Пер Монсон

«All the itical regimes that existed in Russia during the last three centuries were very peculiar. They were not like any type of political regime that existed in the history of other countries. Russia’s monarchies were not the same as the monarchies in Europe. It was neither absolute nor constitutional; instead it was somehow excessively autocratic».

(Vadim Mezhuev 2000:15)

I met Vadim Mezhuev in the first half of the 90s, in Moscow, through Olga Zdravomyslova, who later became Vadim’s wife. Without exaggeration I can say that I immediately found him a very interesting thinker and a very nice man. With the help of Olga and my wife Ludmila Bojzko as translaters I, during many years, had discussions with Vadim about the history of Russia, the revolution of 1917 and the development of the Soviet Union, and also the social and political currents in post-communist Russia. Since I was young I have been interested in obtaining a deeper knowledge about the origin and different phases of the USSR, and Vadim helped me very much to understand some important peculiarities of the Russian development – before, during and after the Soviet epoch. These talks have been very useful to me the last twenty-five years in one of my academic course at the University of Gothenburg called ”Russia between past and future”. In this course, as a lecturer responsible for the scientific literature, I gave the students one of Vadim’s text from which the quotation above is taken. The students really liked it and we had many very interesting discussions at seminars while we tried to understand ”the peculiarities of the Russian autocratic state”. So, Vadim’s name will also live in the mind of Swedish students.

For many years I have planned to write a book about Soviet Union. The title of this book is Utopia lost: The Soviet Union 1922-1991. Like many other historians and social scientists interested in the Russian revolution I planned to publish this book 2017, a hundred years after the revolution. Like many other who has written about this, I planned to have at least some chapters about the historical background of the revolution, but when I studied the revolution 1905-1906 more closely I understood that the events during these years are crucial to take into account if you want to understand how the different actors – the tsar, the government, the generals, the political parties like Octobrists and KDs, the moderate socialists and the bolsheviks, but most of all “the masses” – behaved in 1917. But, off course, there is also a historical background to the “1905 dress rehearsal” (as Lenin called it), and when the time to stop writing and publish the book had passed, I understood that there will not be any book by me about Soviet Union to the centennial. Instead, I decided therefore to go the other way, to dig deeper into the historical Russian soil in order to try to find the deepest and strongest explanations of the fact that the Russian revolution of 1917-1921 (my conception of the revolution includes the civil war) was the biggest and most violent revolutionary event in world history.

First of all, I had to develop an understanding of the events that led from February to October and try to go deeper than the usual understand that there were two revolutions, one “democratic” (or bourgeois) in February and one ”coup d’etat” (or socialist) in October. Many Soviet and Western historians and social scientists who have analysed the events in 1917 understand the development 1917 in this way. Even if they take two very different ideologically positions – pro and against them – they confirm this ”two revolution thesis” to each other. But, according to my mind, there was only one revolutionary process from February to October (and, of course, which also continued after October), but the question is if it is possible to connect these ”two revolutions thesis” (in the sense of two political turning points) into a coherent analysis…

* * *

If the decisive moment of the Russian revolution was the forced abdication of the Tsar and the outright hatred against him from almost all of the Russian people, there must be an explanation to this general hatred. During the years I have studied Russian history I have been fascinated over the origins and development of two of the most distinctive Russian social institutions: The Autocracy on the one side and the serfdom of the Russian peasants on the other. The Autocratic rulers were, like Vadim Mezhuev says above, “not like any type of political regime that existed in the history of other countries”. The same cannot be said about the institution of serfdom in Russia, because serfdom existed also in other parts of Europe. But the difference between Russia (and some other parts of Eastern Europe) and West Europe is that when the serfdom in West began to be abolished, it became more and more institutionalised in Russia, where it became legal 1649. The gap between the peasant mass and the “educated society” (obshchestvo) grew bigger and bigger the next centuries, and already in the middle of the eighteenth century there existed two different societies in what in the literature is called “the dual Russia”:

«As high society in St. Petersburg and Moscow became ever more glittering and spendthrift, the background darkened in provincial Russia. As more and more gentlefolk acuired some veneer of “culture” they began to speak the “secret language”, French, which the common people could not understand; as more and more landowners formed a taste for the high life they began to treat their serfs like cattle who existed only to be exploited. And the oppressed were beginning to react not merely by petitioning or by running away, but by burning down their masters’ houses or slitting their masters’ or mistresses’ throats […] The seeds of class hatred were germinating and later Romanovs would reap a bitter crop […] So, while the Russian peasant pursued his dreary, bitter and often hungry routine in the countryside, the court pursued its own routine—a routine which consisted principally of playing cards, backbiting and engaging in love affairs and intricate intrigues».

