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History - Reflections on the Russian Revolution

By Richard Pipes

Given the pivotal significance of the Russian Revolution, we wish to provide our readers with what we feel is one of the most conicse, well researched and most thoughtful considerations of the causes of the Revolution. This brief section was written by Richard Pipes, Baird Professor of History at Harvard University, and a world recognized authority on Russian History. It comes from his book "Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime", Vintage Books, 1995, ISBN 0-394-50242-6.

This information is for educational purposes only and is protected by copyright belonging to Richard Pipes, 1994. It may not be reproduced or used commercially for any purpose without prior written approval of the copyright holder.



The Russian Revolution of 1917 was not an event or even a process, but a sequence of disruptive and violent acts that occurred more or less concurrently but involved actors with differing and in some measure contradictory objectives. It began as a revolt of the most conservative elements in Russian society, disgusted by the Crown's familiarity with Rasputin and the mismanagement of the war effort. From the conservatives the revolt spread to the liberals, who challenged the monarchy from fear that if it remained in office, revolution would become inevitable. Initially, the assault on the monarchy was undertaken not, as widely believed, from fatigue with the war, but from a desire to pursue the war more effectively: not to make revolution but to avert one. In February 1917, when the Petrograd garrison refused to fire on civilian crowds, the generals, in agreement with parliamentary politicians, hoping to prevent the mutiny from spreading to the front, convinced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The abdication, made for the sake of military victory, brought down the whole edifice of Russian statehood.

Although initially neither social discontent nor the agitation of the radical intelligentsia played any significant role in these events, both moved to the forefront the instant imperial authority collapsed. In the spring and summer of 1917, peasants began to seize and distribute among themselves noncommunal properties. Next, the rebellion spread to frontline troops, who deserted in droves to share in the spoils; to workers, who took control of industrial enterprises; and to ethnic minorities, who wanted greater self-rule. Each group pursued its own objectives, but the cumulative effect of their assault on the country's social and economic structure by the autumn of 1917 created in Russia a state of anarchy.

The events of 1917 demonstrated that for all its immense territory and claim to great power status, the Russian empire was a fragile, artificial structure, held together not by organic bonds connecting rulers and ruled, but by mechanical links provided by the bureaucracy, police, and army. Its 150 million inhabitants were bound neither by strong economic interests nor by a sense of national identity. Centuries of autocratic rule in a country with a predominantly natural economy had prevented the formation of strong lateral ties: Imperial Russia was mostly warp with little woof. This fact was noted at the time by one of Russia's leading historians and political figures, Paul Miliukov:

To make you understand [the] special character of the Russian Revolution, I must draw your attention to [the] peculiar features, made our own by the whole process of Russia's history. To my mind, all these features converge into one. The fundamental difference which distinguishes Russia's social structure from that of other civilized countries, can be characterized as a certain weakness or lack of a strong cohesion or cementation of elements which form a social compound. You can observe that lack of consolidation in the Russian social aggregate in every aspect of civilized life: political, social, mental and national.

From the political point of view, the Russian State institutions lacked cohesion and amalgamation with the popular masses over which they ruled...As a consequence of their later appearance, the State institutions in Eastern Europe necessarily assumed certain forms which were different from those in the West. The State in the East had no time to originate from within, in a process of organic evolution. It was brought to the East from outside.

Once these factors are taken into consideration, it becomes apparent that the Marxist notion that revolution always results from social ("class") discontent cannot be sustained. Although such discontent did exist in Imperial Russia, as it does everywhere, the decisive and immediate factors making for the regime's fall and the resultant turmoil were overwhelmingly political.

Was the Revolution inevitable? It is natural to believe that whatever happens has to happen, and there are historians who rationalize this primitive faith with pseudoscientific arguments: they would be more convincing if they could predict the future as unerringly as they claim to predict the past. Paraphrasing a familiar legal maxim, one might say that psychologically speaking, occurrence provides nine-tenths of historical justification.

Edmund Burke was in his day widely regarded as a madman for questioning the French Revolution: seventy years later, according to Matthew Arnold, his ideas were still considered "superannuated and conjured by events" - so ingrained is the belief in the rationality, and therefore the inevitability, of historical events. The grander they are and the more weighty their consequences the more they appear part of the natural order of things which it is quixotic to question.

