Commentary: The most dangerous Russian connection

By Lynne Ann Hartnett

As we approach this year's 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and assess the events of 1917, we find insights and connections applicable to contemporary concerns.

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President Trump OLIVIER DOULIVIER / Abaca Press

Given Americans' historical distance from their own 18th-century revolution, there is a reluctance to see revolution within U.S. borders. Yet 2017 appears to be a revolutionary period in American politics. As the experience of Russia in 1917 demonstrates, revolutions are more processes than products. The Bolshevik assumption of power did not define the Russian Revolution, it cemented it.

The Russian Revolution began more than six months before Vladimir Lenin came to power in October 1917, with both professional revolutionaries and politicians unprepared "for the chaos that confronted them." World War I, and the tsarist government's inability to effectively handle the challenges the conflict posed, sparked protests that through their very size and early momentum ensured their success.

In March 1917, when tens of thousands of women marched on International Women's Day to commemorate a socialist holiday and to express their frustration with the abysmal food supply in the Russian capital, no one expected that a revolution had begun. As one revolutionary later confessed, the idea that this initial demonstration was "an overture to mighty events" was something few considered at the time.

Even the government of Nicholas II did not feel compelled to control the disorder until the number of demonstrators swelled to several hundred thousand by the third day of protest. But by this time, the radical energy of the streets swayed key institutions to the side of revolution. Popular outrage proved too much for the emperor to withstand. After more than 300 years in power, the Romanov autocracy collapsed one week after initial protests spontaneously erupted.

The experience of the Russian Revolution demonstrates the power of widespread grassroots activism. During Russia's revolutionary spring, popular protest and disruption hastened the action of professional revolutionaries, not the other way around. Ultimately it was the Bolsheviks - the party that responded the most clearly and emphatically to the public mood - that secured political power. But it was the people who drove the early stages of the revolution.

The Bolsheviks understood the power of the masses. Given his preoccupation with crowd size at his inauguration and rallies, so too does President Trump. He sees his surge to victory as a successful revolution born from populist anger and frustration. In his first address to Congress, the president described his election as a "rebellion [that] started as a quiet protest" until a chorus of American voices surged and "the earth shifted beneath our feet."

Trump relishes the role of rebel-in-chief. But like revolutionaries throughout history, there is now evidence that, with the transformation from leading representative of a disruptive opposition into the ruling power, Trump has little toleration for divergent popular awakenings.

For a man who measures popularity and revolutionary energy by the size of crowds, the historically large numbers of demonstrators at many post-inauguration protests pose an existential problem. Thus, Trump seeks to delegitimize these demonstrations by challenging the extent to which they are examples of grassroots activism and the manifestation of popular dissatisfaction.

Even more troubling is the president's inclination to label other challenges the work of "enemies of the people." This phrase, used for repressive and violent ends by Joseph Stalin, is reminiscent of the most insidious side of the Russian Revolution.

If we accept that the unprecedented political involvement of a sizable part of the population is evidence of a revolutionary process of activism in the United States, Trump's categorization of his so-called opposition as enemies of the people conjures up the specter of a contest between revolution and counterrevolution. In the Soviet Union, such a contest led to civil war and horrifying persecution by the state.

While there is a wide gulf between rhetoric and actions, if Trump continues with such polarizing and inflammatory language and tactics, this may ultimately prove to be the most dangerous Russian connection of all.

Lynne Ann Hartnett is an assistant professor of history at Villanova University. lynne.hartnett@villanova.edu

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