Russian Revolution Tipping Point: Facts and Counterfacts

The future may roll out according to plan, by virtue of the constraints of the natural environment or the momentum supplied by an organized social order. On the other hand, the future may take a sudden turn as the result of some unforeseeable chance circumstance. Enough such chance circumstances and ordered simplicity is replaced by incomprehensible complexity: perhaps a man “makes history” or perhaps his absence equally makes history, albeit going unnoticed.

At what seems to have been a key tipping point in the course of Russian history, the Tsar’s abrupt abdication having left behind a power vacuum revolutionaries and moderates were scrambling to fill, it so happened that WWI was effectively on winter holiday, leaving the massive Russian army organized, the only national force holding real power, and with nothing to do. It also so happened that strong-willed General Gurko had just left his position as chief-of-staff to become commander of the western front—an entirely reasonable move in view of the anticipated spring German offensive. It further so happened that his replacement in charge of all Russian forces was mild-mannered, cautious General Alekseyev. And thus, by a chain of chance occurrences with unforeseeable consequences, all the best laid plans of men set in the concrete of laws, bureaucracy, intentions, and power dissolved into a complex-adaptive system of interacting, semi-independent, self-organized groups driving each other’s political evolution…and Russia’s last, best chance was lost. At least, so it seemed to a very frustrated General Gurko, who was out of the loop.

Так покойно было фронтовое сидение этой зимы, так планомерно сгущалось вооружение, снаряжение, и война как будто выходила на перевал, с которого можно было видеть и конец её, — и вдруг обрушилась революция!….

генералы стояли во главе превосходных вооружённых сил, сторожили дремлющего внешнего врага — и не дано было им обернуться, не дано вмешаться, и даже не спрашивал никто их мнения, как лишних и чужих! Состояние паралитика: голова работает, сознание чётко, а пошевельнуть нельзя ни пальцем. А у Гурко было особенно досадливое состояние: что это меж его пальцами протекло, сквозь его энергичную хватку!…И воли, и твёрдости, и быстроты ума — всего этого в генерале Гурко избывало, и будь он сейчас начальником штаба Верховного — он минуты бы не дал делу колебаться и плыть…[ КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО, Узел III — МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО Книга 3 (главa 407).]

Si calme avait ete le front, cet hiver, si regulierement s’amassient l’armament, l’equipement, et la guerre semblait meme devoir deboucher sur un cold u haut duquel o pourrait en voir la fin – et soudain une revolution qui vous tombait dessus!….

…les generaux commandaient des forces armies excellentes, surveillaient un ennemi extgerieur sommeillant, et ils n’avaient pas eu la possibilite de se retourner, d’intervenir, on ne leur avait meme pas demande leur avis, comme s’ils eussent ete des inutiles et des etrangers! Comme chez un paralytique: le cerveau fonctionne, la conscience est claire, mais impossible de remuer le petit doigt.

Gourko se trouvait, lui, dans un etat de particuliere contrariete, car l’affaire etait passee sous son nez, elle avait echappe a sa forte poigne….Volonte, fermete, promptitude d’esprit – le general Gourko avait de tout cela a revendre, et s’il avait ete en ce moment chef d’etat-major du Commandant Supreme, il n’aurait pas laisse une minute les choses vaciller et s’effilocher…[Alexandre Soljenitsyne, La roué rouge, troisieme noeud, Tome 3, Mars dix-sept, 195-6.]

All this is not to imply that vacillation in the face of sudden crisis constitutes bad policy: indeed, given the very real possibility of immediate civil war, vacillation was, at the time, probably the best available option both for the new bourgeois regime and the Tsarist military command, though the post-Tsarist regime might well have made a more sincere effort to understand the needs of Russian industrial workers for a shorter day and of Russian peasants for better crop prices. However rational, vacillation did not save Russia from vicious civil war or the degeneration of socialist dreams into Stalinist oppression, but that came later; vacillation at least postponed violence, giving peaceful reform a chance. Who knows if a “man on horseback” focused on winning the war and presumably insensitive to the desperate plight of the Russian peasant or the pent-up frustrations of the Russian worker would have accomplished anything with his heavy hand but laying the groundwork for an even more violent future explosion. Gurko’s own account stresses the rapidity with which discipline was collapsing even among the frontline forces, so Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of Gurko believing he could have controlled the situation may not be an accurate representation of Gurko’s thoughts. [See Gurko, War and Revolution, Ch. 26.] Whatever the ultimate impact of history, factual or counterfactual, a chain of minor accidents—the precise timing of the revolution, the precise timing of the recovery of a sick commander and his return to central HQ, the differences in the personalities of the outgoing and incoming commanders—set up an historic turning point and controlled, momentarily, its outcome.

One comment on “Russian Revolution Tipping Point: Facts and Counterfacts

  1. […] confusion among the leaders of the new post-tsarist regime about what their goals should be, the chance absence of General Gourko at the key moment when the Army could have intervened, and the analogous arguments within the […]

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