The most that one can say is that a revolution in Russia was more likely than not, and this for several reasons. Of these, perhaps the most weighty was the steady decline of the prestige of tsardom in the eyes of a population accustomed to being ruled by an invincible authority - indeed, seeing in invincibility the criterion of legitimacy. After a century and a half of military victories and expansion from the middle of the nineteenth century until 1917, Russia suffered one humiliation after another at the hands of foreigners: the defeat, on her own soil, in the Crimean War; the loss at the Congress of Berlin of the fruits of victory over the Turks; the debacle in the war with Japan; and the drubbing at the ands of the Germans in World War I. Such a succession of reverses would have damaged the reputation of any government: in Russia it proved fatal. Tsarism's disgrace was compounded by the concurrent rise of a revolutionary movement which it was unable to quell despite resort to harsh repression. The half-hearted concessions made in 1905 to share power with society neither made tsarism more popular with the opposition nor raised its prestige in the eyes of the people at large, who simply could not understand how a ruler would allow himself to be abused from the forum of a government institution. The Confucian principle of T'ien-ming, or Mandate of Heaven, which in its original meaning linked the ruler's authority to righteous conduct, in Russia derived from forceful conduct: a weak ruler, a "loser", forfeited it. Nothing could be more misleading than to judge a Russian head of state by the standard of either morality or popularity: what mattered was that he inspired fear in friend and foe - that, like Ivan IV, he deserve the sobriquet of "Awesome." Nicholas II fell not because he was hated but because he was held in contempt.

Among the other factors making for revolution was the mentality of the russian peasantry, a class never integrated into the political structure. Peasants made up 80 percent of Russia's population: and although they took hardly any active part in the conduct of state affairs, in a passive capacity, as an obstacle to change and, at the same time, a permanent threat to the status quo, they were a very unsettling element. It is commonplace to hear that under the old regime the Russian peasant was "oppressed," but it is far from clear just who was oppressing him. On the eve of the Revolution, he enjoyed full civil and legal rights; he also owned, either outright or communally, nine-tenths of the country's agricultural land and the same proportion of livestock. Poor by Western European or American standards, he was better off than his father, and freer than his grandfather, who more likely than not had been a serf. Cultivating allotments assigned to him by fellow peasants, he certainly enjoyed greater security than tenant farmer of Ireland, Spain or Italy.

The problem with Russian peasants was not oppression, but isolation. They were isolated from the country's political, economic and cultural life, and therefore unaffected by the changes that had occurred since the time Peter the Great had set Russia on the course of Westernization. Many contemporaries observed that the peasantry remained steeped in Muscovite culture: culturally it had no more in common with the ruling elite or the intelligentsia than the native population of Britain's African colonies had with Victorian England. The majority of Russia's peasants descended from serfs, who were not even subjects, since the monarchy abandoned them to the whim of the landlord and bureaucrat. As a result, for Russia's rural population the state remained even after the emancipation an alien and malevolent force that took taxes and recruits but gave nothing in return. The peasant knew no loyalty outside his household and commune. The felt no patriotism and no attachment to the government save for a vague devotion to the distant Tsar from whom he expected to receive the land he coveted. An instinctive anarchist, he was never integrated into national life and felt as much estranged from the conservative establishment as from the radical opposition. He looked down on the city and on men without beards: Marquis de Custine heard it said as early as 1839 that someday Russia would see a revolt of the bearded against the shaven. The existence of this mass of alienated and potentially explosive peasants immobilized the government, which believed that it was docile only from fear and would interpret any political concessions as weakness and rebel.

The traditions of serfdom and the social institutions of rural Russia - the joint family household and the almost universal system of communal land-holding - prevented the peasantry from developing qualities required fro modern citizenship. While serfdom was not slavery, the two institutions had this in common that like slaves, serfs had no legal rights and hence no sense of law. Michael Rstovtseff, Russia's leading historian of classical antiquity and an eyewitness of 1917, concluded that serfdom may have been worse than slavery in that a serf had never known freedom, which prevented him from acquiring the qualities of a true citizen: in his opinion, it was a principal cause of Bolshevism. To serfs, authority was by its very nature arbitrary: and to defend themselves from it they relied no on appeals to legal or moral rights, but on cunning. They could not conceive of government based on principle: life to them was a Hobbesian war of all against all. This attitude fostered despotism: for the absence of inner discipline and respect for law required order to be imposed from the outside. When despotism ceased to be viable, anarchy ensued; and once anarchy had run its course, it inevitably gave rise to a new despotism.

