Why Russia is ignoring first flirtation with liberalism


Russia’s February Revolution is one of history’s great “What if” moments, says the University of Queensland’s John Quiggin. If this revolution — which actually took place in early March 1917 according to the West’s Gregorian calendar — had succeeded in producing a constitutional democracy in place of the czarist empire as its leaders hoped, the world would be a very different place, he writes for The New York Times:

If the leading figure in the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky (left), had seized on an opportunity presented by a now-forgotten vote in the German Reichstag, World War I might have been over before American troops reached Europe. In this alternative history, Lenin and Stalin would be obscure footnotes, and Hitler would never have been more than a failed painter.

“It is hard to imagine an outcome worse than the one that actually took place,” Quiggin adds. “The years of pointless bloodshed that brought Russia two revolutions turned out to be merely a foretaste of the decades of totalitarianism and total war to come. Kerensky’s failure was one of the great missed opportunities of history.”

There are several reasons why Putin’s Russia is ignoring its first flirtation with liberalism, Fred Weir writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

Prior to the Bolshevik coup, Kerensky’s liberals “picked up power because they were the biggest group in the State Duma and best positioned to assume government,” says historian Yevgeny Sizyonov. “They declared that a constitutional assembly would be elected to write a constitution and create a new, democratic state. They had a lot of popular support at first,” he tells Weir:

Liberal reform had the support of educated middle- and upper-class people in St. Petersburg and other big Russian cities, and it might have worked if there had been enough time, says Sergei Spiridonov, a historian at the Museum of Political History in Russia. Mr. Spiridonov is the creator of the museum’s one-room exhibit about the February Revolution, which is one of very few official nods of recognition of the event.

“It was a crossroads where Russia might have taken the path to European democracy,” he says. But, he adds, the Provisional Government would have had to crush the Bolsheviks and other left-wing forces. [Yet] it insisted on continuing the war; loyalty to the Western allies was a core principle for the liberals. Apart from announcing basic freedoms, they put off fundamental reforms until after the constitutional assembly had met and decided on a new charter of laws. …Some describe the Provisional Government’s failure to act decisively as incompetence. But others argue that it was a matter of fundamental conviction for the moderates who made up the new government.

“As liberals, they believed they were a temporary government, and didn’t want to give in to revolutionary impulses,” says Nikolai Smirnov, director of the official Institute of History in St. Petersburg. “They thought they had time and were very concerned that any major reforms should be enacted by the constitutional assembly, so they would have proper legal underpinnings. They hoped to create the institutions of democracy, which would then resolve the main issues like peace, land reform, and workers’ rights. But in a time of revolution, it’s fatal to fall behind events.”

The Russian Revolution was a significant event but not in the way its founders expected or wanted, writes David Shribman.

“They thought they were creating a new world, but in many ways they were recreating the old world of authoritarian Russia that they eventually elevated to totalitarianism,” said William S. Taubman, the author of the authoritative English biography of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. “Many of the old ways continued to exist in a new and heightened form, and while one can debate whether Stalin perfected what Lenin started or corrupted and perverted it, there is no debating that the revolution led to Stalin’s brand of terror.”

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