New Directions Lecture: Alex Rabinowitch, “The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the Birth of Soviet Russia: Centennial Reflections”

Alex Rabinowitch

Alex Rabinowitch

When I was in the junior year of my undergraduate program, I began to think about attending graduate school to study Russian history. I had a strong interest in the field, but as a latecomer to the discipline—I had only added the major the year before, and I had just taken my first course specifically on Russian and Soviet history—I was not quite sure how to proceed. Without a clear path ahead, I asked my advisor for a book recommendation. He told me about Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976).

Of course, at the time, I did not know that Dr. Rabinowitch’s work had been so groundbreaking. I did not yet know the ways in which it transformed historiographical interpretations, or the ways in which it caused a methodological shift in the discipline of Soviet studies. All I knew at the time was my impressions after having read it: This was a powerful work of scholarship. Dr. Rabinowitch’s monograph gave me an example of how transformative academic work could be when it took nothing for granted, and used a careful analysis of sources as a means to question assumptions that have become almost intractably embedded.

In his lecture, given on October 20, Professor Rabinowitch addressed the ways in which his manner of thinking about history emerged, and how that prompted him to think about “arguably the single most important event of the twentieth century”: the October Revolution. Noting that his work has been “stuck in the same place” of 1917, Dr. Rabinowitch used his talk to explore many of the issues addressed in his extensive published work.

His lecture began, however, not with academics, but with his family history. His parents were members of the Russian intelligentsia—his mother had been an actress in Zhitomir, and his father a scientist in St. Petersburg—who became émigrés after 1917. They went first to Germany, then to Massachusetts, before finally moving to Champaign, Illinois. While in Massachusetts, though, Dr. Rabinowitch and his family became deeply involved in the extensive Russian émigré community on the East Coast. Dr. Rabinowitch described a childhood in which he spent summers with figures such as the former head of the Provisional Government Aleksandr Kerenskii, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and the founder of American-based Russian and Slavic Studies Mikhail Karpovich.

His interactions with these giants of the émigré community mattered, Dr. Rabinowitch explained, because they shaped his viewpoint of what the Soviet Union was. Among the émigré community, he noted, there was a consensus that 1917 had been a coup, and that everything that had followed since then was an abomination. When Dr. Rabinowitch entered graduate school under the tutelage of Leopold Haimson (University of Chicago) and Jack Thompson (University of Indiana), he initially expected to write a dissertation that promoted this conception of the Soviet Union and 1917.

As he hit roadblocks in his research—his first project, a biography of the Georgian Menshevik and Provisional Government Minister Irakli Tsereteli was abandoned due to language issues—Dr. Rabinowitch began to reconsider his assumptions. “There is simply no way for a historian to act like a photograph,” Dr. Rabinowitch said about this process. “But to the degree that I’m able, I try not to reach decisive conclusions until the evidence is lined up in front of me.” His two advisors, Haimson and Thompson, encouraged him to read sources with an open mind, and as he did this, it was clear that there was more to the history of 1917 than just disaster and catastrophe. Although the archives were not open to him, Dr. Rabinowitch pored through printed material; he used a comparison of Pravda and Sol’datskaia Pravda, for example, to illustrate the caution of the Bolshevik Central Committee in relation to the eagerness of the military branch.

His dissertation, entitled “Prelude to Revolution,” immediately made an impact. In the Soviet Union, it was widely condemned as it cast doubts on Party unity. Additionally, as Dr. Rabinowitch noted in the question-and-answer part of the talk, his old émigré community was “appalled” by his findings. Overall, though, his conclusions quickly became accepted within the American scholarly community.

As he approached writing his second book, Dr. Rabinowitch’s tendency to question his assumptions proved once again to be useful. When he began his research on the period following the July Days, for example, Dr. Rabinowitch said that he assumed the Bolshevik Party would have aimed to clamp down on flexibility. As he dove into the available sources, he noticed the opposite effect: the Party remained, even at its core, a “democratic, responsive party.” This flexibility allowed the Party to avoid pushing for revolution in September (a move that Dr. Rabinowich theorized would have been disastrous), and it gave the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK) the maneuverability it needed to attract military support away from the Provisional Government. In other words, it was this flexibility—the exact flexibility that Dr. Rabinowitch had not initially expected to find—that made the October Revolution possible. And it would be this flexibility that would soon fade, as the responsive Party structure was replaced with a much more centralized and autocratic government in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Rabinowitch’s career shows the importance of analytical openness and scholarly rigor. It was this openness and rigor that impressed me with his work back when I was an undergraduate, and it was these same qualities that led Dr. Rabinowitch’s alma mater, University High School, to award him the Max Beberman Distinguished Alumni Award, the institution’s highest award, at the conclusion of his talk. Our congratulations to Dr. Rabinowitch, and our thanks to him for a fascinating talk.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” will be published in the forthcoming December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe. 

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