti-Bolshevik struggle. Struve proclaimed that “the world war formally ended with the conclusion of the armistice... In fact, however, everything from that point onward that we have experienced, and continue to experience, is a continuation and transformation of the world war”. Struve’s observation suggests that rather than distinguishing between a period of war (1914-1917) and one of revolution and civil wars (1917-1921), one might instead speak of a broader 1914-1921 cataclysm, with 1917 serving as its fulcrum.
Reinserting Russia’s revolution within the war makes it a European, rather than a solely Russian, story. The Soviet state crystallized at a particular moment, amid the more generalized 1914-1921 European crisis. Historical studies have not overlooked the linkage between the First World War and the Russian Revolution. In its most common formulation, however, the relationship between the two is reduced to a question of whether the war served as a causal trigger, a catalyst, for revolution. This approach focuses more on the viability of imperial Russia before the war than on the ways in which Russia changed during the course of the war. Studies devoted to Russia’s participation in the war demonstrate that profound changes were taking place during these years. These works convincingly show how the war caused the fall of the old regime, but they are less interested in examining how the war shaped the emergence of the new regime. Hence they rarely carry their analyses from the war years into 1917 and beyond. Similarly, there are excellent studies of how the Soviet state consolidated its power, but these commonly date developments from October 1917 and do not seek the pre-October (and especially pre-1917) roots of many revolutionary practices.
The war and revolution, as Struve suggests, were not two discrete events but rather points along a common continuum. Analyzing the revolutionary period as a process rather than as an event radically recasts its points of reference. As with the French Revolution, the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution shaped the conceptual terrain and institutional framework in which the revolution unfolded. Yet unlike Old Regime France, Russia in the years immediately preceding the revolution experienced not only administrative reform but also wartime mobilization. With the revolution occurring amid wartime mobilization, there developed a reciprocal relationship between total war and revolution. In particular, Russia’s political class harnessed tools of wartime mobilization for its political projects. Whereas other European societies and governments incorporated wartime practices of total mobilization, they could dispense with them or subordinate them to an existing order. In revolutionary Russia, these institutions and practices instead became the building blocks of the new state and socioeconomic order.
Note on Usage
Russia at War
"Radiant Days of Freedom"
Persuasion and Force
Toward Civil War
Forging a Social Movement
"We Will Have to Exterminate the Cossacks"
The Revolution as Orthodoxy
Conclusion: The Emergence of the Soviet State
Note on Sources
Harvard University Press, published the 17th of December, 2002
On the Net ( french articles ) :
— Benjamin Guichard, « Compte rendu de Peter Holquist, Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis..., 2002 », Le Mouvement Social, n° 218 (janvier-mars 2007), p. 99-102 ;
— Nathalie Moine, « Peter Holquist, Making war, forging revolution », Cahiers du monde russe, 44/4 | 2003, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 19 juin 2009 ;