GUEST POST: Revolutions, war and political change

In Robert T. Harris’ Dancing Before Storms, he examines five revolutions of the past that changed the power structures of our modern world. In this special guest post, Robert examines the similarities between revolutions of the past with our current political climate.

Read on below.

Dancing Before Storms: an examination of revolutions, war, politics and change

On the day my book was printed, 9 May, I checked reports of the annual military parade in Moscow’s Red Square[1], after widespread media speculation about the next phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But there were just the usual images of synchronised marching troops, tanks and missile launchers rolling past Vladimir Putin[2] with a rug over his knees. How those images contrasted with the stark images of the war and increasing evidence of atrocities that the entire world had seen daily for the previous two months.

The last of the five revolutions that Dancing Before Storms describes as shaping today’s world was the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. A key event that would mark the beginning of the end for the Romanov dynasty had occurred six years earlier in Kiev – as spelt in Russian, Kyiv in Ukranian. The strongman reformer of the Tsarist empire, Pytor Stolypin, was shot at the Kiev opera. He died four days later, with Nicholas II weeping at his bedside. The assassin was a double agent who reported both to Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the Tsar’s secret police – the Okhrana – forerunner of the Soviet KGB and today’s FSB. He was quickly executed, and no one knows for sure who gave the order. Putin had a statue of Stolypin installed in front of the Russian Parliament in 2011.[3]

Each chapter of Dancing Before Storms describes events like this which help to set the context for present-day events and crises. Staying with the lead up to the Russian revolution, for a moment, the Crimean war of the 19th century, arising out of the struggle between empires known then as ‘the great game’ was an earlier scene of terrible atrocities and of selfless heroism, incarnated by the British nurse, Florence Nightingale.

Dancing Before Storms begins with the origins of the American revolution, and the incredible story of Benjamin Franklin, self-taught scientist and publisher turned diplomat, whose decision to join George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, then to win French support, enabled the original thirteen colonies to defeat the British and found a new nation – the United States of America. After victory and the signing of peace in Paris, Franklin hosted the first constitutional convention in Philadelphia, where after fractious debate he defended its compromises. As he supported the growing movement to end the slave trade, Franklin’s words of warning about the institutions of democracy resonate more than ever today.

The day when news of the British defeat reached Paris, Franklin was with Jacques Necker, whose dismissal by King Louis XVI just a few years later, in July 1789, sparked the French revolution. For a time, Necker was hailed by crowds across France as the saviour of the nation. Franklin’s ally and Washington’s great friend, Lafayette – the hero of two continents – was named Commander of the popular national guard. But France descended into chaos and terror, then the dictatorship of Napoleon, then war across the European continent. Necker’s daughter, Germaine de Stael, was staying with the Governor of Moscow when the order was given to burn the city, forcing the retreat of the Grande Armée. A woman of great influence and an advocate for constitutional monarchies across Europe, she foresaw the rise of the German nation.

By the mid-19th century, as the United States spread west, beyond the states ceded by Napoleon to the USA under Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase, revolutions in Sicily then in France spread across the continent and many monarchies had to accept reforms – except in Russia. France’s ‘citizen king’ was forced to abdicate, as a second republic was declared by a poet turned politician – Lamartine. But democracy was fragile. Napoleon’s nephew won the presidential election, overthrew the parliament, and proclaimed himself emperor.   

France supported Britain in the takeover of Hong Kong in the Opium wars, as the once mighty Chinese empire began to crumble from within and from the incursions of European powers with their technological advantages in the age of steam.  The Suez Canal opened. Trade to the orient expanded dramatically.  Japan modernized and joined the European powers in their inroads into China.

By the early 20th century, the Russian and Chinese empires were both weakened. The Qing dynasty of China fell first, at the end of 2011. Then came the Great War. After three terrible years, Tsar Nicholas abdicated in 1917. Germany, under his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, helped Lenin return from exile to Russia. The Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government in that same year. 

One hundred and five years later, the centres of power that emerged from these revolutions are again engaged in a struggle which reflects the past while being influenced dramatically by new technologies. A heavy, blundering, and insensitive war machine is confronted by resilience at home and effective communications reaching directly into the parliaments of supporting nations. The outcome of this David and Goliath battle is still uncertain.  

But this is about more than cheering for the underdog. For, not only in Ukraine but in many other places right now, a struggle is underway about the principles and nature of governance, both within nations and between them.  Dancing Before Storms shows that it has been far from easy to achieve progress without descending into violence and the immense sufferings of war and revolution.

Dancing Before Storms challenges us to learn from the lessons of history. Hopefully it will be a wake-up call. For surely, we can find ways – without being utopian – to get beyond the current dangerous range of crises, and to give people the prospect of building decent lives in more just societies at peace. 

[1] My one and only visit to Red Square was back in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There I met with a guy called Gennady Yanayev, who struck me as a relic from the past. In November of that year, Mikhail Gorbachev designated Yanayev as the first – and last – Vice President of the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1991, Yanayev led a coup attempt against Gorbachev. He was defeated by Boris Yeltsin, paving the way for the dissolution of the USSR by the end of that year.

[2] Military parades of this type had ceased after 1991 but were reinstated by Putin in 2008.

[3] Putin, who had frequently cited Stolypin as his model, ordered that his cabinet ministers each contribute one month of salary to the monument. The Guardian, 14 July 2011

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