Irish eyes on the roots of Russia’s revolutions

Irish eyes on the roots of Russia’s revolutions
Gabriel Doherty continues his reflection on issues as identified by The Irish Catholic 
a century ago


The eye of The Irish Catholic in its edition of September 14, 1918 was firmly on overseas developments, with the evolving tragedy in Russia the subject of its lead editorial. Entitled ‘The terror in Russia’, it addressed the news reports emanating from the country, then still in the grip of the tumult produced by a Bolshevik revolution less than a year old.

While reliable reports were few in number, they told a consistent story: of a country “hastening towards the abyss of destruction” via wholesale massacres, disease and man-made famine.

The paper particularly lamented the murder of Irish-born Captain Cromie, the British Naval Attaché to the country, who had been killed two weeks before when the British embassy in Petrograd (St Petersburg) had been stormed by members of the Cheka, the revolutionary secret police.

In an effort to explain this unconscionable turn of events, the paper, rather intriguingly, focussed not so much on the evils of socialism, but rather on the problems that had been allowed to accumulate and fester in Russian society, and in the Russian Orthodox church, over the preceding decades. In particular it referred to two authors who had produced pioneering sociological analysis of developments in Russia at the beginning and end of the 19th Century.

The first was Comte Joseph-Marie de Maistre, a Catholic intellectual and diplomat from Savoy, who had fled France following the revolution there, and after 1802 spent 15 years living in St Petersburg.


The editorial referred in particular to de Maistre’s Quatre Chapitres Inedits sur la Russie, a book that had been written during his time in St Petersburg, but which was not published until 1859. This work examined the likely ramifications of the emancipation of Russian serfs, a measure first mooted during de Maistre’s time in Russia, but which was not enacted until two years after the book finally appeared in print.

This measure was championed by modernisers within the Tsarist regime as a conservative measure, one that would remove many of the manifest grievances shared by the lowest classes in Russia, while at the same time leading to enhanced efficiencies in the national economy.

However, de Maistre had suggested such liberation, in the absence of root-and-branch reform within the Russian Orthodox Church (most notably an improvement in the standard of the clergy), could produce revolution, as the emancipated peasantry would transfer their dissatisfaction with their clergy on to the state with which they were equally displeased and with which the Church was inextricably, and legally, linked.

The second author discussed was the Russian theologian and philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev, who the paper described as a convert to Catholicism.

Though there is some dispute on this point, he undoubtedly argued in favour of an ending of the schism between the Orthodox and Latin Churches.

His analysis of Russian ills in the late 19th Century were wide-ranging, but focussed especially on the dissatisfaction engendered by the unfortunate combination of an intolerant absolutist regime and a compliant, undisciplined church – dissatisfaction that had been stretched to breaking point by the war, and which had been manipulated by the Bolsheviks to justify their own depravities.

In its concern for events of the other side of the European continent, the paper did not entirely neglect domestic concerns, but even here there was an international context.

It took the form of extensive coverage of a speech by the former Mayor of Chicago, and prominent Irish-American Edward Dunne (who was later to play a significant role during the War of Independence).

Dunne enthusiastically endorsed an interpretation of the conflict in Europe as “a just and righteous war” against German militarism and Junkerism. Anticipating the defeat of same, and the post-war settlement, he believed that Irish, and Irish-American, support for the war would further Ireland’s claims for self-government when the time came for presenting her case “to the conscience of the world’s democracies”.

The speech, however, ignored the recent mass mobilisation that had taken place within Ireland against the proposal to extend conscription to the country, and the burgeoning power of Sinn Féin, which opposed the recruitment of Irishmen into the British Army.

Perhaps the most charitable comment on Dunne’s words was that they demonstrated just how far Irish opinion towards the war had shifted during the course of the conflict, and how little understood this sea-change was understood even among senior Irish-American figures.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.