Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Chronicler of the Russian Revolution

Israel Getzler
Nikolai Sukhanov: Chronicler of the Russian Revolution
Palgrave, Basingstoke 2002, pp. 226.

THIS is an interesting study of a man who played a curiously ambivalent rôle during the Russian Revolution and after, who was close enough to observe and understand the main events, but was rarely central to them. He set the political tone for the first Executive Committee of the Soviet, only to be brushed aside easily by Tsereteli. The final plans for the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power were made in his own flat, though he was totally unaware of it at the time. An unmitigated failure as a politician during the revolution, he is unsurpassed as a source of information about it. It is a matter for regret that the only English translation of his history, that edited by Joel Carmichael (Princeton UP, 1983), contains only half of it. This book gives us some splendid examples of Sukhanov’s vivid and accurate descriptions (Chapter 3, pp. 67–103), whilst an appendix (pp. 191–4) supplies us with his view of the most controversial historical problem relating to this period, whether ‘the July Days’ really were a premature Bolshevik attempt to seize power (for the contrary view, cf. Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, London 1965, pp. 572–95).

This biography, by the author of the definitive study of Martov, supplies all the information needed for understanding Sukhanov’s curious political trajectory – an agricultural theorist for the Socialist Revolutionaries (pp. 7–20) who developed into a left Menshevik, the main writer against the First World War left behind in Russia (pp. 21–5), who then became the most influential spokesman for the new-born Soviet (pp. 27–38), then an opponent of the Bolsheviks’ seizure and exercise of power (pp. 63–6, 99–126, 191–4) and finally an early protagonist of collectivisation (pp. 127–41), ending up with his purge and murder in 1930–40 (pp. 143–87).

It has always been a bit of a mystery how such a marginal figure could have occupied such a key position in the events of February–March 1917 (pp. 29–30), and yet be so curiously ineffective in them. The clue to this must surely be that he was ‘a Mister Betwixt and Between’ (p. 19). He can only be regarded as ‘the ideologist of the February Revolution’ (Chapter 2, pp. 27–66) because his ideas were incoherent enough to be an accurate reflection of its confused early stages. On the one hand, he dreamed of a ‘vast unprecedented social content’ for the revolution (p. 29), whilst on the other supporting the minimum programme acceptable to both the Executive Committee of the Soviet and the Duma Committee, even going so far as to drop his Zimmerwald anti-war propaganda (pp. 22–5). His aim was to persuade the Executive Committee of the Soviet to support the Duma Committee forming a government, whilst preventing any socialist ministers from joining it. He believed that dual power was the start of the development of ‘uninterrupted’ revolution (p. 32), in which the state apparatus would be gradually taken over through the Soviet pressurising the government in the direction of reform by means of socialist experts in its sub-commissions (pp. 32–3). But he did not believe that the organisations of ‘Russia’s democracy’ had been given enough time, or were sufficiently differentiated or deep-rooted to be able to wield power yet (pp. 27–8). So he opposed the Menshevik and SR leaders going into the government because he thought it was necessary for a ‘united front’ of ‘the democracy’ to put pressure upon it from outside, and since he felt the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was ‘isolated from all the real, living forces of the democracy’ (p. 63), he opposed that as well. All this preconceived schema was utopian, couldn’t work, and in the event didn’t work. The only one of his proposals to get off the ground was the Contact Commission of the Soviet with the Provisional Government, in which Tsereteli easily outbid him and thrust him rudely aside, and which he used as a springboard into office.

Sukhanov’s experience of 1917 explains why he failed so lamentably as a politician whilst succeeding so splendidly in describing it. His history is detailed, accurate, vivid and lifelike, as chaotic and unfocussed as the events in which he was so deeply involved, a major source for the history writing of others. But it lacks analysis. It is history seen as misfortune, as a mistake, which is how he felt about it at the time.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011