Comparing the Chinese and Russian Revolutions

Learning about the revolutionary history of Russia and its ascension to a modern state, I continue to be struck by the parallels to the rise of modern China and its revolutionary period in the late 19th and early 20th century. Last semester I took a class on the Rise of Modern China with very limited knowledge of Chinese or Russian revolutionary history. Though we did discuss the effects of Marxism-Leninism on the Chinese revolutions, I lacked the knowledge necessary to place this in any sort of historical context. However, the past few class sessions have helped me crystalize the ways in which China and Russia followed similar trajectories as they modernized.

                One of the clearest similarities between the two countries was their agrarian-based economies and large peasant populations that, along with the intellectual classes, became revolutionaries due to their exasperation with ineffectual monarchies and unequal social structures. Both nations had tentative revolutionary successes before finally defeating the powers of their respective empires: Russia had a 1905 revolution as well as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and China had revolutions in 1911 and 1949. Both countries were weakened by civil wars between opposing ideological and national groups. Communism took hold in Russia first, but Lenin proved highly influential to Mao Zedong, who would become Chairman of the People’s Republic of China and declare it a communist state in 1949. Indeed, the revolutionary activity in Russia proved to be an impetus for the Chinese revolutionaries to stage a second uprising.

                One of the most intriguing – and perplexing – similarities I have yet to notice is the parallel family backgrounds of Mao and Stalin. These two men are considered to be among the world’s most ruthless and fearful dictators, and both came from families with strict, abusive fathers and compassionate mothers. Both also dabbled in religion before reverting to atheism. I don’t know much about psychoanalytic theories of war or dictatorship, and I hardly know what to make of this connection, but I would like to continue to explore studies of comparative revolutions in upcoming weeks.

Capitalist Transition

The New York Times online ran an article on Thursday about the opening of the Moscow Stock Exchange, calling it “another milestone in the country’s capitalist evolution.”  I found it interesting, considering we have just begun discussing the plan for the Soviet economy, that twenty years after it ended, Russia deferred back to capitalism almost by default.  This transition does not seem to be easy-going, however, as the article described the Russian markets as the most “volatile,” either being in the top five or bottom five performing markets in the world.

While the article contained mostly economic jargon that I am not able to understand yet, what I did gleam from it was that this new stock exchange is considered a maturation, which at least to me implied that the Soviet program was in a sense immature and ill-conceived.  The return to capitalism can be likened to Lenin’s New Economic Policy’s reluctance to give up capitalism.  Despite being seen as violating socialist ideology, the Russian economy of the late 1920s was increasing because capitalism was partly responsible for encouraging production.  It left me wondering, coming from my capitalist background in America, which economic structure really makes the most sense.  While socialism’s ideas of equality sound wonderful from the outside, it is difficult to adjust to having one place in the economy and society without hope for advancement.  The competition of capitalism spurs the desire for betterment.  At times in our class it seemed the Soviet’s liked to punish sons for the sins of their fathers, as in Stalin’s singular promotion of those with working class backgrounds and hatred to the Tsarists.  The men of Russia in the the Soviet beginnings were far removed from the days of serfdom and probably the new middle class did not need to be punished for rising above these backgrounds.  This too contradicts the socialist ideology in that it promotes a hierarchy, even if peasants make up the top sphere.  If the leaders of the revolution themselves saw the benefits in capitalist ideals, is it the better system?  Is socialism designed to be a short term fix to get rid of wide-spread oppression but not meant to sustain in the long run?  While I am sure Marx, Lenin, and Stalin are rolling over in their graves at this post, the fact that Russia is finding its way back to capitalism seems to indicate that in order for Russia to once again become an imposing world power, it needs to end its years of teenage rebellion and finally settle into a stability, innovating in order to be able to compete with the other world markets.


