The Crisis of Revolutionary Power

Against the Current, No. 140, May/June 2009

Sarah Badcock

The Bolsheviks in Power:
The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd
By Alexander Rabinowitch
Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2007. 494 pages, illustrations, notes, index, bibliography,$21.95 paperback.

ALEXANDER RABINOWITCH HAS long stood as a major figure in the field of revolutionary history, his reputation forged by his series of books tackling the revolution in Petrograd.(1) The book under review, his latest addition to this canon, is a meticulous and painstaking history, showing us the gaps and exploring the confusions of a tightly defined period.

Rabinowitch, as befits a senior scholar, is not afraid of asking the big questions surrounding this period, and addressing the fundamental problems. This book tackles the period from the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917, up until the celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution in October 1918.

The Bolsheviks in Power is organized in four sections, split into themes that are loosely chronological. The first covers the defeat of the Bolshevik “moderates,” the second the Brest-Litovsk treaty, the third the Spring crises and Left Socialist Revolutionary (Left SR) “rising,” and the final section covers the Red Terror in Petrograd and celebrations of October 1918. Each section includes succinct introductions and conclusions.

Rabinowitch concludes emphatically that “(n)either revolutionary ideology nor an established  pattern of dictatorial behavior are of much help to explain fundamental changes in the character and political role of the Bolshevik party, or of soviets in Petrograd, between November 1917 and November 1918, although the impact of both cannot be entirely discounted.” Rather, “(T)he Petrograd Bolsheviks had to transform themselves from rebels into rulers without benefit of an advance plan or even a concept.” (390)

A Meticulous Study

This work is based on a comprehensive range of sources, including Bolshevik party minutes, internal memoranda, memoir and correspondence, Cheka files, personal files and other parties’ records, as well as published document collections. These sources are used with a care and thoroughness that is a model for the discipline.

What impresses most is Rabinowitch’s candor about the inevitable silences and gaps in the sources. For example, when describing the Bolsheviks’ celebrations of the October revolution anniversary in 1918, he tells us that it rained, that many party people gave long and passionate speeches, that people were indeed fed as promised, and that the crisply orchestrated events apparently took place without a hitch.

His sources were unable to give any real insight of how the people in the streets responded to these events, and he is unwilling to speculate with confidence. This openness is a great strength, as it helps readers understand that historical processes, particularly at personal and intimate levels, are in some ways unknowable, and that we can only speculate as to the feelings and emotions of lesser historical actors.

This approach serves our critical faculties far better than the grand, confident and ultimately indefensible statements of “how people felt” that litter the pages of many historical works.

The nature of Rabinowitch’s study is based on a meticulous and detailed analysis of the minutiae of events, which requires a tight periodization. This is in contrast to the work of Peter Holquist, which has been important in reconceptualizing how we periodize the revolution.

While earlier approaches tended to focus either on 1917, or on the civil war, Holquist argued convincingly in his book that the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 in many respects marked the beginning of the revolutionary period in Russia, as militarized state practices leached into civilian life, and were to provide the basis for the subsequent young Soviet regime.(2)

It is now generally agreed that the revolutionary period should be conceptualized from 1914 to at least 1921. In some respects, Rabinowitch’s work has gone against this trend of broader periodization. His first book covered the July Days in Petrograd, his second the October revolution, and this one covers a full twelve months in painstaking detail. It is clear, however, that while the broader themes of the period can be acknowledged, these intricate studies of narrower periods allow us to develop a better insight into this complex period as a whole.

Rabinowitch has focused on Petrograd in all his major works. The historiography seems finally to have caught up with his approach in this field, as regional studies have become increasingly important in our understandings of the revolutionary period.

Donald Raleigh’s work on Saratov, Orlando Figes on the Volga region and Michael Hickey on Smolensk were the early successors to this example. More recently the work of Peter Holquist on the Don, Erik Landis on Tambov, Aaron Retish on Viatka, Stefan Karsch on Voronezh, and this reviewer on Nizhnii Novgorod and Kazan, have continued in this vein, exploring the intricacies of the revolutionary experience in particular regions, and in so doing complicating and enriching the picture of what Russia’s revolutionary period entailed.(3)

These provincial studies, however, are difficult to situate in a meaningful context without a detailed understanding of the events and themes that emerged in Petrograd, the heart of state power until the capital’s transfer to Moscow in March 1918.

