What might have happened if there had been no revolution in 1917?
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an event that shook the world, mostly through its aftershocks. We still live in a world that is defined by the changes that occurred during that fateful year. Being a child of the Russian immigration, this event has also always been important for me, though it occurred 100 years ago.
Right now, I’m writing a novella that describes a post-Revolutionary reality, but reimagined through a fantasy lens.
But what if the Revolution had never happened? Could it have been avoided? At what moment did it become inevitable? What would the world look like now if there were still Tsars in Russia?
The editors of the Russian magazine Foma asked several Russian historians their opinion on the subject. Here’s what they had to say (the original Russian article is available here).
Vladimir Lavror, professor of History
Two alternatives to 1917
The point of no return for Russia occurred in 1881. On March 1 of that day, Alexander II signed an order to create two representative assemblies with an advisory capacity for the government. He himself said that this was the first step to a constitutional monarchy.
Of course, it was still far from a constitutional government. But Alexander II took the first step, and he did it intentionally. In other words, it wasn’t initially a populist movement that pushed the government to change direction at all. It was a top-down decision, and it was motivated primarily by economics. This was, after all, the Industrial Revolution, with its corresponding democratizing influence. And it was far from the first such reform of Alexander II. Even in 1861, serfdom was abolished, an independent judiciary was established, local government was given more authority, and censorship was relaxed.
However, that very day, Alexander II was assassinated by socialists who wanted to provoke a revolution. And Alexander III, under the influence of his teacher Konstantin Pobedonostsev, never allowed the order of his father to take effect.
Neither Alexander III, nor Nicholas II considered the natural democratization of the Industrial Revolution necessary for Russia. They were both extremely pious men, but they had no intention of allowing democracy to ever spread to Russia, as it was in all other European countries. So the catastrophe of 1917, in some sense, was inevitable for that reason alone.
An alternative to the revolutions of 1917 would have been a bloody suppression of the February Revolution. If that had happened, Russia would have been among the victorious in World War I. It would have received Constantinople, the Bosphorus, and the Dardanelles. Russia’s economic growth would have continued (and even in 1914 it was feeding all of Europe). It would have probably become the most powerful country in the world. There would have been no GULAGs, no “Red Terror,” no forced collectivization. It’s even possible that there would never have been a second world war.
But Nicholas II was no Ivan the Terrible. He would have had to take person responsibility for the bloody suppression of the revolution. Instead, he sent General Ivanov to take care of it, and he sabotaged the orders of the Tsar. Nicholas II was no tyrant. By his very nature he was marked for a different fate—to become a martyr and holy man.
Changes were inevitable. But which ones?
There are always other alternatives in history. However, after February 10, 1917, there was no turning back. On this day, the chairman of the Duma, Michael Rodzianko, visited Nicholas II at the Imperial Palace for the last time. Here’s what he had to say:
“Much is already rotten to the core. A change of the entire system of government is an absolute necessity. The current governemtn keeps increasing the abyss between it and the representatives of the people. The ministers use every opportunity possible to prevent the actual truth from reaching the Tsar…”
Later, he and Nicholas II had this dialogue:
“Your Highness, I am completely sure that this is my last conversation with you.”
“I’ve been speaking with you for an hour and a half, and all I see is that you have been led to a very dangerous path…You want to dissolve the Duma, and so I will no longer be chairman, and will no longer visit you. What’s even worse, and I warn you that I am completely sure of this, is that three weeks won’t pass before a revolution will explode. Such a revolution that will sweep you away, and you will no longer be Tsar.”
“What makes you say this?”
“All the circumstances point to this. You can’t joke around with the people’s will, with their self-consciousness. But all your ministers mock the people. You can’t put all kinds of Rasputins at the head of the cornerstone. You will reap what you sow.”
“As God grants.”
“God will grant nothing. You and your government have ruined everything. The revolution is inevitable.”
Michael Rodzianko was no prophet. He simply knew of the existence of plots to overthrow the government. All they needed was for the Tsar to leave the capital. This conversation was probably his way of giving the Tsar a “last chance.” Possibly, there was another option, which would have been the reconciliation of the Tsar with the Duma, the release of political prisoners. Possibly, the tension that led to the Revolution could have then been redirected to patriotic fervor.
But Nicholas II could not do this, because he would have had to go against everything he believed in. Therefore, he left the capital on February 22, only days before the street demonstrations began. On February 27, the Tsar received this telegram from Rodzianko:
Situation grave. Anarchy in the capital. Government powerless. Soldiers firing at other soldiers. A person trusted by the country must be given the authority to form a new government. You cannot wait. Any wait is like death. I pray God that the responsibility does not fall on the crown-bearer.”
But Nicholas II didn’t answer the telegram, considering its contents to be nonsense.
Thus, the death of the monarchy was not inevitable. All that was inevitable was a change in the way government was run. But Nicholas was surrounded by people who wanted him to fail. Historians even think that his telegrams were censored by General Alexeev. As Nicholas himself famously wrote in his diary, “I am surrounded by treachery, cowardice, and falsehood.” On the next day after his abdication, he wrote, “I’ve been reading much about Julius Caesar…”
Dimitrii Volodikhin, professor of history
There was an alternative
I don’t think that the catastrophe of 1917 (by which I mean both revolutions of February and October) was inevitable. More than that, I am completely sure, first of all, that Russia could have had a completely different future, nowhere near as bloody. All it had to do was overcome the crisis of 1917. Second of all, the crisis turned into a catastrophe largely because of external factors, not internal ones.
Yes, Russia at that moment had an extremely corrupt, useless, yet self-assured political elite. It was hard to find in the whole lot of them any energetic person of abilities. Instead, most of them were utopians, lazy “thinkers,” political radicals who believed in their own dangerous ideals. I think that if there had been a forceful “cleansing” of the upper echelons of society, initiated by Nicholas II, then the situation could have been mitigated.
There were attempts to do this. However, the reality of a difficult war, as well as the sabotage of Russia’s political enemies, hurried the destructive process. The situation became more tenuous, and the mechanisms of government became less capable of dealing with the situation quickly.
However, it would be wrong to blame the monarchy. Nicholas II battled against the rising tide honorably, trying in all possible ways to stop the catastrophe from becoming dangerous. He just ran out of time.
If Russia had managed to win the war faster, with a strengthened monarchy and powerful Church at the head, the economy of the country could have prospered. Such a Russia would have probably prevented the collapse of civilization that led to World War II.
If you want to read more about Russian history and traditions, consider joining my Readers’ Group. As a thank you, I’ll send you two chapters of my new novel. Just let me know where to send them: