Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Bloodstained illusions

The Revolution of 1917: lessons, warnings, contexts
12 January, 2017 - 11:53

“You shall immediately, as soon as possible stop the riots in the capital.” This telegram, addressed by Emperor Nicholas II to the commander of the Petrograd Military District General Sergei Khabalov and dated February 26, 1917 (the victory of the revolution would become an undisputed fact as soon as the next day), is one of the most striking pieces of evidence for the blindness of the Russian Empire’s last “God-anointed ruler,” who even at the threshold of the complete collapse of his regime did not understand in the slightest what was actually happening... But it is characteristic of all the great revolutions: while standing at the threshold of mighty social upheavals, powerholders lose their sense of reality and are unable to give an honest answer, even to themselves, to the question of the causes, nature, and course of the terrible disasters which they unwillingly witness. When Louis XVI was informed that the rebellious people had taken the Bastille, he indignantly exclaimed: “It is a revolt, gentlemen!” The Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who stood beside the king, quietly replied: “No, it is a revolution, Your Majesty.”

Otto von Bismarck famously said once that every revolution was conceived and planned by romantics and executed by fanatics, but it was cynical scoundrels that benefited from it. The terrible experience of the 20th century, and primarily of the Russian and Ukrainian Revolutions of 1917, only confirms the soundness of this opinion. The “Iron Chancellor” observation may have to be somewhat clarified: a revolution is the product of an Idea (which has, of course, objective roots in society), which inevitably is an illusory and mirage-like one (but people in their millions feel that this idea is giving meaning to their lives, the whole of their existences, they become addicted to that idea, and it is worse than a drug addiction, and they do not see anymore that the illusory idea now has to be fed – with blood). The bloody Moloch of a hypnotic idea – this formula explains well enough the inner meaning of the revolutionary tragedy of 1917.

We now have a duty to fairly and impartially analyze the brutal lessons of that time’s revolutions in Ukraine and Russia (despite their extremely close interconnectedness, they still seem to be two different historical processes, each with its own specific features). It is not due to the approaching centennial, but rather because history has an insidious feature: it repeats, sometimes quite unexpectedly, and repeats not in external aspects, but in essential things. Indeed, what evidence can be more convincing and clearer than the revolutionary storm of 1917 for demonstrating a simple truth that seems to be completely incomprehensible for the elites, both then and now: when urgent and overdue transformations of a society (let us note that we are talking about an archaic, outdated, resource-depleted society here!) are put on the back burner time and again, decade after decade, or become an object of demagogic talk and cheap ranting, when the higher classes continuously talk about reform and do nothing of the sort, then it inevitably becomes a major social explosion. That was what happened in the Romanov empire in 1917, and the explosion (despite the praises which neo-monarchists and Russian chauvinists sing to the Tsarist regime) clearly showed the delayed modernization, backwardness and injustice afflicting that state entity, and especially its Ukrainian policy. It was these issues, and not “machinations of the enemies of Russia” or “the German money,” that determined the course of events.

What is most striking when one thinks about warnings offered by the two great revolutions? Their initial stage was full of the intoxicating joy experienced by “the victorious people,” who still seemed to be one indivisible whole (it was that way in late February and early March 1917, Old Style), confidence that “the despotic Tsarist regime has fallen for good and will never again be restored” (in Ukraine, there was initial confidence that our people would now have every opportunity to gain national freedom, not separating from “the already emerging free federation of Russia”; this was yet another illusion, and commitment to it cost our people hundreds of thousands of lives). Then the situation changed, the “revolutionary spring” ended (in Ukraine, this spring had as its symbol the creation of the Central Rada, headed by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who had just returned to Kyiv), the release of political prisoners, including the Bolsheviks, with Joseph Stalin among them, gradually ceased to be the focus of the revolutionary public’s attention. Instead, an encounter with the harsh reality was increasingly making itself felt (an economic collapse, catastrophic military defeats – in a world war, no less! – which the unfortunately named Provisional Government did not know how to deal with: a victory was clearly unattainable, the frontline army was gradually falling apart, but an exit from the war was equally impossible: Russia had commitments to its allies). Add to this the chronic – and fatal – unresolved state of the agrarian question, which was of critical importance for Ukraine and Russia alike. Now, one can get an idea of the quantity of the “explosive material” which had been accumulated in the post-revolutionary months of 1917. And this happened even as the fundamental state and legal structure of the former (and freshly fallen) empire remained an unresolved issue, and so did political self-determination of its peoples, including the Ukrainians.

