This month marks the 100-year anniversary of the October Revolution. Dane Massey interviewed Peter Gatrell – a scholar of Russian history, to get his thoughts on the event.
Dane Massey: October 25th marks the centenary of the Bolshevik coup of Russia in the 1917 October Revolution. How did the event change the shape of the twentieth century? And what mark has it left on our world today?
Peter Gatrell: “The most obvious change is that it challenged the fundamental assumptions in pre-revolutionary Europe that there was a solid foundation based around private property, around governing elites that might allow some opportunity for democratic accountability or expression through parliament. What happened, as a result, of the revolution is that Russia threw down a gauntlet to the established order meaning that if you were a non-revolutionary state you had to react to what’s going on in Russia. So, it changed the context of the twentieth century because if you were part of the non-privileged majority, you might look to Russia as the country that spoke up for you – as a Chinese peasant, or as an African worker, or a minor in Spain or in Britain. Therefore, you have a division of the world into two blocks – east and west. People talk about a Cold War after 1945 – the Cold War began in 1917!”
DM: Do you believe that learning about the October Revolution is important to everybody, rather than just academics reading about it? Should everybody know about it?
PG: “Well fundamentally yes because if we set aside for the moment the idea that the revolution was a tragedy, we know that by the 1930s, the Great Terror – which continued into the aftermath of the Second World War – killed millions of people, which we can’t deny was one of the consequences of Stalinism.
Nevertheless, at the same time – in 1917 – the mood for millions of ordinary people, inside and outside of Russia, was that revolution was not just an adventure, but an opportunity for freedom. So, there is clearly a big gap between the vision of freedom in 1917, and the Gulag in say 1938 – which was the opposite of freedom. For the historian, you must take the idea seriously that people had in 1917 that this was a chance for freedom.”
DM: Is the Russian Revolution distinct from other revolutions you have come across?
PG: “I think the ideas that drive revolutions and revolutionaries are fundamentally about overturning one set of rules and systems of government and property relations for another. In my understanding, the important area of similarity is that many of these revolutions are bound up with the ideas of emancipating the peasantry.”
DM: The man at the man at the head of the October Revolution was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – Lenin. Does a revolution require a leader to unite the people? Or, can change be inspired by the masses alone?
PG: “I think the answer to that question is probably both because Lenin believed there couldn’t be a revolution without leadership because the opposite of that would be anarchy or counter-revolution. So, he regarded himself as a kind of dictator. He didn’t regard dictatorship as a bad thing, he believed that dictatorship was firm leadership. Without that ruthlessness, the door was open for people to embark on counter-revolution and Lenin was something of a historian like most of the Bolsheviks – they read their history. They knew that revolutions could easily become counter-revolutions, and they were very anxious that this would happen in Russia.”
DM: It’s a difficult question, but do you believe that the 1917 October Revolution was a tragedy or triumph, or both?
PG: “I think the revolution was a triumph that turned into a tragedy. It was a triumph because it was propelled with ideas of liberation … But the tragedy is that there was so much violence, partly violence that the Bolsheviks encouraged because they wanted to destroy their opponents.
The idea of the 1920s was resurfacing in the 1930s with Stalinism, the idea that it was all about ‘us’ – backs against the wall. Or, if we don’t industrialise, if we don’t collectivise, if we don’t keep a firm grip on power, the whole project will dissolve and Russia will become a counter-revolutionary society.
So, you might hate the things that Stalin did, but you’ve also got to understand that from the Bolsheviks point of view – this was about defending the gains that they had made in 1917.”