R. Page Arnot

A Short History of the Russian Revolution

from 1905 to the present day (1937)

Part I
from 1905 to February 1917

Chapter I


1. The Expansion of Russia

RUSSIA, or, to be precise, the name Russ, emerges into history in the ninth century, when the semi-legendary Viking chief, Rurik, set up his rule amongst a Slav population. During the Middle Ages, Russia was cut off from the rest of Christendom, partly by the different form of its religion (derived, like the later Tsardom, from the Byzantine Empire, and true heir to its stiffness and servility), and partly through its almost complete subjection to the Mongol or Tartar invaders who had carried forward the conquests begun by Genghiz Khan in the early thirteenth century. By the sixteenth century the Tartar invaders had been repelled or subdued and communications were opened up between Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of Muscovy, and Queen Elizabeth of England. Under the eighteenth-century rulers, from Peter the Great, who had laid the foundations of absolute monarchy after the model of Louis XIV of France and wrested the hegemony of Eastern Europe from the Swedes, to Catherine II, whose generals Potemkin and Souvaroff broke the power of the Ottoman Empire, the might and the bounds of the Russian Empire were enormously extended and many non-Russian peoples were brought within its territories. Poland was partitioned. Courland and Lithuania were absorbed, Moslem Khanates in the east and south-east were conquered, the territories of the northern and western shores of the Black Sea were taken from the Turks, while year after year saw a steady extension eastwards into Siberia, along the northern march of the Chinese Empire, which continued into the nineteenth century until the sea was reached and Vladivostock founded on the shores of the Pacific. Still Russia had remained as it were on the outskirts of Europe—untouched by the influence of the Crusades or the Renaissance, and immune from the effects of any later development of merchant capital or industrial capitalism—when the wars of the French Revolution and the disastrous invasion of the French in 1812 made the Tsar the leader of the continental monarchies, a position which was signalised by his headship of the Holy Alliance. From this time onwards, the strength of Russia began to give anxiety to the other Powers of Europe, and, though the help of the Tsar (“The Gendarme of Europe”) was gratefully accepted for the crushing of the revolutionary movements of 1848, the policy of the other Powers was largely affected by this growing fear. The Crimean War was an attempt to curb the Russian expansion; and the British Cabinets right up to 1890, or even later, were continually nervous of the proximity of Russia to Afghanistan, which seemed to them to threaten the safety of the British Empire in India. In Persia, too, the southward thrust of the Russian influence caused a continual anxiety which finally led to the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 (“The Partition of Persia”) over the demarcation of spheres of influence in that country.

It has often been said that the motive of the Tsarist territorial expansion was the desire for a warm-water seaport (the Baltic and White Sea are ice-bound in winter), and that the founding of Vladivostock, the thrust toward the Persian Gulf, and the continual yearning for the possession of Constantinople and the Straits, are thus explicable. In the Secret Treaty between the Tsar and the Allies of March 1915, Constantinople was bargained for as the price of Russian support for British and French claims in the Near East; and, as late as the autumn of 1916, a speaker in the Duma roused imperialist enthusiasm by his cry that “the Shield of Oleg was still stretched out over Constantinople.” It was nearly a thousand years since the unforgotten Viking Oleg had hung his buckler upon the gates of Byzantium.

2. The Extent of Russia

By the twentieth century, Russia (or, rather, the Russian Empire) covered that greater portion of the North European plain which is watered by the greatest European rivers—the Dnieper and Don flowing into the Black Sea, the Volga flowing into the Caspian Sea, while into the Arctic flow the Pechora and the Northern Dwina, into the Baltic the Niemen, and, in Russian Poland, the Vistula.

