“Democracy” in the Political Consciousness of the February Revolution

by Boris Ivanovich Kolonitskii

Translated by Christopher K. Cosner

Slavic Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 95-106


Source: Internet

Historians of quite diverging orientations have interpreted the February revolution of 1917 in Russia as a “democratic” revolution. Several generations of Marxists of various stripes (tolk) have called it a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” In the years of perestroika, the contrast between democratic February and Bolshevik October became an important part of the historical argument of the anticommunist movement. The February revolution was regarded as a dramatic, unsuccessful attempt at the modernization and westernization of Russia, as its democratization. Such a point of view was expressed even earlier in some historical works and in the memoirs of participants in the events-liberals and moderate socialists. For example, just such a description of the revolution is given by Aleksandr Kerenskii, Whose last reminiscences are especially significant. Kerenskii thought that “the overwhelming majority of the Russian population … were wholeheartedly democratic in their beliefs.” (A. F. Kerensky, Russia and History’s Turning Point, New York, 1965, 326)

In many respects, this viewpoint is correct. For the most part, both the legislation of the February revolution and the practical activity of the Provisional Government were directed toward creating democratic, elected institutions, toward securing human rights and democratic freedoms. Democratization was seen as a universal means to solve any kind of problem. After February, People strove to democratize the theater, church, and schools (in the latter case one might mean labor education and the creation of self-management). During the revolution a unique experiment was conducted in the democratization of the army, which Kerenskii himself called “the freest in the world” (samaia svobodnaia v mire) (soldiers of the 12th army, for example, were proud of the fact that it was “the most democratic” of the Russian armed forces). Troop committees of elected representatives were created in the army and were able to exercise significant rights; soldiers of many units and subdivisions chose their commanders; even the decision to initiate an attack was occasionally subject to a vote. (V. V. Shul’gin claims, with reference to the testimony of German officers, that soldiers sometimes voted in the middle of an attack, before each charge. It is difficult to believe this, but the very existence of anecdotes on the theme of “democratized battles” is symptomatic. V. V. Shul’gin, “1917-1919,” in A. V. Lavrov, ed., Litsa: Bio-graficheskii almanakh, Moscow, 1994, 5:143)

Democratic Ideology and phraseology influenced the language of revolution. The term democracy (demokratiia), which gave way in popularity to the concepts of “the people” (narod), “freedom” (svoboda), and “socialism” (sotsializm), was absolutely “politically correct,” ideologically fashionable, and emotionally attractive. The guberniia diocese congress in Kursk concluded that the republican democratic structure “corresponded most closely” to evangelical law. The battleship Imperator Nikolai I was to take the name Democracy. But ships were not the only things changing names. On 8 (21) April 1917, one soldier, Sergei Romanov, made a special request: like many who shared his surname, he wanted to be rid of the Romanov name because it was considered “monarchist” and “unpleasant” (some Rasputins and Sukhomlinovs also aspired to change their surnames). Romanov wrote, “A wounded soldier, I consider it shameful at the present time to bear the surname Romanov, and therefore request that you permit me to change my name from Romanov to Demokratov” (his request was denied). (Russkaia volia, 1 (14) June 1917; Russkoe slovo, 21 April (4 May) 1917; Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi istoricheskii arkhiv, f. 1412, op. 16, d. 532. On changing surnames, see Andrew M. Verner, “What’s in a Name? Of Dog-Killers, Jews and Rasputin,” Slavic Review, 53, no. 4, 1994, 1046-70) If the renaming of military ships testifies to the inclusion of a political term in the new government ideology, then the anthroponymic reaction to the revolution (changes in surnames and the decline in popularity of the name Nikolai were unusually widespread after February) indicates a distinctive politicization of private life. For neophytes of political life the term democracy had a positive meaning; one must suppose that the soldier Romanov (he was never allowed to change his name) thought that he, his family, and his descendants would be proud of the new name.

