A CENTENNIAL LANDMARK: THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF MARCH, 1917.
By Paul Merkley.
A Philosophical Note: How Long is a Century?
Our earliest encounter with the study of History ought to have occasioned a certain exaltation , but also a significant distress.
My generation was in grade school during the last years of the Second World War, when, as our teachers explained, the forces of light and the forces of darkness were locked in a battle whose outcome would determine whether we would all become slaves. As an elderly person who has taught history for about a half century, I have become more and more confirmed in this view of the matter – but this is at the cost of increasing alienation from my student audience – and also, sad to tell, from many of my peers.
But how can History really be about the largest possible meanings, and also about me? I was born into this world at a moment when History (correctly understood as everything that we can learn about the human story by contemplating the written record of human affairs) had been accumulating increasingly complex meanings for about five thousand years.
I learned in Sunday School about the probability that my life would travel, alongside of History, in the same track of time – measured by the rising and the setting of the sun – for maybe three score and ten, or perhaps fourscore years (Psalm 90:10) and at that point I would be tossed out of the track of time. Meanwhile, those bigger human meanings will go on, in my absence, becoming bigger and more complex for God-only- knows-how-long.
The biggest challenge in coming to grips with History is learning how to relate the passage of time in a singular life (like mine) to the passing of events in the History books. The first few pages of the History books speak of about two thousand years of recorded human time. These pages are all about the rise and fall of a sequence of empires. Thereafter, the pace of events is slowed down drastically, as History’s recital comes to be about conflicts among innumerable nation-states, each of which (according to the Psalmist) believed that it would live forever. But even in the very last chapters of the History books the smallest unit of significant historical passage is something like a decade or two per paragraph. Meanwhile, we individually measure out our daily meanings in hours and minutes.
What shocks a young reader (or should do if he is actually awake) is the absolute impossibility of relating his own passage of life to such a swift and feature-less recital – which, the authors of this text want the young reader to believe is somehow ABOUT HIM. Truth to tell, a conscientious student of history works at this all of his life, and does not expect to have mastered it even at the end.
Some Centennial Observations.
One effective way to grasp the pulse of history is to place the retelling of a major long-term process in the context of its centenary – a period of time significantly longer than a typical human life, but easily engaged through the memories of one’s parents.
As it happens, we are now (March, 2017) in the midst of the centenary of one of the most consequential moments in Twentieth Century History — the unfolding of the Soviet Communist Revolution. This is a story that began in the childhood of my parents (born 1908 and 1910.) It is now entirely completed, and its content has gone forward into the History textbooks for more-or-less disinterested evaluation by the current generation and future ones. It thus serves for marking-off the passage of historical time and for the measuring of the singular lifetimes of those of us who give any thought at all to History.
The landmark in question is the popular uprising that took place in Petrograd (today, St Petersberg) on March 23, 1917. (As this event occurred before Russia’s calendar was brought into line with the calendar used in the West it is remembered as the February Revolution. Sorry about that.)
As always with historical recitals, it is necessary to flash back before flashing forward. An earlier season of violent popular uprisings had broken out on “Bloody Sunday” January 9 (January 22, New Calendar) 1905, in protest of the Czar’s disastrous failure in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. A few months later, the revolutionary mood dissipated, as Czar Nicholas II promised to call an elected Parliament.
The Petrograd uprising of February (March) 1917 ignited copy-cart demonstrations throughout the land over the next week. Each of these uprisings reflected some element of spontaneous popular outrage on account of Russian defeat in the current Great War, but each was at least equally being manipulated by political parties bent on total overthrow of the Czarist regimes and then of its “liberal” successor. An early result of this “February Revolution” was the abdication (March 2) of Nicholas II, the last of the Czars.
One especially colorful example of how much difference a century has made in Russian history is the fact that the name of Czar Nicholas name is generally taken for a blessing among Russians surviving today. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin, encourages this thinking.
In the last days of that Revolutionary year (October/November, 1917) a small minority of extreme Socialists managed through sabotage, infiltration and then a dramatic and disciplined display of absolutist fervor, to win over the masses of soldiers with its promise to take Russia out of this unpopular war. The Provisional Government disappeared following the coup, and with it went all hope for democracy. Thus began over sixty years of Soviet Communism.
The withdrawal of the U.S.S. R. from the Great War (March 3, 1918) allowed Germany to move its huge Eastern army back to the Western Front — nearly reversing the outcomes of that war for us all.
Well beyond the years of the First World War, the Soviet Communists gave direction to revolutionary spirits everywhere in the world. After Soviet Communism was thrown out following 1989, the several other Communist governments were overthrown or dismantled. Today, only five regimes are still calling themselves Communist: People’s Republic of China (PRC), Cuba, North Korea (DPRK), Laos and Vietnam.
I intend, if I keep my dissipating wits about me, to take brief note at this site (www.thebayviewreview.com) of these further landmarks during in this centennial year of 2017.