Beyond the Urals, whose low hills mark the end of the plain of North Europe, lay a vast region then called Siberia, or Russia-in-Asia, whose first features seen by the traveller eastwards were also rolling plains, divisible into treeless fertile steppe in the southern belt, taiga or dense forest in the middle belt, and tundra or frozen plain north of the Arctic circle. These plains are watered by three of the greatest rivers of the world, all flowing north into the Arctic Ocean—the Ob, the Yenisei, and the Lena. Beyond these Siberian plains great ranges of mountains, the Altai Mountains, the Yablonoi, and several other ranges, run for over a thousand miles before the valley of the Amur River is reached and the coastal plain of the Pacific Ocean; in much the same way as the Canadian forests and prairies, watered by great rivers, also flowing into the Arctic, run westward on for a thousand miles and more, until the Rocky Mountains cut off the coastal strip.

Besides this easily definable stretch of the earth’s surface, with its extensions into the northern peninsulas of Murman, Taimur, and Kamchatka, there are to be included two other regions, each lying to the south. The Caucasus, the loftiest mountain range in Europe, straddles between the landlocked Caspian and the Black Sea and gives its name to the region through which its mountain rivers flow—North Caucasus and Transcaucasus, in which latter lay the ancient kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia, as well as the great oil-bearing region of Azerbaijan around the city of Baku.

The other main region, separated from Siberia and European Russia by semi-deserts, inhabited by nomad tribes, Kalmucks and Kirghiz and others, was the land lying north of India and Afghanistan, and at that tulle called Turkestan, or Russian Turkestan (to distinguish it from Chinese Turkestan, which lay on its eastern border). Turkestan, like Egypt, would have been desert but for its two rivers, known to the ancient Greeks as the Oxus and the Jaxartes, and now called the Syr and the Amu, which keep the desert sands at bay and flow to an inland sea. Here, as in the valleys of the Nile, of the Indus, and of Mesopotamia, had been one of the old river civilisations of the world, going back for thousands of years, with cities of ancient names—Merv, Bokhara, Samarkand—that could challenge the renown of Memphis or Babylon, Damascus or Ur of the Chaldees.

Out of a total population of some 130 millions, nearly 92 millions formed at least four distinct groups of Slavonic-speaking peoples, namely, the Great Russians, the Ukrainians or Little Russians, the Byelorussians or White Russians, and the Poles, of whom the Great Russians were in a majority of 55 millions. The remaining one-third of the empire consisted among others of Georgians, Uzbeks, and Finns. Altogether nearly one hundred languages were spoken between the Baltic and the Pacific—but the dominant language, and the sole medium of education, religion, instruction, and administration, was Russian.

A similar medley existed of religious beliefs, including Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Buddhist, and Shamanist, with a similar predominance on the part of the Russian State Church—the Orthodox (Greek) Faith—which persecuted all other forms of religious belief or unbelief.

We may reckon, then, all the Russias as falling into four parts, to wit, European Russia, the Caucasus, Siberia, and Midmost Asia. For a fifth part, the Grand Duchy of Finland, though subjected to Russification, nevertheless remained peculiar, with its own language, religion, and separate administration. Of these four, European Russia was the homeland: the others were the colonies of Russian capitalism.

As regards population, the greatest density was in the Western Gubernias (meaning government, or, as we should say, province). For instance, in the kingdom of Poland, according to the 1897 census, the density per square verst was 84 (the verst equals two-thirds of a mile). In European Russia, this figure sank to 22 to the square verst. But in Midmost Asia it was only 2.5 to the square verst, while in Siberia it was 0.5.

Thus Russia, containing one-twelfth of the population of the globe, at the same time was in the heartland of the Old World, the huge block of Asia-Europe. It stood north of the mountain building centres in the High Pamirs, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas, from which radiate our more recent geological formations. Its soil was rich: and its subsoil was even richer. Its natural resources of all kinds were on a scale unequalled outside North America. This, then, was the ground, this the history and geography, of the land in which in the twentieth century there began the RUSSIAN REVOLUTION.

