Legacy of Revolutions

Doran Doeh

A talk by Doran Doeh at ‘English Language Evenings’ (ELE), in Moscow, December 2017.

“I am going to talk tonight about revolutions from a slightly unconventional angle.

“Let me explain by way of background that, when John Harrison asked me a few months ago whether I could think of a topic for a lecture that I could give – because he had to submit his list for the season – I remembered a course I did when I was a student in 1968. That’s nearly 50 years ago, at my old college in New Hampshire, Dartmouth College. We had a visiting professor called Crane Brinton, who was the Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University. He was famous for a book called: ‘The Anatomy of Revolutions’ which showed how revolutions develop and progress, by comparing the English, American, French and Russian revolutions. He described the process as analogous to that of a fever which starts innocuously, becomes more and more violent as it takes hold over time until it reaches a crisis and then abates. He taught a seminar for a term at Dartmouth for senior students, and I was one of them.

“Let me also explain to start with that many people are not aware that there was an ‘English Revolution’ as such. People familiar with the general outline of English history tend to think of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, but that wasn’t a revolution like the others we are focusing on here today. The revolution like the other ones is now normally called the English Civil War. So there was indeed an English Revolution and it preceded the other ones by quite a long time, and that maybe is one reason that England is so politically evolved.

“I am going to limit what I say about the Russian Revolution because I think most people in the audience know more about it than I do. But my main point is to show the pattern present in all of these events. There have of course been many other revolutions, but these four are some of the greatest historical events in western history and indeed in world history. I will keep my talk brief and selective because otherwise we will be here for months.

“When people talk about revolutions they usually only talk about a small part of the overall process. For example, during the Egyptian revolution a few years ago, I had friends in Cairo who said: ‘We got rid of Mubarak’, they were so happy and proud of themselves, and they didn’t think about what was going to happen afterwards. But I did, and one of the things I will be talking about is what happens to society after revolutions. I will also mention which part of each revolution becomes legacy, and part of the next one. It is possible to see that they are not just unrelated events, they build on one another.

The English Revolution

An example of the Cavalier style can be seen in the painting “Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles” by Anthony van Dyck

“This wasn’t one single event, it went on for a number of years and was a series of armed conflicts between parliamentarians and people who supported the King. The parliamentarians were nicknamed; ‘The Roundheads,’ and those who supported the King, the ‘Cavaliers.’ It’s also called ‘The War of the Three Kingdoms’ because it took place not just in England, but in England, Scotland and Ireland, which were independent countries at that time. Although the wars focussed on the manner in which the British Isles were governed, they were also an extension of the conflicts over religion which had started in the previous century under the Tudor monarchs. The Tudors were succeeded by the Stuarts in 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth. James the VI of Scotland, who was related to her, became James I of England, and he was succeeded by his son Charles I.

“By becoming King of England, James also became King of Ireland. We also should bear in mind that during the same period of the first half of the 17th century the wars of religion were taking place in continental Europe, particularly in Germany where we had the 30 Year War, 1618-1648. The accounts of the percentage of population of Germany killed in that war varies but it was anything from 10% to 30%.

A Roundhead by John Pettie

“We in practice need to travel back in time, as if in a time machine, but that is not easy. People can remember what has happened in their own lifetimes, and many are aware of what happened in their parents and grandparents’ lifetimes. Most of you here will have or had grandparents who could have told you about the Russian revolution, but there is nobody around today who could tell you from personal experience what it was like to live during the French Revolution. The period of the 1640s and 1650s was really a very long time ago and the sense of what life was about then was different. Religion was certainly a very important part of many people sense of identity and purpose of life and the differences were very important to them. You had the Puritans versus the Church of England, Presbyterians versus Episcopalians in Scotland. The Presbyterians believed that everybody was equal, the Episcopalians believed in a hierarchy in the Church. The whole position of the Catholics in all three countries was a difficult one, particularly in Ireland, where Catholics were a high proportion of the population. Protestants had been moved in, a bit like Russians were moved in to various parts of the Soviet Union during the Soviet period.

