Category Archives: History

“We are digging up the foundations of a very old world.” -Alan Sharp

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987


On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.


Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

The 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship

By Gardner Weld Allen (1856-1944) - Our Navy and the Barbary_Corsairs_1904

Decatur’s Squadron Off Algiers, by Gardner Allen Weld, 1905.

On June 7, 1797, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, which President John Adams signed into law three days later. This Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1796 was one of four maritime agreement between the infantile United States and the Maghrib States (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis), known in the west as the Barbary Coast. These treaties were meant to protect American ships in the Mediterranean from pirates operating in the region.

The treaties soon failed, largely because of the toll of payments owed to the Maghrib States and the pirates’ continued ransoming of American sailors. President Adams opted to pay the ransoms and tributes, but his slave-owning Southern successor Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the North African states, sparking a war during the first year of Jefferson’s presidency, the first of two conflicts known as the Barbary Wars.

Late during the Obama Administration, several commentators on both the left and right compared Obama’s foreign policies to the Barbary Wars. An article in The Atlantic called US involvement in the 2011 Libyan Civil War “The Third Barbary War.” Others compared the Barbary pirates to ISIS, while those on the far right erroneously claimed that Jefferson went to war with Islamic terrorists.

Both camps miss the point: as usual, those on the right conflate terrorists with literally every other state-with-Muslims-in-it in history, while liberal commentators misrepresent Barbary piracy as comparable to religious terrorism. Historian Max Boot notes that both the US and Britain utilized piracy in the same ways, noting that “the corsairs of North Africa were no more–and no less–piratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins. . . both of whom operated as privateers” and that “the US government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war” (8).

Furthermore, twenty-first century US Middle-Eastern policy differs ideologically from Jefferson’s. Edward Said points out that in the US, unlike Britain and France during this period, “there was no deeply invested tradition of Orientalism. . . the imaginative investment [in the Orient] was never made either, perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one” (290). The US was interested in controlling the narrative, and therefore the economic value, of the American West (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) rather than North Africa, which is perhaps the opposite of the Bush/Obama/Trump era.

While the Barbary Wars are easy to exploit for ideological op-eds, the pre-war treaties are more instructive. Specifically, the 1796 Treaty demonstrates that the early US conceptualized itself on equal footing with other seafaring powers, and was willing to alter the national identity it presented to that end.

Consisting of twelve articles, the 1796 Treaty proclaims first that there “is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” (Article I) and that the two states should avoid naval conflicts with one another. As such, the Treaty states that trade “is on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively (Article IX).

Article XI is now controversial for its implications, and is worth quoting at length: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims],-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Here, the US emphasizes at length that it does not have a bias against the Maghrib States on religious grounds. Yet Article XI is still out-of-place. In a strictly economic treaty, the US stresses religious difference, or its indifference to religion. Despite Article XI’s clear message, there is overwhelming evidence of a legalized bias against non-Christians after Independence. Gaustad and Schmidt write that “Delaware’s 1776 constitution required all public officials to swear their belief ‘in God the Father, in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’. . Pennsylvania in 1790 vowed to deny state offices to any atheist as well as to anyone who did not believe in ‘a future state of awards and punishments.’ Only Protestants could be elected in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia–according to their constitutions” (131).

And yet, in the 1796 Treaty, the US publicly reshaped its cultural identity in order to make the treaty more appealing. American culture warriors insist that national identity is non-negotiable, but Article XI contradicts this at an international level. In contrast, the US crafted its national identity as an open slate, not just for states but as a union. From the beginning, malleability was intentional, not a growing list of exceptions to the rule. Malleability was the whole point of America.

I want to argue here that the US had a global consciousness from its inception, and not just when it entered World War One. Instead, it built its global consciousness on the trading and military strategies of Britain and France, as well as its own perception of itself as a frontier space, as a blank chalkboard upon which its leaders could draw and erase American identity.  Like the imagined Frontier, America was made to sustain multiple contradictions in what it was. A savage but easily conquered wilderness, a piratical state against piracy, not built on Christianity but where only Christians can be elected.

The land-owning businessmen who created America self-consciously crafted a flexible state that was easy to change as needed. The problem is that the mechanisms of change, of political dynamics, are still in the hands of economic elites.

The Barbary Treaties demonstrate a deliberate American flexibility, an exchange of identity for financial expansion. If this flexibility is more openly acknowledged, even utilized–if we finally recognized America’s founding blankness–then more people might be able to survive and even thrive in America. Until then, the nation is a chalkboard ruled by people who only know how to use the erasers.


