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  • The Historiography of the Russian Revolution 100 Years On
  • S. A. Smith (bio)

As we edge toward the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it is a good time to ask how recent historiography is shaping our understanding of that momentous event. Our times are not especially friendly to the idea of revolution. In the West, the scope of politics has narrowed since the 1970s with the onset of neoliberalism, the collapse of communism, the upsurge in concern for human rights, and the boundaries of politics defined by free markets, good governance, and individual rights. Talk of “revolution” has not entirely disappeared, but it is, in the words of Arno Mayer, “the celebration of essentially bloodless revolutions for human rights, private property, and market capitalism.”1 One might add that the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus or those of the Arab Spring have hardly been good copy for those who would effect political change by violent means. It is in this perspective that the following survey of historiography is situated. I suggest that while our knowledge of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War has increased significantly, in key respects our ability to understand—certainly to empathize with—the aspirations of 1917 has diminished.

This article seeks to identify the trends and analytical issues that have exercised historians since roughly the beginning of the 21st century. The focus is on the period from 1914 to the consolidation of a new Soviet order in 1922, rather than solely on the two revolutions of 1917. The essay begins by sketching certain interpretive trends that have been influential in recent historiography and goes on to map some of the topics that have attracted the most scholarly interest. It makes no claims to comprehensiveness: in particular, it does not attempt to cover the huge volume of scholarship on the [End Page 733] non-Russian regions of the empire or discuss the many excellent collections of primary source material that have appeared, especially in Russia.2

The first post-Soviet decade—the 1990s—saw the opening of archives and fierce public debate in the Russian Federation about the significance of the Soviet era for Russia’s future. Among professional historians there was vigorous rejection of the ideological stereotypes that had structured historiography in the Soviet era, centered on the myth of the Great October Socialist Revolution, and a rush to research hitherto forbidden topics and “blank spots.” Since the turn of the 21st century, public debate in the Russian Federation about the Soviet era has quietened somewhat but has by no means disappeared. Among professional historians detailed research, using new documentation, is flourishing, the range of topics being studied has widened, and the tone of scholarly exchange has become more dispassionate. Among Western scholars, working mainly in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the volume of historical research on the revolution and Civil War has shrunk in comparison with the 1970s and 1980s. The opening of the archives in the early 1990s caused them to turn toward the Stalin era—the era about which historians knew least—drawing energy away from study of the revolution, where the source base had never been as exiguous as it was for the period after 1921. In addition, the decline in interest in social history in the Western academy—and in labor history especially—had the effect of reducing the amount of research done on 1917, much of which had been animated by interest in the “revolution from below.” Finally, the marginalization of the political Left internationally, following the collapse of communism and the rise of neoliberalism, created a climate in which revolutions were no longer looked on with much sympathy, historians being interested less in “what went wrong” with the Bolshevik revolution and more in demonstrating the inevitability of a minority revolution leading to totalitarian dictatorship. Despite this, Western scholarship on the revolution has by no means dried up, and some of the best work is touched on below.

One of the most significant trends in historiography in the new century has been to position the 1917 revolutions squarely in a narrative that commences with the outbreak of war in 1914 and ends with...


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