“We” and the Utopian Society

For class this week, we were assigned to read the novella We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I personally admit that I was not looking forward to reading this book, knowing nothing about it except that it was two hundred pages long. However, upon first picking up this book, I found that I could not put it down. Not only was it interesting to me, it also gave me an opportunity to see the ideas and theories that were circulating Russian society at the time. One of these ideas (and a central theme in this novella) was that of a perfect society. The concept of a perfect society, or utopia, has incited the questioning of the possibilities of this since the beginning of mankind. Man has always strived for perfection; therefore humanity in general has explored numerous methods of possibly achieving the ultimate society.

In searching for a perfect society, a theory is to end all unpredictably and to cling to logic and science. The argument is that by adhering to what cannot be questioned or suddenly change, a society will stay consistently perfect. The arithmetically perfect society of the One State in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We shows a society that is completely and utterly obsessed with logic and science. With this obsession in mind, the society has little choice but to stamp out any unpredictable factors within society; specifically, individuality. This individuality, whether it’s described through clothing, emotions, relationships, or even scheduling is completely eradicated and systemized into one single unit of people. As a result, the society becomes completely equal, with everyone wearing the same uniform and all adhering to the same schedule dictated by the One State. However, the novella We exemplifies that while these ideas of perfection seem on the surface to be solely beneficial to humankind, all of them have the potential to be morphed and distorted into a dystopia. The novella We clearly emphasizes this, particularly through the development of the character D-503.

One of the key components of a utopian society is that of equality. The idea of individuality is not only frowned upon, it is also unheard of in this type of society. No one person is better or worse than another. D-503, who was the ideal citizen of One State, shows through his actions that even the “perfect” citizen is susceptible to the instinctive human desire to be superior. At one point early in the novella, D-503 praises the perfection of the One State society, and relates this by stating, “…it was as if I – not whole generations past – had personally, myself, conquered the old God and the old life. As if I personally had created all this” (Zamyatin, 7). This line clearly epitomizes the expression of pride D-503 felt as an individual, and how in turn his pride placed him subconsciously on a level above the equality-focused doctrine of the One State. In turn, he fools himself into the unconscious belief that as a builder of the Integral, he has the ability to alter the State or leave it as is. This fantasy contradicts the utopian ideal of equality and the idea that there is no individual. D-503’s own innate human emotions cannot be stamped out by the One State, and their beliefs.

This is but one example of many in Zamyatin’s novella. The idea that the author strives to convey (and I believe ultimately succeeds in doing) is that as long as there are human beings, and in turn innate human emotions and tendencies, there can never be a utopian society. These emotions are not explainable, and cannot be controlled by math or science. Emotions are inherently unpredictable, and what make us unique as individuals. It is what drives humans to question, to fight, to argue, to love, and so much more. Try as a government might, a way has not been found yet to stamp out human emotion, and unfortunately, that would be the only plausible way to guarantee complete and utter control in a utopian society.

Soviet Misconceptions

During our discussion in class today I was quite intrigued by many of the actions that some of the Bolshevik leaders took during the initial years of Bolshevik rule. Growing up in the United States, even after the end of the cold war, I have been conditioned to think of the Soviets as mindless robots devoid of thought or intuition. However, during the lecture I realized that that idea was an enormous misconception as Lenin and the other party leaders were incredibly intelligent and new how to accomplish their goals.

One such example of this is in Lenin’s NEP (New Economic Policy). Although it was not as popular idea among many members of the party, Lenin realized that he needed to ease into socialism, rather than force it immediately. Because of this, he allowed non-essential businesses to function on their own and only took over industries essential to government function. This was a brilliant move by Lenin, as rushing straight into pure socialism would have led to the complete collapse of the Soviet system, due to the lack of money in the government.

Joseph Stalin was also another power player in this intellectual community, despite being looked down upon. Stalin used his lack of education to his benefit, and filled many important governmental positions with his supporters. Due to his almost lack of respect among Bolshevik leaders, he was able to do this without arousing suspicion and when the time came, he had the power to depose Trotsky and take power.

