Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (1947)


THE FIRST FRUITS (1825-1905)

Russia at the Beginning of the 19th Century; Birth of the Revolution

The enormous size of the country, a sparse population whose disunity makes it an easy prey for invaders, Mongol domination for more than two centuries, continual wars, varied catastrophes and other unfavorable factors caused the enormous political, economic, social and cultural backwardness of Russia in relation to other European countries.

Politically, Russia entered the 19th century under the rule of an absolute monarchy (the autocratic "Tsar") which was dependent on an enormous landed and military aristocracy, an omnipotent bureaucracy, an extensive and pious clergy, and a peasant mass consisting of 75,000,000 souls -- primitive, illiterate and prostrate before their "little father," the Tsar.

Economically, the country had reached the stage of a type of agrarian feudalism. Except for the two capitals (St. Petersburg and Moscow) and some cities in the South, the cities were hardly developed. Commerce and particularly industry stagnated. The economic base of the country was agriculture which supported 95% of the population. The land did not belong to the direct producers, the peasants, but was the property of the State or of large landed proprietors, the "pomeshchiks." The peasants, legally tied to the land and to the property-owner, were his serfs. The largest proprietors owned veritable fiefs, inherited from their ancestors who, in turn, had received them from the sovereign, the first proprietor, in exchange for services rendered (military, administrative or other). The "lord" determined the life and death of his serfs. He not only made them work as slaves; he could also sell them, punish them and make martyrs out of them (he could kill them without much inconvenience to himself). This serfdom, this slavery on the part of 75,000,000 people, was the economic foundation of the State.

It is hardly possible to talk of the social organization of such a "society." On top were the absolute masters: the Tsar, his numerous relatives, his slavish court, the high nobility, the military caste, the high clergy. On the bottom, the slaves: peasant-serfs in the countryside and the lower class people of the cities, who lacked all notions of civic life, all rights, all freedoms. Between the two, there were certain intermediate strata: merchants, bureaucrats, functionaries, artisans and others -colorless and insignificant.

It is clear that the cultural level of the society was not very high. Nevertheless, already for this period we have to make an important reservation: a striking contrast which we will again describe later, existed between the uneducated and poverty-stricken population of the cities and villages and the privileged strata whose education and training were quite advanced.

The serfdom of the masses was the plague of the country. A few noble-spirited individuals had already protested against this abomination toward the end of the 18th century. They had to pay dearly for their generous gesture. On the other hand, the peasants rebelled with increasing frequency against their masters. Besides local uprisings of a more or less individual nature (against one or another lord who went too far), the peasant masses gave rise to two extensive movements (the Razin uprising in the 17th and the Pugachev uprising in the 18th century) which, though they failed, created enormous problems for the Tsarist government and nearly overthrew the entire system. It should be noted, however, that these two spontaneous movements were directed mainly against the immediate enemy: the landed nobility, the urban aristocracy and the corrupt administration. No general idea of overthrowing the social system in its entirety and replacing it with another and more equitable system was formulated. By using treachery and violence, with the help of the clergy and other reactionary elements, the government succeeded in totally subjugating the peasants, even "psychologically," to such an extent that any movement of widespread revolt was rendered nearly impossible for a long period of time.

The first consciously revolutionary movement directed against the regime appeared in 1825 when, after the death of Alexander I, who left no direct heir, the crown, rejected by his brother Constantine, passed to his other brother Nicholas. Socially, the program of this movement aimed for the abolition of serfdom; politically, for the establishment of a republic or at least a constitutional regime.

This movement emerged, not from among the oppressed, but from the privileged classes. The conspirators, taking advantage of the government's preoccupation with dynastic problems, began to carry out the projects they had long been preparing. In the revolt which broke out in St. Petersburg, they were supported by some of the regiments in the capital. (At the head of the movement there were some officers of the imperial army.) The rebellion was defeated after a short battle at the Senate Square between the insurgents and the troops which remained loyal to the government. Several uprisings which had been planned in the provinces were nipped in the bud.

