The Bolsheviks and the birth of the Soviet system
A surprising thing happened to Alexander Rabinowitch, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University, as he neared completion in the early 1990s of a book about the first year of Bolshevik rule in Russia. He was granted access to previously secret Russian government and Communist party archives from the revolutionary period.
The result was an opportunity to look deeply at the factions, organizations, individuals and events that gave birth to the Soviet political system, and to include what he learned in his newly released book, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd.
"That was the positive side," Rabinowitch writes in the book's preface. "The negative side was that, for practical purposes, I had to begin my research over again."
Fellow historians say it has been worth waiting for the book, which, in a highly unusual occurrence, has been published simultaneously in the U.S. (by Indiana University Press) and in Russia. Rabinowitch shows how the hardening of authoritarian rule in Russia in 1917-18 resulted from struggles to defend the October 1917 Revolution against continual crises, not primarily from hard-line ideology. Focusing largely on events in Petrograd -- now called St. Petersburg -- he reveals the essential role played by moderate Bolsheviks in the party's success.
Russian history expert Stephen F. Cohen of New York University calls The Bolsheviks in Power "an even more impressive and important work than (Rabinowitch's) classic study of revolutionary 1917, The Bolsheviks Come to Power." Cohen writes, "Rabinowitch has culled an astonishing amount of new information from long closed archives and crafted it into a compelling narrative accessible to specialists and general readers alike."
Rabinowitch traces his professional interest in Russian history to his childhood as part of the "vibrant, diverse and intellectually vigorous" Russian community in the United States. His father, a scientist, fled Petrograd ahead of the infamous Red Terror in 1918; he later worked on the Manhattan Project and co-founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which raised concerns about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Rabinowitch's mother was an actress from Kiev. The family spoke Russian at home. His twin brother, Victor, to whom the new book is dedicated, is a zoologist and prominent figure in science and public affairs.
Rabinowitch began serious research on the revolutionary era as an American graduate student in the 1960s; his first book Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising was published in 1968. The Bolsheviks Come to Power, published in 1976, helped change the historical consensus about the revolution, showing it resulted from a popular uprising, not a strong-arm coup. It was the first Western work on the Russian revolutions published in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Bolsheviks in Power also breaks new ground, presenting the diversity of views among Bolsheviks in Petrograd and showing that they turned to authoritarianism and political terror in reaction to events. Lenin made "one of the biggest misjudgments of the 20th century," Rabinowitch said, in predicting the October Revolution in Russia would spark similar socialist uprisings across Europe. When revolution failed to sweep the continent, the isolated Russian regime, its very survival continually threatened, turned increasingly ruthless. "It was less ideology, less Lenin's doing, than the result of circumstances," Rabinowitch said.
Rabinowitch said it is particularly gratifying to him that the book has been well received in Russia, where the Russian contribution to winning World War II has become the dominant national historical event and the October revolution, which was one of the most important events shaping the 20th century, is virtually ignored. He and his wife, Janet Rabinowitch, director of Indiana University Press, traveled to Russia last month for several events related to the launch of the book.
Aided by an Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellowship that he was awarded in October, Rabinowitch plans to coedit a volume of the archival documents upon which his book is based. He is also continuing his study of the early emergence of the Soviet system. "I'm now working on 1919," he said.