Today, International Women’s Day, brings one consequence that echoes problems of revolutions past. Egyptian women decided to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, and they were met with chants of “Not now,” “Women should stay in the home.” The women were harassed, chased, and groped. That info is from multiple sources on Twitter; maybe you’ll see something about it in American news sources.
It’s easy to unite to depose the autocrat. He’s insulted or oppressed practically everyone, and the objective is clear. Differences among groups can be glossed over in the belief that others are supporting your objectives. Which they are, for the moment.
But deposing the autocrat brings the need to build a new government, and that’s the hard part.
Back to Russia in the early twentieth century.
Tsar Nicholas bought some time in 1905 by forming a Duma, or representative council. He wasn’t accustomed to having elected representatives advise him, so he dissolved three Dumas when they didn’t look like they were going his way. Meanwhile, there were a number of political parties gaining strength, along with the military, monarchists, and people who had their own objectives but weren’t organized.
The Bolsheviks, a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, were so radical that most of their leaders were in jail, exiled to Siberia, or out of the country.
Nicholas’s very bad luck was the start of a war with Germany in 1914. Russia had internal problems and really didn’t need a war, but Serbia’s honor and independence had to be supported. The war further strained Russia’s resources and endangered its capital, now called Petrograd in sympathy with brother Slavs.
Another piece of bad luck was the Tsarevich’s hemophilia. Tsarina Alexandra had found a holy man, Rasputin, who seemed to be able to help young Alexei. Alexandra also wanted very much to pass full autocratic power to Alexei, so, with Rasputin’s advice, she urged her husband to make some very bad selections for his ministers.
So the pressure for revolution grew again, and this time the political parties were more ready for it. Soviets were being formed by industrial workers in the larger cities; Petrograd’s was the most influential, being located in the capital. The Duma eventually, in March 1917, managed to insist on the Tsar’s abdication, which they initially envisioned being in favor of his son Alexei, who was twelve at the time, under the regency of his uncle Michael. But Nicholas didn’t want to leave his son, and Michael didn’t want the job. So the Duma, somewhat reluctantly, took over.
The Duma formed the Provisional Government, and the Petrograd Soviet struggled with each other over power. Meanwhile, the war continued and the Bolsheviks agitated, displeased with all other political sides. The Provisional Government never really was able to exert control across the enormous expanse of Russian territory.
In August, in response to continuing disorder, General Kornilov attempted a military takeover which failed. Alexander Kerensky, a Revolutionary Socialist who had moved quickly from a Duma representative to ministerial positions and then to Prime Minister of the Provisional Government, felt it necessary to ally with groups further to the left, including the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolsheviks. He released Leon Trotsky from jail. Germany, seeing an opportunity to further weaken the Russian government as a move in the continuing war, allowed Lenin to pass through its territory on his way back to Russia. Stalin came back from Siberia. The Bolsheviks took over rather easily in October.
The first things that must be decided when the autocrat goes down are how to deal with the existing government. The government, after all, keeps a number of things going, particularly in the case of an autocrat, and particularly when you’re in the middle of a war. There’s no simple plan. Not enough of the old system was swept away in Russia in 1905. Much of the success in the breakaway of the Soviet satellites in 1989 and the republics in 1991 had to do with governments already in place that leaned toward the revolutionaries. Removing all the Ba’ath Party members from the Iraq government in 2003 was a disaster. Tunisia and Egypt are now removing many of their old guard. They have also broken into the headquarters of the secret police. The Okhrana files passed secretly to the Bolsheviks, and we still haven’t seen inside the NKVD, KGB, or FSB.
To be continued.