The peasant was revolutionary in one respect only: he did not acknowledge private ownership of land. Although on the eve of the Revolution he owned nine-tenths of the country's arable, he craved for the remaining 10 percent held by landlords, merchants and noncommunal peasants. No economic or legal arguments could change his mind: he felt he had a God-given right to that land and that someday it would be his. And by his he meant the commune's, which would allocate it justly to its members. The prevalence of communal landholding in European Russia was, along with the legacy of serfdom, a fundamental fact of Russian social history. It meant that along with a poorly developed sense for law, the peasant also had little respect for private property. Both tendencies were exploited and exacerbated by radical intellectuals for their own ends to incite the peasantry against the status quo.

Russia's industrial workers were potentially destabilizing not because they assimilated revolutionary ideologies - very few of them did and even they were excluded from leadership positions in the revolutionary parties. Rather, since most of them were one or at most two generations removed from the village and only superficially urbanized, they carried with them to the factory rural attitudes only slightly adjusted to industrial conditions. They were not socialists but syndicalists, believing that as their village relatives were entitled to all the land, so they had a right to the factories. Politics interested them no more than it did the peasants: in this sense, too, they were under the influence of primitive, non-ideological anarchism. Furthermore, industrial labor in Russia was numerically too insignificant to play a major role in revolution: with at most 3 million workers (a high proportion of them peasants seasonally employed), they represented a mere 2 percent of the population. Hordes of graduate students, steered by their professors, in the Soviet Union as well as the West, especially in the United States, have assiduously combed historical sources in the hope of unearthing evidence of worker radicalism in prerevolutionary Russia. The results are weighty tomes, filled with mostly meaningless events and statistics, that prove only that while history is always interesting, history books can be both vacuous and dull.

A major and arguably decisive factor making for revolution was the intelligentsia, which in Russia attained greater influence than anywhere else. The peculiar "ranking" system of the tsarist civil service excluded outsiders from the administration, estranging the best-educated elements and making them susceptible to fantastic schemes of social reform, conceived but never tried in Western Europe. The absence until 1906 of representative institutions and a free press, combined with the spread of education, enabled the cultural elite to claim the right to speak on behalf of a mute people. There exists no evidence that the intelligentsia actually reflected the opinion of the "masses": on the contrary, the evidence indicates that both before and after the Revolution peasants and workers deeply distrusted intellectuals. This became apparent in 1917 and the years that followed. But since the true will of the people had no channels of expression, at any rate, until the short-lived constitutional order introduced in 1906, the intelligentsia was able with some success to pose as its spokesman.

As in other countries where it lacked legitimate political outlets, the intelligentsia in Russia constituted itself into a caste: and since ideas were what gave it identity and cohesion, it developed extreme intellectual intolerance. Adopting the Enlightenment view of man as nothing but material substance shaped by the environment, and its corollary, that changes in the environment inevitably change human nature, it saw "revolution" not as the replacement of one government by another, but as something incomparable more ambitious: a total transformation of the human environment for the purpose of creating a new breed of human beings - in Russia, of course, but also everywhere else. Its stress on the inequities of the status quo was merely a device for gaining popular support: no rectification of these inequities would have persuaded radical intellectuals to give up their revolutionary aspirations. Such beliefs linked members of various left-wing parties: anarchists, Socialists-Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and Bolsheviks. Although couched in scientific terms, their views were immune to contrary evidence, and hence more akin to religious faith.

The intelligentsia, which we have defined as intellectuals craving power, stood in total and uncompromising hostility to the existing order: nothing the tsarist regime could do short of committing suicide would have satisfied it. They were revolutionaries not for the sake of improving the condition of the people but for the sake of gaining domination over the people and remaking them in their own image. They confronted the Imperial regime with a challenge that it had no way of repulsing short of employing the kind of methods introduced later by Lenin. Reforms, whether those of the 1860s, or those of 1905-06, only whetted the appetite of the radicals and spurred them to still greater revolutionary excesses.

