15 March 2007

“The Revolution of 1917,” by the Head of the Russian Imperial House, H.I.H. Grand Duchess Maria of Russia

The Head of the Russian Imperial House
H.I.H. Grand Duchess Maria of Russia

The Revolution of 1917

Many people portray the February Revolution of 1917 in a positive light. They claim that, if only the revolution that came later that year, in October, had not happened, Russia would have embarked on its correct historical path—toward real freedom, genuine democracy, and economic vitality. Even professional historians sometimes engage in these kinds of “what-if” scenarios.

In fact, one cannot neatly divide the events of the year 1917 into two separate parts—the February bourgeois revolution and the October socialist revolution. February was merely the first act of the tragedy; October was the second act in that same tragedy. October, then, is the logical continuation of a chain of events that were set in motion in February.

It would be foolish to deny that the Russian Empire indeed had many serious social, economic, and political problems. The revolution did not come to Russia during a time of plenty. But it would be just as foolish not to recognize that all the ills and injustices that existed in Imperial Russia were just child’s play compared with the misery brought on by the mayhem of 1917. And the root of all this misery and mayhem is February 1917.

The revolution was not caused by social and economic factors, nor by the political blunders of the Old Regime, but by a deep spiritual crisis of the nation. Indifference toward religion, nihilistic attitudes toward the Church and to the Imperial government, cynicism, the lack of patriotism, a lackadaisical regard for oaths, a mindless adulation of Western theories—these and other similar ills spread throughout the highest echelons of the Empire and then trickled down to the other strata of society.

Our historic, national governmental system in Russia did not fall because of an economic crisis: our country may have been economically somewhat behind many Western powers, but its rate of growth far outstripped all others and the future looked bright and promising. The Russian government fell because of military defeats: in the years up to 1917, the Imperial Army was growing stronger and victory seemed not far off. And although no small role in the coming of the revolution was played by revolutionary parties and by the financial support of Russia’s geopolitical enemies, the fact is that the Russian monarchy did not fall because of these factors. If our people had held on to a healthy national feeling of unity, faith in God, and common sense, then neither external nor internal enemies could have prevented victory on the battlefield. But darkness descended, consuming the light.

Apologists call the February revolution “great, popular, and bloodless.” But this is far from the truth. If it was great, it was only in the sense of the magnitude of the destruction it brought upon the country. This coup was not the result of a spontaneous mass movement or even the fruit of the agitation of mass revolutionary parties. The leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin, and other radical leaders were convinced as late as January 1917 that their generation would never see a revolution in Russia. But, unexpectedly, some of the very highest and corrupted classes of the Empire plotted to deceive the emperor into abdicating, and then they seized power for themselves. The real motto of the February revolution is not “Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity,” but rather, as the Holy Royal Martyr Nicholas II wrote in his diary: “TREASON, COWARDICE, AND DECEIT.”

The February revolution was hardly bloodless. The murder of officers who had simply questioned the reasons for the coup, the illegal arrests and other forms of repression, the pogroms, the defamation and slander of those who did not follow along—all this began in February, not in October. Of course, the Bolsheviks surpassed and eclipsed the relatively modest levels of terror perpetrated by the revolutionaries of February. But all the same, the ground was laid for the Bolshevik terror in February.

The liberals who seized power in February proved unable to maintain even an elementary level of security in the country. Their demagoguery lost out to the demagoguery of the Bolsheviks, who in general were bound neither by the remnants of morality, nor by any sort of class-based notions of behavior. Thus the failure of the February revolution and the victory of revolutionary extremism was a foregone conclusion.

In terms of the course of the revolution, October stands on the oppose end of the range from February, even though October was the offspring of February. There was a dialectic in the development of the revolution and Civil War, in which the moderate “Whites” of the February revolution lost out to the radical “Reds” of October.

