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  • Toward a Life Cycle Analysis of the Russian Revolution
  • Michael David-Fox (bio)

Revolutions are not made; they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back.

—Wendell Philips

Dans une révolution, comme dans un roman, la partie la plus difficile à inventer est la fin.

—Alexis de Tocqueville

The centennial of the Russian Revolution sparked its most intensive reconsiderations in two areas: the transnational dimensions and global reverberations of 1917. As a gold rush mentality in both areas continued apace, fascinating considerations of revolutionary observers and aftershocks across national borders were not infrequently presented without larger frameworks within which to interpret them. Centering much of the commemoration on the global impact of communism in the entire 20th century may have garnered interest outside the Russian/Soviet field. But it had the unwitting effect of deflecting attention from the Russian Revolution qua revolution, as the long-term international effects of communism overshadowed the successive stages of the revolutionary upheaval itself.1 Regrettably, the centennial seems to have [End Page 741] avoided one of the greatest scholarly problems in revolutionary studies, one in fact critical for interpreting the international reception and transnational interactions of any revolution. How can we interpret the unfolding trajectory of one of the world's great revolutionary upheavals?

All periodizations, historians know, are also interpretations. The sudden centennial shift in perspectives to long-term, international aftereffects is ironic, given that for much of the recent past even synthetic scholarly focus in Russian revolutionary studies has been lashed tightly, albeit productively, on the years 1917–20.2 While scholars can easily tick off major thematic studies with larger frameworks or landmark works that engage a broad swath of the Soviet period, scholarship operating within the rubric of the Russian Revolution itself has for some time sidestepped an expansive understanding of the revolution.3 Instead, it has tended toward making "the Russian Revolution" virtually synonymous with its middle, regime-changing phases—the demise of the ancien régime in the February Revolution, the radicalization leading up to and furthered by the October Revolution, and the Civil War that ended with the consolidation of the new regime. Given this relatively restricted focus, the centennial-inspired exploration of long-term international and transnational dimensions of the Russian Revolution is most welcome. But it has the effect of erecting a diffuse and expansive interpretive superstructure over a very deep yet narrow historiographical base.

The way Russian historians have marked the centennial sidesteps a long-standing weakness of the historical literature: a perennial lack of serious engagement with the literature on comparative revolutions. The field of comparative revolutions has been dominated by historical sociologists, with input from comparative historians largely outside the Russian field. Specifically, Russianists' isolation from the field of comparative revolutions has led to neglect of a promising recent development: comparison of stages composing life cycles of revolutions. Comparativists have revived the life cycle approach in the 21st century for their own goals, such as seeking to explain democratic versus authoritarian outcomes of revolutions. Those purposes may or may not [End Page 742] be of importance to practitioners in the Russian field. But the comparative revolution field is also centrally motivated by an attempt, suggestive for all the human sciences, to weave an unfolding historical "process" into broader explanations of origins and consequences.

Why have historians of the Russian Revolution been relatively little engaged with the field of comparative revolutions? Why have comparative treatments that regularly include the Russian case almost never been written by scholars in the Russian field? To be sure, familiarity with the French Revolution, which Europeans in the long 19th century obsessed over along with the "Russian Jacobins" themselves, has been imbibed almost with our mother's milk.4 Historians of Russia have often known the European revolutionary tradition very well. Martin Malia, discussed below, whose posthumous work made him the rare historian of the Russian Revolution to undertake a comparative history, was Eurocentric even more than usual. Because ideology was always Malia's cause of causes, he claimed in History's Locomotives both that revolutions in general did not originate outside Europe...


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