The Revolution that might have been

This is an excerpt from a feature – inspired by Eric Lee’s superb history The Experiment – about Georgia’s short-lived experiment with democratic socialism in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It was first appeared in issue 70 of The New European and the full feature is now available on the The New European website.

A hundred years on the inexhaustible capacity of the Russian Revolution to suggest alternative histories continues to fascinate.

What if the provisional government charged with establishing a liberal democracy after the deposition of the tsar in February 1917 had survived? What if Lenin had been arrested by the guard who questioned him on his way to the critical meeting that authorised the Bolshevik uprising? What if he hadn’t died just a few years later? What if the brilliant Trotsky, rather than the cunning outsider Stalin, had succeeded him?

They are so many fascinating questions. But like all counterfactuals, they risk, with their wonder and regret for paths not taken, supposing that people unlike us, living at a time unlike ours, could have acted otherwise. Post-Revolutionary Russia was by turns fascinating, inspiring and appalling. Above all, it was different.

October unleashed horrors: a savage civil war, a ruthless police state, economic chaos. But it was also a gateway to the release of utopian energies that produced extraordinary art, architecture and design, ignited drives for mass education, and opened the way for bold efforts to establish a radical egalitarianism between classes, ethnicities and genders.

Soviet Russia hurled itself through the maelstrom towards a modernity still in many respects more advanced than our own. And something of that pioneering spirit survived even the brutalities of Stalin’s reign and the carnage of the Second World War, inspiring the Russian space programme and the development of an epic post-war social housing and welfare programme.

The Bolsheviks imposed too much order on post-Revolutionary Russia. But order was necessary. In 1917 the largest nation on Earth stood on the edge of the abyss: devastated by war, its state shattered, its economy in ruins, its people riven by bitter class, ethnic and ideological conflicts. Despite the desperate hope millions had invested in the Revolution this was hardly the time or place for avant-garde experimentation with radical participative democracy or freewheeling workers’ control of industry.

And yet, even as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip, tantalising possibilities for alternative Revolutionary Russias shimmered in and out of view, shining brightly before disappearing into history. Nestor Makhno’s Free Army established an anarchist federation of self-governing communes in the southern Ukraine. Factory committees suggested possible models for cooperative ownership. The world’s first democratic Islamic republic rose and fell in Azerbaijan.

But the most intriguing and substantial of all, and still one of the least known, was the determined attempt to establish social democracy in the small country of Georgia, south of the Caucasian mountains, east of the Black Sea. During its brief life between 1918 and 1921 the Georgian Democratic Republic sought to pursue social and economic radicalism within the context of a liberal constitution that allowed multi-party elections and respected the independence of the press, the trade unions and the judiciary.

Read the full story in issue 70 of The New European or on The New European website.