On the Eve of 1917

"Every worker had a vague idea that inside those grey greatcoats, soldiers’ hearts were beating in time with his own wishes. The task of the proletariat for 1917 was to draw the army into a revolutionary front against the tsar, the landlords, the bourgeoisie and the war."


Alexander Shlyapnikov’s memoirs open just prior to the St Petersburg barricades of July 1914 and break off on the threshold of the revolution of 1917. His experiences and subsequent researches on this period throw into sharp relief the contradictory effect of World War I upon the development of the Russian revolution. The imperialist conflict delayed yet deepened the crisis of the tsarist political system and the economic life of the country. Shlyapnikov was the key Bolshevik organizer throughout these years, acting as a roving liaison officer and contact man between the Bolsheviks’ exile organizations in Scandinavia (and thence to Lenin and Zinoviev’s Central Committee in Switzerland) and the fragmented and precarious local party organizations, presses and legal groups in Russia itself. The memoirs, being written in a down-to-earth, practical spirit reflecting the personality of the author, are unique in their first-hand portrayal of the complex interplay of the developing revolutionary awareness of the working class and the mounting predicament of the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the tsarist bureaucracy itself, in each case confronted with a political and economic impasse created by the war.

His brief but vivid sketches of incidents during the July days of 1914, the details of the economic demands of the tramway maintenance men whose victorious strike in January 1916 uplifted St Petersburg workers across a number of industries and the account of the Gorlovka miners’ unrest and the ensuing massacre are in themselves historical documents of events rarely recalled today but crucial in the process of the Russian revolution.

We find on the other hand similarly perceptive choices of anecdotal and documentary material which give an insight into the state of the bourgeoisie and nobility. The encounter with an irate patriotic lady on a tram in the early days of the war has almost a Gogolian flavour as does the meeting of big industrialists with the police chief to devise ways of keeping key employees in the arms factories away from political activity. “Revolutionary patriotic” agitation against Rasputin and the tsarina and the connection between the court and the German General Staff, and the crisis in the Duma when the bourgeois and Menshevik “Progressive Bloc” are thrown out and Protopopov goes over to the side of the court, again highlight in concrete terms the break-up of the old regime.

Outside these two elements in society, the struggles of the sailors and the plight of the labouring population as a whole, oppressed in the course of 1916 by a collapse of food supply and distribution with its attendant speculation, graft and misery, are brought into focus that few other historical works attempt.

Alexander Shlyapnikov is most widely recalled today for his prominent role in the activity of the “Workers’ Opposition” in the Russian Communist Party between 1920 and 1922. However, his revolutionary work had started back in 1901 at the Obukhov engineering works in St Petersburg. Born into a family of workers and artisans in the small town of Murom in Vladimir province around 1884 (the precise date is unknown as his Old Believer parents would not register his birth officially), he suffered material hardship from his earliest years and from 1900 made a living in engineering shops first in Sormovo (just outside Nizhni-Novgorod) and then in St Petersburg. The city which had introduced Shlyapnikov to Bolshevik ideas and organization was, in the crucial war period, to become the cradle of the workers’ revolution and although Shlyapnikov’s itinerant life brought him to work there only intermittently it is clear from this book that he was more intimately and practically familiar with the rank-and-file workers there than many another, perhaps more celebrated, Bolshevik leader.

His deep involvement in the gruelling day-to-day minutiae of reconstructing a tightly-knit clandestine organization under the fire of the tsar’s security service and cossack lashes is evidenced by the numerous technical and organizational details of daily work in the underground. We are given a schematic view of the internal mechanics of a typical branch organization. Flexibility and local grass-roots initiative were indispensable in illegal conditions. As Preobrazhensky declared at the 13th Party Conference in 1923 when battling the rising apparatus led by Stalin: “What bureaucratism did we know in the old underground organization? None.” The arrest of one branch general secretary would have meant total breakdown. The handling of political education, publishing and fund raising is also brought to light and the relationship between illegal and legal work. The latter was undertaken in the Insurance Council and the Hospital Funds which were the only worker-elected factory bodies still permitted to operate. Strict separation of personnel was necessary to avoid the wholesale destruction of the underground groups. The distinction between legal work in the popular elected insurance bodies and participation in the War Industries Committees set up to boost the war effort by top industrialists like Gvozdev and Konovalov in conjunction with Mensheviks is clearly drawn. Yet the subsequent outlawing of much of their activity by the end of 1916 emerges as but another symptom of the terminal sickness of the old society. How could these committees represent the interests of two antagonistic classes at the same time?

