Catherine the Great: the Book and the Miniseries

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Random House (2012)

Book Review

In reading this book, I was quite shocked to realize how little I learned about Russian history in the course I took as an undergraduate.

The Russian history class I took in college also never made it completely clear that Russian serfdom was a form of slavery (the word “slave” is derived from the medieval Latin word for “Slav”) virtually identical to that in the early US. Very different from medieval feudalism, serfdom wasn’t adopted in Russia until the 16th century. Its primary purpose was to prevent farm laborers from walking away from unfavorable working conditions. In Russia, serf owners could sell them away from their families, choose who they married, and force them to work in mines and factories. They were also legally permitted to engage in coercive sex with female serfs.

Russian serfs were emancipated in 1861, two years before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation.

For some reason, there was also no mention in our class of the Pugachechina. This was , the Pugachev-led revolt of 1773-74 (which made it contemporary with both the French and American revolutions). Led by disaffected Cossacks and serfs, it was the most violent internal upheaval in Russian history. At the the time the Russian army was embroiled in a war with Turkey, and the Pugachechina very nearly succeed.

In contrast the 1917 October Revolution (according to Massie, Trotsky and John Reed – see Report by US Journalist Who Witnessed Russian Revolution and What We Didn’t Learn About the Russian Revolution in School) was a peaceful coup d’etat to remove from power the Duma ministers who had replaced Nicholas II in February 1917.

At present British Actress Helen Mirren is starring in the miniseries Catherine the Great streaming on HBO:


A People’s History of the Russian Revolution

A People’s History of the Russian Revolution

by Neil Faulkner

Pluto Press (2017)

Book Review

This book corrects the common misportrayal of the Russian Revolution as an event imposed on workers by a Bolshevik vanguard of self-appointed intellectuals. In his careful reconstruction of the origin to the October 2017 insurgency, Faulkner demonstrates quite ably that the Russian Revolution was a true example of mass democracy executed by ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers. After 1920, it would be destroyed by the most murderous counterrevolution in history.*

In Faulkner’s view, Russia’s revolution took nearly 100 years. It was Russian soldiers exposed to Western liberal democracy during the Napoleonic wars who began the first underground networks against czarist totalitarianism. As Russia began to industrialize in the late 1800s, workers engaged in regular mass strikes to protest starvation conditions. The brutal government repression that greeted these strikes led to the formation of a number of revolutionary parties as workers began to demand political change as well.

Organizing in a Police State

The Bolshevik Party first came together in the years 1899. Organizing a mass democratic party in a police state is extremely difficult. The strategy Lenin and other party leaders employed was to start a newspaper, which they printed abroad and smuggled into Russia via underground groups. Avoiding police infiltration police required a large degree of decentralization and independent function of workers’ committees and subcommittees. Eventually a large underground network arose around distribution of the party newspaper.

Part of Bolshevik strategy was to foster strong relationships with the military. The eventual success of the October 1917 would depend on soldiers’ refusal to support the Provisional Government.

All the revolutionary activity, starting with the failed 1905 Revolution, began as spontaneous strikes and demonstrations launched by workers themselves to protest their abominable living and working conditions. The February 1917 revolution, in which Tsar Nicholas II was deposed, began as a bread strike led by women.

Dual Power by the Duma and Workers’ Soviets

The Tsar’s removal led to dual power, in which three successive provisional governments were jointly run by the pro-war Duma, made up of bourgeois liberals and the Petrograd Soviet consisting of delegates of democratic assemblies which had formed in factories, barracks and battleships. The Duma had no real power as they could only enact measures approved by the soviets.

A series of mass military mutinies led to the collapse of the the first and second Provisional Government in April and June. During the 3rd Provisional Government, increasing government repression led to a surge in membership in both the Bolshevik Party and local soviets.

At Lenin’s urging, soviets** across Russia overruled the Bolshevik Central Committee in September 2017 and called for a new government run by workers and peasants, as well as mass insurrection. In the end, the soviets would assume power with very little violence by merely disestablishing the 3rd Provisional Government. Owing to mass military defection during 1917, the government was left with no means of defending itself.

*It would take Joseph Stalin, who assumed power after Lenin died in 1922, six years to complete the counterrevolution. He would eventually liquidate the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party. According to Faulkner the great Bolshevik experiment of mass democracy from below officially ended in 1920. Although the Soviet Union would ultimately beat back a military invasion by White Russians, British and Americans, this civil war, on top of a brutal settlement with Germany that devastated Soviet industrial and agricultural capacity, would shatter the Soviet economy. In a desperate hope revolution in other European countries would reopen trade, Lenin officiated over the rise of centralized state control (enforced by the Cheka and the Red Terror) to manage extreme scarcity, malnutrition and epidemic levels of disease.

**The first soviets were formed as a result of the 1905 Revolution.