The Political Struggles

A distinctive theme of this work is its persistent engagement with the international context in which Russia’s revolutionary experience was played out. The reader is not allowed to forget the meta-landscape that surrounded the Bolsheviks’ attempts to consolidate their power and permeated almost every aspect of their policy making.

Lenin’s policy decisions were constrained by his necessary focus on negotiating peace with the Central Powers (Germany in particular). Rabinowitch lucidly explores the fight that Lenin finally won on this issue.

The Bolshevik commitment to peace was what had won over left Mensheviks and many soldiers in late summer 1917, and what held moderate Bolsheviks to the party in November despite their profound disagreements with Lenin.

Views on what this peace might entail, however, were altogether more confused. Many senior members and Bolshevik travelling partners from the Left SRs and left Mensheviks sought a “universal proletarian peace” through international revolution, and envisaged a continued “holy war.”

Others, with Lenin at their head, were more pragmatic and were convinced of the impossibility of continued warfare given the state of the front line troops. Lenin’s evaluation of the state of the troops was that if fighting continued, the very best that could be hoped for was an orderly withdrawal. Petrograd would be taken in days.

Rabinowitch highlights the press coverage and popular feeling surrounding the negotiations at Brest Litovsk; while Lenin prepared to settle terms at any price, big demonstrations were organised in Petrograd in December 1917 celebrating the “triumphant peace at Brest Litovsk.” The discordance between popular perceptions and diplomatic reality could not have been more acute.

Trotsky’s defiance of Lenin with his refusal to sign a treaty at Brest and his formula of “Neither war nor peace” was mocked by the German response, which was to advance troops towards Petrograd. (143-145, 160)

Another theme that emerges throughout this book is the emphasis on heterogeneity within the Bolshevik party, and the strength of the moderates within the party, who in the first months after October sought a consensual, collaborative socialist coalition.

We are reminded of the many humane and tolerant voices within the Bolshevik party who, Rabinowitch argues, were actually in a majority, but were defeated by Lenin. The role of the pressing international situation is made much clearer; Rabinowitch makes it apparent that the moderates were defeated more by their very real fears of the external threats facing the young Soviet state, than by the intransigence of Lenin.

Talks between the powerful railworkers’ union, VIKZHEL, and the Bolsheviks suggested that the majority of Bolsheviks strove for a socialist coalition government in the first weeks after the October revolution. We are given real insights into strong popular demands for a coalition to avoid civil war. In a commission formed by leading Bolsheviks to prepare recommendations on the form of the new government, one worker from the Obukhov plant declared;

“Finish up, do you hear, finish…People are already going at each other with bayonets… To hell with leaders and parties… String up all the Lenins, Kerenskys and Trotskys…We need an agreement and we won’t leave without it!” (30)

Ultimately, Lenin’s refusal to accede to all-socialist coalition carried the day, but only by Lenin using his last resort; a threat to split the party. Rather than face this while so many external and internal enemies loomed over the new socialist state, Lenin’s opponents preferred to resign from the central committee.

Crisis and the Red Terror

The sense of crisis engendered in this period by the threats posed both by imminent foreign invasion, and by internal opposition to the new regime, is conjured up with painful resonance by Rabinowitch. This sense of crisis provided the impetus for an escalation of violence and repression by the state.

The panic accompanying an apparently imminent invasion of Petrograd by the Germans facilitated the new regime’s first announcements of arbitrary shootings, first for common criminals, and later for “counter-revolutionaries.” This work conjured up a terrifying vision of increasing arbitrariness and casual violence.

The Red Terror, an outburst of violence in September 1918, was more chaotic and more bloody in Petrograd than in Moscow, with more than 800 people killed, many of them innocent lower bourgeois folk and party men. This violence was orchestrated not just by the state, but was also a “random” terror enacted by some of Petrograd’s workers who used the collapse of norms to settle scores and enact class war.

Despite this awareness of the developing climate of popular violence, Rabinowitch regards the architects of class warfare and escalating violence as first and foremost Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks showed a willingness to repress their supposed heartland supporters, Petrograd’s workers, without mercy. Within a year, the silencing of all dissenting voices and debate within the party and in public forums became marked.