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, 2002.

Gaustad, Edward S. & Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Harper Collins, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1994.

 

1917: All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Eastern Front 1914

Russian troops on the Eastern Front, 1914.

On December 17, 1917 (December 4 in the Old Russian calendar), an armistice between the Central Powers and the Bolshevik government in Russia began, temporarily ending a long and bloody German advance and initiating peace negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers. Though official peace through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would not take effect for another three months, Russia was essentially out of the Great War, almost a year after anti-war protests in Petrograd led to the February Revolution. Meanwhile, the ill-reported Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the White Army was only just beginning. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The conflict was a civil war as well as a proxy war. The Reds constituted the Bolsheviks and their allies. The Whites were an amalgamation of pro-monarchists, proto-fascists hoping to establish a military dictatorship, moderate leftists opposed to communism, and troops from the Allied Powers, all of whom wanted to prevent a socialist regime from succeeding. Months earlier, the Allies had praised the Tsar’s abdication, and the US had been the first to recognize the post-Tsarist government. Now, as the revolution pushed Russia out of the war, the Allies directed their praise elsewhere.

The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, found themselves isolated, their new government shaky, threatened by violence from all sides. The Civil War lasted from late 1917 (or 1918, depending upon which historiography one chooses) to 1922, ending just two years before Lenin’s death. Trotsky’s 1920 book Terrorism and Communism offers an instructive perspective into this period. In Chapter Four, Trotsky examines the American Civil War as an example of state-sanctioned terrorism from both sides, including Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the repressive violence in the Confederacy against pro-Union sentiments. Trotsky describes Confederate vigilantes running a campaign of terror against those in the Southern States who were seen as disloyal to the South, which he compares to the terror employed by the White Army, writing that the situation in the South was “extremely reminiscent of the scenes which day by day took place in the camps of Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich, and the other heroes of Anglo-Franco-American ‘democracy'” (Trotsky).

One figure he lists, Alexander Kolchak, is notable for his temporary military dictatorship in Siberia, the Civil War’s Eastern Front. Kolchak was a former admiral in the Russian Navy who, shortly after the October Revolution, joined the White faction in Siberia known as the “directory.” As the White Army became more authoritarian, Kolchak’s supporters overthrew the directory and established a military dictatorship on November 18, 1918, seven days after the armistice in Europe. Kolchak appointed himself “supreme ruler and commander-in-chief” of a White faction in Omsk, Siberia, creating the kind of regime Kornilov failed to make in August, 1917. Under Kolchak, political opponents were imprisoned, peasants were exploited, and unarmed civilians were shot by the hundreds, all to support the White Army. David Fogelsong points out the degree to which the US supported such leaders, writing that with “support from the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the White House, the Russian embassy was able to send millions of dollars of supplies to White forces in the Russian Civil War, particularly those in Siberia” (Fogelsong 69).

The state of Russia between 1918 and 1922 was disconnected and malleable. Mark Steinberg’s description is particularly useful: “But the civil war was a more complex and varied experience than this simple binary of Red versus White suggests. The history of the civil war included terrorism and armed struggle by Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists, and socialists opposed to both Bolshevik ‘dictatorship’ and the return of right-wing dictatorship that the Whites seemed to represent; ‘Green’ armies of peasants who fought against both Reds and Whites, mainly depending on who presented the greater immediate threat to their autonomy” were among those involved (97). The Russian Civil War more closely resembled Balkanization between ideologically opposed factions funded by competing stakeholders, comparable to Iraq and Syria today. The Reds met counter-revolutionary violence with pro-revolutionary terror in their effort to hold the country together. Trotsky’s comparison to the American Civil War is justified, then, as well as instructive: the successful regime employed violence in much the same way the defeated faction did, ending life to preserve it.

Giorgio Agamben writes that the First World War “coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of warring countries” (12), so much so that he describes the period following the War as “a laboratory for testing and honing the mechanisms and apparatuses of the state of exception as a paradigm of government” (6) in which governments utilize “states of emergency” to exert tightly-crafted control over populations so that, gradually, the defense of democracy from external or internal threats can only succeed with the suspension of democratic institutions. Trotsky’s description of the American Civil War, and of political terror in general, is stunningly close to Agamben’s analysis of the same conflict.

Continuing in Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky writes that the “degree of ferocity of the struggle depends on a series of internal and international circumstances. The more ferocious and dangerous is the resistance of the class enemy who have been overthrown, the more inevitably does the system of repression take the form of a system of terror” (Trotsky). He justifies state-sanctioned terror because it matches and counters the terror of the White Army, evident in Kolchak and others. This is, notably, the exact same logic the United States uses to justify torture, drone strikes, and military invasions in the “war on terror.” Agamben’s theorized state of exception, though, is also evident in the rule of the Tsars. Nicholas II and Tsars before him utilized violence to control the terror that anarchists created in the nineteenth century through their attempts to assassinate Russian monarchs using explosives. From both Trotsky and Agamben, we can observe that political violence invites further political violence, resistance invites counter-resistance, and fear invites oppression.

It is tragic, then, that the majority of people who sided with the Bolsheviks wanted an end to the violence of the Great War and its imperial regime. They got what they wanted, hard-fought and seized from ruthless power brokers in the monarchy and its constellation of landlords. But the Great War ended without ceasing, always lingering over the rest of the twentieth century.

If World War One was fought by empires, colonialists, and alliances between the two, these systems arguably sustained themselves after Armistice. Empires and colonists worked together to create what Agamben calls a permanent state of exception, which the Red Army wanted earnestly to oppose. Empires and colonists likewise worked together to end the Revolution, and in so doing, dragged the Revolution into their own system, so that in order to preserve itself, the USSR chose to employ imperialism and colonialism, in Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. The same can be said of Britain, France, and the US, who exercised imperialism and colonialism in Egypt, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, and Afghanistan. The tragedy is that the Bolsheviks invited a permanent state of exception into their anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist regime.

Agamben’s assessment of the Great War explains the development of Stalinism as a post-war phenomenon, rather than a mutant strain of Leninism. Rather, just as emergency powers and the war on terror are the suspension of democracy in democracy’s defense, Stalinism can be seen as the suspension of Leninism in Leninism’s defense against the White Army, both an external and internal threat.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was overshadowed by the fragmentation of Russia. For a moment, though, there was a temporary peace, or at least the hope for something longer lasting than an armistice. That hope for a lasting peace has haunted a peaceless world for ninety-nine years. A peaceful world is unlikely to emerge by next year’s hundredth anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars. But what do we actually gain by giving up and giving into cynicism? Peace is elusive and unsustainable, a moving target. Haven’t we had centuries of target practice already?


Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Fogelsong, David. America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford University Press, 2017.

1917: Into the Dustbin of History

Trotsky speaking in Red Square

Leon Trotsky speaking before a crowd in Petrograd, October, 1917.

“I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” -Vladimir Lenin, in conversation with Valeriu Marcu while exiled in Switzerland.

On this day, one hundred years ago, the October Revolution began. In the Gregorian Calendar, the Revolution started on November 7, but in the old Russian Julian calendar, it was October 25. In memory, it marked the beginning of the state that would become the Soviet Union. For those involved, it was something more important: the end of the Provisional Government and what might be called a de facto state of anarchy.

The word anarchy is worth interrogating. Recent abuses of the word in popular culture suggest that anarchy is a kind of directionless physical violence, which removes it from its more valuable political usage. Anarchy was a widespread political ideology at the turn of the century, seen as the antithesis to monarchy, oligarchy, and above all, hierarchy. These words stem from the Greek arkhon, meaning “ruler,” and in the Athenian Democracy indicated certain offices that one could hold as religious kings, generals, or administrators. Anarchy, then, is the absence of rulers, but specifically the absence of hierarchy, or the stratification of rulers over the ruled. In the context of an oppressive Tsarist empire whose police shot protestors while stoking antisemitism and nationalism and fought a useless war for political ambitions and allegiances, the concept of anarchy would have been quite appealing.

The problem with the Provisional Government that formed after February, 1917, was not that it was explicitly authoritarian. The problem, from its inception, was that it was a balancing act between traditional hierarchies and the growing desire for the end of those hierarchies. Alexander Kerensky came to control the Provisional Government, sharing power with the soviets while trying to maintain the war.  What Trotsky called “dual power” between Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet (representing workers, peasants, and soldiers), Lenin called “Bonapartism,” in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. In mid-1917, Lenin wrote that Kerensky was maneuvering “state power, which leans on the military clique (on the worst elements of the army) for support, between two hostile classes and forces which more or less balance each other out.” Lenin was not alone in criticizing the Provisional Government, which was a primary point of contention among Russia’s revolutionaries.

