The October Revolution, by Roy Medvedev, translated by George Saunders, foreword by Harrison E. Salisbury. London: Constable; New York: Columbia University Press, 1979, 240 pp., $14.95.
It may seem at first glance that another analytical book on the nature and course of the 1918 Bolshevik revolution in Russia is as supererogatory, and critical overkill, as another biography of General Grant or collection of the wise sayings of John F. Kennedy. The excuse for this one seems to be that it derives from a Soviet citizen with credentials of a "dissident," and that in places it comes to conclusions that are at variance with the tiresome Soviet establishment hacks over the decades and their legion of ardent sympathizers in other lands.
What makes his account so novel will evade most American readers, and mystery attends much of his product insofar as it is supposed to represent such a departure from what we have already been told so many times before. Do not expect to read a ringing cry of opposition to the imperial Soviet system or subscription to any heretical espousal of the vestiges of individual freedom or any such thing. Very early in this work, Medvedev establishes his profound loyalty to Leninism and in his preface lays claim to being still a "Marxist revolutionary."
Most of the first half of Medvedev's work concerns matters as dear to the hearts of Soviet political exegesists as any topic that engrossed Christian theologians of the third century: Was the revolution of 1918 "premature"? Was it "inevitable"? And was the part played by Lenin in bringing about Bolshevik success in this coup "indispensable"? He is inclined to say "no" to the first and to come down resoundingly "yes" on the next two.
As usual, the total situation is treated almost exclusively as a purely internal affair. One would almost never know there was a cataclysmic world war going on and that it had a vital part to play in assisting the revolution, because Imperial Russia was doing very badly in it. In the same way the Russian debacle in 1905 against the Japanese is little recognized as an immense fueling to the revolution which also coincided that year with military defeat in a foreign war. (There is an interesting miscaptioned photograph in this book. The familiar shot taken from a rooftop, of Russians fleeing from the czar's soldiers' gunfire in the square facing the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, in the ill-fated protest led by Father Gapon in January 1905, here is misidentified as revolutionaries running from gunfire directed at them by soldiers commanded by the provisional Kerensky regime, 1917.)
Treating the events of 1917-18 as a mainly local affair; ignoring the international complications, the pressures to keep Russia in the war, the help given in bringing back to Russia both Lenin and Trotsky and many others; and foreign material assistance and financial aid, evades consideration of the Bolshevik expedition as a foreign invasion as much as a domestic uprising. Among the Russian scores upon scores of millions, the Bolsheviks were an almost invisible minority. This is what Peter Kropotkin partially had in mind when he thundered, in early July 1918 (quoted by American newspapers): "The Bolsheviks are not Socialists, and the Anarchists are not Anarchists. They are expatriates, ordinary criminals."
Had World War I ended in a stalemate early in 1917, as it promised to do as a consequence of mutual exhaustion, would the Leninist revolution have been so "inevitable"? Had not Woodrow Wilson and his cabal of Anglophile salvagers not used an excuse for getting the United States involved—thereby depositing the equivalent of the circus fat lady on one side of a fairly evenly balanced teeter-totter, and stretching out the contest another year and a half—Lenin and his lot might just as well have spent their remaining days in the same manner as they and their predecessors had earlier: furtively handing out badly printed papers on street corners and running through the dark alleys of the world with the cops in hot pursuit.
Of course, Medvedev argues that only Soviet historians really know anything about it all and largely supports the accepted establishment line on more things than he doubts or questions. But even Harrison Salisbury, the veteran New York Times Russianologist, who launches the book in this country with a more than kindly foreword, covers himself by conceding that "Medvedev's picture of Lenin and the Bolsheviks…is not too convincing nor, in the light of the best contemporary Soviet scholarship, entirely accurate."
The middle chapters exhaustively and almost tiresomely investigate the ups and downs of the tiny radical political cadres. Yet Medvedev does put on the record some monumental Bolshevik mistakes, although seeking to minimize their impact on Lenin's reputation.
If Medvedev's work is not entirely trustworthy and not so brave a new adventure in describing the Bolshevik experience, his cachet as a dissident-revisionist (though he finds Solzhenitzyn unbearable) nevertheless would be vindicated by his last two chapters and conclusions. Herein he describes in painful detail the utter botchery of agriculture in 1918 by Lenin and his hearties. It is true that the Bolsheviks, unlike Mao's crowd in China, knew virtually nothing about the land, farming, or food production and were never pushed by their ardent mouthpieces in the United States and elsewhere as gentle "agrarian reformers." But by virtue of their bungling they launched almost as much trouble for Russia as Mao did for China.