Trotsky’s bloodthirsty speech in relation to the suppression of Russia’s Liberal party, the Kadets, gives us a taste of the repression and bloodshed to come:

“There is nothing immoral in finishing off a class that is collapsing… You (the left SRs) wax indignant at the naked terror which we are applying against our class enemies. But let me assure you that in one month’s time at the most, it will assume more frightful forms modelled after the terror of the great French revolutionaries. Not the fortress (of Peter and Paul) but the guillotine awaits our enemies.” (78)

Petrograd was marginalized by the Soviet government after the capital’s move to Moscow. There was effectively administrative collapse in the old capital, with rubbish rotting under tons of un-shovelled snow, alongside soaring unemployment and a food crisis. The administration of the city was unable to maintain public services, and the population of the city dwindled alarmingly.

Rabinowitch graphically portrays day-to-day conditions on the streets of Petrograd, as law and order apparently broke down almost completely, with piles of bodies on the streets, criminal gangs working unimpeded, mass shootings, and to cap it all a cholera epidemic in late summer with more than 12,000 recorded victims. The large numbers of untrained armed guards and unofficial security forces set up by the Bolsheviks contributed to the anarchic feel of the city.

Crisis for Petrograd in 1918, as no doubt was the case in many other cities across the former Russian Empire, did not lie only with state repression and popular violence. The problems for the city’s administrators were twofold, a lack of enthusiasm for the task of city administration combined with acute personnel shortages.

My own work indicates that shortages of suitable individuals to take on administrative posts and sit on committees had been very apparent in 1917. These shortages were sharply exacerbated by the departure, both forced and voluntary, of moderate socialists from the administration in the aftermath of October 1917. They were then pushed to critical levels first by the demands of the Red Army and food requisitioning brigades for personnel, by the movement in March 1918 of the capital to Moscow, and finally by the chronic loss of Bolshevik party members over the course of 1918; party membership in Petrograd plummeted from its peak of around 50,000 in October 1917 to around 6,000 members by September 1918.

Tragedy of the Left SRs

The Left Social Revolutionaries, so often sidelined in the histories of the revolutionary period, are recast in Rabinowitch’s study as absolutely essential to the Bolshevik consolidation of the Soviet regime. Their path, from the Bolsheviks’ only government coalition partners  to enemies, is crisply documented (particularly in chapters 10 and 11).

The Left SRs come out of Rabinowitch’s account very well; he emphasises throughout that they sought to limit and restrain violence and terror through their participation in the coalition. Isaac Shteinberg, the Left SR who became Minister of Justice in the first Soviet government, engaged in a systematic campaign to resist political repression and arbitrary violence, and sought, unsuccessfully, to oversee and control the Cheka.

Despite their clear programmatic differences, the Bolsheviks desperately needed the Left SRs’ competent and popular personnel to staff undermanned administrations. This common purpose was conclusively undermined by the so-called “Moscow rising” of the Left SRs, which was not an attempt to seize power as the Bolshevik leadership subsequently portrayed it, but was rather a mistimed attack on the Bolsheviks, which unleashed oppressive forces that it was unprepared for and never recovered from.

Rabinowitch argues that the collapse of the Bolshevik-Left SR partnership and the Bolsheviks’ demonization of the Left SRs “had historical ramifications beyond marking the moment when the Soviet political system became a one-party dictatorship. The Left SRs provided Soviet power with a critically important link to the countryside. Had the Bolshevik-Left SR alliance survived, it seems likely that the Russian civil war would have been significantly less tortuous.” (396)

This demonizing of the Left SRs fits into a broader blocking of all dissenting voices, both within the party, and outside it, in the course of 1918. As I’ve already discussed, the international context is emphasized in the escalation of violence, suppression and outright terror that we witness in these months. The roles of key individuals, however, in particular Lenin and Trotsky, are also stressed in the narrative of a descent into terror, while revolutionary ideology and patterns of dictatorial behaviour are not emphasized.

Igal Halfin, whose linguistic approach differs from Rabinowitch’s more traditional focus on personalities and political motivations, uncovers a clear and compelling continuity in Bolshevik discourse.(4) Halfin argues, in the context of the early 1920s, that the ideological underpinnings of the Bolshevik party predisposed it to unconciliatory positions and to the use of terror in the pursuit of the “true path.” It would have been interesting if Rabinowitch had engaged with this approach more, since it does rather challenge the ascendancy first of environment and then of personalities that emerges from Rabinowitch’s account.

