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.
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.
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.