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1830 French Revolution


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The Hungarian Revolution of 1956



The 1956 Hungarian Revolution



World politics explainer: the Russian revolution


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To try and understand the Russian revolution outside of the broader social context of the time is to neglect the development of nationhood in the region.
Wikicommons

Mark Edele, University of Melbourne

This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.


For most people, the term “Russian Revolution” conjures up a popular set of images: demonstrations in Petrograd’s cold February of 1917, greatcoated men in the Petrograd Soviet, Vladimir Lenin addressing the crowds in front of the Finland station, demonstrators dispersed during the July days and the storming of the Winter Palace in October.

What happened?

These were all important events that forced the Tsar to abdicate, brought the Bolsheviks to power, took Russia out of the first world war, prompted British, American, and Japanese interventions, and careened the Romanov empire towards years of bloody civil war.

Among revolutionary socialists, they still inspire daydreams of future revolutions. Historians on the political right, by contrast, promote them as warnings of what happens if you try to change the world. In Russia, meanwhile, they pose complex challenges for constructing a past that can inspire the present.

The standard story summarised by these pictures goes something like this:

Demonstrations in Petrograd, February 1917.
Wikicommons
Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, July 1917.
Viktor Bulla/Wikicommons
Storming of the Winter Palace, October 1917.
Wikicommons

The Russian empire, already under severe political and social strain in 1914, broke apart under the pressures of modern warfare. In 1916, a massive uprising against conscription to work shook central Asia.

In 1917, it was the turn of the Russian heartland. Industrial strikes, protests over food shortages, and women’s demonstrations combined to create a revolutionary crisis in Petrograd, the capital of the empire.

Eventually, this crisis convinced both the political and the military elites to pressure the Tsar to abdicate. These events are known as the February revolution.

They turned out to be only the first step. Throughout 1917, the revolution radicalised until in October, the most radical wing of the Russian Social Democrats – Lenin’s Bolsheviks – took power in the name of the revolutionary working class. The October revolution, in turn, triggered the Russian Civil War which was eventually won by the Bolsheviks.

But this focus on events in Petrograd in 1917 is misleading. If we want to understand the significance of the Russian revolution for today’s world, we need to understand both its position in a wider historical process and its very complexity.




Read more:
Friday essay: Putin, memory wars and the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution


The larger context

What happened in 1917 was not just a beginning. It was also a moment in the larger trajectory of the Romanov empire (the pre-Soviet Russian Empire) embroiled in a world war it was poorly prepared to fight.

1917 is part of the story of how an empire, built between the 15th and the 18th century on the basis of peasants tied to the land of their master (serfdom) and the indisputable power of the Tsar (autocracy) tried to come to grips with a changing world in the 19th and early 20th centuries filled with overseas empires, industrialisation, and the emerging mass society.

It is but a snapshot in the history of imperialism, economic and social change, and decolonisation. These are all ongoing processes that still trouble the region today.

This sequence of events began with the lost Crimean War of 1853-56, which triggered the Great Reforms of the 1860s and 1870s.

Together with a determined push in the 1890s to industrialise the country, these reforms brought a new, more modern, more urban, and more educated society into being.

This more complex society then faced its first test in 1904-05. A disastrous war against Japan destabilised the empire enough to trigger a first revolution in 1905. It forced the Tsar to make concessions towards modern politics through the creation of a pseudo-parliament, legal parties, and decreased control of the media.

Then came the first world war. The military campaign went poorly, disgruntling the elites with an obviously incompetent regime, dislocating populations on a massive scale, intensifying national feelings in this multi-ethic empire, triggering an economic crisis of immense proportions, and further polarising social divisions between the haves and have-nots.

The result was a cluster of wars, revolutions, and civil wars that dragged on to the early 1920s. The Union of Soviet Socialist republics that emerged from this catastrophe united most of the lands the Romanovs had ruled. Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland went their own way, meanwhile, at least until the second world war.

Map of former USSR States.
Wikicommons, CC BY-SA

Contemporary relevance

The “Russian revolution”, then, was not just Russian and not just a revolution. It was also a moment when modern nations were born.

Notwithstanding earlier histories, today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia began their lives in the crucible of war and revolution. Independent Finland and Poland, too, saw the light of day in 1917.

As one historian has pointed out in a compressed overview over events in Ukraine, “the Ukrainian revolution is not the Russian revolution.” Neither were the more democratic revolutions in Omsk, Samara, and Ufa, the same as the Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd, to say nothing of those beyond the peaks of the Caucasus, or the grassroots rural revolutions all over the empire. These other revolutions, often forgotten but as much part of the process as the iconic events in Petrograd, amounted to the catastrophic breakdown of the empire in 1918.

