War IV: Russia 1917

The Revd Brutus Green

War & Revolution

I have a particular condition for which I’m not completely sure there’s a name yet, let’s call it mono-iocus, the ability to remember only one joke at a time. Owing to its punchy simplicity, the joke for most of my childhood was:  “Why do girls wear make up and perfume?” the answer, naturally, being: “Because they’re ugly and they smell.” If the feminist revolution had not expunged this joke from schools then perhaps last week’s “revolution” of make-up-less ‘selfies’ did something to disprove it; somewhat tangentially linked with cancer, but accomplishing the very good deed of raising 8 million or so pounds for Cancer Research. Commentators have since lined up to describe this vain slactivism as sexist for drawing some sort of link between the horror of girls without make up and cancer, which presumably means they wouldn’t like my joke either.

We talk quite glibly of revolutions these days - mostly with regard to social media - but then since the 2010 Arab Spring social media has been at the heart of genuine revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria not to mention large scale protests across the world. And of course only recently Turkey banned Twitter and Youtube. The early twentieth-century lacked social media but it did have women who very often were at the heart of protests and revolutions, not least the suffragette movement in this country and the 1917 February Revolution which began (in March - the Russians hadn’t changed calendar yet) on International Women’s Day. Today then we turn to 1917 and the turning point in the war with Russia and the theme of War and Revolution.


The historian Eric Hobsbawm opens his chapter on ‘The Age of Total War’ with a note that was posted by a roadside in Sarajevo in 1946. The note reads: ‘I see in the streets a considerable number of young women whose hair is greying, or completely grey. Their faces are tormented, but still young, while the form of their bodies betrays their youth even more clearly. It seems to me that I see how the hand of this last war has passed over the heads of these frail beings’. That these premature grey heads will soon disappear is to be regretted since ‘Nothing could speak more clearly to future generations about our times than these youthful grey heads, from which the nonchalance of youth has been stolen.’

These reminders don’t last. The sign was written 32 years after Gavrilo Princip shot the opening round of World War 1. Shortly before that had been the Balkan wars. 49 years after the sign was posted, more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica, just 100km away.

I am reminded of another sign, this one scrawled as graffiti on the Berlin Wall: ‘Whoever wishes that the world remains as it is, does not wish that it remains.’

At all times in society there is a tension in the public imagination between the way we describe society, and the way we think and describe how it might be. A whole lot of politics is about who is accurately describing Britain in the present moment; and who is able to describe in a believable way what actions might be taken to make Britain look better in 5 or 10 years time. For the most part British politics suggests small changes, even if they come under larger headlines: “less tax”, “cut benefits”, “the state is too big”, “break up monopolies”. Under great pressure, though, there is sometimes a call for radical thinking, such as the post-war welfare state, or the free market of Thatcher and Reagan.

Radical thinking about alternative ways of running society are usually called ‘utopian’. Utopian is often used as an insult - but literally it means ‘no-place’ or ‘good-place’ depending on how you spell it. There have been many utopias, most famously Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia, though also a plethora of dystopias - ‘bad’ or ‘hard’ places - such as Orwell’s 1984 or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. What is often not clear is how such visions are supposed to come about, leading Engel’s to describe utopias as ‘social poetry’. Marx was always more concerned with social practices than ideas, and for most Marxists there is only one way to bring about fundamental change: that is violence.

Equally important for radical change is the public mood, though. There must be a significant popular ambition for change, which usually requires public outrage or desperation. Inevitable after three years’ of European war there were strong murmurs of this across Europe, as there had been before the war with Russia’s 1905 revolution. The question as the war dragged on then into 1917 was where and how far would revolution catch and spread.


From the end of 1914 there was little new movement on the Western front. By Autumn 1915 there was little new on the Eastern Front. Through 1916 the stalemate merely brought greater ferocity and bitterness. Various attempts at brokering peace failed, where no one was willing to step down their war aims. Neither side abandoned hope of winning. Frequent complaints over food, rest and leave plagued all nations. In early summer in France, 100,000 went on strike just in the Paris region, most of whom were radicalised women. The weaker parties in their respective alliances, Austria-Hungary and Russia, keenly sought solutions but were frustrated.

In Britain, after the 1916 Easter Rising, Southern Ireland no longer supported the war effort. Strikes had set limits to the degree of militarisation with skilled workers rebelling against threats to their positions. Food and conscription were significant issues and a bread subsidy was introduced to placate the working class, with agricultural workers freed to return home. In 1917 a bomb in Liverpool Street station killed 162, and 300,000 a night sought refuge in underground stations. It was also the summer of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war at Passchendaele. Of all Europe, however, Britain probably succeeded most at maintaining its morale at home and at war.

