Russian Revolution at 100: Expert Highlights Overlooked Underground History

10/25/2017 01:40 pm ET

Recently while in Moscow, I caught up with Vadim Damier, a historian and Senior Researcher at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is the author of The Forgotten International: The International Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement Between the Two World Wars (2007), Anarcho-Syndicalism in the 20th Century (2009), The Age of Steel: a Social History of Soviet Society 1917-1991 (2014) and most recently, Anarchists, Syndicalists, and the First World War (2017).

N.K: What is the historical and political significance of the Russian Revolution on this 100th anniversary of original events?

V.D.: On a certain level, contemporary Russia is almost unrecognizable in comparison to what it was some one hundred years ago. At that time, Russia was a largely agrarian society comprised of peasants, who weren’t private landowners but rather sought to promote community land ownership. In this sense, rural peasants stood firmly against capitalist expansion. Within cities, most workers were former peasants themselves, and as a result they similarly opposed the expansion of capitalism. Indeed, many of these workers had first-hand, personal familiarity with the most brutal forms of capitalism. These trends underscore a very specific characteristic of the Russian Revolution: namely, opposition to both capitalism but also the earlier Czarist, pre-modern feudal order. This revolution from below displayed a lot of self-organizing characteristics within the rural milieu as well as cities at the neighborhood and factory level. The entire movement emerged in a spontaneous manner and was hardly controlled by individual political parties.

N.K.: How has this underground history from below been obscured or forgotten over time?

V.D.: At the beginning of the revolution, the masses’ aspirations and hopes coincided with the Bolshevik party agenda. One might say the Bolsheviks took advantage of these popular aspirations for their own purposes, though in reality the party favored the same modern capitalist development and industrialization policies which stood to run roughshod over peasant communities. This inevitably set up the potential for a clash, and in the first few months of 1918 the interests of both groups began to diverge as the Bolsheviks began to repress self-organizing, democratic forces from below. On a certain level, you might say these self-organizing forces displayed certain “anarchist” characteristics, though perhaps activists themselves wouldn’t define themselves as such. Self-described anarchists were influential within certain cities or regions like Siberia, and in Ukraine they fought under the banner of Nestor Makhno’s rebel movement. Many over-simplify the later Civil War Period by arguing that the conflict essentially pitted two forces against each other, namely the Reds and the Whites. But in reality, there were many groups and forces which fought for an alternative vision. All across Russia, large, autonomous and spontaneous movements sought to rid the Soviets of Bolshevik influence and the suffocating dominance of political parties. In the Volga region, there were large, dramatic peasant revolts with hundreds of thousands of rebels. In Siberia, as I say, you have this anarchist movement which hasn’t received a lot of attention in outside historical accounts of the revolution. From time to time, these movements collaborated with the Reds in the struggle against the Whites. But after the Bolshevik victory over the Whites, the gloves came off as the Reds began to move toward state capitalism and to repress these movements.

N.K.: So what’s your idea, place this history under more scrutiny so the public can develop a different view of its past?

V.D.: There are a lot of popular myths surrounding the revolution, but the true history is poorly understood. A large section of Russian society believes the revolution was a Bolshevik revolution. Very few people are aware of these autonomous and self-organized movements which I mention. To be sure, the name of Makhno is known but very few people are aware of what his movement was all about. Within schools and universities, history textbooks fail to mention anti-authoritarian tendencies within the revolution while constantly over-emphasizing the Red-White divide. Makhno’s name is mentioned in passing but nothing more than that. It’s a similar situation with 19th century anarchist figure Peter Kropotkin: the name is known, but the question is in what context? During the Soviet period, both Bakunin and Kropotkin were invoked as kind of throwbacks and “predecessors of Bolshevism.”

N.K.: During a trip to the Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, I saw a photograph depicting participants of so-called non-aligned “Green Armies” during the Russian Revolution. Do you think enough attention has been paid to this?

V.D.: The problem is that the term “Green” is very general and could be used to define any initiative or movement which constituted a “third force.” Some of these third forces are very different from one another. For example, nationalist movements in Ukraine differed from guerrilla movements, anarchists, army deserters, self-defense groups or even bandits.

N.K.: While in St. Petersburg, I also had the opportunity to visit the nearby Kronstadt naval base, which at one point militarily revolted against the Bolsheviks. What is the historical significance of the Kronstadt rebellion?

