Clobbering the 'burzhooi'

Interpreting the Russian Revolution
September 15, 2000

It is over 20 years since Francois Furet inaugurated the "revisionist" turn in the historiography of the French revolution with a book whose title in English was Interpreting the French Revolution . Revisionists shifted attention away from the social causes of the French revolution to the political culture that it installed, Furet, in particular, arguing that the revolutionaries' adoption of a Rousseauesque theory of political representation led to a form of anti-pluralist "democratic absolutism" that set back the development of democracy in France. This book by Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii consciously echoes the title of Furet's work and is a highly welcome and long overdue response by historians of the Russian revolution to the "revisionist" historians of the French revolution, which seeks to follow their lead by investigating the political language and symbolism of 1917.

It consists of six sparkling and original essays that draw upon a wealth of often recondite source material. The first offers a lively analysis of the desacralisation of the Romanov dynasty, showing how rumours of sexual corruption and treason at court swept through Russian society, undermining people's belief in a divinely ordained monarchy and spurring them to organise. The second is a wide-ranging study of the destruction of tsarist "emblems of slavery", such as the "blinding" of portraits of the tsar or the "roasting", ie setting alight, of the crowned two-headed eagle, emblem of the Romanovs, and also of the promotion of new revolutionary symbols such as the singing of the Marseillaise and the red flag (but why no mention of the black flag of anarchy?).

The third chapter offers a splendid account of the cult of prime minister Alexander Kerensky, which inter alia contends that power in 1917, in the absence of law or coercion, rested on charismatic authority. Whether the "cults" of General Lavr Kornilov or of Lenin were commensurable is open to question, since they were based on much narrower social constituencies, and the proceedings of the Sixth Bolshevik Party Congress, held in July/August 1917 when Lenin was in hiding, hardly bear out the claim that he enjoyed the "status of a god" inside the party. Chapter four provides a nuanced analysis of the ways in which workers used the language of class, deftly showing how its various idioms could articulate different identities - "labouring people", "proletariat", loyalties to factory or trade - and contradictory political and moral aspirations.

Chapter five offers a thought-provoking discussion of the language of revolution in the village which shows how revolutionary leaders endeavoured to explain their ideas to the peasants and how the latter appropriated and reworked these in order to elaborate a distinctive vision of the revolution. The authors make a trenchant case that peasants were not "anarchist" by inclination, but sought rather to establish a state in their own image. They suggest that peasants conceived power in kingly or quasi-religious terms and had difficulty distinguishing between the person of the ruler and the abstract institutions of the state, and thus argue that an enduring legacy of authoritarian and patriarchal mentalities lay at the heart of revolutionary political culture.

This has a certain plausibility - although it must be said that not a great deal of evidence is adduced to support it - but it is not clear how it squares with the other main theme of the chapter, namely the ubiquitous demands of peasants to be treated as citizens (and, one might add, their demands for "self-government" and "democracy"). The final chapter proffers a stimulating account of images of the enemy during the first world war and in 1917, the authors arguing that the subculture of the revolutionary underground and the official culture of the tsarist system were "structurally similar and used a similar demonic lexicon". They offer a fine discussion of the term burzhooi - a corruption of the word for "bourgeois" - used by the populace to denote any selfish or anti-social person, anyone of above average wealth or education, or anyone alien. Their argument that it was out of this popular culture of class antipathy that the "mass terror" of the civil war emerged, will be contentious. To my mind, such phenomena as the lynching of thieves and "speculators" had less to do with the "discourse of socialism", however dichotomously it constructed the social world, than with peasant traditions of summary justice.

Overall, the book is rich, bold and challenging, but it is not without its problems. The authors tell us that their aim is to investigate "the ways in which language was used to define identities and create new meanings in the politics of 1917", yet they do not do this systematically. While the language of class is subject to exemplary analysis, little attention is paid to the languages of democracy and socialism, and none to the language of nation. Moreover, they use the concepts of "language", "discourse", "symbols" and "political culture" indiscriminately, as though they were all of a piece. This sometimes leads to uncertainty of argument. They insist, for example, that "symbolic systems", like language, define, rather than merely reflect, political struggle, and thus contend that the socialist parties fought among themselves to control the meaning of the symbols of revolution. Yet what actually emerges from their account is the remarkable extent to which socialists of all hues shared - and possibly took for granted - their symbolic system (the apparent failure of the socialist revolutionaries to generate their own iconography and ritual is particularly telling). In 1917 socialists fought over ideology not over symbols, and this may mark a significant distinction between the politics of the Russian and the French revolutions. In fairness, it should be said that the authors present their conclusions as "rather tentative" and the fact that they provoke argument is testament to the originality and vigour of their work. If they raise more questions than they answer, they nevertheless deserve congratulation for picking up the baton from historians of the French revolution and opening up the political culture of the Russian revolution to scholarly scrutiny.

S. A. Smith is professor of history, University of Essex.

Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917

Author - Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii
ISBN - 0 300 08106 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 198

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