Saturday, October 3, 2009

Marie Antoinette and 1917

What is a revolution? The term gets overused today. We use it to describe any change. There are revolutions in fashion, diplomacy, technology, teaching techniques, music, and culture. Even in the restricted arena of politics, the term revolution is somewhat overused. If nations count their moment of independence from colonial powers as revolutions, we’ve seen dozens or even hundreds of revolutions in the past four or five decades alone. And of course revolutionary movements, many unsuccessful, are going on all the time, even today.


Columbia has a movement; Afghanistan has one; etc. But not all revolutions are alike: there are revolutions and then there are revolutions. The American Revolution in this sense barely qualifies. We broke away from a colonial power but retained English law, English political institutions, English juridical traditions, English language and culture, and English trade. George Washington was a wealthy and influential man both before and after the Revolution. The Russian Revolution was different. It changed a great deal including the political system, the legal framework, the economic structure, the culture, the calendar, the diplomatic orientation of Russia, the level of permissible violence, and so much more.

It’s interesting to see what Russian revolutionaries thought about previous revolutions, especially in the first months or even years of their success. There were quite a lot of revolts in history, but it seems that only the French Revolution gave them usable models to follow, with perhaps only the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 offering competitors of any sort.

The French example was influential in Russia for a number of reasons. For one thing, the French revolution had actually made its way to Moscow in 1812 and indeed inspired the Octoberists in the 1820s. For another, the French model had been, in its time, equally shocking to its contemporaries and equally as evangelical.

The violence level in the French Revolution was obviously much lower than that of the Soviet version, and yet cutting off a king’s head, murdering aristocrats in their cells, persecuting priests, and falsely accusing the queen of incest while parading her friends’ severed heads in front of her prison windows, was probably as shocking in its time as was the Soviet experiment. And in the end, the French Revolution was also about class and about creating a brand new, almost deliberately futuristic or Utopian society that was predicated on Enlightenment ideals.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!!! This is a very insightful and powerfully entertaining piece! I must admit, I am a fan and you now possess an additional Russia Literature “dork” subscriber. I can’t wait to crack open the Wormwood Forest book you lent me last night. It appears evident, that it should prove to be a delightful read. Keep up the magically dark and vividly haunting posts.

    Brian Blackburn