Apart from Kerensky’s perpetuation of the war effort, he was shown to be an unhelpful leader in August, during what became known as the Kornilov Affair. Lavr Kornilov was a general who, in August, attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a right-wing military dictatorship, a proto-fascist regime that would have undermined the February Revolution and reinstated a new Tsarism. As China Mieville writes of the affair, “. . . there was more than one conspiracy simmering away on the right. Various shadowy groups–the Union of Officers, the Republican Centre and Military League–were meeting to discuss plans for martial law” (213). Add to these the threat of the antisemitic Black Hundreds, responsible for mass murders and pogroms across Russia, as well as counterrevolutionary efforts to win the war, the bleak regime Kornilov almost created would have been as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. But the coup failed because Kerensky managed to work alongside the Petrograd Soviet in time to stop Kornilov’s renegades from invading the capitol.

There was leadership, then, but no ruler. Christopher Read writes that one consequence of the Kornilov Affair was “a sort of reverse of the July Days,” that the “right had discredited itself and restored the ascendancy of the left.” He also writes that there were consequences for Kerensky, too, who “made an agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, armed it, withdrew the ban on its members, primarily the Bolsheviks, and released Soviet prisoners from jail. . . But it was not enough. Kerensky was seen to have cultivated Kornilov in the first place, not least in appointing him C-in-C” (Read 92-93). Indeed, Kerensky was seen as having worked with Kornilov, and many believed that he was sympathetic to an authoritarian coup that would relieve him of his duties. If nothing else, the affair proved that the Provisional Government had become dysfunctional, barely clinging to life.

In the months that followed, popular support for the Bolsheviks rose while support for Kerensky plummeted. It is important to note that the goal of most on the far left, including some Mensheviks, was to pass power to the soviets completely, and end the power of the Provisional Government. As early as September, “eighty soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a soviet government. In towns such as Tsaritsyn, Narva, Krasnoiarsk, and Kostroma soviet power was already a reality” (Smith 147). During this time, the Bolsheviks were actively campaigning from the ground up, organizing factories, speaking in public, and stoking public support for a soviet antithesis to the Provisional Government. It was around this time that Lenin suggested that the Bolsheviks, “‘having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in both capitols, can and must take state power into their own hands‘” (Mieville 246), and should make no compromise with the Provisional Government by simply walking away from it.

Here, Lenin believed that the time was ripe for the soviets to lead the soviets in taking power. Earlier, he had encouraged the Bolsheviks to refrain from leaving the Provisional Government in July because they were not popularly supported, and it was important for him to recognize that the support of the workers, peasants, and soldiers was more important than overthrowing a weak Provisional Government. It had to be done for the soviets and all they represented. Now that it was clear the Bolsheviks were going to gain popular recognition in an upcoming pre-parliament session (which would begin October 7), the Bolsheviks would declare their legitimacy among the soviets and then walk out.

The Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who helped exiled leaders like Lenin correspond with the party and without whom the revolution would not have succeeded, articulated the main argument against working with the Provisional Government in her text “Why the Bolsheviks Must Win.” She wrote that the “February revolution could remove none of the factors which caused it, namely war, rising prices, famine and privation. At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie calmly continued their rule” (Kollontai). In other words, the horrors that motivated widespread protests across Russia continued to inflict damage, and needed to be addressed with different means. For many Bolsheviks, this meant an armed insurrection to precipitate the transfer of power to the soviets.

After walking out on the pre-parliament, the Bolshevik Central Committee met in secret on October 10 to vote on whether or not to implement an insurrection. By ten to two, after numerous speeches from numerous members, they voted in favor of insurrection. They were now popular representatives of the peasants and workers, and the time had come for another, more radical change necessitated by the moment’s urgency. For the Central Committee members, waiting for more elections would result only in more casualties as the German army approached and increase the chance of another Kornilov-inspired coup. If they waited any longer, the comatose Provisional Government might be toppled and a military dictator might be installed.

The insurrection began on October 25. Fittingly, this was also Trotsky’s birthday.

That day, Trotsky spoke to an “emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet” and announced, “‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists‘” (Mieville 289). The Second Congress of Soviets opened to debate a new soviet-led government. Meanwhile, Red Guards (a paramilitary branch of the Bolsheviks), seized key areas of Petrograd, including bridges, train stations, the post office, and eventually the Winter Palace, where they arrested the remaining members of the Provisional Government, who surrendered peacefully. All except Kerensky, who had long since fled the city.

