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7 March 2017

From the 1917 Revolution archive: Russia’s New Holy Alliance

On 15 March 1917, after months of strikes and unrest, Tsar Nicholas II stepped down as supreme ruler of the Russian people. This response, published on 24 March in The Nation, greeted the news as a sign of "hope" for all of war-torn Europe.

By New Statesman

At last, from out the immense misery of the war, has come a message of deliverance and hope for mankind. At the moment when the cause of liberty was most in peril, the Revolution in Russia has won it for herself and saved it for Europe. It is necessary to include this country in the benediction which every democrat bestows on the act of liberation in Petrograd. In effect, the political story of England, the method and the moral of English Parliamentarianism, are two grand exciting causes of the downfall of the Russian autocracy. But in the act of handing Russia the torch we dropped it from our own hands. We had begun to despise and reject our form of government at the moment of its most effective moral victory. The nation which was England was in August, 1914, Russia is now striving to be; the nation that in March, 1917, England was fast becoming, the Russia reformers have destroyed. For whatever the Revolution may develop, it has already proclaimed its adherence to the two great principles of government. The first is the representative system. The second, which was equally the teaching of the first English and the first French Revolution, is that freedom is a weapon of efficiency no less in war than in peace. But the lesson read from the Tauris Palace goes further than this. England cannot shut her prison doors on what is, in effect, a religious persecution while Russia opens hers to the right of conscience and the free expression of opinion. A Russia which inscribes “universal suffrage” on the scroll of her new Constitution also writes “finis” on the England which haggles over a reform of her own limited franchise. Lord Milner’s new bureaucracy can now look for no answering signal from its battered prototype in Petrograd; the Government which would have delivered Russian citizens to the hands of the fallen tyrant may now consign them, under honourable escort, to the representatives of the nation they helped to save; and a self-governed Finland, an autonomous Poland, will answer for the future of India as it has already begun to answer for Ireland.

[See also: Britain, Russia and the Cold War]

For our part, we hail the Russian Revolution as the virtual solution of the problem of the war. It was for a democratic and national Europe that we went out to fight; it is democracy and nationality, subject to the forms of international law and association, that must now govern her fate. For the first time the Entente presents the morally united front of a combination of Liberal powers. When America comes in, the circle will be complete, and its attractive power irresistible. By this and no other means could the blow at militarism be delivered, and Germany made to feel that the world has no room for the kind of man she has put over her head, and to whom she has committed the rule of Hell just consummated in the valley of the Somme. Her own response to the Russian Revolution may well prove to be a capital event in a swiftly-moving world. A certain advance preparation for it she has already made. We may expect to see an early advertisement of a new democratic franchise for Prussia, and even of an advance to Parliamentary government for the whole German Empire. If or when the Entente faces this reconstituted German nation there will be something with which it can deal, and to which it can even approach on other terms than when the Russian tyranny faced a Western neighbour more efficient, and to that extent even more evil than itself. The new confrontation must be closely watched.  It was for a war with the Russian autocracy and its “barbarian hordes” that the Kaiser just managed to enlist the German Socialists. No other cry could have rallied their doubting leaders. But the Russia of to-day is a new nation, in the hands of an Intelligenzia more brilliant, if less organised, than their own, and of Socialist parties who, while they have given fervour and elevation to the spirit of the war, have never forgotten their internationalism. A Liberal Europe is for the first time in alignment against German Junkerdom and militarism; the spiritual armies have changed front even more dramatically than the hosts on the Somme. We need not overstate the warlike temper of the new Russian Government. The Revolution springs from the secular sufferings of the Russian people, and is the glorious fruit of their deliverance. It brings into being a national army, touched with the revolutionary fire. But its policy is still to be evolved, and we may be tolerably sure that it will be neither dogmatically Pacifist nor Jingo. So far as the Provisional Government controls a Constitutional in place of a Tsarist army, it unquestionably adds to the Russian hosts new elements of organisation and material strength no less than of enthusiasm. But the Russian armies will reflect not only the instinctive anti-Germanism of the Russian people, but their more permanent characteristics. The Russians are the least militarist of the greater nationalities, and their leaders have long proclaimed their devotion to the idea of national development, the “intensive culture” of the great Russian estate. Progressives and anti-Germans like M. Alexinsky repudiate territorial expansion towards the West, and a large body of more moderate opinion supports them. This moderation does, indeed, contrast with the more pronounced Imperialism of M. Miliukoff, and of the Moscow merchants and capitalists who form one wing of the revolutionary party. But the feature of the new Government is its union of classes and aims and points of view. It is from such combinations that moderate policies issue no less than the vigorous conduct of wars.

[See also: The delusions that bind communism and liberalism]

In this union lies the strength of the grand Russian Revolution; and it is a foul deed to the Entente to seek to sow division in its camp. The Revolution is essentially parliamentary, and the Progressives and cadets and their Socialist allies who are its main governing force correspond closely enough to our own Liberal and Labor parties. If their combined efforts put an end to the rule of the Romanoffs, achieved either in the form of a Republic or of a Constitutional Monarchy, every Progressive party in Europe will applaud them. The thinkers and workers of free Russia, noblest and most enduring of their kind, deserve no lesser issue of their martyrdom, and it would be foul treachery to freedom if English hands were to snatch away that cup of blessing and reward. The “Times” may deliberately desire the return of the autocracy and with it the loss of the war, but, unless it does, it is an act of political madness to try and rest the Revolution on the Progressives and Cadets alone. No purely middle-class movement could withstand the reaction for an hour. Nor is it advisable to base the policy of the Revolution on a mere readjustment of Tsarism. The Council of Labor deputies of Petrograd, to which the Army has adhered, has already avoided one great danger in preventing the appointment of the Grand Duke Nicholas as Generalissimo of the Russia armies, and barring this all-important position to members o the house of Romanoff. The town industrialism of Russia is not in itself a force able to steer the Constitution into port. It failed in 1905, when the bureaucracy finally scattered its entire political and economic organisation, and its prudent leaders now show no disposition to repeat the experiment. The tripartite force of the Revolution lies in Liberalism, Laborism, and the Army; each is indispensible to the other. The Russian Revolution is a bloc, formed and tempered in the furnace of affliction, through which has passed, not this class or that, but the genius of the Russian people. M. Miliukoff long ago explained how in this process of fusion the Liberal strain has been “radicalised and democratised,” while the Socialist element has shed its Utopianism, so that a true political organ might be made ready for practical use. From this well-forged instrument of democratic union should proceed the liberation, not of Russia only, but of Europe and the world, from a war that threatens the ruin of all classes and all nations, and from the militarism that made the war. That will be “Holy Russia’s” deed; and there can be no holier.

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[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

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