“Another important feature strangely recurrent in these revolutions, apart from the American one, is the presence of a foreign Queen. There was a foreign Queen, Henrietta Maria of France who was married to Charles I and there was a huge amount of distrust of her.

There was always a fear amongst the Protestants that the Catholics would be brought back. It is a bit like the fear amongst the Brexiteers that the Remainers will somehow lead the UK back into the EU.


Henrietta Maria of France was queen consort of England, Scotland, and Ireland as the wife of King Charles I

“There was an issue of money which of course is a recurring theme in other revolutions. In England it all started with that. The Stuarts had been Kings of England as well as Scotland since the start of the century. James was actually fairly peace loving, Charles less so. He needed to raise money for war in particularly in Scotland where he faced issues on the religious front with the Presbyterians. It was very difficult for the King to raise large amounts of money in England – which then as now had a much larger economy and population of taxpayers – without the cooperation of parliament. The English Parliament had been developing its own power base, quietly, for many centuries, going back to the 1200s and people by then had come to accept the legitimacy of what Parliament voted for.

“Because the King needed money and parliament was the best vehicle for raising finance, in 1640 writs were issued to form a parliament, which sat for 8 years (the ‘Long Parliament’). The first civil wars were between Charles and parliament. Basically, Charles was affronted by all of these Parliamentarians having a go at him in London, the capitol, and he decided to move off into the country with his court, so the people in London started raising armies. It took a while before they could gather a big army, but when they did, it was impressive. This was Oliver Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’. Cromwell became the leader of the Protestant faction, and eventually became a dictator. What happened after the King was executed, was that you had a dictatorship in the form of what they called ‘The Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland’ (1649-1653, 1659-1660) with Oliver Cromwell as the ‘Lord Protector.’

The Banqueting House, Whitehall, where Charles I was executed.

“There is a point to be made about historiography. We have to remember when we look at historical events that we are looking at the story that somebody has told us. Fake news was not invented in the 21st century. All news is fake to a certain extent. Even if the facts are correct, a lot depends on which ones are presented. Winston Churchill once said that ‘history will be kind to me, because I intend to write it.’ When people start digging into research, they often find out that things are not quite as we have received them.

“At that time, there were a lot of people amongst the Parliamentarians who knew how to use arms and fight, and they organised themselves, as parliament resisted Charles. The initial conflict lasted for about three years, then things quietened down and then they started up again in a further round. This time, Oliver Cromwell took charge. Eventually some people were prevented from entering parliament, so he invaded parliament, took it over, threw anybody he didn’t like out, and ended up with what was called the ‘Rump Parliament.’ They chopped the King’s head off, and exiled his son, Charles II. There was then the 3rd war between the supporters of Charles II and the supporters of the Rump Parliament. Eventually the people decided to get rid of Cromwell and invite the Stuarts back in, in the person of Charles II who was succeeded by his son James II.

“The peace lasted for 28 years, and these were extravagant times, glorious times for English cultural history. There was a great flowering of theatre and arts, but eventually the Parliamentarians threw James out because of concerns about suspected Catholic loyalties and invited the Dutch family, William of Orange and his wife Mary who was related to the Stuarts, that was the excuse, and they brought them in on the condition that they respected the rights of Parliament. So this is how the constitutional monarchy in England actually began.“The English were very fortunate to be able to reach this sort of settlement in a relatively short period after their revolution. Because what happens in a revolution is that all of the established ties are broken up. These ties make up what is called society, people have loyalties, and they accept a lot of unfairness and a lot of illogicality in the way that their country is run because that is the way that it has always been. The problem is, that once you break that up, it’s horrendously chaotic, and you are very likely to have a civil war as a result.

William III and Mary II of England, Scotland and Ireland

“So they settled on William and Mary, and there was an act of settlement in 1701. The English were very concerned to keep their crown protestant, they didn’t want Catholics taking over the country, and this is why to understand the English Revolution you have to think back in time and see the whole picture.

“I want to mention Thomas Hobbes at this point. He was one of the earliest political theorists in Europe. He lived through this period and one of the books he published was called Leviathan. The main themes of Leviathan are that without a strong ruler, without an absolutist King, life is terrible and people destroy one another. Despite such an absolutist view on life, Hobbes was the first theorist to come up with the idea of the social contract. That you actually have a contract between the governing and the governed.

