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.
From the 1980s, this revisionist approach itself came under challenge from two different directions. First, the totalitarian paradigm was revived, at first slowly with the rise of neo-conservatism in the us, and then quickly, following the fall of the Communist bloc. Two major works by first-generation exponents of totalitarianism, Richard Pipes’s The Russian Revolution (1990) and Martin Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy (1994), appeared only after the collapse of Communism. Both, in different ways, accused the revisionists of downplaying the autonomy of politics—of making, in the words of Malia, the ‘social process the explanatory principle of Communism’. Worse, they were accused of seeking to ‘normalize’ the Soviet regime and even exculpate its leaders for the gruesome ‘experiment’ they imposed on the hapless Russian people. For a time, the revived totalitarian perspective had considerable influence in the former Communist bloc: in Russia in 1997, for example, an important work by Vladimir Buldakov, general secretary of the International Commission to Study the History of the October Revolution, appeared under the title Krasnaia Smuta (The Red Time of Troubles), which proffered a ‘psycho-mental’ account of the 1917 revolution, analysing it in terms of the ‘fury of the masses’ on the one hand, and the ‘doctrinal schizophrenia of the intelligentsia’ on the other.
The second challenge to the revisionists came from within the Western academy, in the wake of the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s and the rise of a ‘new cultural history’. Analytical attention shifted away from political and sociological phenomena, such as the crisis of autocracy, the development of a revolutionary movement and the formation of social classes, towards an approach stressing the fluidity of social groups and the ways in which social identities were constructed within different cultural fields. Inter alia, this ‘post-revisionist’ approach—building on the work of the revisionists even as it took issue with it—questioned a unilateral emphasis on the traditionalism of late-imperial Russian society, underscoring instead the ways in which Russia, and subsequently the Soviet Union, were caught up in a Europe-wide movement of modernity.
Although never a social historian, Alexander Rabinowitch was from the late 1960s a major figure in the revisionist camp, and his research, directed at discrediting the Cold War conception of the Bolshevik Party as a super-centralized ‘organizational weapon’, proved hugely influential. He first outlined his ideas in Prelude to Revolution (1968), a study of the ‘July Days’ of 1917 which proved that this was not a conspiratorial attempt by Lenin and the Bolshevik Central Committee to seize power in Petrograd, but a more spontaneous military action by lower levels of the Party, involving soldiers from the Petrograd garrison, Kronstadt sailors and radicalized metalworkers, all of whom were keen to force the Executive of the Petrograd Soviet to form a government based exclusively on the soviets. Rabinowitch followed this in 1976 with his major work, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, an impressively detailed study which rejected the idea of October as a military coup staged by an ultra-disciplined party with little popular backing. He showed that the action had the support of workers and soldiers in the capital, who were weary of war, anxious about the threat of mass unemployment and food shortages, and exhilarated by the prospect of a socialist order based on far-reaching class equality. More contentiously, he argued that the success of the Bolsheviks was due not to the disciplined, hierarchical character of the party, but to its flexibility and the fact that it ‘followed its constituency rather than the other way round’. Yet if the party was indeed ‘open, relatively democratic and decentralized’, this raised with new force the question of how it came so quickly to grow into a highly authoritarian and bureaucratic organization. Some thirty years later, it is to this question that the author has returned. And it has been well worth the wait.
The Bolsheviks in Power is a meticulous and fine-grained study of the first year of ‘soviet rule’ in Petrograd, a period which saw the city lose its status as capital of Soviet Russia in favour of Moscow. Against the tendency in post-Communist historiography to adopt a condemnatory or moralizing stance towards the Bolshevik seizure of power, Rabinowitch maintains a dispassionate tone and is scrupulously measured in his judgements. He has had unrivalled access to archives, including those of the fsb, successor to the kgb, and though further documentation may become available in future, his book can justly be said to provide a definitive political history of the city during the first year of Bolshevik rule. With much new material and original insight, it analyses decision-making at all levels of the Bolshevik party in Petrograd, the evolution of party and government institutions in the city, and the shifts in popular political mood. The broad contours of the story it tells are familiar; but new detail alters our understanding of key events, such as the creation of the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom), the establishment of the Cheka, or the formation of the Bolshevik coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (srs). It is a political history that does not attempt to cover economic, social or cultural developments in any comprehensive fashion. However, by situating the emergence of a one-party state amid multiple political, military and economic crises, it underlines the strengths of the revisionist enterprise of grounding politics in a socio-economic context.