(Longworth 1972:200f)

In this perspective, the revolutions 1905 and 1917 was just two more of a number of revolts and rebellions that took place in Russia. Except big uprisings, like Stenka Razin’s and Yemelyan Pugachev’s, there were hundreds of small and local insurrections. Most of them were directed not against ”true Tsars” but against ”false Tsars”, as for example during smutnoe vremja and its ”false Dmitries” who claimed to be ”the rightful tsar” and Pugachev who said he was the murdered tsar Peter III. As long as this faith in Tsar Batyushka existed, most revolts were directed against the nobles and the landowners, because it was they the serfs perceived as their oppressors. But after the critique of the autocratic state as a political system began in the end of the eighteen century – especially after the publication of Alexander Radishchev’s novel Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow 1790 – and the uprising among soldiers in the Dekabrist putch 1825 the criticism of the Autocracy was connected to the criticism of the serfdom. It was this combined critiques, and the loss in the Crimea war that forced Alexander II to “liberate” the serfs.

The emergence of a new class of intelligentsia during the second half of the nineteenth century, critical to the whole Russian political system, the fast development of the Russian industrial capitalism the last decades of the century which forced millions of former peasants to slave work in huge factories, and last, but not least, the war against Japan and the mass killing on Bloody Sunday in January 1905 changed the nature of the opposition against the Autocracy. The revolution 1905-06 was a mixture of traditional Russian rebellions and this new factors’ impact on the uprising. 1917 all these factors were even stronger. World War I was much bigger than the war against Japan, both in number of dead soldiers and lack of foodstuff and other things humans need to survive. The delegitimising of the regime was much deeper than in 1905. The government looked like incompetent fools and the shadow of Rasputin’s relation to “the German woman” (that is, the Tsaritsa Alexandra) fell heavily on Tsar Nicholaus’ shoulder. Everybody turned against the old regime. That is why the Russian revolution of 1917 were so extreme and so large.

One interesting question in Russia’s historical development is the problem of path dependence. It seems that there exists in a long term perspective some ”paths” in Russia that descendants had followed. In this text I have mentioned two of them: The Autocratic political system [Samovlastie] and the serfdom of the peasants. None of these institutions existed in the beginning of Russia’s history, so the question is: when and why did they develop? In order to answer these questions I think we have to understand that both these institutions have developed during many years in millions of people’s actions, and that they in their uninstitutionalised origins were supposed to be temporary measures to solve some acute problem for the authorities. In the beginning of the development of the Russian Autocratic political system no-one decided to establish this kind of power, it took many years, even centuries, to transform individual actions into social institutions. But when this kind of political system were institutionalised, a new tsar who inherited the throne (or seized it in a coup) could build his or her power on the existence of this institution of state power in Russia. The Russian tradition of autocratic power can therefore not be reduced to psychological characteristics of this or this ruler. In the Russian history the rulers had very different personal traits, but they exercised their power based on the institution of autocracy. It was not their personalities that made the autocrats, but the historical path dependence of Autocracy.

As Vadim Mezhuev writes:

“Samovlastie is just another definition of the Russian political authority, whose enigma has preoccupied many generations of researchers of Russian history. Apparently, it is not fruitful to search for the cause of this tradition of samovlastie in an excessive desire of power, which should distinguish our politicians and leaders from politicians and leaders in other countries. A desire of power is quite natural for any politician, of any country. We should neither look for the cause of samovlastie in the so-called servile submission of the Russian people, meaning a genetically drive to serve. In this matter, the Russian people are like any other people. No people would freely accept to endure the arbitrariness of authorities and patience should not be mistaken for consent. The former can be often explained by the inability to change the circumstances or a failure to believe in the possibility of such a change. It can also be a lack of knowledge of how to achieve a change. By no means can patience be interpreted as a genetic love to being a slave. The nature of ordinary people is usually recalled as a main stimulus of samovlastie by those who themselves are afraid of the regime. Still, samovlastie became a political tradition of Russia, a fact which meaning and cause need to be explained».