A number of elected officials who opposed the insurrection walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, while Trotsky pontificated on the legitimacy of the move he and the Bolsheviks made: “A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy.” While those who dissented walked up and left, just as the Bolsheviks had at the pre-parliament weeks before, Trotsky denounced them, shouting, “you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: to the dustbin of history” (298-299). On those words, the opposition left the Congress to continue debating a new regime, one without monarchy, oligarchy, or hierarchy.

By early morning on October 26, after tense nightlong debates, the Second Congress of Soviets passed a resolution drafted by Lenin to build a soviet-exclusive government, end the war, grant self-determination to nations Russia had subjugated, and transfer land to the peasants (303-304), thus creating an all-soviet state.

The October Revolution occurred without a single loss of life. It was armed, but bloodless. A ship controlled by the Red Guards, the Aurora, fired a blank shot, and some shots were fired periodically during the arrest of the Provisional Government, but nobody died in the October Revolution, partly because of how well organized the Red Guards were, but mostly because the government in place was apathetic to its own demise. It did not resist arrest and cancellation, which suggests that the October Revolution was not a coup, as some historians contest. As S. A. Smith puts it, “. . . a coup implies the seizure of a functioning state machine. Arguably, Russia had not had this since February” (43).

It is telling that the document announcing the insurrection’s success, titled “To the Citizens of Russia,” begins not by declaring a new soviet regime but by iterating that “The Provisional Government has been deposed” (Lenin). A bottom-up regime change was important, but it was more important to end what was in place, a doomed, if not failed, attempt to sustain a fraction of the old guard through the exhausted imitation of the old guard’s strategies. It was not a state of anarchy the way contemporary anarchists would have preferred. Kerensky held together a stitched-up government of poorly balanced provisions and hierarchy beyond its health. He was not a competent ruler, but he still ruled, and as such, he presided over a kind of anarchy by leaving the Provisional Government open to coups that favored hierarchy, which would have been a return to pre-revolutionary Russia.

The October Revolution was an attempt to replace the lasting remains of the Tsarist regime with something new, something untried, something that could create a state without hierarchy. It was a somewhat democratic effort to reaffirm the rule of the soviets, to make every worker, peasant, and soldier free of status. It seems that in the moment, the only other option was a cynical return to military dictatorship, well-known to those many who survived it before. The Bolsheviks wanted to give the Congress an alternative, however strange and frightening it may have been, to what Russians had spent decades suffering through. After the bloody Civil War, Lenin’s too-soon passing, and Stalin’s hijacking of the state, the Second Congress is easily obscured in its long, cold aftermath.

One step forward, one step back.

Trotsky condemned those who refused to try for an alternative to hierarchy to the “dustbin of history,” where, now that Russia is under a new brand of right-wing authoritarianism, the entire Soviet Union now rests, sometimes even in peace.


Mieville, China. October. Verso, 2017.

Read, Christopher. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. Sterling, 2011.

Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 1996.

1917: To Free Russia

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887.

The American journalist and socialist John Reed, who went to Russia to cover the revolution, interviewed Alexander Kerensky in late 1917, though the interview was published in The Liberator in 1918, after the October Revolution, which may have shaped its publication. Kerensky’s role as the de facto of the Provisional Government, a political body formed to stabilize the country in the wake of the February Revolution. Kerensky took power in spring, survived a coup and military defeats in summer, and by autumn he had come to embody the political and economic stagnation that led many Russians to revolt against Tsar Nicholas II in the first place. Kerensky continued the war effort (with disastrous results), censored critics by shutting down newspaper presses, exiled Bolsheviks whom he then appealed to for help after the failed Kornilov coup, and devoted most of his energy to sustaining his government at the cost of reforms and peace.

Reed writes of the interview that, as of its writing on “October 23, Kerensky is alone. . . In the midst of the class-struggle, which deepens and grows bitterer and bitterer every day, his place becomes more and more precarious” (Reed). Noting that Kerensky has become a symbol of the revolution’s failure for the working classes and a symbol of the failed war effort for the Allies, Reed adds grimly that “Kerensky will fall, and his fall will be the signal for civil war.”