The revolt made a profound impression on the new Tsar, Nicholas I, and he personally supervised an extremely thorough investigation. The investigators sought and ferreted out even the most distant and platonic sympathizers of the movement. The repression, in its desire to be definitive and "exemplary," did not stop short of cruelty. The five principal instigators died on the scaffold; hundreds were imprisoned, exiled or condemned to hard labor.

Since the revolt took place in December, the participants came to be known as Decembrists. Nearly all belonged to the nobility or to other privileged classes. Nearly all had received professional training or higher education. Open-minded and sensitive, they were pained by the sight of a people weighed down by an arbitrary and unjust regime, by ignorance, poverty, and slavery. They took up the protests of their 18th century predecessors and translated them into action. What gave them the necessary impetus was largely the journey many of them had taken to France after the war of 1812, which made it possible for them to compare the relatively high level of civilization in Europe with the barbaric living conditions of the Russian population. They returned to Russia having made the firm decision to struggle against the backward political and social system which oppressed their countrymen. They rallied many educated individuals to their cause. Pestel, one of the leaders of the movement, even elaborated some vaguely socialist ideas in his program. The famous poet Pushkin (born in 1799) sympathized with the movement, although he did not join it.

As soon as the revolt was put down, the frightened new emperor, Nicholas I, pushed the despotic, bureaucratic and police rule of the Russian State to its extreme.

It should be emphasized that there was no contradiction between the peasants' revolts against their oppressors on the one hand, and their blind veneration of the "little father the Tsar" on the other. The peasant revolts, as we said earlier, were always directed against the immediate oppressors: the landowners ("pomeshchiks"), the nobles, the functionaries, the police. It did not occur to the peasants to look for the source of the oppression further, in the Tsarist regime itself, personified by the Tsar, grand protector of the nobles and the privileged, first and most highly privileged nobleman. To the peasants the Tsar was a type of idol, a superior being high above ordinary mortals, above their small interests and weaknesses, guiding the great destinies of the state. The authorities, the bureaucrats, and above all the priests (the "popes") did all they could to engrave this idea in the peasants' heads. The peasants finally accepted the legend, and later it became unshakeable. The Tsar, they told themselves, wants nothing but the well-being of his "children"; but the privileged intermediaries, interested in preserving their rights and advantages, stand between the Tsar and his people and keep him from knowing their misery. (The peasant masses were convinced that if the people and the Tsar could face each other directly, the Tsar, temporarily misled by the privileged, would see the truth, would get rid of his bad advisors and other dishonest people, and would deal with the sufferings of the tillers of the soil; he would free them from their yoke and would give to them all of the good land which by rights ought to belong to those who work it.) Thus, while sometimes revolting against their most cruel masters, the peasants waited with hope and resignation for the day when the wall separating them from the Tsar would be demolished and social justice would be re-established by the Tsar. Their religious mysticism helped them accept the period of waiting and suffering as a punishment and trial imposed by God. They resigned themselves to it with a primitive fatalism.

This outlook was extremely characteristic of the Russian peasant masses. It became even more pronounced during the nineteenth century, in spite of growing discontent and increasingly frequent individual or local acts of revolt. The peasants were losing patience. But the more impatient they became, the more fervently they waited for their "liberator," the Tsar.

This "legend of the Tsar" was a central characteristic of popular Russian life in the nineteenth century. Failure to take it into account will make it impossible to understand the events that follow. This legend clarifies certain phenomena which would otherwise be unexplainable. It goes a long way toward explaining the Russian paradox which we have already mentioned, a paradox which shocked so many Europeans, and which did not disappear until the outbreak of the 1917 revolution: on the one side are numerous individuals who are cultured, educated, advanced, who want to see their people free and happy, who are aware of the ideas of their time, and who struggle for the emancipation of the working classes, for democracy and socialism. On the other side are people who do nothing for their liberation (aside from a few minor and unimportant revolts), people who remain obstinately prostrate before their idol and their dream, people who do not even understand the gesture of one who sacrifices himself for them. Indifferent, blind to truth, deaf to all appeals, these people wait for the liberator Tsar just as the first Christians waited for the Messiah.1


1 There are analogies between this situation in 19th century Russia before the revolution 01 1917, and that of France in the eighteenth century before the revolution of 1789. But naturally certain peculiarities are specifically Russian.