There was a veritable Mont Blanc of most dangerous problems... Amid it all, Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia, published his April Theses and indicated what an angry and frustrated people took for the “easiest” way out of the situation that had already started to critically deteriorate due to the new government’s obvious failure to make good on its promises. In fact, it was an essentially counter-revolutionary plan, albeit one carefully camouflaged with red flags, promoted by politicians who would, as soon as October 1917, take away the people’s political freedoms and the land they promised (remember that famous “Decree on Land”?), and instead of declared peace, do everything to deliberately foment civil war and unleash “hybrid interventions” in the lands colonized by the former empire (the most striking case of it occurred in Ukraine which was little prepared for this, as it clung to illusions of the “socialist nature” of the Bolshevik regime, particularly popular in the Central Rada).

From that very point, that is, Lenin’s return to revolutionary Petrograd on April 3, 1917, the events became eerily resembling a runaway nuclear reaction that quickly goes totally out of control. Moreover, the Bolshevik leader, being a truly brilliant tactician (not to use the word “populist,” currently overused by domestic and foreign pro-government experts), was intentionally betting on extreme and rapid radicalization of society. It, and only it, would enable him to realize his political plans. Lenin’s tactical genius (he was no strategist, following a simple principle: to join the battle, and then look how it develops and act on it) lay in the fact that he knew better than anyone what exactly the masses (a favorite word of his!) wanted to hear as they were steadily radicalizing since they were feeling that the revolution had failed to deliver on its promises, giving them neither land, nor bread, nor peace, but only freedom (Lenin admitted that Russia was the world’s freest country from February to October 1917...) – but what use was freedom without peace, bread and land? Moreover, Lenin put forward a concept of the “commune state,” which was popular with the masses since it supposedly guaranteed liberation from exploitation, true freedom and interethnic justice (and in Ukraine as well, despite the historical fact of the Bolshevik “hybrid aggression,” native supporters of the “commune state” appeared, which had disastrous consequences). In addition, the Bolsheviks had a ready-made tool with which to seize power, I mean the Soviets, and Lenin accurately calculated that control of them was the key to victory. He did gain that control. Afterwards, he just dispersed the Constituent Assembly, despite previously claiming to “respect” that body. Lenin, like other totalitarian leaders of the 20th century who came after him, hated parliamentarianism and liberalism with a passion.

The Bolsheviks’ Russian opponents were the Provisional Government of Prince Georgy Lvov and Alexander Kerensky as well as the politically shortsighted and disorganized Russian democratic movement, which was to blame for everything that happened just as much as Lenin. The Bolsheviks’ Ukrainian opponents in 1917 were members of the divided and unconsolidated Ukrainian national democratic movement (the two just-mentioned shortcomings largely determined the subsequent fate of our revolution) that constantly maneuvered between, so to speak, two flanks, represented by Mykola Mikhnovsky and Georgy Pyatakov, and moreover, between nationalism and democracy (a very familiar choice for us now!), with the end result which we know only too well... The situation did not change even when the enormous prestige of the great Ukrainian historian Hrushevsky came into play, who, citing the terrible examples from the past, tirelessly called on the elites of the time to unite and cease engaging in the destructive strife.

The counterrevolutionary U-turn of October 1917, which erased all previously won freedoms (can one use the somewhat clumsy term “counter-revolutionary revolution” here? It definitely was more than a “coup”), was indeed one of the greatest events of the 20th century, and Soviet propaganda was right in that respect. A nation was born which had no precedent in the world history, as it was led by “a Yemelyan Pugachev with a university diploma and the title of hereditary nobleman” (this characterization of Lenin comes from Mark Aldanov, a brilliant historical novelist and our Kyiv-born countryman), who was logically succeeded at its helm by “the Kremlin mountaineer.” An experiment of building a “bright future” started which was conducted on an unprecedented scale and was exciting and terrifying at once; it deeply influenced the fate of the entire humankind, primarily by delivering a stern warning to it. Are these warnings remembered by those in Ukraine who exercise state power on behalf of the public and only temporarily (!), until a new election is held? It is about more than the ominous figure “17” in this year’s number. We are dealing with vitally important things here. That is why the theme “1917-2017: Warnings. Parallels. Lessons” will be one a major one for Den/The Day this year. We call on our contributors, readers, and experts to make their opinions known!