Russia Before 1917: Imperial Schemes, Doomed Royals and Young Marxists


By China Miéville

A meeting of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in February 1897. The whole group was arrested by the Okhranka shortly after the picture was taken. (Photo: Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya)

A meeting of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class in February 1897. The whole group was arrested by the Okhranka shortly after the picture was taken. (Photo: Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya)

The following is an excerpt from October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, in which China Miéville sets the scene by providing historical context for 1917, introductions to some of the key figures and the origin of the Bolsheviks.

In the final years of the nineteenth century, the state pours resources into its infrastructure and industry, including an immense program of railway building. Great crews drag iron rails across the country, hammering them down, stitching the limits of the empire together. The Trans-Siberian Railway. “Since the Great Wall of China the world has seen no one material undertaking of equal magnitude,” breathes Sir Henry Norman, a British observer. For Nicholas [II, tsar of Russia], the building of this transit route between Europe and East Asia is a “sacred duty.”

Russia’s urban population soars. Foreign capital flows in. Huge industries arise around St Petersburg, Moscow, the Donbass region in Ukraine. As thousands of new workers struggle to eke out livings in cavernous plants under desperate conditions, subject to the contemptuous paternalism of their bosses, the labor movement takes unsteady steps forward. In 1882, the young Grigory Plekhanov, later to be Russia’s leading socialist theorist, joins the legendary Vera Zasulich herself, the failed assassin of Trepov, to found Osvobozhdenie truda, Liberation of Labor — the first Russian Marxist group.

In its wake come more reading circles, cells of agitators, gatherings of the variously like-minded, aghast at a world of ruthless, exploitative capital and the subordination of need to profit. The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labor, the better for humanity to flourish. “The true realm of freedom,” in Marx’s words: “the development of human powers as an end in itself.” This is what they want.

The Marxists are a gaggle of émigrés, reprobates, scholars and workers, in a close weave of family, friendship and intellectual connections, political endeavor and polemic. They tangle in a fractious snarl. Everyone knows everyone.

In 1895, a Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class is formed in Moscow, Kiev, Ekaterinoslav, Ivanovo-Vosnessensk and St Petersburg. In the capital, the founders of the Union are two fervent young activists: Yuli Tsederbaum and his friend Vladimir Ulyanov, brother of Alexander Ulyanov, the narodnik student executed eight years before. Noms de politique are the norm: Tsederbaum, the younger of the two, a scrawny figure peering through pince-nez over a thin beard, calls himself Martov. Vladimir Ulyanov, a striking, prematurely balding man with distinctive narrow eyes, is known as Lenin.


Martov is twenty-two, a Russian Jew born in Constantinople. He is, in the words of one leftist sparring partner, “a rather charming type of bohemian … by predilection a haunter of cafés, indifferent to comfort, perpetually arguing and a bit of an eccentric.” Weak and bronchial, mercurial, talkative but a hopeless orator, not much better as an organizer, affecting, in these early days, a worker’s get-up, Martov is every inch the absent-minded intellectual. But he is a celebrated mind. And while certainly not above the sorts of sectarian machination typical of political hothouses, he is renowned, even among his adversaries, for integrity and sincerity. He is widely respected. Even loved.

As for Lenin, all who meet him are mesmerized. As often as not, it seems, they feel driven to write about him: libraries’ worth of such books exist. He is a man easily mythologized, idolized, demonized. To his enemies he is a cold, mass-murdering monster; to his worshippers, a godlike genius; to his comrades and friends, a shy, quick-laughing lover of children and cats. Capable of occasional verbal ogees and lumbering metaphors, he is a plain rather than a sparkling wordsmith. Yet he compels, even transfixes, in print and speech, by his sheer intensity and focus. Throughout his life, opponents and friends will excoriate him for the brutality of his takedowns, his flint and ruthlessness. All agree that his is a prodigious force of will. To an extent unusual even among that ilk who live and die for politics, Lenin’s blood and marrow are nothing else.