For me, among the most moving passages in this affecting and absorbing book are those describing the convening and ultimate permanent dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

Despite the work of L.G. Protasov, we still know relatively little of the course of elections for the Constituent Assembly, and Rabinowitch adds greatly to our understanding of events with a detailed analysis of the voting patterns and electoral procedure in Petrograd.(5)

He shows how the Bolsheviks in Petrograd adeptly presented a polarized contest of either voting for Bolsheviks and therefore Soviet power, or voting for counter-revolution. (63-65) This tactic accounted for the Bolsheviks’ electoral success in the city.

The repression of the newly formed Constituent Assembly was absolute, though Rabinowitch argues rather ambiguously that ultimately the Constituent Assembly fell because it lacked popular support in the city. The demonstrations supporting the Constituent Assembly on 5 January were shot on by ill-trained and directed guards, presenting one of the first instance of Bolsheviks directing arbitrary shooting into crowds of unarmed and inoffensive demonstrators, some of whom were workers.

His description of the Constituent Assembly delegates filing into the Tauride Palace, surrounded by heavily armed Bolshevik sailors and soldiers, convinced that they would never get out of the building alive, is laden with pathos and historical power. In the early hours of the next day, unmolested but menaced by their guards, the delegates filed out again and quietly went home, never again to meet in the Tauride Palace.

This study of course is not without its problems. For me, the role of ideology and revolutionary discourse in driving Bolshevik policy is underplayed in this account. At times the enormous cast of lesser characters introduced alongside the “big players” makes for a breathless and even a disorienting read.

 Ultimately though, this work is a model for the historian’s craft, which modestly but implicitly redefines how we conceptualize the fields of history. Political, social, diplomatic, gender and to a lesser extent cultural approaches are all smoothly drawn on to produce what is without question a definitive account of the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power in Petrograd. We can only hope that retirement will enable Professor Rabinowitch to continue his labors, and that he will continue work on the next instalment, Petrograd in 1919.


  1. Rabinowitch, A., Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising. (Bloomington, 1968); Rabinowitch, A., The Bolsheviks come to Power (New York, 1976); and the work under review.
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  2. Holquist, Peter, Making war, forging revolution: Russia’s continuum of crisis, 1914-1921 (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).
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  3. Raleigh, Donald J., Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov (New York, 1986) ;  Raleigh, Donald J., Experiencing Russia’s civil war : politics, society and revolutionary culture in Saratov, 1917-1922 (Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford, 2002); Figes, Orlando, Peasant Russia, civil war; The Volga countryside in revolution (Oxford, 1989); Hickey, Michael C., “Local Government and State Authority in the Provinces: Smolensk, February-June 1917,” Slavic Review 1996;55(4): 863-881; Hickey, Michael C., “Discourses of public identity and Liberalism in the February revolution: Smolensk, Spring 1917,” Russian Review 1996;4): 615-637; Hickey, Michael C., “Urban zemliachestva and rural revolution; Petrograd and the Smolensk countryside in 1917,” Soviet and Post Soviet Review 1996;23(3): 142-160; Hickey, Michael C., “Moderate socialists and the politics of crime in revolutionary Smolensk,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 2001;35(2-3): 189-218; Hickey, Michael C., “The rise and fall of Smolensk’s moderate socialists: The politics of class and the rhetoric of crisis in 1917” in Raleigh, Donald J. (ed.) Provincial landscapes: Local dimensions of Soviet power, 1917-1953, (Pittsburgh, 2001), 14-35; Holquist, Peter, Making war, forging revolution: Russia’s continuum of crisis, 1914-1921;  Landis, Erik C., Bandits and Partisans: The Antonov Movement in the Russian Civil War (Pittsburgh, 2008); Retish, A., Russia’s Peasants in Revolution and Civil War: Citizenship, Identity, and the Creation of the Soviet State, 1914-1922 (Cambridge, 2008);  Karsch, Stefan, Die bolschewistische Machtergreifung im Gouvernement Voronez (1917-1919) (2006); Badcock, Sarah, Politics and the people in revolutionary Russia: A Provincial History (Cambridge, 2007).
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  4. Halfin, Igal, Intimate Enemies: Demonizing the Bolshevik Opposition, 1918-1928 (Pittsburgh, 2007).
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  5. Protasov, L. G., Vserossiskoe Uchreditel’noe sobranie. Istoriia rozhdeniia i gibeli (Moscow, 1997).
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ATC 140, May/June 2009