Party organization at the base in such case required exceptional initiative and resolve but also vigilance. Infiltration of agents of the security service (the Ohkrana) such as Chernomazov, Starck and possibly Shurkanov was an ever-present risk. On the other hand, “sympathetic” approaches with offers of finance, equipment and communications from unproven individuals like Kesküla or Kruse had to be responded to with great caution. Michael Futrell in his book Northern Underground (Faber, London 1972) has delved into the vagaries of the speculation and corruption, both for personal and political motives, that were rife in the First War especially with regard to the German General Staff efforts to enlist Bolshevik support for their own ends of defeating Russia, in the same way as they fostered Finnish nationalist “activism”. Shlyapnikov’s unconcealed qualms about many sympathizers and party members from the intellectuals arise primarily from the large-scale desertion of many of the more educated activists who were prominent in 1905. This fact is referred to in various connections and imposed an additional burden upon those struggling to rebuild the organization in wartime. Gorky stands out, perhaps surprisingly, as a distinguished exception. Several incidents involving Bukharin and Pyatakov shed a comic light on the author’s generally guarded view of the practical and organizational skills of party intellectuals. Kamenev and Krestinsky among others are not highly regarded by him.

Russian history as a whole from 1914 to 1917 is not served well by the available literature, from whatever standpoint it may be written. Admittedly, studies of the economic and political impact and social complications produced by the war were put out by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in their series of monographs under the rubric of The Economic and Social History of the World War. Also, of course, there is Sir Bernard Pares’s Fall of the Russian Monarchy. Largely based on reminiscences and papers of statesmen, generals and court figures and eschewing an analysis of the underlying social conflicts, it inevitably strikes an elegiac rather than historical note.

Likewise, the best-known available works dealing with the history of the Russian revolutionary movement itself tend to fight shy of illuminating proletarian struggles and Bolshevik activity inside Russia during the war with the impression resulting that Lenin engaged himself in dreaming up revolutionary fantasies and ingenious schemes in a Swiss village with no sound information and even less communication and organization links with Russia. This widespread misconception is belied by Shlyapnikov in his authoritative and detailed account of the Russian end of the Bolshevik organization and of the communication of literature, information and finance and of its contacts with the Central Committee abroad and the exile groups in Scandinavia. While the author in no way understates even the most bizarre practical obstacles and setbacks that were daily experienced, the reader cannot come away from this book still harbouring the notion popular in bourgeois historiography that Lenin, Krupskaya and Zinoviev had wholly lost touch with the intricate realities of life in wartime Russia whether for the proletariat and peasantry or for the bourgeoisie.

The traditional cultural values of nationality and religion, however pervasive in certain sectors of the population, were not in the end decisive. The war undermined their economic basis, and class consciousness won out. Lenin’s strategy and tactics on revolutionary defeatism and of converting the imperialist war into a civil war which at its inception encountered the reservations if not open hostility of even many prominent people of the left internationalist wing of the socialist movement (notably Trotsky and Luxemburg) were derived as much from the study and the experience of Russian social and political ferment in those three years as from an overall assessment of the world imperialist crisis and the state of the International as a whole. The spontaneous defeatist moods exemplified by the St Petersburg graffiti – “If Russia wins, they’ll squash us even harder” – bear witness to a contradictory response to the outbreak of hostilities; the subsequent course of the war ensured the growth of such attitudes among the working class. Through the small active organizations and links painstakingly built and maintained by Shlyapnikov and his comrades, a political programme based on the proven slogans of the “three whales” (the eight-hour day, the confiscation of landed estates and the democratic republic) but enhanced by the revolutionary defeatist approach to the war could be tested, refined and rechecked against the day-to-day work of the local underground and legal (insurance and hospital funds) organizations in Russia. However, this crystallization of a rebuilt and tempered Bolshevik network could not of course prove a passport to instant success and be rewarded with a blank cheque of full confidence from the workers and peasants when the revolution of February 1917 erupted. What it did contribute was a political and practical maturity demonstrated during the period of the Provisional Government: wartime experience of the role of bourgeois industrialists and of the Mensheviks showed that their attitude even to the democratic element of the revolution would be other than in 1905. And it was this maturity of political tactics that brought success in October.

