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About this book

This popular, concise and highly readable study discusses the key themes and debates about the Russian Revolution. Robert Service's lively analysis examines:
• state and society under the Romanovs from 1900
• the February and October Revolutions of 1917
• the final years of the Romanov dynasty and the start of the Soviet order
• comparisons with political, social and economic trends elsewhere in the world
• the extent to which the later development of the USSR was conditioned by the October Revolution.

Clear and incisive, the fourth edition has been thoroughly revised and updated in the light of the latest research and features a new scene-setting Introduction and maps. Service's text remains the essential starting point for anyone studying this tumultuous period in the history of Russia and the world in the twentieth century.


Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The Russian Revolution set off a political earthquake. In February 1917 the Romanov monarchy tottered; in March it fell. This alone was an event of global significance. Russia and the other Allies were engaged in the Great War against the Central Powers. The Provisional Government, a shifting coalition of liberals and socialists, supplanted Emperor Nicholas II and its ministers proclaimed universal civil rights while assuming responsibility for national defence. They struggled to survive through months of political conflict and confusion. In October they succumbed to a seizure of power by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This second revolution was of still greater importance than the first. The Bolshevik party was dedicated to a more radical brand of socialism than any socialist minister in the Provisional Government had espoused — and the Bolsheviks for this reason were also beginning to call themselves communists in order to distinguish themselves from their more cautious rivals. Decades of agitation and organisation in Europe and North America had not yet given birth to a government composed exclusively of socialists. Bolsheviks in Russia saw themselves as the vanguard of the forces of revolutionary transformation.
Robert Service

1. Unstable Structure, 1900–1914

Abstract
Why did the Russian Imperial monarchy crumble to the ground in February 1917? Communist historians in the USSR used to maintain that it was a collapse waiting to happen and that Lenin and his Bolsheviks delivered the decisive last push [27; 28]. Most writers other than communists rejected this general line. They disliked any such kind of historical determinism; they were also sceptical that the Bolshevik contribution to the downfall of the Romanovs was of much influence. They did agree, though, that the Russian Empire had basic problems. Travellers to Russia before 1917 emphasised how unmodernised the country was and how backward and oppressive the conditions of the lower social orders were. The Imperial order had the reputation of being the ‘prison of the peoples’ and the fortress against democracy and enlightenment in Europe. Revolution was only to be expected in such circumstances.
Robert Service

2. Demolition, 1915–1917

Abstract
How did it come about that the Bolsheviks could seize power in the Russian capital in October 1917? Their success, according to Soviet spokesmen over many decades, resulted from the close fit between the party’s policies and the aspirations of the workers, peasants and conscripts of the former Russian Empire. They claimed that socialist revolution was unavoidable and that the military, economic and political disarray of wartime Russia was a mere backdrop for the doom of capitalism; at the same time they asserted that the role played by Vladimir Lenin was vital to the revolutionary advance [27; 28]. This picture of the leader, the party and the ‘masses’ acting in benign harmony has always been rejected by non-communists. But about one thing there was agreement: the importance of Lenin. Practically everyone in the West at the time and later concurred that without him there would have been no October Revolution. His indispensability was treated as axiomatic.
Robert Service

3. Experimental Construction, 1917–1927

Abstract
What explains the Bolshevik party’s survival in power? Textbooks in the USSR gave a confident answer to this question. Their argument was that the party had not and could not have anticipated every emergency; but they claimed that its fundamental principles saw it through and that the Soviet government’s social and economic reforms made it permanently attractive to most workers, peasants and conscripts [27; 28]. Foreign observers, at least those outside the world’s communist parties, went along with this. Detractors asserted that really the Leninist regime was unpopular and that only dictatorship kept Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power. The Bolshevik party was supported only by a minority in society. It conducted a savage terror to win the Civil War and maintain itself in the peace that followed. It had a fanatical leader in Lenin as well as fanatical doctrines. Reinforcing the worst traditions of tsarism, it imposed an appalling one-party regime and exploited the cultural backwardness of the society it ruled [30].
Robert Service

Conclusions

Abstract
The Revolution of 1917 was a culmination and a beginning; an old order was ended, a new one inaugurated. The events were also an interruption. Economic achievement had been impressed before the First World War and was substantial again under the NEP. The social transformation initiated in the late Imperial period was resumed in the early 1920s. Both Nicholas Il’s government and the Bolsheviks enabled such modernisation. State economic intervention, which was not negligible before 1917, was massive thereafter. The thrust towards modernity was not generated exclusively by political action from on high. Society in general helped to create and sustain it. The Imperial authorities could never subject their people to anything near to close control, and their incapacity was growing from the start of the twentieth century. Only spasmodic repression was practicable. Subsequently the Bolsheviks, despite amassing greater resources for coercion, encountered resistance from sections of the working class and the peasantry in the Civil War; and concessions were an acute requirement by 1921. There were other continuities between the two regimes. Open political opposition was restricted severely under Nicholas II until 1905 and even more severely under Bolshevism. Abject poverty persisted widely.
Robert Service
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