History 382V: Modern Russia
Reaction Paper #2
Suny subtitled Chapter Three of his textbook “On the Road from Democracy to Dictatorship”. Did Russia ever truly have a chance to become a democracy? Or was practice of absolute rule by the tsars too deeply ingrained? Suny explains that there are three positions historians have taken on this issue. The first comes from the “continuity theorists”, who argue that democracy never had a chance in Russia because there was no history of democratic rule. These historians have noted that the Soviet dictatorship was very similar to the previous tsarist government; although the names changed, very little in actuality was transformed, i.e. a continuous form of government was maintained and the attempt at democracy was doomed to failure.
Another position taken by historians is that “the Soviet Union was an ideocracy, a state ruled by an ideology, and the elitism of the party of the new type led to a tutelary relationship to the population and a dictatorship of the party over the people.” (p.68) The majority of the small number of educated people in Russia had decided Russia’s salvation lay in socialism. Once they gained power, they set about trying to transform Russia into a socialist state.
The third position posited by historians is the importance of historical context. The majority of Russia had not been Westernized. The peasants were only concerned with their village matters and were resistant to change. In addition I think one must consider the social weakness caused by the tsarist regime and the deprivations caused by the Great War. Could a democratic state have held a backward and fracturing country together? Especially when you consider that there was no a posteriori experience of democracy. Russia had been ruled with an iron fist for centuries; I do not think a government based on democratic rule could have worked at this time.
In general, I do not like favoring one theory over another. I have found that both sides of an argument can help to explain an issue; it is rare that one side is completely right and the other completely wrong. In my opinion there is validity in all three positions. Russia was like a huge monolithic iceberg; it would not have been easy to change her trajectory. She was formed by ideology; the advocators for change were driven by socialist ideology. And historical context doomed the small chance democracy had; wounded and reeling Russia wouldn’t have survived a democratic and gentle rule.
I think that Suny supports both the ideology and historical context arguments. He says that “Ideology served as a source of ideas” (p.69), but was not the sole guiding force. “Neither Marxism nor Lenin’s writings provided a recipe book from which Bolsheviks could pick the right formula to solve a particular political problem.” (p.69) It’s all well and good to visualize a utopian society, but I would venture to say reality always throws mud on that ideal. The Bolsheviks had to adapt to their own particular set of circumstances, which ended up leading them towards a dictatorship not that much different, from what I can tell at this point at least, than the tsarist regime. I am looking forward to the coming chapters to see how Russia is run today, and if prolonged contact with democratic ideals and capitalism has made it possible to govern Russia differently. If Russia had had more time to modernize, more time to Westernize itself, would it have ended up with a democratic form of government?
One thing I have not been able to tease out is Lenin’s true feelings regarding government in Russia. Suny says that “He was a rationalist who proposed the application of reason and science to political and social problems, which he believed could be solved through the institution of socialism.” (p.27) Suny also says that Lenin’s ultimate goal “was to create a society in which the simplest people would rule themselves” (p.28) but that he believed “dictatorship and violence, civil war and repression of the enemy, were the only practical means to that end.” (p.28) Did he envision his party one day giving up power? Were any plans in place for such a transfer of power to be made? Or was Lenin’s rhetoric merely a grandiloquent way of gaining power? I have strayed outside the bounds of chapters three and four in exploring this, but the introductory paragraphs from chapter three caused me to wonder.
Did the Bolsheviks develop any political plans and goals in preparation for taking power? Suny says that “In its first months in power the Soviet government tried to legislate a new egalitarian legal and political order into existence pell-mell.” (p.71) Throughout the rest of chapter three it seems that the Bolsheviks had to reevaluate certain legislative acts and overturn previous decisions, all the while moving toward a more authoritarian stance. I do not think they truly looked at Russia and her problems; they fastened on Marxism as a way out of their troubles but never really thought about how to apply it to their own country. I think that this lack of planning helped to cause the eventual dictatorship; and had they really looked at Russia and her history I’m not sure that they could have come up with a better way to govern her.
Another thing that I think contributed to the forming of a dictatorship in Russia was the class struggles among the various ethnic groups that had comprised Russia. Austria was another country comprised of different people groups; the Hungarians became powerful enough to change political structure of the country and very soon afterward the Dual Monarchies collapsed. Had their central government reacted like the Bolsheviks (and had they not lost the Great War) to the nationalistic movements, would their empire have survived? Belorussia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania managed to gain their independence but other budding nationalist consciousness were brutally suppressed by an ever-more authoritarian Bolshevik party. And even though the USSR was supposed to be a confederation of communist states, it is my understanding that Mother Russia was always preeminent and determined the social and political paths of their peripheral countries. In order to keep their country together, I think they had to resort to ruling with an iron fist. Russia was too vast, too different, and too fragmented to be ruled any other way at that time.
I’m committing a non sequitur here, but one thing I have yet to understand is why Marx, Lenin, and other socialists hated the bourgeoisie so much (especially since many of them seem to be from that class). Lenin said that,
“It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush its resistance ... But the organ of suppression is now the majority of the population, and not a minority as was always the case under slavery, serfdom, and wage labor. And, once the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a “special force” for suppression is no longer necessary. In this sense the state begins to wither away.” (p.73)
By crushing the bourgeoisie, all they are doing is switching which group holds the power. And in holding themselves responsible for maintaining the power of the majority, they are creating another minority with the power over both the majority and the former minority. If they did indeed abolish that “special force”, perhaps they would be justified in recreating the former society they claimed to despise, but that never happens. Did they really hate the bourgeoisie, or did they just want the power they had had for themselves?
I’ve really enjoyed ruminating about the origin of Soviet authoritarianism. In forming my opinion I’ve been influenced by the historical novels of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (covering the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, the Crimean wars of Alexander II, and the Bolshevik Revolution) and the many biographies of Catherine the Great I’ve read, and of course our textbook. Thank you for your suggestions on how to improve these papers. I tried to limit the number of quotations-I’m frequently guilty of being quotation happy-and to use only those I thought contributed to my line of thought or expressed an idea better than I could have.
Yeah ... I use too many quotations. Trying to work on that. Questions/comments are ok, just be kind:) I skimmed through the paper and it seemed to be self-explanatory ... just in case:
The Romanovs were deposed in 1917 by the Russian socialists, which included but was not limited to the Bolsheviks. Through a series of events the Bolsheviks ended up in power and began the task of consolidating their regime, which included suppressing all dissident voices, both inside and outside the party. By 1921 the Bolsheviks were the sole power, having won the Russian civil war. I think that covers the scope of the paper.
And yes, that's my real name. Actually it's not-I have yet to legally change my name and I think I'm going to do the hyphenated thing. Because it's something I've written for a class I don't feel comfortable saying "Wulfa wrote it". I know I could prove it's mine ... most likely I'm just being silly.