On the Eve of 1917 also includes an episodic but perceptive international commentary. Brief excursions into working-class life in England, Scandinavia and the United States and reminiscences of opportunists of the Second International such as Troelstra, Vandervelde and Stauning, centrists like Branting and, in the Russian movement, Larin and members of the left wing of the Scandinavian parties (Höglund and Wiik, for example) give an extra dimension to the book.

Shlyapnikov’s memoirs appeared in 1923 and, to judge by their style and compilation, were written in some haste. Moreover, the pointed remarks and references to certain figures who had since the October revolution risen to positions of importance in the nascent party bureaucracy, particularly Larin, Schmidt and Kamenev, suggest that Shlyapnikov had a certain factional motive behind the publication of his wartime testament. Through it he could prove that his credentials as an “Old Bolshevik” were second to none. Upstart careerists hidebound to the administrative style of the tsarist bureaucracy had spawned during the Civil War and colonized the upper echelons of the party organization, and the social effects of the New Economic Policy fertilized the soil for the growth of a political bureaucracy. Leading members of the Communist Party (notably Trotsky, Preobrazhensky and Pyatakov in alliance with the former “Democratic Centralist” faction) launched a public challenge to the political and economic policies and power of the so-called “triumvirate” of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev in the Party discussion of autumn 1923. Yet it was surprising to some that Shlyapnikov remained aloof from the 1923 struggle, making only one brief written contribution to the public debate in Pravda in which he described the whole conflict with the Opposition as an intra-bureaucratic struggle and maintained that neither side had any real link with or concern for the condition of the working class.

Although there is evidence of further, if spasmodic, demonstrations of hostility to the rapidly degenerating Stalinist political regime, Shlyapnikov finally with his old ally Medvedev formally surrendered to Stalin’s Politburo in 1926 and dedicated himself to writing a four-volume history of the year 1917 which covers the period from February to July in considerable detail. As with nearly all the Bolsheviks of his vintage, political capitulation did not buy ultimate physical security. In the 1930s he was along with tens of thousands of others arrested and imprisoned, and unlike some of the most prominent Bolsheviks was not exhibited to make a public confession of criminal guilt at one of the notorious show trials of 1936–8. Like so many others, he simply disappeared from history in circumstances even more obscure than those of his birth. Various dates ranging from 1937 to 1943 are offered as that of his death, so that Leopold Trepper’s anecdote of an encounter with a man purporting to be Shlyapnikov on a plane over North Africa in January 1945 though improbable cannot be conclusively discounted. Trepper maintains that Shlyapnikov told him he had been invited to return to Russia from France where he had been living in the thirties. He had been enticed back by a very cordial letter from his old comrade from the underground movement, Molotov, now of course in a position of great power. He had expected to be met by Molotov’s car upon arrival in Moscow. Instead he was met by a police car and driven straight to the Lubyanka jail, and no more was heard.

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This first English version of Alexander Shlyapnikov’s memoirs owes a debt of gratitude to John Archer, Jane Ayton, Steve Carter, Martin Cook, Len and Les Dolphin, Paul Moore, Mair Owen, Anthony van der Poorten, Cathy Porter and Scott Spencer for their assistance, encouragement and constructive interest. As always, the staff of the British Library (Anwar Baba and Stan Jagdar foremost among them) and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies have also made an indispensable contribution with their consistently friendly and attentive service.