A Shattered Empire: Reflections on Revolution and Shards of Human Experience

Konstantin Yuon, A New Planet, 1921.

By Jacob Bruggeman

To the historian, claims of history’s irrelevance, be it history as a disciple or a hobby, always appear confused, for critically reflecting on the past is arguably the best way to understand the present. Indeed, in recalling our human ancestry—the lives and feats of those forgotten peoples on whose labor our lives are built, whose humanity is the model for our own—one can better understand the present’s plights and predicaments, just as well as its pleasures, and thus situate these facets of human experience in the profundity of our species’ long history. One of the most interesting pieces of human experience is found in the tumult of revolutions, which are, as Russianist Mark D. Steinberg notes, “one of human history’s strongest expressions of […] desire, vision, and possibility.”[1] This mode of expression is all-too-familiar to most in modernity: individuals are daily reminded by the media of revolutions’ consequences, the good and the bad, and as certain segments of society suggest revolution, the rest of the public, or the sliver that keeps informed, wonder with dread or anticipation as threats and taunts of uprisings are made, most of which quickly fizzle into meaninglessness. The revolutions of the past, and thus the Russian Revolution, matter; this specific period of Russian history matters because it affords us examples of the diversity of human experience, but also because it is a useful tool for understanding the present and, perhaps, predicting the future.

In 1905 thousands of workers in St. Petersburg petitioned the Tsar, Nicholas II, in the hopes that he might “demolish the wall between [himself] and the people, and let them govern the country in conjunction” with the timeworn Romanov Dynasty, that Nicholas would do something for the peasantry, a collective that had been “beggared, oppressed, [and] over-burdened with excessive toil.”[2] These workers sought freedom from a centuries-old condition of unfathomable destitution, and they (or whoever wrote the petition for them) saw a participatory government, to reverse-engineer Hayek’s famous aphorism, as a road from serfdom. Though these workmen would not see the changes they desired for another decade, they were calling for a “leap in the open air of history,”[3] one that would change their status as “human beings only in appearance,” “devoid of a single human right”—they wanted to have a part in the way that leap landed.[4]

The events of 1905 established ideas and actions that would resonate a decade later. Following the 1917 February Revolution that toppled the Tsar, the former empire witnessed the April Crisis over war deliberations, a prospect of revolts in the July Days, an attempted coup d’état in August with the Kornilov Affair, and the ascension of the Bolsheviks to power in the October revolution.[5] If there was a constant through these developments, it is best expressed by Vladimir Mayakovsky in Our March: “Too slow, the wagon of years, / The Oxen of day – to glum. / Our god is the god of speed.”[6] Indeed, their god was the god of speed, and this is quite evident in the rapidity with which the Provisional Government in Petrograd, and the hundreds of Soviets throughout the former empire, made and dispersed decisions. Furthermore, this sense of speed was reinforced by Lenin’s booming, urgent prose in his Letter to Central Committee Members in October: “With all my might I urge comrades to [realize] that everything now hangs by a thread […] We must not wait! We may lose everything! […] The value of the immediate seizure of power will be the defense of the people.”[7] Later in the same letter, Lenin declared that “History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious today,” a statement clearly emblematic of the eschatological, ‘only way’ Bolshevik worldview immediately following the Revolution.[8]

In the face of the official authorities’ decisions and the urgency of leaders such as Lenin, a cacophony of voices—the various rational actors and groups, shouting out in different languages, with different motives, and from different corners of the fallen empire—all attempted to make known what they thought should be done, what they thought should be made of the post-Revolutionary “sense of a miracle, of a sudden new beginning,” of a radical “springtime of freedom.”[9] The actions of sanctioned authorities reflect some things central to human nature, namely an insurmountable paranoia and need for order, or at least the perception of the latter, whereas the multiplicity of other voices reflect the diversity of human experience.

Despite the clear myriad voices, though, Lenin was unyielding, declaring that “there is only one way” of safeguarding the Revolution, that precious pang of the proletariat’s social force, and that was to sweep away the old, to burn the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and to build up the new.[10] A similar, if more radical, sentiment was echoed by Alexander Blok, the famed poet and leader of Russian Symbolism, who embraced and espoused “an eschatological vision, fully expecting the dreary, […] thoroughly corrupt world […] to be swept away by a destructive, “purifying” fire,” and form the ashes would rise new, peaceful, proletarian way of life.[11] With Lenin’s theories of revolution and Blok’s eschatological imperative in mind, the Bolshevik need to make decisions quickly—or the need for speed—is nowhere more evident than in July of 1917, when the Revolution “was brought face to face with the question of state power,” as Leon Trotsky, perhaps the most consequential writer in Petrograd, writes in The Struggle for State Power.[12] This struggle for order in the summer months of 1917, the struggle inherent in any ‘springtime of freedom’, begs “only one question: What kind of order, and for whom?”[13]

One private in the Russian infantry reserves wrote a poem hoping that the new order, whatever it would be, would make him and his family “Citizens free, for our rights new today,” and he even signed his poem “Free citizen / Fydor Af. Korsun.”[14] Private Fydor could not have known that a worker in the Kuban region, one who believed “that only a working man [was] capable of speaking the pure truth,” saw “how violently the political surface of the Russian national sea [was] bubbling and heaving” and heard “the distant voices,” those of the different party leaders, “calling on us to safeguard this precious and long-awaited guest.”[15] This worker saw the post-Tsarist governments as the new “proclaimer[s] of the new lie,” as “the new tyrants,” whose “current power over the people” was a power “that the bourgeoisie delivered.”[16] Perhaps this worker could have warned private Fydor of the looming Civil War, into which the private was likely drawn, but this worker’s voice was just one of an endless array. In contradistinction with the worker from Kuban, peasants from Okulovsky stated that “The Peasant, the Worker, and the Soldier understand their civic responsibility.”[17] Of what responsibility were these peasants speaking? The divergent views of the soldier, worker, and peasants presented in this study suggest the contrary—no one was on the same page, each group and personal demand was drowned out by the diversity of Russians’ experiences and worldviews, by the disharmony of voices let out as the ‘jump into the air of history was made’.

History, like all of the humanities, is a tool for better understanding human experience, and critically reflecting on the Russian Revolution and its ‘leap in the air of history’, no matter what one thinks of the landing, allows for the inheritors of its legacy to better understand human nature, the disunity of human experience, and the ways in which these differences clash when a society ‘leaps’ into radical possibility.

Jacob Bruggeman is a sophomore majoring in history and political science.



[1] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 17.

[2] “The St. Petersburg Workmen’s Petition to the Tsar, January 22, 1905.” The St. Petersburg Workmen’s Petition to the Tsar, January 22, 1905 – Wikisource, the Free Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. Pg. 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Steinberg, The Russian Revolution. Pg. 69.

[6] Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The Poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. Pg. 1.

[7] Lenin, Vladimir. Letter To Central Committee Members. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. Pg. 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, Pgs. 20-23.

[10] Lenin, V.I. “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism.” Marxists Internet Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. Pg. III.

[11] Dralyuk, Boris. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. London: Pushkin, 2016. Print. Pg. 47.

[12] Fraina, Louis C. “The July Uprising.” Leon Trotsky: The Struggle for State Power (4. The July Uprising). N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. Pg. 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Steinberg, Mark D. Voices of Revolution, 1917. New Haven: Yale U, 2003. Print. Pg. 82.

[15] Ibid., Pg. 86.

[16] Steinberg, Voices of Revolution. Pg. 88-89.

[17] Ibid., Pg. 100.

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