But the revolutionary period saw more than just the replacement of one empire by another. It also changed matters decisively. For one, the Soviet empire was not capitalist, notwithstanding the limited market mechanisms allowed under the New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921 to deal with the catastrophic economic crisis engendered by war, revolution, and civil war.

The new empire was also much more national in form than its Romanov predecessor had been. The aspirations of the non-Russian peoples had to be accommodated in some way and hence a pseudo-federal state was erected, where “Union republics” (such as Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia) were joined together in a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR). In 1991, it would break apart along the borders of these Union republics, lines drawn, by and large, as a result of the reconquest of the Romanov lands by the revolutionary Red Army.

These lines became more significant over time, because of a second far reaching aspect of the national transformation of the multi-ethnic Romanov empire in the crucible of the “Russian” revolution. In order to deal with the threat of nationalism, the Soviet Union became an “affirmative action empire”, which gave non-Russian minorities space and resources to develop their languages and cultures. This affirmation of the national principle was meant to disarm nationalism and help the development of socialism. Instead, it inadvertently “promoted ethnic particularism”.

As a result, many of the nationalisms we encounter in the region today are to a considerable degree a result of this paradoxical Soviet nation making.The Conversation

Mark Edele, Hansen Chair in History, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


World politics explainer: the Iranian Revolution


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Protests during the Iranian Revolution, 1978 represent broader struggles across the region between secular and Islamic models of governance playing out.
Wikicommons

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.


To understand what caused the Iranian Revolution, we must first consider the ongoing conflict between proponents of secular versus Islamic models of governance in Muslim societies.

It all began with the British colonisation of India in 1858, which precipitated the collapse of classic Islamic civilisation. By early 20th century, almost the entire Muslim world was colonised by European powers.

The Ottoman Empire, the last representative of the classic Islamic civilisation, collapsed after world war one in 1918. So, the first half of 20th century saw Muslim nations fight to regain their independence.

It was the secular-nationalist, western, educated elites who first led these movements, gaining political control and leadership of their respective countries. These leaders wanted to mimic Europe’s progressive leaps that took place after diminishing Christianity’s grip on society and politics. They believed Muslim societies would progress if the Islam was reformed and its influence on society reduced through separating religion and state.

A key reform enforced by the new secular Republic of Turkey, for example, was to remove the Ottoman Caliphate (the religious and political leader considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad) from his position in 1924, sending shockwaves across the Muslim world.

This caused the emergence of alternative grassroots Islamic revivalist movements led by the ulama (Muslim scholars), who believed the very existence of Islam was in jeopardy.

These movements were non-political in their inception and gained mass support at a time when Muslim masses needed spiritual solace and social support. In time, they developed an Islamic vision for society and became increasingly active in the social and political landscape.

The impact of the Cold War

By the end of the second world war, Muslim countries had largely escaped from the constraints of western colonisation, only to fall victim to the Cold War.

Iran and Turkey were key countries where Soviet expansion efforts were intensified. In response, the United States, provided both countries with economic and political support in return for their membership in the democratic Western block. Turkey and Iran accepted this support and became democratic in 1950 and 1951 respectively.

Soon after, Mohammad Mosaddeq’s National Front became the first democratically-elected Iranian government in 1951. Mosaddeq was a modern, secular leaning, progressive leader who was able to gain the broad support of both the secular elite and the Iranian ulama.

US President Harry S Truman (left) and Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, 1951.
Nara.gov/Wikicommons

He was helped by a growing disdain for Shah (king) Reza Pahlavi’s reigning monarchy and Iranian anger at the exploitation of their oil fields.

Whilst Persian oil was used by Britain and Russia to survive the Nazi onslaught during the second world war and greatly helped boost the British economy, Iranians were only receiving 20% of the profits.

Mosaddeq made the bold move to address this issue through nationalising the previously British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). This did not work out in his favour, as it attracted British and US economic sanctions. This in turn crippled the Iranian economy.

In 1953, he was replaced in a military coup organised by the CIA and British Intelligence. The Shah was returned to power and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became BP, British Petroleum, with a 50-50 divide of profits.

Not only did this intervention leave Iranians with a sense of bitter humiliation, betrayal and impotence, its impact also reverberated within the wider Muslim world.

It sent the message that a democratically-elected government would be toppled if it did not fit with Western interests. This narrative continues to be the dominant discourse of Islamist activists to this day, used in explaining world events that affect the Muslim masses.

Looking more closely at the developments in Iran between 1953 and 1977, the Shah relied heavily on the US in his efforts to modernise the army, Iranian society and build the economy through what he called the White Revolution.

The Shah (left) meeting with US officials including President Jimmy Carter, 1977.
National Archives ARC/Wikicommons

Though his economic program brought prosperity and industrialisation to Iran and educational initiatives increased literacy levels, this all came at a hefty cost. Wealth was unequally distributed, there was a development of an underclass of peasants migrating to urban centres and large scale political suppression of dissent. Disillusioned religious scholars were alarmed at the top-down imposition of a Western lifestyle, believing Islam was being completely removed from society.

