Sarah Badcock on Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective

A seminar on revolution would be incomplete without some consideration of the Russian Revolution, one of the great world-historical events of the twentieth century. Fortunately, we were able to persuade Sarah Badcock (Nottingham) to come and talk to us about her “kaleidoscopic” perspectives on 1917. She gave a wonderful panorama of the Russian Revolutions in the plural. Anita Klingler was there to hear it.

Sarah began her talk by stating what it was she would be arguing against, namely the notion, still widespread, that revolutions ‘belong’ in capital cities and that all that spreads beyond the urban centres are ripples. Instead, she wanted to put forward the idea that an opposite dynamic is often at play, wherein the elites’ decisions and actions are shaped and determined by what is happening in the provincial hinterland. To this end, she said she would be examining structures of power and powerlessness during the Russian Revolutions of 1917, looking at people on the margins of society, and examining the case study of the food crisis. Her ultimate aim, she said, was to show why regional studies matter and what they can add to our understanding of history.

Sarah introduces the key themes of her presentation

As Sarah was primarily concerned with examining Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective, she first reminded her audience of the complexities of the term ‘peasant’. Far from denoting just one particular life experience, ‘peasant’ could apply to a multitude of different people living away from Russia’s urban centres, doing many different kinds of work, and could even include the identities of ‘worker’ and/or ‘soldier’ simultaneously.

The term ‘peasant’ therefore is an abstract generalisation and rather a blunt tool, while more specific regional studies can help us understand more individual experiences. Furthermore, Sarah made sure to draw the audience’s attention to the vast geography of the Russian landmass, which, though described as one national whole, is so varied that regional approaches may be a very useful way of explaining and understanding historical processes away from the urban centres of power.

Looking at the year 1917 and the local committees established all over the country once the Provisional Government had come to power in Petrograd, Sarah elucidated how it was the elected representatives who were accountable to the people and who were feeding back the people’s demands to the Provisional Government, while the Provisional Government – nominally the centre of power – often found itself unable to implement its decision, for example on land use, in the provinces. Power was thus not a one-way process: without appropriate means of implementing central decrees, local communities were empowered vis-à-vis the Provisional Government and often ignored or rejected their decisions.

However, Sarah was quick to point out that this empowerment was also imperfect and excluded certain marginalised groups along the lines of ethnicity, gender, as well as along a rural-urban divide, and, given the revolutionary context, access to weapons. Young, urban, ethnically Russian, armed males were the ones most empowered in this process.

Nevertheless, within the diffuse space and time of revolutions, marginalised groups were able to stake their claim to power. As an example, Sarah cited the case of the ‘soldiers’ wives’, who, when their husbands had been drafted into war, were granted an allowance from the state. By 1917, however, this allowance was no longer sufficient to meet the needs of daily life and the wives coalesced into an unmistakable collective voice, pressuring local governments all over Russia. Writing petitions in a noticeably empowered language, the ‘soldiers’ wives’ worked effectively outside the structures of power, but also within them. In Kazan province, the Soviet became concerned enough about public order to eventually meet the women’s demands. Power, therefore, did not only lie with the Provisional Government in Petrograd, but also with those who lived and took action in the provinces.

Another example Sarah gave was that of the food crisis. The efficient distribution of food across the vast Russian space was a defining challenge for Lenin’s new Bolshevik government. While some regions produced a surplus of food, sustenance was needed particularly in the cities as well as for the army. But surplus regions were unwilling to sell their surpluses to the state at below-market prices, thus exhibiting their power to defy the authorities. The central state failed to define the discourse surrounding food distribution and found itself unable, yet again, to implement its policies in the provinces.

Sarah added that it was most certainly not the case that local people simply failed to understand the official decrees and language of the revolution, but rather that they consciously chose to defy it and take power themselves to act as they saw fit. When Lenin, after asking his generals in October 1917 about the state of the army, learned that men were deserting in their thousands, Sarah argued, these individual decisions, taken on a mass scale, shaped Lenin’s ability, or rather inability, to negotiate favourable terms at Brest-Litovsk.

Thus, Sarah concluded that political elites often had their scope of action defined by the actions of ordinary, often provincial, people. Regional studies, which Sarah identified as a fresh and exciting field of research with plenty of potential for future work, can help us uncover these actions which had a forceful potential to upset traditional power structures.

In her short comment, Anna Lively (Edinburgh) acknowledged how regional approaches help complicate out understanding of the Russian Revolution, or indeed revolutions. She raised several historiographical points, asking whether the current ‘regional turn’ will lead to new narratives of the Russian revolutions. Furthermore, she wondered how we might reconcile regional studies, and the specific insights to be gained from them, with the increasing move towards global as well as transnational histories of this revolutionary period. She also contemplated the challenges of working with silences, for example of women, in the historical record.

Lastly, Anna encouraged Sarah and the audience to consider the problems with the notion of just one Revolution; the chronology of the Russian revolutions; as well as to what extent the involvement of many different ethnicities and several national independence movements complicate the notion of a ‘Russian’ revolution.

In the wide-ranging concluding Q&A session, audience members raised issues from the importance of transport links across the vast Russian spaces, to the influence of the Church, to the role of other religious groups, national movements, education and more.

Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany. She is a CSMCH steering committee member.