Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Robert B. McKean, St Petersburg Between The Revolutions: Workers and Revolutionaries, June 1907-February 1917, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990, pp606

This big book, written by a serious scholar (at the University of Stirling) on the basis of immense research, is a fine contribution to the growing literature on the social history of the Russian Revolution. This social history is not, of course, Trevelyan’s “history with the politics left out”!

McKean provides much information about the working class of St Petersburg – its distribution, composition and so on – in the period he has chosen, between the reactionary ‘coup d’état’ which closed the revolutionary epoch begun in 1905 and the onset of the February Revolution in 1917. In his analysis and commentary he challenges some widely accepted notions. For instance, he finds no evidence for the usual connexion made between the size of industrial enterprise and the degree of workers’ militancy:

Medium-sized engineering factories rather than gigantic enterprises were to the fore in terms of protest, in part precisely due to the fact that their intermediate size facilitated prompt mobilisation of employees.

Again, although the new workers who swarmed into the capital from the countryside as a result of Stolypin’s land policy have often been supposed to be a primitive, ignorant lot, McKean shows that they mostly came from areas with a relatively high level of literacy.

The author’s investigation leads him to the conclusion that the key to St Petersburg’s special rôle in the Russian labour movement is to be found in the concentration here of large numbers of young, male, skilled workers, with the particular importance of the city’s Vyborg District being due to the high proportion of them in its population. The metalworkers were outstanding in this respect – whereas there was a “relative paucity of Socialist cells” in the printing trade, even though this was a highly skilled trade, with the highest rate of literacy.

‘Social history’ is sometimes understood to mean, nowadays, history which plays down the rôle of elites and stresses the self-activity of ‘the masses’. While McKean certainly shows how little actual influence the emigré leaderships of the Socialist parties exerted in the movement on the ground in Russia during most of this period, he highlights the significance of what he calls the ‘sub-elite’, the praktiki, who were active in the factory committees, trade unions, insurance societies, educational clubs and so on. These men (and a few women) appear as the real achievers. They were often without guidance from their nominal leaders abroad. Thus, the author points out, with regard to the remarkable gains made by the Bolsheviks in 1913-14, that Lenin wrote nothing about trade union affairs in this period, and there is no evidence in the archives of any correspondence with Bolshevik trade unionists.

The Bolsheviks' commitment to a national political general strike from the summer of 1913, the electoral strategy in the Tsarist Duma elections, the decision to launch an attack on Menshevik union positions in the spring of 1913 and the resurrection of the slogan of a soviet in October 1915 were all cases where the activists took the lead. Lenin either gave them retrospective sanction or opposed them in vain.

When the local grassroots leaders considered a slogan sent to them from abroad to be inappropriate to their task, they would simply ignore it:

A textual analysis of 47 leaflets and appeals published illegally by Bolshevik militants between January 1915 and 22 February 1917 is most illuminating. Not a single leaflet mentioned the essential Leninist slogan of the defeat of Russia being the lesser evil ...

McKean has made especially thorough use of the records of the Okhrana, the secret police. Their reports supply, he says, “an invaluable corrective” to exaggerations and slanted accounts in contemporary newspapers and later memoirs. In particular they often expose the falsity of claims by Soviet historians that the Bolsheviks were responsible for some strike or demonstration. There was a great deal more cooperation on the ground between members of different Socialist parties and tendencies than official Soviet history would have us believe, and among the Okhrana’s chief concerns was the promotion of splits. It is startling how many agents and informers the police had in the labour movement: this information helps to explain the success of repressive measures taken at certain moments.

Prominent in many strike demands was a call for “polite address”. The constant insults to workers’ human dignity by their employers reflected the crude, “un-European” style of management in many factories – this although some of the most important employers were from the West (French, British, Swedish, etc). To autocracy in the state corresponded autocracy in the workplace. The St Petersburg bosses were notoriously a harder lot than their colleagues in Moscow.

In February 1917, however, they loosened their grip. McKean notes that when the troubles began, no thought seems to have been given to lockouts, with the result that revolutionary workers were able to use factory yards as meeting places, information centres and so on. Some of the industrialists may have sympathised with the movement at this stage. The author stresses the rôle of wartime conditions in making possible the fall of Tsardom. The foolish stubbornness of the military command in refusing to consider civilian needs, which resulted in severe shortages of goods in the cities by 1916, brought about, he thinks, a readiness on the part of sections of the middle classes to go along with the workers in the great demonstrations, in marked contrast to their indifference or hostility to the prewar labour unrest. McKean comes down strongly in support of the view that it was the World War that was crucial in settling the fall of the Romanov regime. He contrasts what happened in February 1917 with the crushing of the strike in July 1914 (sometimes presented as proof that Russia was already “on the brink of revolution” before the war began): in those days “the ancien regime in state and industry still retained sufficient cohesion and confidence in itself and the armed forces’ loyalty to act decisively and brutally”.

The book is, on the whole, well produced but it is a pity that the maps of St Petersburg provided were reprinted from another book, because the nomenclature of the city’s districts shown in them differs from that used in the text. Thus, the reader will look in vain in these maps for the ‘First Town’ and ‘Second Town’ districts often mentioned in the course of the author’s close examination of working class life in the capital.

Brian Pearce

Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003