3. The Tsardom

In the early nineteenth century it was often said that there existed two Russias. One was the Russia of the peasants, serfs tied to the soil, “souls” owned by their lord. On their lord’s land for part of the week, on their own patch for another part, they conducted a primitive agriculture under the loose organisation of the village mir, somewhat like the English manor of the Middle Ages, or some village communities of India at the present day. Not until 18611 were they released from this serfdom. They were almost all unable to read or write, and were intensely ignorant and pious. Their conditions of housing and sanitation, their miserable means of existence, often accentuated by famine and disease, brought a high mortality, only “compensated” for by an extreme fecundity which made their birth-rate by far the highest in Europe. Russian literature, especially in Nekrassov and Tolstoi, echoes with the rage and despair of the peasantry. It is important to note that the so-called “emancipation” of the peasants was due to three economic causes: (a) the requirements of up-to-date large-scale landlords for “proletarianised” peasants, i.e. peasants who were not tied to the land and could serve modern processes; (b) the requirements of industry in the towns for free labourers; (c) the financial needs of Tsardom, which wanted to tax the small landworker, and particularly to sell him vodka (which was a State monopoly, and from which Tsardom drew 40 per cent of its revenue). These in turn suggest to us what were the conditions of the peasantry in this period.

But the immediate political cause for the decree of 1861 was the succession of peasant revolts. Of these the revolt of Stenka Razin, a kind of Robin Hood, has been celebrated in song. But the greatest was the revolt headed by Pugachev in the reign of the Empress Catherine II. A big portion of the Urals and the lower Volga was held by Pugachev, whose prowess had a fascination for Pushkin, greatest of Russian poets. These peasant revolts were growing in numbers and intensity from 1840 onwards. An official remark is recorded (attributed to Tsar Alexander II, “the Liberator”) that it was “necessary to liberate the peasants from above lest they liberate themselves from below.” This “liberation from above” meant: (1) the best land was retained by the landlords; (2) in addition, they held the waters and meadows, to which otrezki (or “carved off” portions) the peasants must have access, and for this they had to pay, either in kind or with labour service; (3) the peasants had to compensate the landlords for their liberation and settlement—and the total exacted amounted in the end to more than twice the market value of the land.

On top of this Russia of the peasants was superimposed another Russia, of officials and functionaries, of landlords and rich merchants, of law-courts and gendarmerie and secret police and spies. This was the Government of Russia which seemed in some aspects to be a survival from the monarchies of the seventeenth century and in others to be an actual example of the fabled despotisms of the Orient. The Tsar was the head of this system, and to him, as autocrat or absolute monarch, fell the final responsibility. Against this absolute power there had been in 1825 a rebellion of army officers, aristocrats tinged with Western ideas (the Dekabrists), but, after the cruel suppression of this attempt, Tsardom under Nicholas I (1825-1855) seemed stronger than ever. In the latter half of the nineteenth century there developed a revolutionary movement whose early aspects, portrayed in such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoi, are best represented first by Alexander Herzen and later by N. G. Chernishevsky. By 1890, or a few years earlier, it was possible to divide the revolutionaries (as apart from those nobles and landowners who had imbibed “Liberal” ideas) into two main groups—those who based their doctrines on Marx (these were as yet very few), and those groups which were afterwards known, from the Russian word narod, or people, as Narodniki. It was the last of these, or a section of them, who pursued the policy of personal terrorism and endeavoured to alter the Tsarism by their attentats with revolver or bomb on the lives of the Tsar and his higher officials.

In many instances they were successful, the most notable being the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. But the net result was a stiffening of the despotism, an ever more savage repression by hanging, flogging, and transportation to Siberia of revolutionaries of every shade of opinion. The Okhrana, or secret police, were enormously developed in State and Church, and in every stratum of society, until it became dangerous for a man to whisper his thoughts to his neighbour. This spy system, it appears, is the means always employed by a tyranny to maintain itself in power, and has not been unknown in other countries. But in Russia the Okhrana became so powerful and all-embracing that at last it could be accurately described as a vast secret society which permeated and poisoned the whole of Russian social life. The very Ministers of the Crown were also under continual surveillance through what was called the Cabinet Noir, or Black Bureau, a postal censorship from whose operations not even the members and relatives of the Royal Family were exempt. The existence of this Cabinet Noir was never proved—it had been described in the Duma as a myth—until 1917, when it was found that it had been in continuous operation from as far back as the time of Catherine II.

