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Tangles of Contradictions


It is possible to analyze the staggering complexity and variety of the contradictions which caused the Russian Revolution by grouping them into categories or presenting them as a hierarchy of layers. The top group of tensions was generated by the need to overcome the country’s backwardness and catch up with the group of leading industrialized nations (in such spheres as technological progress, labor productivity, general literacy of the population, the development of democratic institutions, etc.). 

October 1917. By V. Favorsky

Russia was again confronted with the historical challenge of making a new revolutionary leap similar in scale to the one it had accomplished in the time of Peter the Great. The pressures of modernization affected Russian society as a whole and were felt particularly acutely by those social groups within it which were interested in preserving and strengthening a great state, in maintaining its unity and cohesion and in enhancing its role in the international scene. Striving to accelerate Russia’s development along the common vector of world civilization, Russia’s progressives belonging to all classes understood that absolutism and the survivals of feudalism in the countryside and on the empire’s fringes were the main obstacles to her successful advance.

The second group of contradictions was represented by internal social antagonisms. The most serious among them were the tensions between peasants and landowners, workers and capitalist employers, between town and country, between the imperial centre and the fringes. The internal schisms were revealed in the struggle of different social forces, between different political parties and programs covering a broad political spectrum, from liberal and democratic agendas to radical blueprints of the extreme Left. As modernizing trends of the early twentieth century began to affect Russia deeper and deeper, the struggle over different visions of the country’s future, over different prescriptions for the transformation of its economic and political systems, intensified.  

The third group of contradictions was generated by the situation in which the country found itself as a result of the Great War. The mounting economic dislocation, the threat of starvation, the war fatigue, the great human toll of millions of the dead and wounded, the disaffection with the aims of the war enhanced the rebellious mood of different sections of the population, making a social explosion almost unavoidable.

The cumulative effect of all these diverse tangles of conflicts and contradictions generated a tidal wave of revolution with more and more sections of society openly voicing their protest and actively engaging in the anti-autocratic movement. With the collapse of the monarchy in February, it became increasingly obvious that the unfolding revolution could not be easily defined in terms of any particular social characteristic. It did not conform to any of the usual labels, such as ‘bourgeois-democratic’, ‘proletarian’, or ‘national-liberation’, but revealed the characteristics of many. 

As the revolutionary process deepened, it became possible to discern within it various strands and currents that were relatively independent and formed ‘minor revolutions’ that made up the great revolution. The currents were rising in the cities (the proletarian current), in the countryside (the peasant current), on the ethnic fringes (the national-liberation movement) and in the army (the anti-war movement). All of them were engendered by their specific social, class and group interests, but in their entirety they imparted to the events in Russia the scale and the magnitude that justified the name of a "great revolution."

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Interpretations of 1917


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