- Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia: A Provincial History
The most notable recent trend in the historiography of the Russian Revolution has been a new focus on provincial histories of that event. Young scholars in particular have been eager to break out of the capital cities to see what the revolution looked like on the ground. Sarah Badcock’s book is a fine contribution to this literature. She examines two important Russian provinces (Kazan and Nizhegorod) over the course of the fateful year of 1917, describing how local people understood the messages being sent their way by Petrograd politicians and how they responded to their new political circumstances. Her conclusion is that provincial Russians heard the revolutionary messages clearly but did not respond to them in the ways that political elites either expected or desired.
The latter part of this formulation has been clear ever since 1917. Revolutionary leaders themselves were painfully aware that Russia’s newly minted citizens resisted the efforts of officials to protect property, to ensure quiet obedience to the new regime, and to requisition goods for the use of the army and urban centers. They (and generations of historians since) assumed that the problem was one of benighted ignorance. As earlier studies have shown, and Badcock confirms, the efforts of both the provisional government and the network of soviets focused early in the year on educational programs. When those programs failed to create citizens “conscious” of the need to obey their self-proclaimed leaders in Petrograd, state officials turned toward a policy of coercion, a policy that they had neither the resources nor the heart to successfully implement.
The key contribution of Badcock and her cohort has been to demolish the model of the ignorant and obtuse peasant upon which the policies of Petrograd politicians and the works of most later historians depended. In a series of clearly argued chapters, Badcock demonstrates point by point that provincial Russians, in town and country alike, were fully “conscious” political actors. As she puts it, “[o]rdinary people made rational and informed choices about their best interests in 1917, and they engaged in political life consciously and pragmatically” (p. 5). After a useful introduction that sets the context of the revolution as a whole and the particular Volga river provinces she studies, she addresses how provincial Russians heard about and conceptualized the February Revolution in chapter 2. She concludes that despite the best efforts of political parties at the center, the narrative of revolution [End Page 481] was appropriated and understood in a variety of different ways in the countryside. Lower-class Russians were particularly responsive to narratives that highlighted the suffering of the “victims of the revolution” and that explained unpleasant developments by blaming suspect groups associated with the old regime. These responses reflected both deep cultural templates present in Russian Orthodoxy and rather more recent political dissatisfaction with the tsarist government. Chapter 3 examines party politics in 1917 with a case study of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, the party with the largest electoral support both in the region and nationwide throughout the revolutionary year. Badcock describes the failure of the SRs to take advantage of their electoral success well here. The SRs failed not just because the Bolsheviks were more ruthless, but because of the general weakness of party politics during the revolution. Party networks and party identification were thin in Kazan and Nizhegorod provinces in 1917, so the statement of party preference at various points during the year was not a reliable guide to support for particular programs, parties, or individuals. Again this was not the result of peasant democratic inexperience, but of the correct realization by provincial Russians that local politics mattered far more than central party-based politics did in this time period.
Badcock then moves in chapters 4–6 to describe some of the key dynamics of the local political scene. Chapter 4 describes further why even local elections only weakly corresponded to the political process. Local leaders faced enormous problems in 1917. They...