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New Left Review 52, July-August 2008


Steve Smith on Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power. The tumultuous first year of Soviet rule in Petrograd, meticulously rendered by a major revisionist historian.

STEVE SMITH

YEAR ONE IN PETROGRAD

The writing of history is always implicated in the politics of the present, so it is hardly surprising that the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have led to a significant reconfiguration of the historiography of the Russian Revolution. During the 1970s and 1980s, a younger generation of historians, inspired by the new social history and by ‘history from below’, launched a new challenge against the ‘totalitarian’ view of the October Revolution that had previously been influential. This had written the history of 1917 in terms of liberal failure and Bolshevik extremism, and saw the Bolshevik seizure of power as a putsch by a dictatorial party made possible by a general breakdown of law and order in society. The new social historians, or ‘revisionists’ as they quickly became known, were committed to widening the historical canvas in order to explore the consequences of the revolution for society as a whole, examining variously the impact of the February and October revolutions on the countryside, the cities, the army, the economy and cultural life. They brought a new theoretical rigour as well as introducing new types of sources. Above all, they sought to shift the focus of historical enquiry away from political elites towards the subaltern classes, and thus to counter the representation of popular politics as pure anarchy.

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