Society versus the State, Society Wielding the State: Educated Society and State Power in Russia, 1914–1921

By Peter Holquist


Bolshevik ideology contributed in significant ways to the form the Soviet state eventually took. However, the Bolcheviks did not exist outside of Russian society: they emerged from within it. For this reason, the preexisting relation of Russia's political class both to state power and to common people was an essential framework for Bolshevik aspirations. This paper examines how the Soviet state's agenda re-forged existing aspirations through a study of two fields of state activity over the course of the First World War and the Revolution: food supply and popular enlightenment measures. Rather than positing a radical break in 1917, this paper contends that the period of 1914-1921 was a crucial watershed that must be seen as part of one continuum. This period witnessed two telescoped phases of development for Russia's political class. Firstly, the war allowed the freer emergence of public organizations. However, given the fact that these organizations emerged during mobilization for total war and under the aegis of the state, they did not produce a classical public sphere but rather a “parastatal complex” devoted to state mobilization. Secondly, the revolutionary period from February to October 1917, before the Bolshevik seizure of power, represented the attempt by Russia's political class to impose its ideal upon the revolutionary situation. Their failure to do so led them increasingly to turn to the instruments of the wartime state mobilization to achieve their prerevolutionary political aspirations. These two phases of telescoped development provided the tool kit upon which Soviet power would draw to realize its own aspirations.


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