A nearly century-old lesson on revolution from Russia for the new leaders of Ukraine

April 4

Weak, under tremendous pressure, its authority uncertain, the new government of Ukraine faces some of the same risks that once undid another fledgling government, in another place and another time.

The place was Russia, and the time was March 1917.

Like Ukraine in 2014, Russia 97 years ago had just thrown off a widely despised autocrat who had played his hand so badly that what should have been a manageable protest turned into a revolution.

And, as in Kiev today, the new authorities in Petrograd, the Russian capital then, scrambled to figure out how to run a country even as enormous pressures closed in.

They failed. Unable to right the ship, under constant attack by a hostile foreign power, plagued by angry dissent at home, they lost control of the nation just eight months later in the Bolshevik Revolution. Their fall led to the creation of the Soviet Union, and the years of trauma that afflicted so many millions of people.

The United States, in early 1917 as in 2014, enthusiastically welcomed the new, ostensibly democratic government. It offered assistance. But it discovered, in the end, that there was little it could do to shape the course of events.

The Russian revolution of early 1917 holds a cautionary tale for Ukraine’s interim government — unelected, propelled into power by the sudden collapse of the previous government, and grappling with an empty treasury and acute pressure from all sides — and for its supporters in Washington and Europe. With the noblest of intentions, the leaders in Petrograd, today’s
St. Petersburg, were unable to deliver what the people wanted.

“Russia 100 years ago was a failed state,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a historian and opposition politician here in Moscow. Today, “Ukraine is totally a disaster, in economics, political life, social life.”

Russia’s provisional government was run by politicians who, even though they had been in opposition before the revolution, were unable to win the trust of a radicalized population. Their authority was challenged by a parallel, self-organized council — known by its Russian name, the Petrograd Soviet. The members of the Soviet believed that they, not the politicians, had carried out the revolution and that real legitimacy resided with them, not the government.

This is strikingly similar to the situation in Kiev today, where the protest encampment on Independence Square — the Maidan — continues, its leaders keeping a wary and critical eye on parliament, and insisting on having a voice in the formation and policies of the government.

Kiev’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 39, is struggling to steer Ukraine away from the fate that befell Russia, led 97 years ago by a 36-year-old lawyer named Alexander Kerensky. But like Kerensky, the new authorities in Ukraine are long on “good speeches and goodwill, but not activity,” Ryzhkov said. “They need governance now.”

Parallels in two eras

There were radicals in 1917, and there are radicals today. In Russia, they were the Bolsheviks, and at one point the government managed to chase their leader, Vladimir Lenin, into hiding in Finland. But he returned and, in the name of the Soviet, led the coup that brought him to power and ushered in the Soviet Union.

In Ukraine, the radicals belong to Right Sector, a right-wing nationalist group. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Right Sector militants actually played a role in the overthrow of the old government. But the authorities in Kiev are moving against them, anyway.in the city of

Larger parallels, of course, are not exact. Russia had been at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary for
21 / 2 years by 1917. Ukraine has been at peace; no one is starving. Different epochs and circumstances make any comparison problematic, Viktor Zamyatin, of a think tank in Kiev called the Razumkov Center, wrote in an
e-mail.

Protests began in February 1917 over a bread shortage. As in Kiev last November, when demonstrators rallied in favor of a trade agreement with the European Union, there was no larger agenda. But in both cases, the authorities brutally cracked down, and thousands more turned out, denouncing corruption and injustice.

The police were especially loathed then, as they are now. In 1917, police snipers prowled Petrograd’s rooftops, killing people on the streets below.

In 2014, it happened in Kiev. The protesters were not cowed in either city.

An American diplomat in Petrograd, James Houghteling, wrote in his diary of watching carloads of soldiers who had joined the revolution race toward police lines, skid broadside in the snow, and unleash volleys of rifle fire before roaring off into a side street. One cop, caught on a street corner, was beheaded by a soldier.

Unpredictability

Then, in March, it was suddenly over. Czar Nicholas II abdicated. A provisional government was cobbled together, mostly from liberal and socialist members of the Duma, the czarist-era legislature.

It uneasily shared power with the Soviet, made up of workers, soldiers and sailors.

But hostile neighbors had their own ideas. For Ukraine, that interference comes from the Russia of President Vladimir Putin. In 1917, it was Germany playing the role.

It provided safe passage to Lenin so that he could return from exile in Switzerland and stir up trouble.

Just as Russia this month helped itself to Crimea, Germany took advantage of Russian weakness and briefly occupied a large portion of territory — as it turned out, most of present-day Ukraine.

(That happened after the Bolsheviks came to power, and the occupation lasted less than a year because Germany itself collapsed at the end of World War I.)

The United States was enthusiastic about the February revolution. Russia’s overthrow of the autocratic czar made it easier, politically, for the United States to join Britain and France and fight on Russia’s side in the war.

But the support was of little use to a beleaguered Kerensky.

In 2014, Washington welcomed the overthrow of Ukraine’s autocratic president, Viktor Yanukovych. The impulse was the same in both cases — a perceived victory for democratic ideals.

But success in Kiev will depend on Yatsenyuk and his allies, and if, like the Russians of a century ago, they are not up to the task, no amount of American backing can help them.

Kathy Lally in Kiev contributed to this article.

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