“I want to mention in particular the ‘Whig’ view of history. The Whigs were one of the great political parties of 18th century Britain. The Tories are still with us, but the Whigs have disappeared. The Whigs promoted a view of history that stressed continuity. The reason that nobody remembers the English Revolution as such was that the Whigs didn’t want anybody to remember it. In their version, the fact that Charles got his head chopped off was incidental and the struggle was not a class struggle. Recent research has shown that people on both sides were from the same classes, the same backgrounds, they were just on different sides of the ideological fence. Parliamentarians versus royalists.

“What are the legacies? Well England has been very fortunate and because Scotland did very well by joining England – the British Empire was great for the English and even better for the Scots. They were the soldiers, the engineers, they went all over the world. Scotland then was a poor nation, and it really worked for them. The bulk of the Scottish were Protestant and they had no trouble joining with the English in this endeavour.

“This was not the case with the Irish, who were mostly Catholic. The Civil War period was absolutely horrendous for Ireland, because Cromwell took revenge on the Irish after they revolted against the Protestants, against their overlords, and Cromwell sent his armies to crush them. About half the population of Ireland was killed or sold into slavery. And he then established the Protestant Ascendancy whereby Protestants, many of them brought in from Scotland, took over the land and political power. This was part of a very long struggle and the history of Ireland explain a lot of the context there today.

“The other legacy was social. People got the idea that the King and the political establishment can be brought down but they also appreciated the problems that come along with that. This legacy is characterised in the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, which is about Charles I.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,

All the Kings horses and all the Kings men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.


Along with this was a sense, for the English, that they have rights which can be asserted against the Crown. This was very important as we look ahead to the American Revolution.


The American Revolution

“The American Revolution was another kind of revolution. They are all called revolutions but this one was very significant for other reasons than those that make the other three so important. Because the Whigs played down the revolutionary nature of the English Civil Wars, the American revolution is considered to be the first great revolution in world history.

Declaration of Independence (1819), by John Trumbull

“European settlements began in the Americas from the 16th century onwards. The Spanish were far ahead of the English in that century – the English didn’t really get going in the Americas until the early 17th century. It was, in general terms, the Puritans amongst the Roundheads (people who supported the idea of government by Parliament as opposed to absolutist Royal rule) who came to the northern-most of the 13 British colonies that were thereafter established. Cavaliers also travelled the Atlantic, many were driven out of England, but they mostly went to the southern colonies, so one of the cultural reasons why the south of what became the United States is so different from the north is that they came from different groups of settlers with different mind sets. You can also tell the age of some of the colonies by their names – the Carolinas were named after Charles (I or II), whereas Georgia was named after George I.

“The most important feature on the build-up to the American Revolution, was the period called the period of “Benign Neglect’ or ‘Salutary Neglect,’ which went on for nearly the whole of the 17th century, when basically the Crown didn’t interfere and left the colonists to get on with things on their own. When the Crown did start to engage and introduce taxes, the colonists adopted the approach of no taxation without representation – the US Bill of Rights, passed in 1789 (after independence), which referred to the English Bill of Rights of 1689. It is important to remember with the American revolution that the colonists didn’t set out to become independent. They set out to enforce their rights as Englishmen. The Crown on the other hand thought that they should get some money out of these people, because the colonists and the Crown together had fought the Great French and Indian War which was the American version of the Seven Years’ War in Europe. It was then that the French were driven out of the northern part of North America.

“The American Revolution was a colonial revolt, from 1765 to 1783 which is nearly 20 years, the high point of which was the declaration of independence in 1776. There were many in England who sympathised with the colonists, particularly amongst the Whigs.


“The fighting broke out in 1775 in Massachusetts, and an army was organised under George Washington. There were misjudgements and dilemmas on the British side. So far as the colonists were concerned initially, the revolution in America was not so much to do with getting rid of the King or the old regime but to do with restoring the rights of Englishmen. It was interesting and relevant that when the British captured American soldiers they treated them as prisoners of war and not traitors.

