One hundred years ago Wednesday—on March 15, 1917—one of the most momentous events of the 20th century occurred: Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, thus ending 300 years of Romanov rule of Russia and setting the stage, later the year, for the Bolshevik takeover. Once Lenin was in power, Russia was hurtling on the trajectory toward the Stalinist terror and mass famine, World War II, and the Cold War. Russia is today on a path toward a post-Soviet future dominated by a former KGB officer who seems to be plotting to reassemble the Russian Empire the Bolsheviks temporarily tore down before rebuilding and expanding it.
It is superficially contradictory that Vladimir Putin, who in 2015 sponsored over-the-top festivities to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, is ignoring the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolutions (the “February Revolution” that toppled the Tsar and the “October Revolution” that brought Lenin to power). Those revolutions remain too contentious to suggest a simple storyline of the kind that Putin favors. He is now ruling as a de facto tsar with the same support structures enjoyed by the Romanovs.
The Romanovs are, however, hardly figures Putin can extol. The last of them was, after all, overthrown and executed along with his family. Nor does he want to embrace Lenin as his role model, because of the divisive legacy of communism in Russia. In truth, as the New York Times noted, Putin isn’t really comfortable with the whole idea of revolutions, since he lives in constant dread of an uprising such as those that have occurred in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine (both countries that he has, not coincidentally, invaded).
But even if there is no official commemoration of 1917, how should the rest of the world think about those events? Australian economist John Quiggin was onto something with this New York Times op-ed suggesting that the events of 100 years ago represented one of the great “What if?” moments in modern history. For the overthrow of Nicholas II did not lead directly to communist tyranny. It led, instead, to a brief flowering of constitutional rule, with political and press freedom allowed for the first time in Russian history—and for the last time until a brief revival of democracy in the 1990s between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin’s strongman rule.
Power passed from Nicholas’s royal hands first to Prince Georgi Lvov, a liberal aristocrat, and then to the lawyer Alexander Kerensky, a slightly more left-wing but still democratic leader who had previously served as minister of war and justice. Quiggin argued that Kerensky missed his chance by refusing to sue for peace with Germany on any terms. Instead, he continued an increasingly unpopular war that Russia was losing. This led the German high command to undertake a desperate gambit with far-reaching historical consequences: As Winston Churchill later wrote, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.” They figured that this radical rabble-rouser would undermine Russia’s war effort. As it turns out, they were correct. The war-weariness of the Russian people ultimately gave Lenin his chance to seize power, forcing Kerensky into exile and ending Russia’s brief experiment with parliamentary rule.
Can you imagine what would have happened if Kerensky had been able to stay in power? The mind boggles to think how many tens of millions of people might have died in their beds rather than suffering a gruesome and premature end. There certainly would not have been any Stalinist terror or any mass famine in Ukraine. There may not have been any World War II, for a democratic Russia would not have connived in Hitler’s rise as the Soviet Union did. The Soviets not only helped Germany to rebuild its military in the 1920s but in 1939 Stalin agreed to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that set the stage for the invasion of Poland, with Soviet forces coming from the East as the Nazis invaded from the West. In a broader sense, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made possible World War II, a conflict that inflicted unimaginable suffering on the Soviet Union, but ultimately left Moscow in command of Eastern Europe and eager to expand its domain even farther. Mao Zedong’s revolution in China probably would not have succeeded if not for Russian assistance, which was forthcoming from Stalin but would not have come from a democratic prime minister.
Simply to have avoided the rule of Stalin and Mao would have spared tens of millions from an early grave. From the American perspective, it would have avoided the costly and dispiriting wars in North Korea and Vietnam and the near-miss of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Just think of how different the world would look today if Russia were a vibrant democracy. There is no inherent reason why Russia should be at odds with the West; indeed if Russia were democratic, it would be part of the West. Imagine the European Union extending from London to Moscow, and a Europe wholly free.
That, of course, is an impossible dream, and there is no guarantee that even a democratic Russia would have avoided all conflicts with its neighbors; other democracies, ours included, have certainly acted in a belligerent fashion. (Just ask the Mexicans!) But there is little doubt that the whole history of the last hundred years would have been changed immeasurably, and for the better, if Russia had had only one revolution, rather than two, in 1917.