It is interesting to note Reed’s carefully sympathetic treatment of Kerensky, presenting him as optimistic but naive. At one point in the interview, he asks Kerensky what he thinks his “purpose” is in the Provisional Government, to which he responds, “Just to free Russia.” This statement contrasts his continued, if not obsessive, involvement in World War One as well as his stagnant approach to Russia’s colonies, from Ukraine to Chechnya, from Scandinavia to Central Asia, vying for autonomy after centuries of Tsarist control.

Russia’s colonies fared variously, if not disproportionately, between February and October under the Provisional Government. Treadgold and Ellison note that historically, the “tsars had recognized no such entity as Ukraine. During the nineteenth century Ukrainian intellectuals had gathered to work for the cause of their new nationalism” (Treadgold & Ellison 108), and that the Provisional Government halfheartedly recognized but questioned an autonomous Ukraine. Central Asian communities pushed for greater autonomy as well. In May, 1917, an all-Russian Muslim Congress organized and met in Moscow, where they “proclaimed the emancipation of Muslim women, and established a religious administration independent of state control for all Russian Islam” (110), viewing the revolution as an opportunity to reevaluate and reaffirm post-Tsarist identities.

Historically, the Tsarist regime exercised a frontier settler colonialism, comparable to the settler colonialism the US exerted over Native American land, with similar tensions. In 1916, an “anti-Russian uprising took place” between Kazakhs in modern-day Kazakhstan and Russian colonists, “which the Russian tsarist military suppressed brutally, forcing some 300,000 Kazakhs to flee” into China (Peimani 124). While this kind of behavior was typical of imperial Russia, Kerensky’s hesitation to grant full autonomy was perceived by many Kazakhs, among others, as a continuation of the old guard. The bloodletting between Russian settlers and Kazakhs returning from China continued well into 1917, long after Kerensky stepped in to free Russia.

Russia’s southern colonies were not at the forefront of revolutionary discussions. Even the Bolsheviks did not explicitly prioritize the autonomy of Central Asian territories. In his 1916 essay “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin writes that “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc. etc.–are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained monarchies and the imperial bourgeoisie” (Lenin), and though Kazakhs, Chechans, Tartars, and other Central Asian groups might be included in Lenin’s use of “etc. etc.,” and though their freedom is logically consistent with Lenin’s argument from the same essay that “Imperialism is the highest stage of development of capitalism,” their absence is disappointingly consistent with the attitude of most Russian revolutionaries at the time.

It is certainly consistent with the attitude Kerensky had toward Russia’s colonial borders, who were not wholly unrepresented in the Soviets, but their calls for autonomy were overridden and often ignored. Kerensky’s Provisional Government was intended to restore order, which for starving urban workers was at least briefly productive. But for displaced, colonized peoples, restored order meant a reinstatement of the colonial status quo. And the bloodletting, much like the war, continued.

John Reed writes that Kerensky called himself a “doomed man” in late October, while simultaneously claiming his role was to free Russia. To free Russia from what? Himself? The stalled change he oversaw? The war he perpetuated? If Reed’s portrayal is accurate, Kerensky became a variation of his own stagnation, able to recognize that he, like his regime, was temporary, even doomed. That his fall would precipitate the Russian Civil War, which it eventually did.

Did Kerensky know he would fall? Did he think he could sustain the Russia he presided over? Did he believe he could save Russia by remaining in power, or did he believe that he could save it by finally beginning to dismantle the state’s violence after three years of war and three centuries of imperialism? What does it take to show political leaders that they are poisonous to the countries they oversee? Kerensky, like most inept, corrupt, or failed leaders, chose to stay in power, and the ensuing frustration with what was perceived as his cryptic neo-tsarism precipitated the October Revolution, not an act of taking power but recreating it where it was stalled, stored, rendered useless beyond repair.


Peimani, Hooman. Conflict and Security in Central Asia and the Caucuses. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

1917: War and Journalism

Pravda

Russian newspaper Pravda, March 16, 1917.

The First World War was a global catastrophe. Because it was fought between colonial empires, it drew conscripts from Africa, Australia, India, the Arab World, Canada, and other regions. Outside the European theater, the Japanese Empire and China were involved in the war as well. In April of 1917, the United States joined the war. The war had high stakes for all involved across Asia, Africa, and Europe, so when Russia’s revolutionary factions debated pulling out of the war, other nations paid close attention. For most Russians, there were numerous uncertainties in 1917. For most journalists abroad, the primary question was about the war.