“This left a legacy which was felt during the French Revolution, as it was seen as the first time – the English Revolution of over a century earlier having effectively been ignored for reasons I have explained – that the concept of hereditary legitimacy had been brought down, and that is what ultimately inspired the French revolution.

“The legacy continues in the US until today.  We only have to look at Barack Obama’s policy of supporting revolutions in the Middle East and in some former Soviet countries because for Americans, liberation is a sort of natural theme. Obama regarded his father, who was a Kenyan politician, as something of freedom fighter opposing British rule.  Historians debate whether the American Revolution was a revolution like the others, and many have concluded that it wasn’t. it was more a war of national independence, and you didn’t have a lot of the nastiness that you had in the others.


The French Revolution

“This revolution also started because the King needed money. In this case, he needed to restore his treasury after the French expenditures in the Seven Years war and the American colonists in the American Revolution.

1789 – The Revolution Begins; the Estates-General and the Constituent Assembly

“Another important feature was sociological development during the 17th century – in England as well as France (but in England it was post-revolutionary whereas in France it was pre-revolutionary) – you had the development of the what we nowadays call ‘civil society.’ People living in towns or cities like Paris or London gathered together and talked about things like politics. The emergence of liberal ideas in France and in England happened more or less in parallel. The French read Locke and the English read Voltaire, and you also had Rousseau who somehow picked up Hobbes’s idea of the social contract. Nowadays people interpret Rousseau as being an ideologist whose concept of the social contract was founded on the “general will” of the people which many nowadays see as a forebear of fascism. To me the most horrifying thing about the current debate in the UK is this thing about the ‘will of the people.’ That comes from Rousseau, and that was the way he contributed to the build-up to the French revolution. I find the idea of the will of the people which is now current in UK politics both frightening and bewildering and hope this will pass without long term result in what has, at least until recently, seemed to be a mature democracy.

The storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789)

“In France in the late 17th and early 18th century, you had the centralisation of the court in Versailles, in parallel with the emergence of Paris as the cultural capital. This meant that the French aristocracy were cut off from the people and their land, although Louis XIV’s object was perhaps to gather them all in one place to reduce their power and prevent them causing too much trouble for him as the king. This led to the disaffection against the absolutism of the court that contributed to some of the horrible things that happened during the French revolution. The aristocracy and the church were very important and very rich in those days, there was also an emerging middle class and an early form of secret police. They would arrest and imprison people without trial under lettres de cachet, not a lot of people but enough to upset those who knew about it.


Marie Antoinette

“The French administration was out of money because they had spent everything they had on the American Revolution and the Seven Year War which preceded it. Eventually there was a financial crisis, and heavy taxes were levied against the poor. Although France had been getting richer over the centuries, at that particular time there was a terrible famine. Again, the presence of a foreign Queen – Marie Antoinette of Austria – was felt in public consciousness, and it was she who famously said: ‘Let them eat brioche.’

“So what did the King do? He needed money, so he called a meeting of the Estates-General, who had last convened in 1614.  In theory this meeting can be compared with Charles I calling the Long Parliaament but this was a far more extreme situation than that in England before the English Civil Wars and the Estates-General had far less experience and institutional substance than the English Parliament.

“By that time, politically aware people were conscious of what had happened in America, so what followed, in short, was what Lenin called an ‘acceleration of history’; an awful lot of historically significant events took place in a very short time.

“The Estates-General convened in Versailles in June. The finance minister called Necker was dismissed and that upset the delegates. A group of them adjourned to a nearby tennis court where they swore and oath that they would not break up until a constitution had been passed.

In parallel with the events in Versailles which essentially involved representatives of the middle class, the mob appeared in Paris in a violent role in an urban context for the first time, and they stormed the Bastille.

