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The Origins of the Russian Revolution

The Alan Wood’s monograph, called The Origins of the Russian Revolution, begins with the justification of his research, which is rooted in argumentation of this event’s significance in terms of past and present ideology, politics, economy, and culture. Therefore, the author thinks that it is very important to examine the Revolution storyline from 1861 till 1917. In general, Wood does not seem to agree with Lenin, who claims that the Revolution begun because of unsatisfactory legislation that abolished serfdom in 1861. Wood views the Russian Revolution as a multidimensional phenomenon that should not be reduced to legislation issues. Instead, among the antecedents of the Revolution, the author emphasizes its irreversibility both from the position of intellectuals, who wrote about it, and Russian people, who fomented it.

The monograph is divided in accordance with the periods of the Revolution on four key stages: the autocracy and the opposition, the reform and the reaction, the rebellion and the constitution, as well as the war and the revolution. Apart from this structure, the author provides a broad introduction that conceptualizes the phenomenon of the Russian Revolution and explains its role in the context of the world history. In addition to this, there is chronological table of events that helps to relive and describe the entire process of the Revolution. The list of Russian technical terms is provided in the beginning of the monograph.

Wood claims that a revolution never occurs here and now because there are multiple factors that make it possible and there are long-term consequences of it. For example, the author studies and outlines numerous silent characteristics of the revolution during the tsarist regime that served as a form of opposition to tsarism. Tsarist’s regime was rather self-contradicting, as it was marked with Peter the Great’s attempt to make the Russian Empire fit with respect to the European standards of military administration, education and habits that were accompanied by poverty of the people due to serfdom, which has led to raising difference between the nobles and masses (4).  Thus, the entire Russian Empire during the tsarist period had numerous contradictions that made it impossible to live as usual and suggested the need for change. One of these contradictions, according to Wood, is the recognition of an autocratic ruler and desire to limit his power by the constitutional reform. For instance,

…several attempts have been made to draw up proposals for some kind of constitutional reforms which would limit the tsar’s power, but none of them was successful. It was not until the revolutionary disturbances of 1905 that the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II (r. 1894 – 1917), was forced to authorize the holding of elections for a consultative and legislative national assembly known as the Imperial State Duma. However, despite the tsar’s reluctant concession to the principle of some kind of limited participatory politics, the legalization of political parties, and the promulgation of a set of Fundamental Laws, the form of government still remained an absolute autocracy (4).

Thus, the Russian Empire before the Revolution was being torn apart between the two regimes and could not choose the necessary direction, though the basic manifestations of democracy were accompanied by totalitarian moods. The military forces and economic circumstances are also viewed as contradictory, so the solution was required.

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It is worth paying additional attention to the way the author introduces ‘the silent characteristics’ of the revolution. For example, he states that the whole tsarist regime was full of inner paradoxes, and, therefore, it was never stable: Michael Romanov attempted to solve those immediate political problems, whereas the continuing crucial economic and social problems were not paid attention to. Taking it all into account, according to Wood, “from its very inauguration, therefore, the new regime was threatened with a series of potentially revolutionary challenges to its authority which set the pattern for the next three centuries of autocracy and opposition” (8). Wood underlines interesting feature of Russian Revolutionary intentions that are evident even today: the attempts to reform the empire were not directed against the tsarina regime and autocracy as institution. Instead of it, the new leader that was willing to take tsar’s place promised to restore people’s right and to satisfy people’s needs, while the systematic changes of the state’s organization did not occur. I think that this is the most important discovery of the author, which brightly characterizes the essence of Russian policy and legislation: “it was marely a matter of exchanging one monarch for another, purely as the figurehead for this or that chart particular court faction, clique of favorite” (8-9).

However, the author recognizes that there were cases, when the real one attempts to fight with the tsarist regime, were made. For instance, the first attempt that was regarded as the first open endeavor towards a revolutionary change was the Decembrist revolt of 1825. This event deserves special attention because it embraced both political activists and intellectuals, which lead to a variety of cultural artefacts that are appreciated even today. It is considered to be the official beginning of revolutionary movement in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the reign of Nicholas I that is marked with the apogee of absolutism has led to debate of the 1840s called “Westerner-Slavophil” debate (11). The appearance of this debate witnesses a crucial disagreement regarding the ideological and political direction of Russia among the intellectuals and governors. This debate has shaped the further political and intellectual history of Russia, as it developed the culture of disagreement and philosophizing based on the major problems of the state.

The discussion of serfdom and emancipation conducted by Wood provides fresh view on traditional views according to which Alexander II abolished serfdom due to desire to improve the nation’s lives. Wood claims that “fear, rather than philanthropy, forced him to embark on a process which, following the Crimean debacle, was seen to be essential to the economic and political survival of the Empire” (12). This factor adds to an understanding of the entire Revolution’s progress and ideas: the political leaders believed that it is better to make reforms from the top, rather than to wait for them to be executed using a bottom-up method.

The factors that contributed to the rise of the Revolution, mentioned by the author, include the role and states of the serfs that were given legal liberty. For instance, the serfs were no longer considered to be a private property, which meant that they were given the ability to trade, marry and possess land. However, this process’ major problem was that the yesterday’s serfs were not satisfied. Author did not ignore the implementation of the reform, which made serfs pay for the lands, they were given: “the high level of the redemption dues, set at 6 per cent interest over a period of forty-nine years, meant that the peasants were forced to pay a price for their land which was far in excess of its current market value, and represented a ‘hidden’ compensation to the dvoryanstvo for the loss of their servile labor” (13). Thus, the people were given freedom, but they were not told what they should do with the freedom that was granted. First of all, the peasants were still organized in their village commune called obschina. The commune still had economic and quasi-judicial powers over its members because the serfs were granted with freedom and a right to own land on a collective basis instead of an individual one. This explains dissatisfaction of Russian narod, who supported the revolution. Moreover, Peasants were still subject to corporal punishment, military conscription, payment of the poll-tax and certain other obligations form which other social classes were exempt. In other words, the peasantry did not enjoy equal status with the other classes in Russian society. It was more a separate ‘caste’, with its own internal structures, procedures, laws and economic arrangements (13).

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It means that despite the tsar’s attempts to save his power and to demonstrate the illusion of reforms, his people’s dissatisfaction grew and was ready to explode.

The solution that was believed to be the most effective one was the concept of the Russian Marxism that could be the foundation of further deep reforms of the system. Wood explores the philosophical basis of the ideologies that were popular in the Revolutionary Russia to identify the people’s wants, desires and the extent, to which these needs and wants could be satisfied by the new coming ideologies. In the beginning of the chapter Origins of Russian Marxism, the author mentions popular beliefs regarding the best strategy for Russian society. For instance, the Marxists believed that the working class called proletariat could destroy capitalism (28). Therefore, the author carries out an in-depth analysis of cultural and social factors that have shaped the reception of these ideologies and worldviews. He identifies both the objective reasons, such as the growth of Russian labor force in 1890s and the subjective ones,  that were rooted in social stratification.

In conclusion, Wood Alan conducted a thoughtful investigation of cultural, ideological, social, political and economic factors that have shaped the Russian Revolution. He provided the fresh perspective on the Revolution, which is believed to be a long and complicated process, full of contradictions and exceptions. The author managed to combine the study of objective external factors and the subjective reaction of it that was inherent in Russian society. Wood underlined the crucial contradictions that are inherent in the modern political strategy of Russia, which serves as an argument for author’s clear vision regarding this event.