Including the term democracy in one’s own political lexicon became a must for practically all political forces-from Bolsheviks to Kornilovites. Thus, Nikolai Berdiaev called Lavr Kornilov an “indubitable democrat” and Boris Savinkov considered the general “a true democrat and unwavering republican.” (N. A. Berdiaev, “O svobode i dostoinstve slova,” Narodopravstvo: Ezhiniedielnyi zhurnal, 1917, no. 11:6; House of Lords Record Office, Historical Collection, no. 206: The Stow Hill Papers, DS 2/1, G) To combat German propaganda in Russia, British and French missions, in cooperation with Kornilov’s entourage, created a special publishing house in Petrograd, turning out no fewer than 12 million leaflets. Significantly, the publisher was called Demokraticheskaia Rossiia (Democratic Russia). Evidently, it was assumed that printed matter from such a source would be in demand. (B. I. Kolonitskii, “Izdatel’stvo ‘Demokraticheskaia Rossiia,’ inostrannye missii i okruzhenie L. G. Kornilova,” in I. L. Afanas’ev, A. U. Davydov, V. I. Startsev, eds., Rossiia v 1917 godu: Novye podkhody i vzgliady: Sbornik nauchnykh trudov, 2d ed., St. Petersburg, 1994, 28-31)

On the other hand, even the leader of the Bolsheviks was seen by his supporters as “the leader of democracy.” In May 1917 front-line soldiers wrote to the editorial office of a Bolshevik newspaper: “We send a warm greeting to the leader of Russian democracy and the defender of our interests, comrade Lenin.” A Bolshevik-poet proclaimed on the pages of Pravda:
[Russian version of the poem preceded the following English translation in the original text]
I sing the family of my people,
Which is called democracy,
For her instinctive battle
With darkness and apathy.
(Pravda, 11 (24) May and 19 May (1 June) 1917)
And so, representatives of nearly the entire political spectrum thought they should call themselves “democrats.” This facilitated the multiple meanings of the term democracy and lent the advantages of political mimicry to those who used it. The satirist D. N. Semenovskii had good reason to describe the situation in the following way:
[Russian version preceded the following English translation in the original text]
All of Russia is newly decked out,
A devilishly motley masquerade!
A thug pretends to be a Kadet,
And who’s not a democrat now?
(Russkaia stikhotvornaia satira 1908-1917-x godov, Leningrad, 1974, 568)

One distinctive piece of evidence concerning the popularity of the term democracy in revolutionary Russia was the emotional statement made by Lord Charles Hardinge, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs of Great Britain. On 13 (26) April, Hardinge Wrote to Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador in Petrograd: “How I Hate the word democracy at the present time: if we do not win the war, as it should be won, it will be thanks to the Russian revolution and the absurd nonsense talked about the democracies of the world.” (Cambridge University Library, Hardinge Papers, vol. 31, p. 311) An official of conservative convictions, Hardinge questioned, not without foundation, the battle readiness of the Russian revolutionary army, at the same time that many of his compatriot liberals wrote enthusiastically of a unified battle pitting the “democratic countries” against Prussian militarism and absolutism.
Correspondingly, in their propaganda leaflets, Russian Soldiers called on their opponents to follow their example and overthrow their ruling dynasties. Allies could also become the target of the export of revolution, however, and calls to bring about an antimonarchist revolution in Romania were widely circulated among Russian soldiers deployed in that country. Anti-Shah and antifeudal sentiments were spread in the north of Persia by Russian soldiers who wanted to “democratize” that country.
Legislative practice also reflected attempts to become the “most advanced democracy.” For example, a law on elections to the Constituent Assembly put into place electoral norms that appeared only a decade later in countries with more developed legal rights.

The opposition between “bourgeoisie” and “democracy” became an important instrument for classifying political forces. The language of the Russian revolution also influenced reports by foreigners. Thus, for example, the famous English journalist Arthur Ransome also wrote about the conflict between the Bolsheviks and the “other part of democracy,” indicating a split among the socialists. In a survey put together for the War Ministry of Great Britain, there was talk of a compromise between the “bourgeois” and “democratic” parties in Russia. Even the British ambassador, George Buchanan, used the concepts of the “bourgeoisie” and “democracy” to describe the opposing camps. (Pitcher, Witnesses of the Russian Revolution, 117; Public Record Office, War Office, 158/964; G. Buchanan, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, London, 1923, 2:128)