What particularly distinguishes him is his sense of the political moment, of fracture and traction. To his comrade Lunacharsky, he “raise[s] opportunism to the level of genius, by which I mean the kind of opportunism which can seize on the precise moment and which always knows how to exploit it for the unvarying objective of the revolution.”

Not that Lenin never makes mistakes. He has, however, an acutely developed sense of when and where to push, how, and how hard.


In 1898, a year after Lenin is banished to Siberia for his activities, the Marxists organize into the Rossiskaya Sotsial-Demokraticheskaya Rabochaya Partiya, the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party (RSDWP). For several years, despite such periods of exile, Martov and Lenin remain close collaborators and friends. With characters so different, exasperations are inevitable, but they complement and like each other, a pair of Marxist Wunderkinder.

From Marx, whatever their divisions over other points, the RSDWP thinkers take a vision of history as necessarily proceeding through historical stages. Such ‘stageist’ conceptions can differ wildly in terms of detail, degree and rigidity — Marx himself opposed extrapolating his “historical sketch” of capitalism into a theory of an inevitable path for all societies, as “both honoring and shaming me too much.” Still, it is uncontroversial among most Marxists at the end of the nineteenth century that socialism, the initial phase beyond capitalism and en route to communism, can only emerge from bourgeois capitalism, with its particular political freedoms and its working class positioned to take control. It follows that autocratic Russia, with its huge rural masses and small working class (substantially made up of semi-peasants), with its private estates and omnipotent tsar, is not yet ripe for socialism. There is, as Plekhanov puts it, not yet enough proletarian yeast in Russia’s peasant dough to make a socialist cake.

Serfdom is a living memory. And a few miles beyond the cities, peasants still dwell in medieval squalor. In winter, farm animals share their homes and fight for space by the stove. A stench of sweat, tobacco and lamp fumes. Whatever improvements are slowly coming, many villagers still walk barefoot through muddy, unpaved streets, and latrines are open pits. Agricultural decisions about common land are reached by no more rigorous a system than competing shouts in chaotic village meetings. Transgressors of traditional mores are subjected to what is called ‘rough music,’ cacophonous intervention, public shaming, a sometimes murderous violence.

But there is worse.

According to the ecstatic rant of Marx and Engels in the Com­munist Manifesto, it is the bourgeoisie which “historically, has played the most revolutionary part … put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations … pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties” — and thus, through the concentration of the working class at the point of productive power, created “its own grave-diggers.” But in Russia, the bourgeoisie are neither pitiless nor revolutionary. They tear asunder nothing. As the RSDWP manifesto has it: “The further east one goes in Europe, the more base, weak and cowardly does the bourgeoisie appear, and the more gigantic are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the lot of the proletariat.”

The author of these words, Peter Struve, will soon lurch to the right. In Russia, such so-called ‘Legal’ Marxists often find in their Marxism a roundabout way to be liberals, their focus shifting from workers’ concerns to the necessity of the capitalist ‘modernization’ that Russia’s cowardly bourgeoisie cannot bring forth. An obverse or complementary left heresy is ‘Economism,’ according to which workers must focus on trade union activity, leaving politics to those struggling liberals. Pilloried by those more orthodox for downplaying socialist struggle, and indeed quite ineffectual in their quietist solutions, such ‘Legal’ and ‘Economist’ heretics nonetheless focus on key questions. They have come up against a conundrum of left catechism: how does a movement go about being socialist in an unripe country with a weak and marginal capitalism, a vast and ‘backward’ peasantry, and a monarchy that has not had the decency to undergo its bourgeois revolution?


The tail end of the nineteenth century sees a flurry of imperial machinations, allegiance and counter-allegiance underlying a steady hunger for expansion. Internally, the colonial drive means upholding the language and culture of dominant Russian elites at the expense of minorities. Nationalists and the left recruit prolifically from subordinated peoples and nations: Lithuanians, Poles, Finns, Georgians, Armenians, Jews. The socialist movement in the empire is always multi-ethnic, disproportionately comprising those of minority groups and nations.

Ruling over the whole patchwork since 1894 is Nicholas Romanov. As a youth, Nicholas II submitted stoically to his father’s bullying. As tsar he is distinguished by courtesy, dedication to duty, and little else. “His face,” one official hesitantly reports, “is expressionless.” Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogromist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids.’ Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia,’ he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis.’

His wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is deeply unpopular. In part this is jingoism — she is German, after all, at a time of mounting tensions — but it is also due to her frantic intrigues and patent contempt for the masses. The French ambassador Maurice Paléologue sketches her concisely: “Moral disquiet, constant sadness, vague longing, alternation between excitement and exhaustion, constant thought given to the invisible and supernatural, credulousness, superstition.”

The Romanovs have four daughters, and a son, Alexis, who is stricken with haemophilia. They are a close, loving family, and, given the tsar and tsarina’s obdurate myopia, they are utterly doomed.


From 1890 to 1914, the working-class movement grows in size and confidence. The state pursues ham-fisted strategies against it; in the cities, it attempts to contain burgeoning popular discontent with ‘police unions,’ workers’ societies organized and overseen by the authorities themselves. But to have any traction at all, these must channel real concerns, and their organizers must be what the Marxist historian Michael Pokrovsky calls “clumsy imitations of the revolutionary agitators.” The demands they issue are mere echoes of workers’ calls — but in echoes, words can still be made out, with unintended consequences.

In 1902, a police-union strike takes over the whole city of Odessa. Similar mass protests spread throughout south Russia the following year, and not all under the aegis of the authorities’ puppet bodies. A strike spreads from the Baku oilfields through the Caucasus. Sparks of revolt flare in Kiev, Odessa again, and elsewhere. By now the strikers’ demands are political as well as economic.

During this slow acceleration, in 1903, fifty-one of the great and good of Russian Marxism relocate a crucial meeting from a vermin-flecked Brussels flour warehouse to London. There, in backrooms and cafés or overlooked by the fishing trophies of an angling club, over three disputatious weeks, the RSDWP holds its Second Congress.

It is in the twenty-second session of that gathering that a chasm opens between the delegates, a split remarkable not only for its depth, but also for the seeming triviality of its catalyst. The question is whether a party member should be one who “recognizes the party’s program and supports it by material means and by regular personal association under the direction of one of the party organizations,” or “by personal participation in one of the party organizations.” Martov demands the former. Lenin stakes all on the latter.

Relations between the two have been cooling for some time. Now after an intense, vigorous debate, Martov wins, twenty-eight to twenty-three. But various fits of huff and dudgeon ensue on other issues, and by the time the party leadership is to be decided, walk-outs by the Jewish socialist group the Bund and by the Economist Marxists mean Martov has lost eight of his original supporters. Lenin manages to push through his choices for the Central Committee. Minority in Russian is menshinstvo, majority bolshinstvo. From these words the two great wings of Russian Marxism take their names: Martov’s Mensheviks and Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

At bottom this schism is about far more than membership conditions. Already during the conference Lenin was referring to his supporters as ‘hard’ and his opponents as ‘soft,’ and the distinction will generally remain glossed in such terms: the Bolsheviks considered hard leftists, the Mensheviks more moderate — though this is not to deny the substantial range and evolution of opinions on each side. What fundamentally underlies the membership dispute — in winding, mediated fashion, and far from clearly, even to Lenin — are divergent approaches to political consciousness, to campaigning, to working-class composition and agency, ultimately to history and to Russian capitalism itself. This will emerge more plainly fourteen years later, when issues of the centrality of the organiszd working class will come to the fore.


October: The Story of the Russian RevolutionAcclaimed author China Miéville tells the story of a pivotal moment in world history.

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For now, a Martovian counterattack comes quickly: the London decisions are rescinded, and Lenin resigns from the board of the party journal Iskra in late 1903. On the ground, however, in so far as they even know about it, many RSDWP activists consider the split absurd. Some simply ignore it. “I don’t know,” one factory worker writes to Lenin, “is this issue really so important?” Years pass while Mensheviks and Bolsheviks veer towards and away from semi-unity. The bulk of party members consider themselves simply ‘Social Democrats’, right up to 1917. Even then, Lenin will take some time to convince himself that there is no going back.

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