The lines between reportage, editorializing, and propaganda have always been messy, I think. The act of recording an event requires certain conscious decisions: what to include, what to leave out, the order of facts and events, what descriptions are useful for the reader. This is also the problem of historiography. These lines are increasingly blurred today, but in 1917, when war affected nearly every aspect of life from food rations to bonds to the draft, the press played a pertinent, easily abused role in swaying wartime opinions.

France, Britain, and the United States wanted to know if they would have an ally in the War, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to know if they could move more forces to the Western Front to deal with the soon-to-arrive U.S. army. At the heart of Russia’s pacifist movement were the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, whose motivation for pulling out stemmed from their opposition to the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war. As Lenin insisted, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For British, American, and especially French soldiers, Russia’s withdrawal could become a death sentence. Newspapers recognized their readers’ interests and fears.

Many papers did not resort to “yellow journalism” in their editorializing, but were not above subjective writing. A New York Times article from September 5, 1917, by Harold Williams entitled “Extremists Sway Workman’s Council” is a prime example among many. Reporting on the Russian Provisional Government, Williams wrote that “The all-Russian executive proposed a resolution supporting the Government view of the necessity of the death penalty” (Williams).  According to Williams, The Menshevik politician Julius Martov “sat silent in a perpetual sneer. . . put his sneer into words, and with the help of Internationalists and Social Revolutionaries defeated” the pro-death penalty measure. He added that “The issue now is patriotism or internationalism.”

It was not uncommon for American newspapers at the time to refer to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as “extremists” or “internationalists,” in contrast to Russian “patriots.” Pacifists and labor unions in general were seen as contrary to the war effort. Their demand for better wage and working conditions limited the production of weaponry and resources. Editorializing in 1917 was common, but strategically nuanced, in part because the Russian Revolution involved so many different players and interests.

Americans (who celebrate the day they declared independence from a tyrannical monarch) endorsed the sudden democratization in Russia and the end of the monarchy. The United States was quick to recognize the new, post-Tsar government. The New York Times reported on March 22 that America was “First to Recognize Freed Russia” and  The New York Tribune reported that the British politician David George Lloyd “believed the revolution in Russia was the greatest service the Russians had yet rendered to the Allied cause” (Tribune March 22, 1917). However, they could not endorse the striking workers and mutinying soldiers who were largely responsible for that democratization. Thus, Russia was influenced by “extremists” and “agitators” rather than citizens and soldiers.

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in a slightly different nationalist gesture, included a poetic description of the Russian monarchy’s complete history on March 17, 1917, titled “Story of the Tsars” in which the author declares that the “story of the Tsars is like a conglomeration of the wild catastrophes of Elizabethan tragedy.” This story appeared next to others about the “Irish Question,” so that Telegraph readers saw Irish rebellions and descriptions of monarchical tragedies in the same document.

However, journalists had a diversity of perspectives, such as the American journalist John Reed. A reporter for Metropolitan Magazine, Reed was an adamant pacifist. He reported on the Great War in 1914 before the U.S. entered, and wrote editorials for the self-consciously socialist newspaper The Masses opposing the war. He lost work in 1917 because of his views, and traveled to Russia that year before the October Revolution. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War.

The majority of international journalists, pacifists and hawks alike, approached the Russian Revolution from a largely military-driven perspective. But the Great War was more a catalyst of the Russian Revolution. The 1905 rebellions sparked economic reforms as well as increased persecution. Poverty and oppression under Nicholas II had been a decades-long assault on numerous Russians and subjugated populations in Russia’s surrounding territories, so political involvement had increased in Russia. War was a crucial issue in the summer of 1917, but so too, clearly, were issues like the death penalty, press freedom, freedom of political dissidents, and wealth disparity, issues that the Tsar ignored and the Bolsheviks, in many cases, mishandled after the disastrous Civil War of 1917-1921.

What is clear is that there emerged competing narratives about the Revolution as it unfolded. Later Tribune articles, more neutral in tone, attest to the chaotic day-to-day changes that took place in Petrograd in October and November after the Bolsheviks seized power and counter-revolutionary forces attempted to retake the capital. The lived crisis in Petrograd appeared as a serialized daily drama for readers across the world, most of whom only wanted to know if their sons, fathers, or brothers would make it home alive. The Revolution’s far-reaching consequences had the potential to affect military families abroad and all workers within, but by summer, nobody knew what would come next.