The “February Revolution” is so-called because Russia at the time was on the Julian (Old Style (O.S.)) calendar. By the Gregorian (New Style (N.S.)) calendar, which Russia adopted in February 1918, these events take place in March 1917. And momentous events they were, leading to the abdication of the last Tsar, the end of a monarchy and an entire system of power and authority that dated back more than 350 years. For eight months in 1917, Russia struggled to extend the constitutionalist reforms that had begun under the Tsardom within a more liberal framework. The liberals never did gain the upper hand over the radicals, not even after the September 1917 de facto return to autocracy. In November 1917, a coup by the most extreme Leftist faction, the Bolsheviks, terminated the experiment, burying for seven decades even the aspirations in Russia for liberalism and democracy. Continue reading
In the early historiography of the Great War, it was accepted that Germany was chiefly responsible, with debates on the margins about the degree of intentionality and premeditation. Of late, however, “It has become fashionable to spread the guilt of the First World War liberally around Europe”, as one prominent historian noted. Some revisionists go even further and try to find another state that is not only equally as culpable as Germany but more so. In this post, I want to, without in any way pretending to be comprehensive, deal with the argument that blames Russia for the 1914-18 War. Continue reading
Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant holy man, was a presence at the Russian Court between 1908 and his murder in 1916. Even so, Rasputin would only have been one figure among many and not be so notable in history, except for the fact that he gained significant political influence in his last couple of years due to his friendship with the Tsar’s wife. The degree of influence Rasputin exerted and the stories of his debauched behaviour have often been wildly exaggerated—at the time and since. But the stories did have a basis in fact—the Tsarina had fused together her personal forays in mysticism with her political role—and the stories themselves, lurid and defamatory as many of them were, had a concrete effect in damaging the monarchy as Revolution loomed. Continue reading
The final key event on the road to the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in November 1917 was the “Kornilov Affair” that took place about two months earlier. Alexander Kerensky had become Prime Minister of the Provisional Government in July 1917 and around the same time General Lavr Kornilov had become Commander-in-Chief. A lot of accounts portray the “Kornilov Affair” as a “reactionary” coup attempt by Kornilov against Kerensky. The reality is very nearly the exact opposite. As historian Robert Pipes summarises: “All the available evidence, rather, points to a ‘Kerensky plot’ engineered to discredit the general as the ringleader of an imaginary but widely anticipated counterrevolution, the suppression of which would elevate the Prime Minister to a position of unrivaled popularity and power, enabling him to meet the growing threat from the Bolsheviks.” Continue reading
Charles Ruud’s and Sergei Stepanov’s Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police traces the evolution of political policing in Russia, focusing on the Okhranka, the final incarnation of the secret police before the Russian Revolution in 1917, and along the way puts paid to a whole array of myths about the pre-Bolshevik Russian government, especially as regards the Jewish Question.
The growth of the Russian political police occurred in four major stages. The first phase lasted from the founding of the Russian State by Ivan the Terrible (1533-84) after the expulsion of the Tatars to the opening of the “Third Section” in 1826 as a reaction to the Decembrist revolt the previous year—the first time the Imperial State security services were housed at Fontanka 16 in St. Petersburg—which intended to (and succeeded in, as 1848 would demonstrate) extirpate the liberal spirit that challenged the autocracy. The third phase saw the Third Section become the Department of Police at the onset of a crackdown after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, who had enacted broad liberal reforms on censorship and serfdom. The elite secret police force grew out of the palace guard, becoming known as the Okhranka (though this is more usually rendered in English as Okhrana). The final phase began in 1906, after the 1905 revolution, when the Okhranka worked to stop a liberal-radical coalition building. Continue reading