The Russian Revolution

“There was nothing positive or grandiose in the Russian Revolution”

— Richard Pipes

The author of this masterpiece says that the Russian Revolution was probably the most important historical event of the twentieth century (century already in history itself). However, and although there is no lack of bibliography, there is still a lack of knowledge and numerous myths about it. The Russian Revolution by Professor Richard Pipes (Poland 1923), first published in 1990 and magnificently reissued in Spanish by Debate (Random House), is the first attempt to give an exhaustive account of a period of Russian history spanning from the decadence of the Old Tsarist Regime until the establishment of the Red Terror during the decade of the 20s of the last century. It is a work written with astonishing intelligence; a demanding reading with more than 1000 pages that also has a very high return. In many respects, structure, style and depth, it recalls other great classics, such as Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution.

The great intellectual solidity of Professor Pipes, influenced, among others, by Vienna thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, makes this work contain great lessons in politics, economics, sociology and ethics. Pipes understands well the importance of institutions and their evolution over time, as well as the concept of extensive order, which facilitates the reader a deep understanding of the institutions of rural tsarist Russia — fixed in the collective imagination through The works of great masters of literature such as Tolstoy, where ancestral customs and customs were more important than written laws (pp. 124–131).

The attempt to reduce the more than a thousand pages of the work, –which, on the other hand, is read as the best novel–, to a few tens of lines seems like impossible task. That is why I am going to allow the license to, rather than synthesize and summarize, to share with the future reader some of the reflections that have aroused my reading.

The Romanovs and the Last Czar

One of the great lessons that can be drawn from the Russian Revolution is the impact that concrete people often have in the course of events, especially at times when a nation has to choose between reform and rupture. Pipes manages to perfectly reflect the constant tension that in many moments of history exists between reformist and pragmatic approach to policies in opposition to the revolutionary reverie. The first archetype corresponds, for example, to the leader of the reformist tsarist bourgeoisie, Stolipin; in the other hand, Lenin represents the perfect archetype of the latter. The reformist attempts of the regime (see Chapter 5), led by Stolipin, who worked to forge consensus, moving away from maximalists, were boycotted again and again by the revolutionary rhetoric of the new intellectual class, Intelligentsia, Central element in the tragic evolution of events in Russia. This Intelligentsia will gradually conquer the monopoly of intellectual discourse with a top-down, centralized and fragile approach, based on social engineering (see Chapter 4, to me one of the crucial parts of the book), and it will be the political burden and philosophical to the revolutionary movement so that it could pull right.

The Platonic approach of the intellectuals prevailed to the Tcequevillian intelligence of leaders like Stolipin, –figure put in value by Pipes–, whose proposal of agrarian reform, for example, tremendously advanced and modern for the time and that defended with great brilliance ended up being victim of the political approach that navigates in the comfort of the imaginary (pp. 186–192).

All this underlines one of the fundamental points of the book: the revolution was not inevitable, but the fruit sought by a political and intellectual minority. Contrary to what is commonly thought, the Revolution was neither ineluctable nor driven by poor economic and political conditions, although they will clearly be elements that favor a general climate of great discontent. In the economic sphere Russia suffered a slight delay compared to other powers in its environment, although during the decades prior to 1917 it advanced from all points of view (economic, political and social) as never before.

Rebellions happen, revolutions are made

Among other myths, Pipes dismantles that of the supposed spontaneous nature of the events of the autumn of 17 iconical devised in the October of Sergei Eisenstein. Nicolas II had abdicated in March after a term characterized by ineptitude and inability to reform. Before Russian absolutism collapsed irremediably with the rebellion of Petrograd (later Leningrad, finally St. Petersburg) in February, the real Russian revolution, the regime had taken some steps in the right direction under the leadership of the reformist Tsar Alexander II, the last window of greatness that will remain to Russia. Alexander had led to such promising improvements as the total and absolute independence of universities or the elimination of serfdom in 1861, more than 50 years before the events with which many still associate this milestone (see chapters 2 and 3). Unfortunately, these reforms did not have continuity.

With this background in mind, the idealized events of October (see chapter 11) were nothing more than a Bolshevik coup against the provisional government of the irresponsible Alexander Kerensky, a revolutionary socialist who understood only the complexity of governing when it was too much late.

The book explains the conspiratorial way in which the Bolsheviks took power and the overwhelming rejection that Lenin’s coup d’etat had between all social classes (especially workers and peasants). Hence the bloody subsequent civil war and the machinery of terror which the Communists had to implement to carry out their program in the countryside (see Chapter 16).

Richard Pipes clearly establishes the distinction between rebellion, spontaneous process of overthrowing a government, and revolution, a process of conquest of power with a high theoretical component and led by an elite (pp. 132–33). Here we have perfectly explained both archetypes: a failed revolution in February 1905 (see chapter 1), a revolution of February 1917 (see chapter 8), a Bolshevik coup d’état in October of the same year, and a civil war which lasted until 1922–23 And was an unmistakable sign of the widespread rejection of the Bolsheviks.

The book describes without compromise the Bolshevik faction: beasts comparable in all respects to the worst of fascism and Nazism. Communism, however, is an ism that is still contemplated romantically in certain intellectual or juvenile circles; hence it is not so much stigmatized as the other two are. Thanks to such extraordinary films as Schlinder’s List, to give just one example, Nazism has been placed in the collective imagination in the ignominious place that corresponds to it. To make a comment, no longer favorable, only jocular about the Nazi regime in a working dinner, for example, becomes unthinkable and has a high social cost. This is not the case with the regime established by Lenin and Stalin, despite being on the same moral level.

The Unknown Lenin

Both Lenin and Stalin not due to a lack of extremely explicit bibliography in the description of the crimes commit the consolidation of the Bolshevik myth: there is The Black Book of Communism. But to that referred in the previous paragraph. On the other hand, there is still a romantic dichotomy whereby Lenin was a good, utopian leader who dreamed of a better world for all, and a Stalin who ruined everything. Nothing is further from reality.

Pipes, who has a complete biography of Lenin (see The Unknown Lenin), tells of a leader with poor intellectual training, the son of a well-to-do family of the regime, frustrated and of little talent or brilliance (see Chapter 9). A vile character deprived of empathy, cold and a fanatic polylogism. Stripped of any moral scruples, in his career as a politician he gave numerous examples of great cruelty and cowardice (p.379), and his referents were the leaders of the Terror of the French Revolution, as Robespierre. From the beginning, he sought the conquest of power at all costs.

The great message of the work is a total condemnation of the Bolshevik regime based on a moral reading of the results of Lenin’s “assault on heaven” and company. The Bolshevik regime, like the rest of communist enterprises, violated the moral principle by which people have to be treated as ends in themselves, not as instrumental means for the conquest and maintenance of power. Hence the phrase quoted in the frontispiece of this review, Pipes himself.

There are books that can be used to exhaust a genre; professor Richard Pipes almost gets it on a topic that on the other hand is immeasurable.