(Mezhuev 2000:15f)

The same is true about the origins of the peasants’ serfdom. It is not based on ”a servile submission of the Russian people, meaning a genetically drive to serve”. The peasant in Kievrus was, according to historical research, free to move to other places and to another prince that treated them better. The subordination of the peasants took many hundred years and depended on several factors; e.g., the rulers’ need to prevent the peasants from escaping beyond the borders of the Muscovy state, the necessity of boyars and nobles to have some people working on their mansions and to support the princes with command and soldiers to their armies.

The book, which I am now writing: 1917: the year of the great transformation of Russia, take its point of departure in one of the first days of the Ocober revolution with a short prologue about the circumstances around Tsar Nicholaus abdication, followed by an Introduction where the themes of the book is discussed. One interesting thing in the text can be mentioned here: I have read many books about the revolution 1917, including those who were published 2017 at the centennial of the revolution. Most of them analysed the revolution from the perspective of its result, that is, the Bolshevik’s taking power in October. But to explain why the revolution broke out, I argue, we cannot use this type of teleological explanations. The consequences of the Russian Revolution are not the same as its causes.

It is true that the revolution 1917 can be understood and analysed from two different perspectives, on the one hand as the beginning of the Soviet epoch in Russian history, and on the other as the end of Tsarist Russia. It is obvious that the establishing of the Soviet union cannot explain why the revolution occurred if you do not believe that the whole thing was planned in one superman’s brain. In my book I therefore decided to treat the revolution only as the end of the Tsarist Russia, and to analyse the development during 1917 as an “open” process that could have taken other paths than it took and let the question of the victory of the Bolsheviks rest to be discussed in the next book about the Soviet Union.

After this introduction there are three chapters with the titles “The revolution begins”, “New power organ are born”, and “The establishment of dual power”, in which the day to day development and the most important actors are described and analysed. After this Part one of the book, “Eight days that changed Russia”, ends and Part two, “The Tsars and the Peasants in Russian history” begins with a short background in the chaper “A kingdom is born” (Kiev Rus), where the importance of Yaroslav the Wise’s inheritance rules to his sons for the further development of the political system of Russia is analysed. Then follows a short chapter which describes a wedding in Moscow in February 1433, when Velikiy knyaz’ Vasily II of Moscow married Maria from Borovsk and the succeeding civil war, where the basis of the autocratic power, several historians argue, is founded, and a chapter about ”The establishing of the autocracy”.

After this follow several chapters where different aspects and problems in the development of the autocratic power under different tsars and tsarinas are discussed under titles such as “The Autocracy runs amok” (about Ivan IV), “The Autocracy implodes” (about smutnoe vremja), “The Autocracy is cemented” (about Michail and Alexei Romanov), “The Autocracy arms itselves” (about peasants, nobles, army and new weapons), “The Autocracy strikes back” (about Peter I and Cosacks), “The Autocracy gets cultural” (about Anne, Elizabeth and Catherine II), “The Autocracy turns to Europe” (about Catherine and Pavel), “The Autocracy conquer Europe” (about Alexander I), and thereafter a short chapter about the Dekabrist revolt. The rest of the historical chapters are called “The Autocracy becomes state ideology” (about Nicholaus I), “The Autocracy is challenged” (about Alexander II and Alexander III), “The rehearsal” (about the revolution 1905-1906), and “The Autocracy goes to war” (about Russia in WW I). After these chapters there will be a concluding chapter, “From March to October” with an overview of the events up to the middle of October. In an Epilogue there will be a short description of the Bolsheviks’ uprising in Petrograd.

So is the plan of the book, which I hope will be ready for publication in the autumn 2020 or spring 2021. There are four more chapters to write, but the content of them are already clear. I would so much liked to hear what Vadim think about this plan and this book. It was he who helped me to understand that it is important to understand ”the peculiarities of the Russian autocracy” if you want to understand Russian history. This is my modest contribution to at least some understanding of this fascinating history.

Автор: Пер Монсон (Per Månson) – социолог, профессор Гетеборгского университета (Швеция), автор работ по теории и истории социологии, а также статей о российской истории и современности. На русский язык переведены книги Пера Монсона «Современная западная социология: теории, традиции, перспективы» (1992) и «Лодка на аллеях парка. Введение в социологию» (1996)


Longworth, Philip (1972): The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne & Elizabeth of Russia (London: Constable)

Mezhuev, Vadim (2000): ”Samovlastie: The Tradition of Autocracy in Contemporary Russia”, in Per Månson (ed): East Europe Ten Years After Communism: Transforming Power and Economy (Forskning om Europafrågor, Centre for European Research, Gothenburg University, Report No 9)