In a groping way, Medvedev, unlike most urban parasite Reds, is aware that agriculture is work, that food is not a spontaneous product of the Marxist-Leninist will, and that those who produced the food deserved decent compensation for it, not a fistful of Bolshevik play money. His last chapter is the best evidence of this realization and probably his chief claim to being a revisionist critic. And he freely concedes that only the speed by which the revolution incorporated the poor peasants saved the Bolsheviks from "immediate destruction," as he put it, in the summer of 1918, even though he also realizes that the collectivization of Russian agriculture was an objective located an immense distance from that of Russian peasantry in toto. Even the poorest and most resentful looked forward to no more than a redivision of some of Russia's agricultural land.
Medvedev confirms that, out of the first stage of the October Revolution in rural Russia, the first event of significance to emerge was not the creation of any large collective farms but "the appearance of a great many new small and medium-sized farms." Medvedev further recognizes that, though famine conditions assailed urban Russia by mid-1918, it was not due to the absence of the means of subsistence. The planted area in 1917, as well as the harvest, was close to that of the average of the three previous war years. If there was almost no grain and breadstuffs in many city markets, it was because the peasantry were hiding these in immense quantities, due to the breakdown of the exchange system. Medvedev describes the activities of the numerous middlemen (the "bag men," hated in Bolshevik memory), scurrying about the country, bringing large quantities of grain from where it was secreted to places where it was needed. So a market economy of sorts, though largely barter, managed to persist.
Medvedev, agreeing with Kondratiev's 1922 study, substantiates the existence of large grain "surpluses" in the hands of the "middle peasants," unwilling to turn it over to the Bolshevik government or to sell it for Soviet wall paper, disguised as money. Hence the grim emergency, and Lenin's subsequent dispatching into the countryside of contingents of paramilitary strong-arm artists, euphemistically described as "food detachments," who proceeded to relieve the holders of the grain at gunpoint, paying them nothing for it (even though peasants occasionally killed such parties to the last man).
The author concedes that this was a catastrophic policy, destroying the peasantry's "confidence in the future," while it also "deprived them of any incentive to labor in the fields in the subsequent years." There is an aura of simple innocence hovering over this last statement that almost compels a sustained smile. So, instead of concessions and compromise permitting free trade and some aspects of the modified capitalism adopted in the spring of 1921, the Bolsheviks, Medvedev plaintively complains, "mistakenly resorted to mass violence" in the spring and summer of 1918.
Thus was planted in rural Russia the seeds of the ensuing civil war and the diseases of policy which result in the Soviet Union today still being unable to feed itself, a situation that never prevailed under the czars. (In the last prewar czarist year, 1913, Russia exported 12,000,000 tons of grain.)
But there is a political effect of all this which accounts for the survival of Bolshevik Communism. In the midst of contemplating the horrid human cost of the obtuse agricultural policy of Lenin and his cohorts, Medvedev seems dimly aware that the real political genius of these Bolsheviks lay in their success in creating a wide abyss between Russia's urban proletariat and the country's farm workers and peasants—aggravating the split with constant inflammatory propaganda that described the latter as unfeeling and greedy saboteurs of the revolution, and they slyly coming forth in the role of mediators between the two.
It is obvious that the failure of the Bolsheviks, sustained all the way to the present, in the field of food production, weighs heavily on Medvedev. He returns to it even in the four closing sentences of his work, remarking ruefully that "abundance in agricultural production still eludes us," making for the persistent dependency on "capitalist countries," which seem always, for some unexplained reason, to continue to come up with the necessary "surpluses" to sell to the Workers' Fatherland. Medvedev still appears to be mystified as to the cause for this particular weakness in his homeland, but he reveals a badly concealed suspicion that the answer lies somewhere back there when his idol, Lenin, temporarily restored the crippled but at least partially functioning capitalism, the New Economic Policy (NEP), in the halcyon days of early 1921, but did not keep it going. From that time on the famines were genuine.
James J. Martin is a widely published revisionist historian.