One hundred years since a small group of extremists seized control of a major European state, thus launching a civil war, collectivization, terror, the complete reorganization of economy and society, and a geopolitical standoff that could well have ended in human extinction—all in the name of an untested and ultimately incorrect theory of human nature. When Keynes wrote of “Madmen in authority…distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he must have had the Bolsheviks in mind.
In commemoration of this catastrophe, the Slavic Review—the journal of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies—has published a special issue on the Russian Revolution. Evgeny Finkel, Dmitrii Kofanov (Ph.D. student at UW), and I chime in with a short note on peasant unrest from March to October 1917. Disturbances in the countryside were an important factor in the rapidly evolving political situation between the February and October Revolutions, but most academic work focuses instead on what was happening in the cities. There certainly has been little attempt to systematically examine the conventional wisdom that peasant unrest in 1917 was driven by demand for land and freedom (zemlia i volia). That’s what we do in this paper, using two province-level counts (one from the Provisional Government, one from the 1980s) of disturbances during the Russian Revolution.
What do we find? Land matters, but good land matters most: peasant disturbances were most pronounced in provinces with relatively good soil. And “freedom” matters, but it’s arguably the freedom of former serfs and their descendants that is most salient, as unrest in 1917 was concentrated in regions that sixty years prior were populated with serf estates. (On the eve of emancipation in 1861, approximately half of all peasants were serfs; most of the rest lived on state lands.) Peasants, in short, acted to seize good land and to burn down the manor house, where that existed.
Or so the geographic patterns documented in our note suggest. Unfortunately, much of the underlying event data seem to have been lost to history, so the sort of analysis that Evgeny and I do in our work with Tricia Olsen and with Paul Castañeda Dower and Steve Nafziger doesn’t seem to be possible. But it’s a start—more evidence, at least, than the madmen of 1917 had to justify their actions.