I think that it is always important to remember your educational base, especially when learning about other cultures. Throughout this class, I have routinely noticed things that I originally thought to be true about the Soviets are actually entirely false. I accredit this to being brought up in the US, where the fear of communism is still present. I know that it is impossible to be completely unbiased, but I feel that it is important to do everything we can to come at all topics with as open-minded as possible.

The Body

A theme that is becoming more apparent to me in this class is the role of the human body. As we discussed in the group class, revolutionaries would often dig up the graves of saints in order to prove that the dead bodies do in fact decay, contrary to religious belief. While this is a very literal example, there are also examples in literature that we can observe. For example, Rakhmetov devotes an enormous amount of time to improving his body.Like the previously mentioned revolutionaries, he stresses the importance of present carnal strength and potential rather than the role of the body after death.

Yet another example lies in “We.” The protagonist becomes concerned when he begins to “grow a soul.” I cannot personally identify a religion that presents the soul as post-birth trait. Generally speaking, it is something that already exists at the time of birth (and usually before). In “We,” it would appear that yet again the body is completely tied to the present. It’s role in the after life becomes very unclear.

Perhaps what we can identify from these examples is that the struggles and goals during  revolutionary Russia were so entirely carnal that the philosophical perspective among the country became more agnostic, if not atheistic  We know that there was a rise in anti-religious groups (and instances of violence against groups that maintained religion) throughout Russia. But how subconscious was this rise in perspective? That is the question I would be curious to explore further.


Before our class last Thursday, I had never heard of Taylorism as a distinct theory, rather I thought that the utilitarian application of human labor was just something that developed naturally out of the industrial revolution. It may be that this is partly to what Frederick Winslow Taylor was reacting, but it is also possible that manufacturing at that time was adapting to the ideas that Taylor devised. Perhaps it is a chicken/egg scenario, but perhaps I am also thinking about it too much.

Even in just reading the Wikipedia article on this (which is in fact titled Scientific Management, Taylorism is the subtitle), I am struck by how this seems like a philosophical or political ideology, even without knowing how it is used that way in We. Ideology is normally used in the context of political beliefs, but in a totalitarian society where political beliefs are not really relevant it makes sense that ideologies are applied to other parts of life.  

I only have a brief understanding (or possibly completely false, depending on how much faith I put in Wikipedia) of the details of Taylorism, but I think that it is interesting that this idea became popular at the same time in both the newly formed Soviet Union, and perhaps the most blatantly capitalist industry – cars. Both Lenin and Henry Ford adopted this scientific management style, or followed this Taylorist ideology which at its center emphasizes the division of labor. Ford’s goal was the achieve this at it’s most extreme, which makes sense for capitalism, but for Lenin I don’t see why it was so appealing, as it seems to lead directly to alienation of the worker that Marx thought Communism would transcend. I am not really sure how Taylorism is at all conducive to Marxist Communism, so it is really interesting that a Marxist would even try.

Literary Styles in Week 4

Darnton does a wonderful job of getting into the mindset of these apprentices and attempting to create reasoning for their actions. By building and explaining the mindset of the worker in eighteenth-century France, Darnton is able to relate their actions to actions that the reader currently partakes in such as Marti Gras and the craziness that currently occurs. By adding an explanation as to the cruelty towards animals, Darnton is not able to justify the actions rather, he is able to explain their reasoning. One thing I did not feel Darnton did well was his use of organization within the chapter. As a reader, I did not see where he was going and it felt like he jumped around a little bit, albeit with transitions. With his choice of the introduction, it felt as if the chapter was going to be on cats and their “role” in eighteenth-century France.

In the second piece, Schivelbusch builds a solid argument by organizing his thoughts in the first two paragraphs and then seems to follow that organization, first by explaining the importance of light and then his main argument about the railroad revolutionizing. He uses a historgraphical perspective, using at the time observations and anecdotes to build his argument which really seems to work. He also writes similar to Tuckman using imagery in his choice of primary sources and his writing. I also found it intriguing that rather than just focus on the railroad and what it did for Europe, he focused on the improvements that the railroads made and the difference class made for travelers. All in all, I felt as if Schivelbusch created an easier to read paper with which one could relate, a must in the field of writing history.

