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Review: Alexander Rabonowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule

in Petrograd, Indiana University Press, 2007. 494 pp


This study follows on from and is connected to two previous monographs on the year
1917 by the same author: Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July
Uprising (Indiana UP, 1968) and The Bolsheviks Come To Power: The Revolution of 1917 in
Petrograd (Indiana UP, 1976). These preceding works presented a picture of the Bolsheviks
as a mass party of workers, soldiers and sailors that was frequently divided on tactical
questions both at the level of the leadership and the rank and file. Meanwhile, the
revolution itself appeared as process driven forward by the pressure of politically conscious
mass meetings, mass demonstrations, strikes and mutinies on formal political structures such
as the provisional government, the soviets, the municipal dumas, the trade unions and
political parties.
In these respects, the author appears to have long since placed himself firmly in the
camp of the revisionist tradition of Soviet historiography, viewing October less as the result
of the manoeuvres and initiative of Bolsheviks though these are recognised as important
so much as their bold and politically skilled response to an opportunity presented to them.
This opportunity consisted in mass public disaffection with the pro-war policies of the
various provisional governments, combined with these governments failure to introduce
meaningful social reform, a disaffection which preceded their seizure of power and which
was combined with a sharp growth in their own support.
Thus Rabinowitch has written and continues to write a clearly political rather than a
social history of year 1917 and party politics always remain at the centre of the authors
attention. Yet in his work, party politics has so far been presented as the business of the whole
of the Petrograd population who actively participate in them, rather than the affair of a
narrow, educated layer of professional revolutionary politicians. In this sense, Rabinowitchs
earlier works have the flavour several of the classic texts of the Marxist tradition which
describe revolution, such as Marxs Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Trotskys
History of the Russian Revolution. It is the ordinary people who make history, even though
their energies are directed towards and shaped by formal political structures.
Rabinowitchs latest volume begins with the negotiations over the composition of the
new revolutionary government in October 1917: the ten days that that shook the world. It
ends with a review of the first anniversary of Soviet power against the hopeful background of
an armistice in Western Europe, which is accompanied by workers uprisings against the
defeated powers. Like its predecessors, The Bolsheviks in Power deals almost exclusively
with affairs in Russias northern capital Petrograd - and therefore should not be viewed as
a history of the revolution as a whole between the dates in question. This approach could be
seen as problematic in relation to this most recent instalment of his history of the revolution.
If between February and October Petrograd was undoubtedly the focal point of the entire
revolution, this is less than obviously the case in the year that followed. The Soviet capital
was moved to Moscow following the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which ceded the Baltic region and
Finland to Germany, thus placing hostile troops and ships within a few miles of Petrograd.

The demoralising political effect of this abrupt departure on Petrograd workers is wellcaptured in the latest work. However, this is perhaps not the main point of interest during a
period in which counter-revolutionary armies were being consolidated in other areas of the
country: in Siberia and on the Don.
Somewhat less than in his two previous studies is Rabinowitch capable of illustrating
the intervention of mass organisations and spontaneous waves of protest in the political
process in his most recent work. We do see examples of this in the opening sequences of the
book, which describe the direct resistance of some railway workers and civil servants to the
idea of an exclusively Bolshevik government, resistance which is countered with patiently
garnered resolutions from mass meetings held in factories, barracks and dockyards. However,
the pre-eminent fact that a stable and largely uncontested Bolshevik-Left Essar coalition
government emerged from these negotiations gives this latest volume a somewhat more elitecentred focus than its predecessors. Protest movements against it prove feeble and ineffective.
The picture of a radically disunited Bolshevik Party remains nonetheless, though even here
we see a growing emphasis on the need for discipline, especially during the Brest-Litovsk
negotiations, in which the party proved itself split three ways on that most crucial of issues,
war and peace. Rabinowitch also portrays it as a party of government containing opponents
by means of a considerable reserve of political skill, occasional violence and electoral fraud.
The last of these is not demonstrated in a particularly clear manner and one suspects that the
author has not sufficiently taken into account the crude tactical choices of the Left Essars as a
factor undermining their level of support at elections. This said, the evaluation of the brutality
meted out by Red Guards to pro-Constituent Assembly demonstrators is convincing, and it
illustrates how little control the new government had over its own security apparatus.
With works on a similar theme already in circulation that of Serge springs to mind
the specialist reader may pose the question of whether there is much that is not already
known in Rabinowitchs latest work. Having said that, this new volume will doubtless prove
a revelation to broader academic and general audiences which, if it could never reach the
stratospheric standards of the authors earlier books, will significantly raise their level of
understanding of the Russian revolution.