Russia’s former, centuries-old values were, alas, foreign both to the Reds and to the Whites. Trotsky later said that if the Whites had used the slogan of a “people’s tsar,” then the Reds would have soon been finished. Perhaps this is simply an groundless claim from a famous Bolshevik leader and demagogue. But it is true that some parts of the White movement embraced aspects of the revolution. Its slogans were contradictory and incomprehensible to the people. The Whites to a certain extent clung to some old ways, but they clung to the most anachronistic of the old ways. Their extraordinary inflexibility on the vitally important questions of land and nationality policies defies logic. As for new ideas, they advocated the Constituent Assembly, party programs, and other similarly heady ideas. This was all very foreign to the majority of the Russian people, who craved the basic things—land, peace, and prosperity. All this was promised to them by the Bolsheviks. And when the people sobered up from their revolutionary intoxication and realized that they had been deceived, it was already too late. The totalitarian regime had Russia firmly pinned down by the neck. It had put in place an unparalleled system of repression and enslavement—with its “highest aristocracy” being the Politburo, with the new “nobility” being the members of the party, who enjoyed somewhat fewer, but nonetheless substantial privileges, and with a disenfranchised majority below, upon whom monstrous social experiments were performed. The Party oligarchy, which was headed by the General Secretary, had at its disposal a level of power that the autocratic monarchy never dreamed it could possess, and it forced upon the people the notion of a communist utopia as if it were a tenet of faith, which, by comparison, made genuine religious faith and even folksy superstition look entirely logical.

Much can be said about the accomplishments of the country after the revolution. There were, certainly, many. Regardless of the government in power, the people continued to work for their own happiness, they continued to love and defend their homeland, to work hard, to build things, and so on. But all this was accomplished not because of, but despite, the revolution. It is clear that, were it not for the destruction, famine, terror and other “trappings” of the revolution, there would have been far more accomplished. And any discussion about the supposed achievements of the revolution must fall silent in the face of the primary and most dreadful of its many consequences—the demographic crisis that so threatens our future today. Even by the most conservative projections based on the size of the population of Russia at the turn of the 20th century, by 1980 the population should have been 450 million. But the population of the USSR in that year was only 280 million. However accurate that projection may be, one must accept the fact that the revolution was a kind of genocide, which took the lives of tens of millions of people, people who never had the chance to have children. The rapid decline in population in Russia today is the consequence not only of the new turmoil of the 1990s, but of the godless and inhumane experiment that was performed on Russia as a result of the revolution.

In addition, the long years of terror bred in the minds of the people a sense of fear, which has not faded over time. On the other hand, the totalitarian government made people accustomed to the notion that the government itself knows best what the people need, and it provides them with the basic necessities of life in exchange for their obedience. The outcome of all this was passivity, indifference, an inaptitude to defend their legal rights, and, furthermore, and expectation that the state will provide that which the people could have provided easily for themselves.

This all began in February 1917.

The heated arguments between the “Whites” and the “Reds”—or, better, between their heirs—continue to this day. But let’s remember that there were other months in 1917 besides February and October. And there were other years with their own Februaries and Octobers, during which there occurred events that were far less grim than the street protests and coups of 1917. So enough of searching for the guilty parties. We are all, without exception, to blame for our own sorrows. And we will not be healed unless we stop fighting among ourselves and attacking each other, unless we begin constructing a dialogue and start choosing the right kind of medicine for what ails us.

The fall of the Communist regime has availed Russia of the possibility of a gradual return to its traditional path of development. The persecution of religious faith has ceased, and many traditional symbols and traditions have been revived. Even so, there remains much to do. It is gratifying that the President of Russia has had the courage to speak honestly about the present difficulties and is trying very much to overcome them. But it is regrettable that not all in government support him sincerely and honestly. The revolution’s contempt for the people, which is even more loathsome than the hubris of the aristocracy of an earlier time, remains, sadly, alive and well.

I feel sure that the people will support reforms even if they are accompanied by some measure of hardship, but if and only if they see these reforms as being in the interest of the nation as a whole. And the people will trust the government, but only if it shows that it is returning to Russia’s genuine historical path. Our first and common goal must be to restore the unity of the nation, which has been torn asunder by the revolution.

In 1987, the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, entitled his policy report to the Party Congress: “October and Perestroika: The Revolution Continues.” Since then, 20 years has passed. God grant that now the revolution may finally be truly over.

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