Abdication and Creation of a New Russia


After almost two hundred years of expanding a nation that would be respected as an equal to the Western European states, the Russian Empire fell. The 1917 Revolution in March called for the abdication of the Tsar, Nicholas II, as well as the need for a government of the people to take its place. When Nicholas abdicated though, he appointed his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, as his heir; he was the next to rule what was left of this grand Empire. But the citizens weren’t calling for a different monarch, but a new form of government altogether. Mikhail seemed to sense this, since in his response to his new title, he declared that he would rule until the “will of the nation regarding the form of government to be adopted.” (( http://community.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/abdicatn.html )) He wanted for the people to choose what they wanted out of a government and was willing to take charge just until that moment.

The First Provisional Government based itself on the principles that one sees in a democratic government’s ideals, such as freedom of free speech, press and assembly, anti-discrimination, universal suffrage, and elections for positions of governments. (( http://community.dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/provgov1.html )) But there are some surprising conditions that appear too in their Statute. They promise immediate amnesty to acts such as terrorism and revolts and protection for those in the military that took part in the revolution. While these may seem surprising at first, they make sense in terms of the goals of the new provisional government. These ten men were presumably at the heart of the revolution, or at least in favor of what the revolutionaries were doing, or else they would not have gotten such high positions in the cabinet, so it makes sense that they would pardon men who were arrested by the old government if they were on the same side. Both the fall of the centuries-long monarchy and the beginning of a new government were new experiences for the Russian people that changed their lives for better or worse.

Battleship Potemkin and Mazower

Watching Battleship Potemkin confronted me with the raw power of a political film with no three dimensional characters. Each individual possesses individuality only inasmuch as they represent a certain aspect of a cause or argument. The child shot by the czarist soldiers and crushed by the stampeding crowd careening down the steps facing the Odessa harbor matters because of the innocence he comes to embody in the face of czarist barbarity. The same goes for the film’s protagonist, the sailor and revolutionary Vakulinchuk, whose life, death, and words all act to symbolize the fundamental goodness of the communist cause, the heroism of its leaders, so unwilling to submit to fear in the face of their totalitarian enemy that their martyrdom suffices to drive crowds into a revolutionary frenzy.

The men and women move as crowds, but we do not for a second imagine that they lack individuality; it simply does not matter. Here I find myself reminded of Prince Lvov’s declaration of March 1917, on the subject of the Russian people’s role in the European democratic movement, cited by Mark Mazower in the first chapter of Dark Continent. “The soul of the Russian people,” he proclaims, “turned out by its very nature to be a universal democratic soul…prepared not only to merge with the democracy of the whole world, but to stand at the head of it and lead it along the path of human progress…” While the rebellious citizens and sailors of Battelship Potemkin do not stand for the Social Liberalism advocated by Levov, their bristling mass of clenched fists represents something similar: the helm of a movement in the name of human liberation.

The attack of the Cossacks left the strongest impression on me of all the scenes. It reminded me of Mazower’s section on the failure of Russian liberalism.  Unlike the liberals, Russia’s rural peasants and urban working class wanted peace and a higher standard of living, neither of which the liberals offered. “In the factories, in the countryside, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared”. Nothing indicates this state of affairs better than the facelessness of the Cossacks in Battleship Potemkin. As the shock troops of czarism, they stand for nothing, save the brutality of power. Nothing denotes impotence better than repression.