Sunday, March 29, 2009

Memories of the Russian Revolution

No, not my memories. I'm not that old. Yet.

Actually what I'm doing is remembering what I've read about the Russian Revolution. And thinking about certain similarities with the Situation In Which We Now Find Ourselves (SIWWNFO). In a nutshell, Obama reminds me of Kerensky.
From Wikipedia:

When the February Revolution broke out in 1917, [Alexander] Kerensky was one of its most prominent leaders, and was elected vice-chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. He simultaneously became the first Minister of Justice in the newly-formed Provisional Government. When the Soviet passed a resolution prohibiting its leaders from joining the government, Kerensky delivered a stirring speech at a Soviet meeting. Although the decision was never formalized, he was granted a de facto exemption and continued acting in both capacities. The New York banker Jacob Schiff made large loans to Kerensky's government.

After the first government crisis over Pavel Milyukov's secret note re-committing Russia to its original war aims on May 2-4, Kerensky became the Minister of War and the dominant figure in the newly formed socialist-liberal coalition government. Under Allied pressure to continue the war, he launched what became known as the Kerensky Offensive against the Austro-Hungarian/German South Army on June 17, Old Style. At first successful, the offensive was soon stopped and then thrown back by a strong counter-attack. The Russian Army suffered heavy losses and it was clear - from many incidents of desertion, sabotage, and mutiny - that the Russian Army was no longer willing to attack.

What I'm getting at here, is that when Kerensky came to power, after the initial revolution, in February, he vowed to continue the Russian war effort against Germany, despite the unpopularity of that war and the huge losses the army was taking on the German front.

Kerensky was heavily criticised by the military for his liberal policies, which included stripping officers of their mandate (handing overriding control to revolutionary inclined "soldier committees" instead), the abolition of the death penalty, and the presence of various revolutionary agitators at the front. Many officers jokingly referred to commander in chief Kerensky as "persuader in chief".
Like Obama, Kerensky used his powers of gentle persuasion to effect liberal reforms. But, also like Obama, he was determined to maintain what he saw as iron clad commitments carried over from the previous regime. In Kerensky's case these commitments took the form of military treaties, while for Obama they take the form of financial obligations based on a respect for the laws protecting bonuses and private property, in the form of investment obligations on the part of the world's largest banking and investment companies. Timothy Geithner insisted today, in a televised interview, that these obligations must be respected regardless of the cost to US taxpayers.
Kerensky's major challenge was that Russia was exhausted after three years of war, while the provisional government did not offer much motivation for a victory outside of continuing Russia's obligations towards its allies. Furthermore, Lenin and his Bolshevik party were promising "peace, land, and bread" under a communist system. The army was disintegrating due to a lack of discipline, which fostered desertion in large numbers.

Kerensky and the other political leaders continued their obligation to Russia's allies by continuing involvement in World War I - fearing that the economy, already under huge stress from the war effort, might become increasingly unstable if vital supplies from France and the United Kingdom were to be cut off. Some also feared that Germany would demand enormous territorial concessions as the price for peace (which indeed happened in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). The dilemma of whether to withdraw was a great one, and Kerensky's inconsistent and impractical policies further destabilized the army and the country at large.
During the October Revolution, the famed "Ten Days that Shook the World," the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, defeated the forces of Kerensky's provisional government and established a Communist state, leading to a prolonged and extremely violent civil war. A significant factor in the Bolshevik success was its commitment to ending the war and bringing the demoralized and exhausted troops home.

The parallel I see is between Kerensky's insistence on honoring Russia's treaties, to the point of maintaining a disastrous war, and Obama's insistence on honoring legal obligations protecting the fortunes of the wealthy in the face of a disastrous economic meltdown. Ultimately the Russian people sided with the Bolsheviks who insisted on cutting the ties to their allies and bringing the war to an end. At some point, Americans will demand that our government, in a similar spirit, cut its ties to the oligarchs whose greed and corruption are having similarly disastrous effects in our own time.

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