Execution of king Louis XVI

“In August, feudalism was abolished along with serfdom and seigneurial privileges and the tithe (for the Church). Lafayette worked with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of the Rights of man, so we have some continuity with the American Revolution. Most significantly in 1790, we see the emergence of political clubs, and these clubs became more and more and more extreme as time went on. There was the Girondins, the Cordeliers and the Jacobins. The Jacobins were the most extreme. Inevitably the consensus moved inexorably leftward –Robespierre was almost alone to begin with, but he soon became the man who controlled everything. The King took fright and tried to flee to Varennes in 1791 with his family, but he was stopped, made to turn back and behave like an ordinary citizen and wear a revolutionary cap.

“Robespierre, Danton and Marat formed a National Convention. There was then a war, which in the French Revolution was more important than the Civil War. This was the invasion by Austria and Prussia, and the severity of this war excited and galvanised the people because it was against France, against the French and led to the storming of Tuileries Palace. Prisoners were massacred in the prisons.

“The French army remained intact as an institution and was victorious at Valmy in 1792, and started moving into the neighbouring countries. A Republic was declared in the National Convention, where the Jacobins had been busy increasing their influence. Louis XVI was put on trial and he was executed in January 1793.

Parade of the heads of the governor of the Bastille and the Provost of Paris merchants (July 14, 1789)

“The build-up to the execution took 4 years, from 1789 to 1793, it didn’t all happen overnight. In 1793 The Committee of Public Safety was established and in September the Reign of Terror began. They decided that all of these aristocrats were enemies of the people, Marie Antoinette was executed in October. It was pretty horrendous until finally Robespierre and his friends – the membership of the Committee of Public Safety – were themselves arrested and guillotined.

“That was the end of the main part of the revolution. In 1795, ‘The Directory’ was established, and this was a bit like The Restoration in England. Everybody started to have a good time, they wore beautiful clothes, and at the same time you had the continuance of domestic insurrections, and the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte.

“Napoleon is seen by many military men in hindsight as one of the greatest generals who ever lived. In the face of extraordinary odds, he was victorious. He lost in the end probably due to over confidence, but he seized power and established the Consulate in 1799, repeating a pattern that we have seen time and time again. We saw it in the English Revolution, we will see it in the Russian Revolution but in a different order.


General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire, by François Bouchot

“Napoleon was one of France’s greatest rulers. He introduced reforms into French laws and the French governmental administration which last to this day. France reformed its civil service well in advance of many other countries in Europe, with the exception of Frederick The Great’s reforms of the Prussian civil service. Napoleon was one of history’s greatest generals although ultimately, he was defeated in battle; he rather stupidly invaded Russia and was pushed back.

“Then we have the Bourbons, who came back in a very different sort of Restoration from the English one. Louis the XVIII and his successor Charles X led the reaction against the revolution. There was tremendous horror in the whole of Europe about the way that the royal family and the aristocracy had been treated. They all thought that ‘we’re next.’

“Of importance to Russian history, was the ‘Holy Alliance’ which was an alliance between Russia, Prussia and Austria, between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic absolutist monarchs. The object of the Holy Alliance was to suppress revolutionary forces, and the Russians were usually the ones who came in with troops to suppress rebellions.



The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

“In France, people eventually tired of the restored Bourbons, who “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.  They then had the July revolution of 1830, with Louis Phillipe of the Orleans branch of the House of Bourbon who was interestingly not the King of France but was called the more democratic ‘King of the French’.  But they got fed up with him too and had another revolution in 1848 when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, became first President of France, then Emperor of the French in the ‘Second Empire’. As Karl Marx said: ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.’ The French post-revolutionary story went on a lot longer than the English version.

“In 1870 Louis-Napoleon was defeated in the Franco-Prussian war. You had the horrible Paris Commune where the streets of Paris literally ran with blood, and all this led to the establishment of the Third Republic under its first President Adolphe Thiers. The Third Republic established a government that was originally only intended to be interim but which lasted until 1940. It turned out to be: ‘the form of government which divides France the least,’ as they said at the time. Because France never got over the revolution. There were still (and probably still are) a lot of left-leaning people, not as many as there used to be, and there were people who were still monarchists way up until relatively modern times.