Throughout history, the concepts “democracy,” “democrat,” and “true democrat” have been used fairly often for self-identification; correspondingly, political opponents are thereby as if excluded from the political process. In this connection the Russian revolution of 1917 was no exception. A special aspect of this revolution was the contrast between “democracy” and “bourgeoisie” proposed by socialists of various tendencies. Not everyone, of course, agreed with this approach; there were even attempts to contrast democracy and socialism. However, in Russia’s political life the language of class dominated; the concept of “democracy” was included in this language and subjected to specific changes. We find a distinctive confirmation of this in reports by the British vice-consul in Khar’kov: “Class hatred had been intensified by ill use of foreign terminology, such as ‘bourgeois,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘democrat,’ ‘citizen,’ and ‘comrade.'” (Public Record Office, Foreign Office, section 371, box 3015, N 225904, p. 250) And N. A. Berdiaev wrote: “A new creation of idols has begun, many idols and earthly gods have appeared-‘revolution,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘internationalism,’ and ‘proletariat.'” (N. A. Berdiaev, “Pravda i lozh’ v obshchestvennoi zhizni,” Narodopravstvo, 4, 1917, 7; Berdiaev, “Kontrrevoliutsiia,” Russkaia svoboda, 1917, no. 10-11:6) It is significant that both authors place the term democracy among the concepts of a socialist vocabulary.

The interpretation of “democracy” proposed by the socialists was reflected in mass consciousness; “democracy” was equated with the “people”-“We are democracy” (demokratiia-eto my). The people, however, developed the ideas of “democracy” and “the republic” according to their own traditional conceptions of power (mass consciousness also gave its interpretations to other concepts borrowed from the language of contemporary politics-“socialism,” “bourgeoisie,” and “Bolsheviks,” and so on). Here we encounter the problem of the translation from the bookish language of the February revolution by the less educated and sometimes illiterate activists. Research into this little studied borderland between oral and printed culture is a complex task.

Buchanan recalled that in the first days of the revolution one Russian soldier noted: “Oh, yes, we must have a republic, but we must have a good tsar at the head.” Such an example could serve to corroborate the ambassador’s own views with respect to the Russians’ low level of political culture: “Russia is not ripe for a purely democratic form of government,” he stated. And we see echoes of similar sentiments in other sources: “We want the Republic, … but with a good Tsar,” – wrote a French diplomat, de Robien, on the views of Russian soldiers. An American historian and Slavicist, Frank Golder, who was in Petrograd in 1917, also noted: “Stories are being told of soldiers who say they wish a republic like England, or a republic with a Tsar. One soldier said he wanted to elect a President and when asked ‘whom would you elect?’ he replied, ‘The Tsar.’ From all accounts many of the soldiers do not grasp and do not understand what the Revolution means.” (Buchanan, My Mission to Russia, 2:86, 114, see also 2:111, 128, 216-17; L. de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia, 1917-1918, London, 1969, 24; Terence Emmons and Bertrand M. Patenaude, comps. and eds., War, Revolution and Peace in Russia: The Passages of Frank Golder, 1914-1927, Stanford, 1992, 46)

One may, of course, suppose that these authors wrote about the same soldiers – foreigners often socialized together, met regularly at gatherings, told each other new anecdotes and political news. Yet even in reports by the Russian military censorship office we encounter analogous excerpts from soldiers’ letters: “We want a democratic republic and a tsar-father for three years”; “it would be good if they gave us a republic with a tsar who can get things done.” One of the censors reported, “in nearly all letters, the peasants express the desire to see a tsar as the leader of Russia. Obviously, monarchy is the only method of governance compatible with peasant conceptions.” (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv, f. 2003, op. 1, d. 1494, 1. 14; Otdel rukopisei Rossiiskoi Natsional’noi biblioteki (formerly Gosudarstvennaia Publichnaia biblioteka im. M. E. Saltykova-Shchedrina), f. 152, op. 1, d. 98, 1. 34)
Kerenskii may have been correct when he stated that the absolute majority of the population of Russia were supporters of democracy. Nevertheless, the various admirers of “democracy” pursued completely different goals. As we have seen, the word democracy itself was understood in completely different ways. The mention of this term in the 1917 sources constantly demands a qualified translation by historians (and admittedly a translation cannot always be given). From our contemporary point of view, the understanding of “democracy” exhibited by many socialists, soldiers, and peasants was often “incorrect.” However, such a judgment can hardly be considered historical (by this standard even the understanding of democracy in Aristotle’s Politics would be “incorrect”). Indeed, the very fact that several different political languages were functioning simultaneously objectively impeded the country’s democratic development.

The language of democracy in 1917 was strongly influenced by the language of class, by the language of the socialists, which dominated during the revolution. (On the “language of class,” see Diane P. Koenker, “Moscow in 1917: The View from Below,” in Daniel H. Kaiser, ed., The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917: The View from Below, Cambridge, Eng., 1987, 91-92)


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