The Measure of All Insurrections

On October 25, 1917, an insurrection took place that must surely stand as one of the most momentous domestic attacks on government in history. Known as the Bolshevik Revolution, it set the standard of what an insurrection is and should by definition be. 

The event was the culmination of months of political tension and upheaval, when advocates of change clashed with those defending an old order. Earlier in the year, in February, the Russian monarchy under Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) had been overthrown. That event was in some ways the culmination of decades of revolutionary activity. Russians had become fed up with the status quo. Some of the resistance had been peaceful, working through existing channels of governmental authority. But much of it had been violent, such as the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. None of it had been pretty. Indignation had become the principal social “virtue” on the right and the left. And by it no one’s opponents were innocent. By it, no one’s opponents were good. The nation had become irreconcilably divided. 

Things only deteriorated as the terrible year advanced. World War I, begun in 1914, was claiming thousands of lives every week. Yet the Provisional Government that had come to power promising change was doing nothing to end it. A carpet of death was spreading across the land and the political leadership appeared, at least in the eyes of its opponents, incompetent.


Demonstrators scatter during the July Days as conservative elements open fire on them.

By July, the promises of the revolutionary government had come to appear empty, and an uprising called the July Days nearly toppled it. Street demonstrations broke out, gunfire was exchanged, and thousands protested the unrecognized plight of ethnic minorities and the working class. Instead of addressing these grievances, the government only became more imprudent in its rhetoric and headstrong in its actions. Yet it could not convince the populace of its legitimacy. It became unstable. Empty promises were made about how a final consummation of the revolution’s promises would be realized when the new year came, after the war was over. As impatience reached a peak, discontent grew. Cabinet members began to resign or were fired.

A very unhistorical representation of the scene at the Winter Palace on the night when the Bolsheviks stormed it. The event was in fact far less heroic.

Finally, on the night in question, the leadership of the most radical representatives of the left made a call to action. Vladimir Lenin ordered his followers to storm the Winter Palace, the seat of the Russian government, and arrest its leadership. He was certain that history would vindicate the action. According to his call, a throng of militants surrounded the building and smashed their way into it. What they found inside was rather pathetic–a cowering group of pseudo-revolutionaries who begged for mercy. And their leader, Alexander Kerensky, had proven too smart for them. He managed to escape capture and fled to a safer land–America–and a safer occupation–the teaching of history at Stanford University.

But back in Russia, where the Bolsheviks now ruled without any restraint from their defeated enemies, the insurrection that changed the course of modern history was about to bear its poisonous fruit. 

It is a great blessing that we, in America, have never been forced to live through the nightmare of godless suffering that the Russians endured in the seventy-four years that followed the Bolshevik insurrection. And to call the riot that recently took place in our own capital on January 6 an insurrection seems profoundly ahistorical and pretentious. 

May the God who loves his creation and providentially cares for its history grant that we Americans, along with the Russians, move forward toward civil peace, toward greater love for each other and care for all within our societies. 

4 thoughts on “The Measure of All Insurrections

  1. In this case, Fr. John, it seems that the disturbances, to the extent that they did occur, were probably carried out by _agent provocateurs_ (although people just out for a wild party, noticing something going on and joining in, were doubtless also there) and not by the protestors on whom the deed has been pinned. It’s also been pointed out that security was unusually lax beforehand, which was how those now calling for unprecedented military lockdown (and for a likely unconstitutional political vetting of the servicemen carrying that out) likely wanted it. IOW, the whole thing seems planned. The appropriate historical parallel here it’s been suggested is the Reichstag Fire: you frame your opponents and then use that as an excuse to shut them down. All this is very ominous for the United States and for the Free World in general.


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