Charles de Gaulle

“In the 20th and 21st centuries, France’s power diminished partly because of demographics. They had a population problem, they did not reproduce themselves in the way that the Germans and the British did. France in the 1800s was one of the most populous countries in Europe, but it was overtaken by the Germans and the British, and that relative loss of population meant that they lost relative power. You then have the Vichy Regime which was established in 1940, during the Second World War, and another Republic, the Fifth Republic which was founded in 1946. That was another unstable one, and all of this didn’t really come to an end until Charles De Gaulle. He became the ruler by Coup d’état, because of the situation in Algeria, when the army encouraged him to take over, and to save Algerie Francaise although he subsequently abandoned it. This was a Presidential Republic with a strong Presidential ruler. And France today is a very different country. In my view, the French Revolution did not really come to an end until the Fifth Republic. Now France is a relatively stable country, although the political establishment has been completely overturned in recent months, but you don’t have the sense of any civil unrest in France. The current Russian constitution is very similar to the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Maybe Russia will save itself a lot of trouble by institutionalising that.

I just want to mention one more feature before we leave this subject of the French Revolution. This is the character of Louis-Antoine de St. Just, who to me was the consummate revolutionary. Just before he was guillotined he appeared before the Convention and said –

“Je méprise la poussière qui me compose et qui vous parle.
On pourra persécuter et faire mourir cette poussière ! Mais je défie qu’on m’arrache cette vie indépendante que je me suis donnée dans les siècles et dans les cieux.” [Translation – “I despise the dust of which I am made and which speaks to you. They can persecute and make that dust die. But I defy anyone to take away from me that independent life that I have been given in the centuries and in the heavens.”]

 ― Louis Antoine de Saint-Just

“This to me is the essence of revolution, and this is why it is so dangerous. Because these people don’t live for the things that the rest of us live for. They don’t live to make money, they don’t live for structured careers, they don’t live for their families, they live for the revolution.


The Russian Revolution

Decembrists Picture by painter Karl Kolman (1786-1846) Saint Petersburg (Russia), Senate Square

“The Russian Revolution was a very long time in the making. The French Revolution had inspired virtually all of Europe, and the crowned heads of state, particularly in central and eastern Europe were terrified, and nobody was more so than the Tsars of Russia. Alexander I was liberal in rhetoric but absolutist in practice, and as a kind of reaction against what happened in France, he established the Holy Alliance with Austria and Prussia in 1815, to support the divine right of Kings and Christian values (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant). He died in 1825, and there was an issue of succession. The natural successor would have been Konstantin, but he had renounced his claim to the throne in 1822, and he abdicated in favour of his brother Nicholas in 1825. A revolt soon followed, instigated by some of officers of the army called the ‘Decembrists’ in December. This was a bit of a farce because there was popular support both for the Decembrists and Konstantin and the Constitution, and in Russian this comes out as ‘Konstantin i Constitutsia’ (the crowd asked who was Konstitutsia – Konstantin’s wife?), so that movement didn’t get anywhere and the Decembrists were exiled.

“Throughout the 19th century there was a sense of suppressed rebellion and you can see the development of the concept of the ‘superfluous man’, who has wealth but nothing to do in terms of influencing Tsarist absolutism. Land ownership was dependent on service to state; on the system of ranks (chin). The grand aristocracy (dvoryantsvo) was large in number and there was no direct equivalent in western society, although the closest in English society would be the gentry. At the same time, what marked Russia was the presence of the ‘intelligentsia’ and in time we saw a proliferation of political movements, many of them were extreme, in an environment where any questioning of absolutism was challenged by the ruler. There was a huge rift between the aristocracy and the bulk of the population which was illiterate and very poor.

Tsar Nikolai I and family

“There was an attempt to resolve this in 1905, which was a revolution in its own right and led to the creation of the Duma, but the Tsar continued to resist all of this. Many historians compare the character of Nicholas II with that of Louis XVI, in other words the man would have been fine in a normal society if he had had to make a living as a businessman or a professional devoted to his wife but not as a strong ruler, not someone who had to have a strong sense of what to do, he was not resolute. He seems to have had a great deal of nervousness about making changes which would betray his ancestors.

