The 1917 Russian Revolution and the insurrection against the US Congress
As I watched the attempted overthrow of our government on Jan. 6, I was appalled at the parallels of the February 1917 Russian Revolution. I taught Russian and Soviet History in the Russian Studies and International Relations Programs at Bucknell for 20 years and was startled to see the parallels taking place in my own country.
First, the Russian Revolution began as an apparently leaderless coup carried out by a violent throng. An angry, armed mob attacked the headquarters of the Russian government, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The mob tore down the doors, rampaged through the Palace, destroying all they could not steal.
In 1917 the Russian people had lost faith in the tsarist government because of its incompetence. For example, millions or Russian soldiers were sent to the front in WWI. Many were unarmed; they were told to pick up the weapons of fallen comrades. Millions went AWOL and returned home. They were milling around in the streets of St. Petersburg in February 1917.
Much of the mob in Russia that year were armed — soldiers returning from the front. Only a few invading the Capitol here were armed. But then Russia was not awash in assault rifles; America is. So, I can see why fears of a second attempt are spreading.
The initial coup occurred at a time when the Russian government was weakest, while the tsar was not in St. Petersburg. The tsar was at the summer palace. Rather than return to St. Petersburg, he abdicated in favor of his brother, an equally weak and weak-minded man. After 20 years of do-nothing government and four years of a mentally AWOL president, the American government was weaker than it should have been.
Trump promised to follow the crowd to the Capitol, but then returned to the White House to hover in the background. Vladimir Lenin, too, kept back, out of the Russian riot; rather, he remained behind and set up his own government that would fill the vacuum created by the coup.
Trump had already created his own government by appointing and hiring incompetent loyalists throughout the U.S. administration
The outcome of the uprising in Washington differed because we had a far stronger judiciary and legislature in place and only a presumptive tsar. In Russia, the power of the legislature, administration and judicial system emanated from the tsar alone. So, when the Russian mob removed the tsar, they removed the Russian government. The U.S., on the other hand, was protected by the separation of powers, three equally powerful branches of government, established by our Constitution. It would take three coups to bring down the U.S. government.
Most Americans have never experienced life in an autocracy, where dictators control the legislature, the justice system, the elections and can throw out any results he doesn’t like. My wife and I spent two years in the moderate autocracy of former Yugoslavia and 12 months in an austere one in the former USSR. We know where the militant white supremacists are pushing us, and it isn’t a pleasant place.
Events in Washington on Jan. 6 should be taken seriously by all Americans.
Robert Beard is professor emeritus in the Linguistics & Russian Programs at Bucknell University.