Before the development of Fascism, it was hard for an untravelled Englishman to grasp what it was like to live under the rule of the Tsar. In January 1917, at the moment before the hour of destiny struck, there were only two great empires where the civil population were deprived of all normal rights. Neither in the Russian Empire nor in the Indian Empire had the citizens any right to take part in the passing of laws, in their amendment or repeal. They could not even freely discuss affairs of State: for newspapers had to go through a strict Press control, and meetings similarly could only be held under the supervision of the officials. It was not theirs to reason why. “The Little Father,” as the Tsar was called, together with the vast irresponsible bureaucracy, claimed to do all the thinking that was necessary.

The social basis of this autocracy in the nineteenth century was the feudal landlord class. The autocrat was at once the head of all the landlords, and himself the biggest landlord. Above was privilege, below was serfdom. But this serf society was even harsher than the serfdom of England in the Middle Ages. For in England a serf, though unfree, could not be bought or sold like a slave; but in Russia he could be bartered for a leash of hounds. With the passing of the centuries the feudal repression of the whole people became more and more intolerable. Every movement, whether of the peasantry, or of the intelligentsia, or of the subject nationalities (e.g. the Polish risings of 1848 and 1863,) was more and more savagely repressed. Above the palaces and police stations were written up the words “No Change.”

4. The Coming of Capitalism

In the later nineteenth century this human society, thus governed, began to undergo a profound social change which was finally to bring about the downfall of the “unaltering” Tsardom. This change can be described as the coming of capitalism, accompanied by its gravediggers. Capitalist industry—that is, modern large-scale machine industry—developed with enormous speed in the towns, largely with the aid of foreign capital, and the need for an urban proletariat—the destined gravediggers—was met by emigration from the villages. These urbanised peasants often returned to their villages, bringing with them disrupting and novel ideas acquired in their factory life. Thus, on the one hand, the town proletariat arose amid conditions unparalleled except at the worst times of the English industrial revolution a century or more ago; and, on the other hand, the spirit of discontent thus engendered was spread amongst the peasants.

This Russian capitalism has several distinctive features. In the first place, it arose in what had been, and remained, a predominantly agrarian country. Russia was an ocean of agriculture wherein were towns, scattered islands of capitalist industry. Secondly, this capitalist industry began full-fledged. There was no question of small-scale beginnings, of following the gradual upward curve of English capitalist industry in the manner of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century cotton mills of Lancashire. Capitalist growth was sudden, large-scale, tumultuous. The Russian capitalists began where the British capitalists left off; or, rather, since in very many cases it was British capital that was invested in the new Russian industries, this foreign capital, at the highest point of its development, was bodily transferred into Tsarist Russia.

Thus, for the most part, the new mills and factories produced on a large scale, and this from the very beginning. The textile mills of Morozov at Ivanovo-Voznesensk, in the Moscow province, were unparalleled in contemporary Lancashire. The workers in the Russian mills and factories found themselves confronted from the beginning by large-scale concentration of capital, and they themselves, therefore, came to represent a concentrated labour force whose very conditions of production made them ripe for labour organisation. Consequently, the last years of the century were marked by labour disputes, demands for improvement of conditions, an increase in the miserable wages, reduction in the extraordinarily long hours of labour. Strikes broke out, and, despite extraordinarily harsh repression, spread from town to town, and broke out again and again on an ever-increasing scale. Not only a working class, but a working-class movement, had come into existence.

