By Simon Pirani. This article first appeared in Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal
We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.
It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.
The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the first world war, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.
Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.
After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.
Review by Simon Pirani of The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918, by Marko Bojcun (Brill, 2021, 413 pages)
October 1917: the climax of the revolution we have always called “Russian”, but was so much more. In Petrograd, the old empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Tsentral’na Rada (central council) that had since the summer pressed for Ukrainian autonomy within the Russian state.
The Rada, like all the parliamentary institutions emerging in the empire’s ruins, sat atop a furious movement – in the army and the countryside as much as the towns – that was beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government, but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.
In the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Marko Bojcun writes,
there grew a powerful tendency, cutting across party lines, to support the formation of a government of Ukraine as long as it was based on the councils locally and nationally, and on the condition it maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government. It was not a question of simply adapting the Russian experience, but of attempting to build with indigenous social forces on the basis of the institutions of popular representation that the revolution in Ukraine had so far created (page 206).
The councils had recognised the Rada – but on condition that it “recognised them as the local governments and agreed to its own re-election by them” (page 201). Such a reorganisation had been proposed in the Rada itself in June, at an all-Ukrainian congress of workers’ councils in July and a soldiers’ congress in October.
The left wings of the populist Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had urged remaking the Rada as a soviet body during the summer. Then Ukrainian Bolsheviks – and organisations of mostly Russian-speaking workers dominated by them – joined the call: the council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Kharkiv in September, and in Kyiv, Katerynoslav, Kremenchuk, Kherson and Odessa in November.
The Mykolaiv council resolved to “enter into constructive relations” with the Rada, the Luhansk council to support it on condition it upheld the decisions of the October soviet congress in Petrograd that had declared soviet power. By Bojcun’s count, “at least seven of the ten most populous cities of Ukraine” favoured sovietising the Rada – implying overwhelming support, since Russian and Jewish populations, who might have been more likely to question national autonomy, were concentrated in the larger cities.
In January 1918, two months after Soviet power was established in Petrograd, one of the Red Guard units tasked with securing that power on the ruins of the Russian empire entered Hlukhiv, just over the Russian-Ukrainian border, north east of Kyiv. The unit was pushed out of Hlukhiv by the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian Baturinskii regiment within weeks – but soon joined forces with a group of Red partisans who had arrived from Kursk in southern Russia, and took the town back. A pogrom ensued. The Baturinskii regiment changed sides, claiming they had only resisted Soviet power because the “Yids” had paid them to. The Red Guards, thus reinforced, rampaged around the town proclaiming “eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids!”
How many of the town’s 4000 or so Jews fell victim is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. Newspaper reports and eyewitnessed accounts detailed how, for two and a half days, families were lined up and shot, their houses were ransacked and Jews were thrown from moving trains. One report described how 140 were buried in a mass grave. There is no doubt that Hlukhiv’s newly-established Soviet authorities were complicit. After two days of constant killing, they issued an order, “Red Guards! Enough blood!” – but then authorised looting. The synagogue was destroyed and the Torah ripped up. The head of the local soviet then demanded payment from the Jewish survivors.
“In the case of Hlukhiv”, writes Brendan McGeever, “Soviet power was secured by and through antisemitism” (page 48). Within days of the massacre, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who commanded the Red forces in Ukraine, ordered the recomposition of all Red units in Hlukhiv and surrounding areas; those who resisted were to be shot. McGeever judges that this was “likely” a response to the pogrom. He also shows that the Bolshevik centre in Moscow systematically avoided discussing “Red” pogroms publicly. While Jewish newspapers reported Hlukhiv accurately, larger-circulation Bolshevik newspapers failed to identify the “Red” perpetrators.
The Hlukhiv pogrom was a relatively minor precursor to the ferocious wave of terror unleashed against Ukrainian Jews during the chaotic, multi-sided military conflicts of 1919, in which 1-200,000 died. Those pogroms were the climax of a wave that began in 1917, the year of revolution, and amounted to “the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history” (page 2).
There is no doubt – and McGeever reiterates it throughout his narrative – that the overwhelming majority of victims in Ukraine in 1919 were killed by “White” counter-revolutionary and Ukrainian nationalist forces, or in territory controlled by them. Neither is there any question that the policy of the Bolshevik leadership, rooted firmly in Russian socialist tradition, was what we might today call “zero tolerance”. McGeever traces how that policy played out in practice.
How is it that the Russian revolution, “a moment of emancipation and liberation”, was “for many Jews accompanied by racialised violence on an unprecedented scale” (page 2)? McGeever answers by focusing, on one hand, on the minority of pogroms committed by (at least ostensibly) “Red” forces, and on the other, on the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet institutions’ response. The strengths, he argues, emanated largely from initiatives by Jewish socialists, including many who remained outside the Bolshevik party in 1917 and joined during the civil war.