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Soviet Union proved there are worse choices than democracy

By Gary Johns - posted Friday, 13 January 2017

The 2016 Lowy Institute poll found that only 54 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds think "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government".

I think the polling is not a ­robust reflection of real instincts in Australia, but just in case - young ones and teachers - come on a brief journey into hell and see if you change your mind.

It was by no means inevitable that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would end in the Bolshevik dictatorship. This is the considered observation of one of the leading scholars of the revolution, Orlando Figes, in his book A People's Tragedy.


Two images sum up the situation. Following the 1905 revolution, the tsar opened the new duma (parliament) flanked on his right by crown appointees, on his left by elected delegates - two Russias, autocratic and democratic, facing off. In February 1917 the tsar is gone, but in two separate wings of one building the remnants of the duma and the people's soviet - democratic and mob rule - don't face off.

The story of February to October 1917 is the story of how Russia blew its chance to become democratic: a brief hope that a more liberal society might have emerged from tsarist Russia, one that could have resisted communism. How different the world might have been. Millions of lives, ­destroyed by Lenin and, later, Stalinist ­regimes, might have been saved.

The 1905 revolution won new political freedoms, including the boom in newspapers, the dumas, the formation of political parties and the growth of public institutions. Unfortunately, the various movements against the tsar - the bourgeois voters, the workers' ­collectives, the peasant revolution, mutiny in the armed ser­vices and the national indepen­dence movements - failed to combine politically.

By February 28, 1917, two rival centres of power had emerged, ­occupying two wings of the Tauride Palace in Petrograd (St Peters­burg). There was the temporary committee of the duma, which had the closest thing to formal power but no authority in the streets, while the soviet (the ad hoc meeting of groups), consisting of intellectuals and soldiers but not a single factory delegate, had the closest thing to power in the streets but no formal authority.

The future leaders of the October Revolution were in exile, in prison or abroad. Lenin was in Zurich, Trotsky in New York.

There were seven major socialist parties, including the Bolsheviks. The soviet leaders had no intention of assuming power. The whole basis of their strategy was to force the duma leaders into forming a bourgeois government.


Nevertheless, there were at least four occasions when the ­soviet leaders, with or without bourgeois groups, might have taken power, but on each occas­ion they shied away from responsibilities of government.

During the first half of September, the possibility was beginning to emerge that all the major socialist parties might come together to form a government based exclusively on the soviets and the other "democratic" organisations (not the duma). As late as September 1917, the Constitutional Democratic Party was still polling well in Petrograd city elections.

It was a unique historical ­moment, a fleeting chance for the revolution to follow a different course. Russia might have become a socialist democracy rather than a communist dictatorship.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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