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Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars - Book Reviews (4)

Konstantin Andreevich Tarasov, Soldatskii bol’shevizm. Voennaia organizatsiia bol’shevikov i levoradikal’noe dvizhenie v Petrogradskom garnizone (fevral’ 1917-mart 1918 g.)

SPb.: Izdatel’stvo Evropeiskogo universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge, 2017, 376 s.
Masha Cerovic
Bibliographical reference

Konstantin Andreevich Tarasov, Soldatskii bol’shevizm. Voennaia organizatsiia bol’shevikov i levoradikal’noe dvizhenie v Petrogradskom garnizone (fevral’ 1917-mart 1918 g.), SPb.: Izdatel’stvo Evropeiskogo universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge, 2017, 376 s.

Full text

1Based on Tarasov’s PhD thesis, Soldatskii bol’shevizm is a nuanced take on the classic topic of “trench bolshevism”. Through an exhaustive and meticulous reading of the available sources, Tarasov offers a detailed and at times day-to-day account of the political life in and around the Petrograd garrison between the February revolution and March 1918. Soldatskii bol’shevizm is structured chronologically around the evolving relationship between its two main protagonists, the rank-and-file soldiers of the Petrograd garrison and the Bolsheviks. Tarasov shows their relationship to be a dynamic one marked by phases of mutual radicalization and disappointment. In a departure from depictions that tend to overemphasise the role of Bolshevik party elites and the political ignorance of the masses of peasant-soldiers, Tarasov underlines the importance and agency of a plurality of actors, the influence of the urban setting, the units’ diverse compositions, and the role of horizontal networks among the soldiers.

2The book’s nominal focus is the Bolshevik Military Organization (MO), whose history Tarasov painstakingly recounts from its beginnings in March 1917 to its final dissolution in March 1918. Tarasov writes that the MO was conceived as a Bolshevik party tool during the latter’s dealings with the Provisional Government and, that while the Bolsheviks largely treated it as such to the end, the MO also became a hub for the creation of a radical leftist, soldierly Bolshevism—with strong anarchist undertones and at times little actual Bolshevik ideology—which in turn served not only as an avenue for the Party to spread its ideas, but also as a way for it to respond to the aspirations of MO soldiers.

3After the first part of the book, which traces the origins and structure of the MO in the months immediately following the February revolution, the second part of Soldatskii bol’shevizm follows the phenomenon of mutual leftist radicalization from the April crisis until the 3–5 July events. This radicalization unfolds during regimental meetings, which double not only as arenas of politicization, but also, and more importantly, as a form of direct democracy that stood in opposition to the representative democracy heralded by the committee class. Tarasov argues that the regimental meetings became alternative power centres thanks to the higher legitimacy of this form of direct democracy, which he attributes to the meetings’ close resemblance to the village assemblies that would have been familiar to the peasant soldiers as places of collective deliberation and communal government. The Bolsheviks succeeded in embodying the soldiers’ leftist radicalization thanks both to their early identification with anti-war slogans, which were particularly popular among influential wounded soldiers who were transported to Petrograd from the front, and to the ability of their rank-and-file to seize upon everyday worries and material problems and translate the Party’s lofty ideology into a vernacular that appealed to the soldiers.

4The Bolsheviks’ success thus depended on the autonomy of the MO’s rank-and-file from the Party elite and their ability to fulfil the soldiers’ leftist, anarchist expectations. Tarasov demonstrates in the third part of Soldatskii bol’shevizm that those strengths turned into weaknesses in July 1917 when, out of strategic considerations, the Party elite refused to embrace the calls for action against the Provisional Government and attempted to restrain their bases before losing control of the movement and being forced, under anarchist pressure, to half-heartedly support the July demonstrations. The failure of the July action provided the Provisional Government with the chance to discredit the Bolsheviks as German stooges and traitors and weaken the radical leftist milieu of the Petrograd garrison by arresting its leaders and breaking up and sending its most active units to the front. At the same time, the conservative strategy of the Bolshevik leadership and their refusal to heed the bases’ calls to action also discredited them as the spokespersons for the radicalized masses.

5The MO and the Bolsheviks only recovered from these twin blows thanks to Kornilov’s ill-fated coup attempt. Tarasov argues that, in the months leading up to October, “bolshevization” in Petrograd was a process of radicalization and amalgamating a leftist bloc united in its fight for socialist reforms and rapid peace and against counter-revolution behind the motto “All power to the Soviets”. It is precisely because MO members realized that they could not control or manipulate their soldiers that they repeatedly argued against an unrealistic Bolshevik insurrection. The soldiers’ leftist pro-Soviet, rather than strictly pro-Bolshevik inclinations, thus explain their passivity in October and the bloodlessness of those events. Apart from those who were weary of what they viewed as constant political infighting among the Provisional Government, the Soviet and the many parties, the MO’s leftist, politically engaged soldiers hoped for a unitary socialist government and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The final part of the book retraces the parallel transformations of the MO as well as of the Petrograd garrison’s leftist milieu. While the MO survived in different forms, until March 1918, its members were soon called to take on new responsibilities in different state structures, especially in the Military Commissariat; this bolshevization of state structures marks both the triumph of the Party and the sudden weakening of its grassroots organization among the soldiers. Conversely, the Petrograd garrison underwent a process of decomposition and transformation. The author describes this as a triple process of “democratization”, “demobilization” and “volunteerization” (dobrovolizatsiia), none of which was controlled by the Bolsheviks. As the militarily and politically most reliable units were sent to the German or to the interior front, however, the Petrograd garrison, even in its new “volunteer” form, proved unable to serve as the nucleus of the Bolsheviks’ fantasy of an all-volunteer proletarian army to defend the revolution.

6Tarasov thus provides a fine, in-depth, micro-level case-study of the revolutionary process in 1917 Russia. He adroitly avoids pedestrian simplifications, myths and polemics and succeeds in presenting a remarkably balanced and complex picture of the radicalization of the Petrograd garrison.

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Electronic reference

Masha Cerovic, “Konstantin Andreevich Tarasov, Soldatskii bol’shevizm. Voennaia organizatsiia bol’shevikov i levoradikal’noe dvizhenie v Petrogradskom garnizone (fevral’ 1917-mart 1918 g.)”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 19 février 2020, connection on 26 juin 2022. URL:; DOI:

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