This November (October in the Julian calendar) marks the centenary of the second of the 1917 Russian Revolutions, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government, and established a federal government and the world’s first socialist republic. This was the result of several months of power struggles, after the sudden collapse of the Tsarist autocracy and the abdication of Nicholas II.
LSE Library has one of the most significant Russian collections in the UK and the richness of its primary sources of Russian history are particularly enviable. Looking through the revolution-related materials published between 1917-1919, all of which are held in the library’s archives, it was particularly interesting to find some interesting reportage and opinion from both pro and anti-Bolshevik perspectives. Where possible I have linked to digitised copies from verified external sources, but all can be found on LSE’s Library Search and can be requested by staff, students and researchers for consultation in the library.
One of the key sources is Lessons of the Russian Revolution, from Lenin himself, originally published in the Rabochy newspaper in August 1917, and published in the UK by the British Socialist Party in 1918. Lenin summarises the radical questions of the revolution – freedom, peace, bread and land – and as this was written whilst the Provisional Government was in power, Lenin is scathing towards them, proclaiming them as a counter-revolutionary force, protecting the capitalist class.
Compare this with Memoirs of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Lomonosov, who as Assistant Director of the Russian Railways, was caught up in the revolution when rail workers across the country went on strike. Recalling around two weeks of history in February/March, he describes his return from the disastrous war from the Romanian front to the jubilation across Petrograd when the soldiers turned against the government and the Soviet of Workmen’s Deputies was formed.
There were also international journalists and tourists present in Petrograd during the revolutionary fervour. Michael Farbman, the Manchester Guardian correspondent for Petrograd, gave a lecture titled The Russian Revolution and the War to the National Council of Civil Liberties in July 1917, which was subsequently published as a pamphlet. Farbman traces the inevitable collapse of the Tsarist regime because of its ‘bankruptcy’ and the decay of its civil structure. On an optimistic note for the future of Russia, he believes that post-revolution, “Russia became a state, a nation, a fatherland”. However, Farbman’s calls for the sympathy and co-operation of the Allied countries were spurned.
Christian L. Lange, an American tourist, was visiting Russia, when by chance he was on the first train that passed into Russia and then onto Petrograd after the February revolution. His memoirs were published as Russia: The Revolution and the War by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace later in 1917. Perhaps most intriguing of all with Lange is his enthusiastic and flattering portrayal of Kerensky as a ‘remarkable man’, who possessed ‘unique eloquence and moral courage’ and ‘a soul of fire, sincere and truthful to himself, at the same time a powerful intelligence, and a born leader’. Despite his support for Kerensky, Lange believed unstable times lay ahead. If famine continued, he argued, new riots would be inevitable.
Both in the UK and US, some MPs and organisations were broadly supportive. Joseph King, the then Liberal MP for North Somerset, was a pacifist and member of the cross-party Union of Democratic Control, which sought to avoid future conflicts. In 1918 he wrote The Russian Revolution: the First Year, which criticised the corruption of the Tsarist regime and the pro-war, pro-capitalist Kerensky, then states the Bolshevik position on areas such as foreign policy, land policy, etc. A bitter note of regret is the lack of Western recognition, although King mentions that President Wilson was initially supportive, claiming the fall of Tsarism to be the greatest gain to civilisation from the war.
Walton Newbold, later elected as a Communist MP in the 1922 General Election, wrote an explosive diatribe in support of the October Revolution, titled Bankers, Bondholders and Bolsheviks, which accuses bankers and their ‘parasitic clients’ of exploiting the Russian people and causing endless suffering to the ‘peasantry and proletariat’ alike.
Jump across to the Western coast of the US and the Commonwealth Club of California, a non-partisan public affairs organisation passed a resolution of support for the revolution in its Transactions (May 1917), and asked for the Russian Embassy to forward this to the Provisional Government in Petrograd. A number of History professors and Russian exiles described the causes of the revolution to the club’s membership.
But not all commentators at the time were so enthusiastic. Colonel Vladimir Lebedev was the former Secretary of the Navy under the Provisional Government and his The Russian Democracy in its Struggle against the Bolshevist Tyranny was an attempt to enlist American sympathies for the movement of the Russian people against Bolshevism. Lebedev argued that the majority of Russians did not support the Bolsheviks and believed they were leading Russian to destruction and humiliation after negotiating peace with Germany at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. J. O. Gavronsky, also supportive of the February Revolution, made an address in July, titled The Truth About New Russia, which was cynical about Lenin, who had been given short shrift by sailors and soldiers alike, suspicious about the nature of his return to Russia from Germany.
The Russian aristocrat P. M. Volkonsky of the Russian Liberation Committee, an organisation of émigrés based on London, wrote The Volunteer Army of Alexeiv and Denikin, an account of the movement committed to the “re-establishment of a sane authority and a continuation of the struggle with Germany” and foresaw the retreat of the Bolsheviks and a new dawn for Russia.
Back in the House of Commons, Clement Edwards, the Liberal MP, proposed The True Solution of the Russian Problem in 1919, which advocated that Britain should not make peace with the Bolsheviks and that the only way to address the ‘Russian problem’ and stamp put Bolshevism was to impose military occupations of Moscow and Petrograd, the two centres of terrorism.
Hopefully this gives a snapshot of the primary material available in the library about the two revolutions of 1917. The Russian Revolution and the construction of the new Soviet Union in the 1920’s and beyond was of immense interest to the founding generation of the LSE; the Webbs in particular. Between 1918 and 1945, the library aimed to build a comprehensive collection in the area of government and public administration in the Soviet Union and ensured the development of a strong collection of official documents. The systematic collection of publications from countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe began in earnest from 1945.
The Russian Collection covers all aspects of Soviet social, economic and political life with particularly good collections of books, pamphlets and reports on Russian economic conditions and economic policy, trade, government and law. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union the Library continues to collect Russian publications in its core areas of interest (politics, economics, and social studies), both from the Russian Federation and the former Soviet Republics. The Russian Collection currently contains around 34,000 monograph titles.
Kevin Wilson is the Academic Liaison and Collection Development Manager at LSE Library. He has a BA (Hons) in History and Politics from Keele University; his undergraduate dissertation focused on the changing nature of heresy and treason laws during the English Reformation. He also has an MSc in Library and Information Studies from Robert Gordon University.