Buffeted by peasant demands and under direct assault from the radical intelligentsia, the monarchy had only one means of averting collapse, and that was to broaden the base of its authority by sharing power with conservative elements of society. Historic precedent indicates that successful democracies have initially limited power-sharing to the upper orders: these eventually came under pressure from the rest of the population, with the result that their privileges turned into common rights. Involving conservatives, who were far more numerous than the radicals, in both decision making and administration would have forged something of an organic bond between the government and society, assuring the crown of support in the event of upheavals, and, at the same time, isolating the radicals. Such a course was urged on the monarchy by some far-sighted officials and private individuals. It should have been adopted in the 1860s, at the time of the Great Reforms, but it was not. When finally compelled in 1905 by a nationwide rebellion to concede a parliament, the monarchy no longer had this option available, for the combined liberal and radical opposition forced it to concede something close to a democratic franchise. This resulted in the conservatives in the Duma being submerged by militant intellectuals and anarchist peasants.

World War I subjected every belligerent country to immense strains, which could be overcome only by close collaboration between government and citizenry in the name of patriotism. In Russia such collaboration never materialized. As soon as military reverses dissipated the initial patriotic enthusiasm and the country had to brace for a war of attrition, the tsarist regime found itself unable to mobilize public support. Even its admirers agree that at the time of its collapse the monarchy was hanging in the air.

The motivation of the tsarist regime in refusing to share political power with its supporters, and when finally forced to do so, sharing it grudgingly and deceitfully, was complex. Deep in their hearts, the Court, the bureaucracy, and the professional officer corps were permeated with a patrimonial spirit that viewed Russia as the tsar's private domain. Although in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Muscovite patrimonial institutions were gradually dismantled, the mentality survived. And not only in official circles: the peasantry too, thought in patrimonial terms, believing in strong, unlimited authority and regarding the land as tsarist property. Nicholas II took it for granted that he had to keep autocracy in trust for his heir: unlimited authority was to him the equivalent of a property title, which, in his capacity of trustee, he had no right to dilute. He never rid himself of the feeling of guilt that to save the throne in 1905 he had agreed to divide ownership with the nation's elected representatives.

The tsar and his advisors also feared that sharing authority with even a small part of society would disorganize the bureaucratic mechanism and open the door to still greater demands for popular participation. In the latter event, the main beneficiary would be the intelligentsia, which he and his advisers considered utterly incompetent. There was the additional concern that the peasants would misinterpret such concessions and go on a rampage. And finally, there was the opposition to reforms of the bureaucracy, which, accountable only to the tsar, administered the country at its discretion, deriving from this fact numerous benefits.

Such factors explain but do not justify the monarchy's refusal to give conservatives a voice in the government, the more so that the variety and complexity of issues facing it deprived the bureaucracy of much effective authority in any event. The emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century of capitalist institutions shifted much of the control over the country's resources into private hands, undermining what was left of patrimonialism.

In sum, while the collapse of tsarism was not inevitable, it was made likely by deep-seated cultural and political flaws that prevented the tsarist regime from adjusting to the economic and cultural growth of the country, flaws that proved fatal under the pressures generated by World War I. If the possibility of such adjustment existed, it was aborted by the activities of a belligerent intelligentsia bent on toppling the government and using Russia as a springboard for world revolution. It was cultural and political shortcomings of this nature that brought about the collapse of tsarism, not "oppression" or "misery". We are dealing here with a national tragedy whose causes recede deep into the country's past. Economic and social difficulties did not contribute significantly to the revolutionary threat that hung over Russia before 1917. Whatever grievances they may have harbored - real and fancied - the "masses" neither needed nor desired a revolution: the only group interested in it was the intelligentsia. Stress on alleged popular discontent and class conflict derives more from ideological preconceptions than from facts at hand, namely from the discredited idea that political developments are always and everywhere driven by socioeconomic conflicts, that they are mere "foam" on the surfaces of the currents that really guide human destiny.


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