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Contrary to Lenin’s expectations, the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia failed to ignite the world proletarian revolution. It did, however, produce earth-shaking ramifications which have dominated world history ever since. It had also, inevitably, like any other event of such a historic magnitude, given rise to major controversies among historians, politicians and others about the nature and aims of the Russian Revolution.  

Lenin Speaks at the Second Congress of Soviets. By Vl. Serov

Much of the discussion turns on the question of the inevitability of Bolshevism. Was the Bolshevik path the only possible way forward for Russia after the collapse of the monarchy in February 1917? Was there any realistic alternative to Bolshevism? What were, for example, the chances for the establishment in Russia of parliamentary democracy on the Western European model?  Alternatively, were there inherent factors in the structure of Russian society which ruled out the possibility of her following the capitalist path of development of Western Europe?

This is one set of questions which fuel controversies about the ‘October Socialist Revolution’. The diversity of answers to these questions can be reduced to two diametrically opposed approaches: determinist versus non-determinist. The most obvious example of a determinist explanation of the Russian revolution is the view based on the Marxist interpretation of history which was promulgated by official Soviet historiography till the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In this view, both the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution of February and the ‘proletarian-socialist’ revolution of October were preconditioned by the whole course of  Russian, indeed world, history. The Russian people simply had no option, no alternative to socialist revolution in 1917.

Non-determinist historians do not accept that the Russian Revolution was inevitable. They tend to stress the small scale of the Bolshevik rising. They do not deny that it was highly significant, but question whether it was truly a mass movement and point to the fact that the Bolshevik government could sustain itself in power only by adopting a policy of state terror. The non-determinist view is associated with such writers as the American scholar Richard Pipes. In 1990 he expressed his basic view of the origins of the Revolution and its importance in these words: 


The Russia Revolution was made neither by the forces of nature nor by anonymous masses but by identifiable men pursing their own advantages.  Although it had spontaneous aspects, in the main it was result of deliberate action. As such it is very properly subject to value judgment.


Between the poles of this basic ‘determinist versus non-determinist’ dichotomy there is a wide variety of interpretations spanning the entire ideological, political and intellectual spectrum. Some of the more influential, or insightful, interpretations and argumentations are discussed on these pages.

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Interpretations of 1917


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
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The Revolutions of 1917
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