The revolution – what happened?

Iranian dissidents responded finally to the Shah’s political suppression with violence. Two militant groups, Marxist Fadaiyan-e Khalq and Islamic leftist Mujahedin-e Khalq, started to mount attacks at government officials in the 1960s. More sustained and indirect opposition came from the religious circles led by Ayatollah Khomeini and intellectual circles led by Ali Shari’ati.

Shari’ati, a French-educated intellectual, was inspired by the Algerian and Cuban revolutions. He called for an active struggle for social justice and insisted on the prominence of Islamic cultural heritage instead of the Western model for society. He criticised the Shi’ite scholars for being stuck in their centuries-old doctrine of political quietism – seen as a significant barrier to the revolutionary fervour.

The barrier was broken by Ayatollah Khomeini, who rose to prominence for his outspoken role in the 1963 protests and was exiled as a result. His recorded sermons openly criticising the Shah were circulated widely in Iran.

Protesters holding Khomeini’s photo during the Iranian revolution, 1978.
Wikicommons

Influenced by the new idea of an Islamic state in which Islam could be implemented fully, thus ending the imperialism of the colonial West, Khomeini argued it was incumbent on Muslims to establish an Islamic government based on the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

Khomeni’s return 1979.
Wikicommons

In his book Wilayat-i Faqih: Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government: Guardianship of the Jurist), Khomeni insisted that in the absence of the true Imam (the only legitimate leader from the linage of Prophet Muhammad in Shi’ite theology) the scholars were their proxies charged to fulfil the obligation by virtue of their knowledge of Islamic scriptures. This idea was an important innovation that gave licence to scholars to become involved in politics.

With the conditions ripe, the persistent protests instigated by Khomeini’s followers swelled to include all major cities. This culminated in the revolution on February 1, 1979, when Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran.

The impact of the revolution

The Iranian revolution was a cataclysmic event that not only transformed Iran completely, but also had far-reaching consequences for the world.

It caused a deep shift in Cold War and global geopolitics. The US not only lost a key strategic ally against the communist threat, but it also gained a new enemy.

Emboldened by developments in Iran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. This was followed by the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980, designed to bring down the new Iranian theocratic regime. The US supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and training, helping him clinch his grip on power in Iraq.

Contemporary relevance

These two conflicts and the series of events that followed – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, two Gulf-Wars, the emergence of Al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre and subsequent war on terror – defined geo-politics for the last three decades and continues to do so today.

World Trade Centre under attack, September 11, 2001.
Ken Tannenbaum/Shutterstock

The Iranian revolution also dramatically altered Middle Eastern politics. It flamed a regional sectarian cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The revolution challenged Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and its claim for leadership of the Muslim world.

The religious and ideological cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to this day with their involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

Another impact of the revolution is the resurgence of political Islam throughout the Muslim world. Iran’s success showed that establishing an Islamic state was not just a dream. It was possible to take on the West, their collaborating monarchs/dictators and win.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Islamic political parties popped up in almost all Muslim countries, aiming to Islamise societies through the instruments of state. They declared the secular model had failed to deliver progress and full independence, and the Islamic model was the only alternative. For them, the Iranian revolution was proof it could be a reality.

Was the revolution a success?

From the perspective of longevity, the revolution still stands. It has managed to survive four decades, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq war as well as decades of economic sanctions. Comparatively, the Taliban’s attempt at establishing an Islamic state only lasted five years.

On the other hand, Khomeini and his supporters promised to end the gap between the rich and the poor, and deliver economic and social progress. Today, the Iranian economy is in poor shape, despite the oil revenues that holds back the economy from the brink of collapse. People are dissatisfied with high unemployment rates and hyper-inflation. They have little hope for the economic fortunes to turn.

The most important premise of Islamism – making society more religious through political power – has also failed to produce the desired results. Even though 63% of Iranians were born after the revolution, they are no more religious than before the revolution.

Although there is still significant support for the current regime, a significant proportion of Iranians want more freedoms, and disdain religion being forced from above. There are growing protests demanding economic, social and political reforms as well as an end to the Islamic republic.

Most Iranians blame the failures of the revolution on the never-ending US sanctions. Even though Iran trades with European powers, China and Russia, they believe the West does not want Iran to succeed at all costs.

Ultimately, the world geopolitics is a competitive business driven by national interests. The challenge before Muslim societies is to develop models that harmonises Islam and the modern world in a way that is appealing and contributory to humanity rather than seen as a threat.

Hard social and political conditions and forces of time have an uncanny ability to test and smooth ideologies. While the struggle between secular and Islamic models for society continues in Iran and the greater Muslim world, it is likely that Iran will evolve as a moderate society in the 21st century.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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