“Again, you have the foreign presence, with the foreign Tsarina; Alexandra. She is often compared with Marie Antoinette, but in fact Russia already had experienced a foreign ruler in the form of Catherine the Great who was German, and England hadn’t had an English King since 1066, so what difference does it make?, it is simply a matter of the public’s perception. Things were not exactly helped along though by the presence of Rasputin in the court, who was a disreputable character who had a lot of influence.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin

“The Russo-Japanese War undermined the confidence of the Russian upper classes of society. Russia sailed its fleet around the world and suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese.

“There was rapid industrialisation, and Russia experienced tremendous economic growth at the end of the 19th century, which probably helped to destabilise society to some extent. I don’t think, however, that the revolution would have happened without World War I.

“Although there were Russian successes during the war, overall, there were terrible defeats and loss of life. The number of dead and prisoners amounted to about 5 million by the end of 1915. There were shortages of rifles and ammunition; many were sent to the front line unarmed. The Tsar, thinking he would become closer to his people by personally taking command only ended up being blamed for everything that went wrong.

“The overthrow of the Tsar actually happened very quickly – when compared with the other revolutions. Workers went on strike, there was a women’s demonstration as a result of the bread shortage, and as a result of this we now have International Women’s Day. That effectively started the revolution. The Tsar abdicated very quickly by the 15th of March 1917. There is some confusion between February and March, depending on which calendar you use [Gregorian or Julian]. A provisional government was established, the period of dual power in which there were acute tensions between the traditional government and the Soviets, (the local councils) became worse and worse, and all of this time, the war continued. The war was the worse thing, with heavy loses, shortages of food, and then the Germans sent Lenin in, in a sealed train so that he couldn’t get out and start a revolution in Germany! They made sure he got to Petrograd. He came in and out of Russia, he was a tremendous orator, and he was fortunate that he also had Trotsky to help him organise things.

“I have mentioned coup d’états before in England and France, and the same thing happened here [in Russia] in November 1917. The October revolution, the storming of the Winter Palace, was effectively a coup; the Bolsheviks simply walked in and evicted the Provisional Government. Even Stalin attributed that to Trotsky’s organisational powers, as Lenin had really only just arrived.

Lev Davidovich Trotsky

“The actual Revolution in Russia – the overthrow of the Tsar – was much shorter than in the other places.  It was almost as if he was expecting it and resigned because by then he could see that, after many years of resistance, the end of absolute rule was inevitable. But there was then the Red Terror and the White Terror and the Civil War which went on for years, and it was hellish, with huge numbers of people killed on a horrendous scale throughout the territory of the vast Russian empire. Then it came to an end, and Lenin who was showing signs of moderation at that time died and was succeeded by Stalin who nobody thought was anybody to reckon with. He was just the secretary, the man who did all the work, but what they didn’t realise was that because he was so good at organisation and small piece politics; getting people behind him, he could become very powerful very quickly. In the same pattern as Cromwell and Napoleon, he became the dictator, although a much fiercer kind of dictator. Again, his story doesn’t really come to an end until relatively recently when you have another uprising in 1991; the Soviet Union broke up and Yeltsin became President.


Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin

“I think that Yeltsin was very clever in installing the constitution that Russia now has. I don’t know whether he modelled it on that constitution adopted by the 5th Republic, but it strikes me as being very similar, with a strong President. We can’t predict the future, but maybe Russia will have a shorter time than the French did to finally sort things out, and maybe the will be not so unlike the English.

“Again, there is historiography; the Soviets, as you would expect, saw events through their Marxist past, and struggled with western historians who emphasised the accidental effects of the revolution. Western historians stressed the inevitability of a doctrine like communism leading to totalitarianism. There has been a lot of post-Soviet revisionist and sociological review but the old saying that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past, I am sorry to say, remains true. Because what strikes me is that the revolution itself took place over a much shorter time, but the aftermath was much longer and bloodier.

“The other very strange thing is that hardly anybody takes any notice of it in Russia today. If I ask myself why?, I think it is because nobody wants to be reminded of it, and what happened after it. They do not wish to take pride in it and they don’t want it repeated.

“So Russia is a country with a future, and I think a great future. The past 25 years have been almost totally out of keeping with past history and I think there’s a lot to look forward to.

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