But the Spring of 1917 signalled a turning point in the war. America entered the war. Latin America largely followed, and, in the summer, China, so that by the end of 1917 most of the world had effectively joined against the Central Powers. But just before, Tsar Nicholas abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov empire in Russia.


The February Revolution began in Petrograd (which before 1914 and today is called St Petersburg) on International Woman’s Day when thousands of women took to the street to protest against food shortages. At the time they were spending up to 40 hours a week in temperatures of minus twelve degrees Centigrade queuing for food, in addition to working ten hour days. Petrograd had a strong working class culture but it was only when the Petrograd garrison mutinied that together they could take over the city. Shortly afterwards the unpopular tsar Nicholas abdicated. It was not an anti-war movement that brought about the revolution but the war had tested and sapped the morale, finances and infrastructure of Russia to the point of collapse.

After the February Revolution Russia continued its war efforts under a Provisional Government. At the time ‘trench Bolshevism’ was gaining in popularity, but it was the Russians’ summer ‘Kerensky offensive’ that finished off morale, as the Central Powers counter-attacked pushing the Russians back along the line while also stepping up propaganda and overtures for peace. Grievances were widespread with desertion and small mutinies; the anti-war Bolsheviks won over many with their slogan “Bread, Peace, Land”.

The question was whether the provisional government’s aim to maintain limited war aims for fear of the Germans would stand against growing Bolshevik support. Here, the Germans cunningly allowed Lenin passage by train from Zurich back in to Russia via Finland and once in Petrograd he garnered support for leaving the war and agitated for revolution in Russia. Strikes, limited food, the failed offensive and above all continued involvement in the war drove the Provisional Government into the ground. From the summer there were violent peasant seizures of gentry land, strikers demanding control of factories, while Finland and the Ukraine declared their independence. Bolshevik membership doubled and Lenin’s message of international peace and social revolution took hold. Winter was coming and the soldiers wanted to come home.

By the time the October Revolution happened the Provisional Government had all but evaporated, and Lenin stepped in to take control of the country. A punitive peace with Germany at Brest-Litowsk initially took away Poland, the Baltic provinces, the Ukraine, parts of Russia and Transcaucasia; but brought about an end to the war for Russia six months before Germany’s defeat. After the war, despite civil war between the improvised red army and the western-funded counter-revolutionary white army, the bolsheviks survived - mainly because of the strength and discipline of the Communist Party, because the alternative was a disastrous fracturing of the state after the manner of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, but also because initially the revolution had allowed the peasants to take the land for themselves, and they mistakenly trusted this would continue.


In 1914 there was a widespread feeling among socialists throughout Europe that revolution and socialism were inevitable. The October Revolution of 1917 in many ways shaped the twentieth-century until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. It was not intended so much to bring socialism to Russia as the first strike of Bolshevism in its historic destiny to become the global politics. Russia actually was in no way ready for a Marxist revolution, which saw the industrialized proletariat as the bringers of communism, while Russia was almost entirely made up of agrarian peasants.

At the end of the war the possibility of widespread revolution was still open, but by 1920, even as Bolshevik power had become unassailable in Russia, it was off the menu in the West, at least until the thirties. Britain avoided any serious concerns with revolution, perhaps because we heeded Oscar Wilde’s warning that ‘the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings’. More likely it is because Britain avoided the pain, humiliation and brutalizations of invasion and the starker forms of poverty that some countries endured.

Christianity also has its own revolutionary instincts and not just in the life to come, ‘goodbye-ee, goodbye-ee’ sense. There are many parallels between the Marxist narrative and stories and theology in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Our reading from Isaiah finished: “Do not remember the former things; or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”. Some of the prophets and the book of Revelation seem even to encourage violent revolution. On a more contemporary note, I was running through Notting Hill yesterday and passed the statue of St Volodymyr, who brought Christianity to the Ukraine in 988. It has now become a shrineand a centre of conversation for the present crisis. War and revolution have long been partners. As we remember the momentous events of one hundred years ago, we see also its present consequences, the tragedies of today, and the conflicts of tomorrow, our prayers must always be with the most vulnerable people. Christianity also commands though that thy will be done in earth as in heaven. The Christian has a stake in politics and in imagining the future; it is perhaps the most pertinent way in which humanity seeks either the ends of a limited few, or the kingdom of God.