November 2017 marks the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a transformational event in Russian and world history. The Political History Research Group commemorated the anniversary with a lecture on how British officials reacted to the news of the revolution. The speaker was none other than Edinburgh’s own Dr David Kaufman, historian of Eastern Europe – and almost everything else.
The lecture opened with a brief overview of events in 1917 and then moved on to consider initial reactions in the days and weeks following the revolution, as well as longer term responses down to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The reaction to the revolution was initially subdued: greater strategic concerns occupied British officials and few expected the Bolshevik regime to succeed in establishing control over such a large state. The situation soon changed as British officials recognised the potential threat posed by the Bolsheviks and began to formulate responses. David outlined examples which ranged from Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s Caxton Hall war aims speech on 5 January and attempts to keep Russia out of Germany’s hands, to post-war peace-making, when it became more important to create a cordon sanitaire around Russia and prevent her meddling in the affairs of other states.
The lecture spoke to two prominent and striking themes. The first was the importance of examining the ‘group think’ or ‘official mind’ of British government. This is a methodological approach which seeks to articulate an institutional culture based on the assumption that organisations with narrow social bases think and react in a particular way. David suggested that there was a broad consensus that Russia was dangerous and susceptible to German influence, although a few more examples would have served to demonstrate this point a little clearer. Evidence of strains or competing outlooks would also have added an interesting dimension.
The second theme concerns the flow of information and knowledge. Extracting information on the situation in Russia was difficult, not least because diplomats did not have contacts amongst the Bolsheviks. An eclectic group withquestionable knowledge of Russia coalesced into a political intelligence department, tasked with writing weekly reports on the situation in Russia. The ideas contained in these documents can be seen refracted in policy documents. This calls into question the nature of the ‘official mind’ and raises the issue of whether the existence of the consensus was based as much on common educational backgrounds and social status as shared information and knowledge.
A recording of the lecture is posted below for those who missed the event.