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The Revolution and Russia’s Regions

100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: research, collections and events at the IISH.

The revolutions of February and October 1917 shook the Russian Empire to its core. In the ensuing Civil War the country fell apart along various ethnical, political, social and geographical fault lines. Civil War, revolution, decolonisation and the disintegration of an empire were closely intertwined and mutually reinforcing processes.

One of the long-standing problems which lay at the foundation of the Revolution, was the so-called “national question”. The Russian Empire was a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, a colonial power, which insufficiently allowed for the aspirations of the non-Russian minorities in the Empire. Particularly from the late 19th century onwards a policy of Russification was in place, which discouraged the use of other languages and cultural manifestations.

When the revolution in St. Petersburg swept away the tsar and the control of the centre over the periphery, several groups within the Empire seized the chance to establish their own national states. In some cases they did so inspired by the revolution, in other cases in reaction to it. In Georgia Mensheviks proclaimed an independent republic which opposed the revolution in St. Petersburg by the Bolsheviks, their former fellow party members. In Armenia nationalists founded an independent state, which existed until 1920. In other parts of the Empire as well, new states emerged, like in Central Asia, as described in this article by Touraj Atabaki.

Relevant from the point of view of the current political context is that Ukraine witnessed no less than four attempts to found an independent national state – some of these attempts carried out under a nationalist programme, others under a socialist. These states fought each other, but they also all fought the Bolsheviks in Russia, which moved to incorporate Ukraine again. An Ukrainian Civil War, a Russian Civil War and a revolution thus took place simultaneously and merged into each other. Of course no direct line can be drawn to the current Civil War in Ukraine, but for a better understanding of the conflict around Eastern Ukraine this largely forgotten history is of course of the highest importance.

From the vantage point of the periphery of the Empire the revolution thus often meant something different than as seen from the capital St. Petersburg, where the conflict primarily was a political one, between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. But also across Russia ‘proper’, by far the largest part of the Empire, the revolution was far from a uniform process. As seen from the regions the conflict also fell apart into several parts.

Recent research into the results for the November 1917 elections to the Constituent Assembly, the sole democratic elections which took place throughout the entire revolutionary proces, shows that support for Lenin and his Bolsheviks was strongly concentrated in the so called Consumptions Regions of European Russia.¹ These are regions where climate and soil fertility make it impossible to grow enough grain to feed the population. Seen from this vantage point, the ruthless grain requisitioning by the Bolsheviks, which resulted in famine both in 1921 and in 1933, appear in a slightly different light.

There was much less support for the Bolsheviks in the grain producing regions with a strong peasant element among the population. Some of these regions even rose in arms to resist the revolution in St. Petersburg. Siberia, for example, home to relatively many well-to-do peasants, largely supported the White side during the Civil War. And in Tambov, in the agrarian heartland of the Mid-Volga region, peasant leader Antonov waged a guerilla war against the Soviet authorities, which was eventually suppressed only by brutal military force and the use of mustard gas against the civilian population.

All these regional differences and national aspirations, of great importance of the time, have been largely forgotten by now because the Bolsheviks eventually managed, but by hit, to reimpose control over most of the former Russian Empire and to forge a new empire, which was to exist for more than seventy years - the Soviet Union. Of crucial importance in this respect was that this new state did allow to some extent for the national aspirations of the non-Russian minorities, which received their own republics and home-rule, even though in practice they had to operate under close direction from Moscow.

More than perhaps any other period in Russian history, the Soviet century was one of extreme centralisation and uniform administration of the vast country. Regional differences and particularities, dialects and customs, architectural styles, crop variations, culinary traditions and economic specialisations from the Baltic Sea to the Bering Straits were ironed out and covered with one and the same Soviet sauce. Traversing the country from Moscow to Vladivostok, a more than ten hours’ flight, hardly anything changes in the appearance of the country, except for geography and the physical differences associated with it.

This process of harmonisation, as well as the regional variation which pre-dated it, are a largely unexplored domain of Russian history, also due to the sheer magnitude of the task for such a large country. The International Institute of Social History aims to make a contribution to this research agenda by systematically making available regional data on the social and economic development of Russian over the last two centuries. Together with the New Economic School in Moscow and other Russian partners it created the Electronic Repository of Russian Historical Statistics, where these data are freely available online, in Russian and English, anytime soon.

1. Castañeda Dower, Paul and Markevich, Andrei, Democratic Support for the Bolshevik Revolution: An Empirical Investigation of 1917 Constituent Assembly Elections (October 17, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Article by Gijs Kessler, senior research fellow IISH


10 December 2017