The direction of this movement was determined by the influence of the Socialists. Apart from the earlier Narodniki, who also called themselves Socialists, groups of intellectuals had been formed in the eighties, and scientific Socialism, as set forth in the writings of Marx and Engels, had been assiduously studied. In 1883 George Plekhanov, then an exile in Switzerland, founded the “Emancipation of Labour Group,” which was able to publish some of the writings of Marx and Engels but was unable to carry on successful organising activities. In 1888 this group formed the Russian Social Democratic League, to unite Russian Social-Democrats living abroad-Social-Democrat being the name commonly used by all European parties that based their programme on the teachings of Marx and Engels. Now in the nineties, following on these earlier groups, there were founded within Russia, in several of the large towns, newer groups which presently combined their studying of Socialism with propaganda amongst small circles of factory workers; and from propaganda they passed to agitation. This constituted, as it were, a marriage of Socialism with the working-class movement, and from the moment that marriage was solemnised in the great strikes of the years 1895 to 1896, the future Russian Revolution was already conceived.

Thus the coming of capitalism had brought to the old Russia a powerful solvent. The whole class structure of society had become diversified and complicated. There were the new and modern classes of capitalism—bourgeoisie and proletariat. There were the old pre-capitalist classes—landlords (lately serf-owners), peasantry (lately serfs). Most numerous of all, and most diversified, there was the class of petty bourgeoisie2 which from a historic standpoint could be described as being both capitalist and pre-capitalist. It should be noted that from an economic standpoint the term petty bourgeoisie, in its widest application, covers also the peasantry of a country. Moreover, not one of these classes was homogeneous. The working class itself was made up of all sorts. There was the factory proletariat; there were the workers for small industry, skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled; seasonal workers in the towns, seasonal workers in the village; etc., etc. Scores of separate nationalities, Jews and Georgians, Poles and Latvians, added to the diversity. Hence there were the numerous trends within the working class, leading, as will be seen later, to frequent differences and struggles inside the party of the working class.

Furthermore, since 1861 there had been great changes in the peasantry. Under the impact of capitalism in the villages the peasantry had been differentiated into rich peasants, called kulaks (the Russian word kulak means fist; a greedy, grasping fist); middle peasants; and poor peasants, together with whom can be reckoned landless peasants and semi-proletarians of the village.

Thus, by the time Nicholas II ascended the throne and proclaimed that the autocracy was unalterable the solid feudal basis on which he thought to stand was no longer there. The molecules were astir within the foundation-stones of that basis. Russia had already become a capitalist society, albeit with very marked and strong remains of feudalism.

To this population, mainly composed of proletariat and peasantry, the various parties maintained distinctive attitudes. The Narodniki, the representatives of peasant Socialism, thought that the man of the future was the muzhik, the Russian peasant. They could not believe that Russia would become capitalist; was becoming, indeed, had become, capitalist. The Social-Democrats, on the other hand, considered that the man of the future was the worker. Therefore the Social-Democrats concentrated all their attention and activities on the working class.

“When the advanced representatives of this class will have mastered the ideas of scientific Socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread and when durable organisations arise amongst the workers which will transform the present sporadic economic war of the workers into a conscious class struggle—then, the Russian workers will rise at the head of all the democratic elements, overthrow absolutism, and lead the Russian proletariat (side by side with the proletariat of all countries) along the straight road of open political struggle towards the victorious Communist Revolution.”

The writer of these words, then twenty-four years old, was a junior barrister, recently come to the capital of Russia from Kazan, on the Volga, by name Vladimir Ilyitch Ulianov, afterwards to be known as Lenin.



1.  It should be noted that the emancipation of the serfs (at a heavy price to themselves) followed hard on the Crimean War; the election of a Duma on the Russo Japanese War; the Socialist proletarian Revolution on the first world war.

2. This term petty-bourgeois (klein-Burger in German, but not small-burgess or small-burgher in English) is both untranslatable and indefinable, except by using a multitude of words and examples. The reader must take it on trust as equivalent to “small-producer,” and gather its fuller meaning with each instance of its use.

Next: II. The Bolsheviks