V.D.: Kronstadt has been misinterpreted. It has been said the rebels favored the free market and backed the constituent assembly, but these are falsehoods. The rebellion was a spontaneous and self-organized movement which formed the backbone of a “third revolution.” Kronstadt was the most obvious and certainly most dangerous threat to Bolshevik power, and that is why the party leadership repressed the sailors so ruthlessly. Kronstadt represents the last gasp at more radical and democratic change. When the Bolsheviks finally managed to stamp out popular movements, a goal which was finally accomplished by 1921, the revolution sputtered out.

N.K.: How would you evaluate the political history of St. Petersburg vs. Moscow?

V.D.: In the past, during the revolution, St. Petersburg was more radical than Moscow politically. During the 1920s, there were even some underground, clandestine anarchist groups in St. Petersburg. But later, with the onset of industrialization and massive urban growth in Moscow, the situation changed. By the time of perestroika, I think Moscow had become more radical than St. Petersburg. Today, neither city has any independent social movements, but St. Petersburg is more liberal though hardly what one might call leftist let alone anarchist. Currently, Moscow is somewhat complex politically due to the city’s sheer vastness. Recently, we held municipal elections and the results were very different within discrete precincts. There were areas which voted for the opposition, and other areas which were pro-government.

N.K.: What about the situation of women one hundred years after the revolution?

V.D.: Some argue the Bolsheviks were very progressive toward women, but this is false. In the first few years of the revolution, it’s true the authorities legalized abortion and pushed other innovative measures. But over time, Soviet women were forced into a double bind which obliged them to work and also take care of the family. Fast forward to the post-Soviet period, in which society is getting more conservative and religion is gaining ground, and Russia seems to be returning to some kind of historical loop or circuit. We’re not in the exact same boat as one hundred years ago, but let’s just say there are certain underlying social tendencies which are rearing their heads again.

N.K.: What are the chances for independent social movements emerging on the horizon in Russia?

V.D.: During perestroika, self-organizing movements in Moscow developed their own assemblies and councils and some even promoted their own system of local currency. You also had some very combative strikes during this period demanding increased salaries and targeting the new owners of privatized factories. But later in the 1990s, with the dissolution of these movements, society started to become more passive. In the beginning of the 2000s, the price of gas began to increase and the economic climate improved. As a result, workers got paid and strikes disappeared. Today, society as a whole is very socially passive, with people merely trying to survive and looking out for themselves.

N.K.: What is your take on Ukraine, one hundred years after the revolution?

V.D.: In some ways we are closing the circle here, since in certain respects the current government in Kyiv reminds me of the previous Simon Petliura regime dating from roughly the days of the Russian Revolution. The situation is made even more ironic by the fact that in Donbas, Russian-backed separatists resemble the old White Russian forces from the Civil War. The only difference today is that there is no figure of Makhno’s stature to fight against the powerful, pro-Petliura type elements in Kyiv, or against the pro-White elements in Donbas which are reviving the reactionary past. The military conflict in Ukraine today is sort of like a replay of one hundred years ago, but this time without any anarchists. Makhno was an internationalist, but current day Ukrainian leftist groups, which are small, tend to be more nationalist in orientation. On the other hand, I was very encouraged when spontaneous protests against military conscription of young men broke out in small Ukrainian cities and towns. These protests against the war in eastern Ukraine and Donbas were much stronger than similar Russian protests against the war in Chechnya, and this suggests to me that Ukraine might have some political potential.

N.K.: What about the situation of ethnic minorities one hundred years after the revolution?

V.D.: The Bolsheviks presented themselves as spearheading internationalism, which isn’t exactly true. During the Civil War, Bolsheviks exploited conflicts between ethnic minorities for their own ends, for example in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Ukraine. After the revolution, the situation of ethnic minorities improved briefly. But very soon thereafter, by the 1930s, the situation started to go backwards with the glorification of Mother Russia. Today, with the emergence of Russian ethno-nationalism, the situation has worsened. Since the war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks in the metro, there’s been a big discriminatory backlash against peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Russia, the police treat ethnic minorities just as badly as U.S. cops treat African-Americans, and the public has been passive or even approving towards this policy.

Vadim Damier is a historian and Senior Researcher at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Nikolas Kozloff is a New-York based political writer.

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