Structure and writing

I read the intro to Davis’ article, “Religious Riot in Sixteenth Century France” to explore how  she went about setting up and introducing her research. She began by quoting two religious figures in the 1560s to provide an example for her analysis to follow. It’s important that she uses primary sources right away, and this is only one style of beginning an analytical research article. In her introduction she lays out the focus of her paper, religious riots in 16th century France, their significance and who participated in them. She provides a comparison to other rioters at the time, such as food riots. In differentiating religious riots, she gives a preliminary definition of the issue and explores the characteristics of mob violence further. She creates her own “niche” by saying that although much research has paid attention to “….” and a lot of study has been done on these sorts of riots and mob violence, religious riots havent received much “analytical attention”. So she introduces and contextualizes the issue she will explore later on in the paper. Still within the introduction she explores the problem of religious rioting, what other scholars have missed, and she asks a number of questions and then in the next paragraph explains the structure of her paper and her methods in going about answering these questions. She uses short quotes often, but integrates them well into her narrative and uses long explicatory footnotes.



Compartments and Riots

In Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s writing, he discusses the transformation in transportation.  To go form one place to another, in the past people would drive cars, giving the ability to take in the nature that surrounded them.  Once the railroads were established, the people argued they were losing the ability to be one with nature because everything was moving so quickly past them.  Flowers became a blur and one could only see streaks of color.  Along with this complaint, the people mentioned the establishment of reading liesure books on trains instead of socializing with the ones around them.  It is interesting for me to try and understand this point because nowadays, on trains and planes everyone keeps to themselves whether they read a book, do work, or simply sleep and enjoy music.

Schivelbusch also mentions the compartments, dealing with the issue of class.  Because railroad cars we are identical, the upper class had an issue knowing they were getting the same treatment as the lower classes.  The upper class wanted to dominate and showoff their wealth.

Natalie Davis’ piece on religious riots in 16th century France also discusses the differences from the past to the present.  Religious riots were very common during that time period due to the Reformation that was occurring.  The way Davis argued her points were different than Schivelbusch in a sense that Davis told the reader specifically what she was going to argue and how.  The amount of examples she used to support her facts was a little overwhelming because it almost felt as if she was trying too hard.  In all, her conclusion is what made the most sense to me.  She went back to her introduction and summed up her paper in only a few sentences.

Workin’ on (researching) the railroad…among other things

Wolfgang Schivelbusch gives a very detailed, well-researched account of how the railroads changed how people viewed their lives. Despite his dearth of primary sources, however, Schivelbusch neglects the lower-class people whose views were no doubt also impacted by what the Americans called the “iron horse.” This is somewhat understandable, as the lower class in pretty much all of society is traditionally less lettered, literate, or likely to record their thoughts and feelings than the upper class, but their thoughts on the matter are still quite important. Perhaps more than the rich, the working class was influenced by the railroad as an easy method of quick conveyance around the Continent, and accordingly had more of a worldview shift courtesy of the railroad. Schivelbusch presents an excellent picture of how the railroad changed society, but it could stand to be a bit more complete.

With regard to Marius’ writings, I must confess I had the exact opposite problem with my research. Colonel John D. Hartigan no doubt had a very interesting career in the service, first as a training unit commander at Dickinson, then in the military governorship of Austria. Tantalizing glimpses are given of this, such as a friendly letter from the commander of all French forces in Germany, or his Memorial Day speech to the college, but by and large his papers are a somewhat single-minded affair, focusing on his drive to create a study abroad program at the college. His pictures are somewhat more interesting, but again provide little insight into the man. I suppose this motivated me to be quick and efficient with my research, but it was somewhat disappointing in that I’d expected to find a much different set of documents to peruse, rather than a single-minded collection focused solely on one aspect of the man.