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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Peripheral Actors, Central Concerns: Observing the Russian Revolution

Griffin B. Creech

Though this blog has focused on the “peripheral” history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in a literal sense, I seek to add to the discussion by conceptualizing “periphery” in a more metaphorical way. How did peripheral actors observing events in revolutionary Russia contribute to an understanding of what these events meant in a larger, international context? To what extent were outside observers of 1917 actually “peripheral” to the events themselves and the larger meanings they would take on? My research on American observers of the Russian revolution can help us fruitfully think through these questions.

In many ways one could argue that Samuel Northrup Harper was a peripheral figure in the history of revolutionary Russia. Harper (1882-1943) was one of the United States’ best-known and most respected academic experts on Russia in 1917. He taught Russian language, culture, and history at the University of Chicago, but also circulated among the United States’ business and political elite, even holding an appointment in the Department of State’s Russian Bureau (1919-21). A frequent traveler to late tsarist, revolutionary, and eventually Soviet Russia, Harper could boast a firsthand view of many of the events that led to the Romanov dynasty’s downfall and the rise of the Bolsheviks in late 1917. This at a time when Slavic studies and academic knowledge of Russia remained extremely scarce in the United States.[1]

Samuel Northrup Harper, circa 1926. Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive

Harper’s view of the Russian countryside circa 1913. Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive

Beginning with the fall of the autocracy in February 1917, Harper took on a distinctly pro-Kadet stance, supporting the Provisional Government both privately and publically. As Harper put it, his “sympathies . . . were in the liberal camp.”[2] Harper and his expertise were now in the limelight and many clamored for his take on the February Revolution. Responding to the US Department of State, which telegrammed him days after the event asking for his view of it, Harper praised the Provisional Government and insisted that the revolution yielded positive results. It sought to “create conditions that would make it possible for Russia to bring into force all her strength.”[3] Corresponding extensively with Pavel Miliukov, the leader of the liberal Kadet party, Harper repeated Miliukov’s remarks and touted the virtues of Russian liberalism in public lectures, American newspapers, and in countless letters to government officials, colleagues, journalists, and businessmen.[4] The revolution laid the foundations of an orderly, democratic state and represented the culmination of a decades long Russian search for democracy. He told Chicago Tribune readers that the revolution would usher in a permanent legislative body through which the Russian masses would voice their political preferences.[5]

Harper (second from left) with members of the 1917 Red Cross Mission to Russia. This photo was most likely taken in Petrograd. Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive

Harper spent the summer of 1917 in Russia and, as his numerous letters from the period attest, he witnessed worker demonstrations on a frequent basis. How, then, would he account for the rising tide of discontent with the Provisional Government in the summer of 1917? How would the on-the-ground reality of such popular grievances align with his vision of nascent Russian liberalism? In answer to this conundrum, Harper blamed Russian radicals from abroad who he claimed had been allowed back into Russia because of loosened censorship and the opening of the country’s borders after the February Revolution. Russia was chaotic because it was a liberalized “open discussion school,” not because the masses grew dissatisfied with worsening conditions, an ineffectual governing arrangement, and Russia’s continued involvement in an unpopular war.[6]

Immediately after the Bolsheviks took power, Harper’s commentary was scarce. This trend speaks to the fact that, after leaving in September 1917, Harper did not return to Russia until the mid-1920s. Yet it also reflects his perception of the Bolsheviks: an illegitimate coup d’etat with no mass support. What little commentary Harper did make in 1917’s final months was decidedly negative and alarmed, claiming that the Bolsheviks rolled back Russian progress. Bolshevism represented “stupidity, fanaticism, of whatever you want to call it” because it was unfriendly toward private enterprise. The party committed “treason to Russia and her Allies” because it opposed Russia’s involvement in World War I and, thus, threatened to saddle the United States with larger human and financial burdens.[7] In other words, Harper reacted negatively to the Bolshevik revolution, and encouraged his wide readership to do the same, because he saw it as a substantial roadblock to Russian liberalism, even as a force capable of liquidating these trends altogether.

During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) Harper supplemented his teaching position with consulting work for the Department of State’s Russian Bureau, a group that analyzed developments in Red Russia. In this capacity, his analysis of Russian politics enjoyed an increasingly wide readership within academia, the public, and the Department of State. The position also gave Harper access to a rich collection of Russian sources including newspapers and other materials collected by American diplomats and travelers in Russia. His perception of Bolshevism during this period came largely from these Russian sources, many of which, as Donald J. Raleigh has shown, used “external language” to mask numerous internal fissures in the Bolshevik party and to portray the Bolsheviks and their enemies as stark opposites.[8] The Soviet press, from which Harper frequently drew information, overflowed with word of world revolution, often reporting on socialism’s inevitable triumph, while omitting local events that did not fit its ideologically driven narrative.[9]

Not surprisingly, Harper’s appraisal of Russia’s new rulers was universally negative. Measuring the Bolsheviks against a metric that prized democracy, human rights, and his view of the February Revolution, he announced to audiences that the Bolsheviks were internationalists and that they sough to destroy American capitalism and democracy. He believed he had found evidence of direct cooperation between Germany, the United States’ wartime enemy, and the Bolsheviks, and he testified to the United States government to this effect.[10] As the Bolsheviks’ power solidified, Harper’s portrayal of them grew increasingly panicked and negative.

By 1921, Harper’s claims had helped constructed a binary in his mind and in the popular consciousness that precluded cooperation between the United States and Soviet Russia. He argued that the Bolsheviks had suppressed and contorted all democratic institutions in Russia to such a degree that, as long as the party held power, Russia would remain an authoritarian state that lacked human rights and popular participation in government. To quote Harper: 

“the purpose of the Bolsheviks is to subvert the existing principles of government and society the world over, including those countries in which democratic institutions are already established. They have . . . concentrated power in the hands of a few. The results of their exercise of power . . . have been demoralization, civil war, and economic collapse.”[11]

The United States could not cooperate with Red Russia for two reasons: because doing so, Harper believed, might imply American support for the illiberal Bolsheviks and, secondly, because the Reds represented America’s political antithesis and enemy. Indeed Washington adhered to Harper’s suggestion for a policy of “hands off Russia” – a policy of no diplomatic cooperation or economic relations. The latter would not be restored for nearly two decades.[12]

Thus nearly three decades before the Cold War, a language of opposition between the United States and Soviet Russia that wrote off any possibility of Washington’s cooperation with Moscow had already been publically articulated. Recent, post-Cold War scholarship has argued that, in many ways, the conflict was driven by public opinion.[13] After considering Harper’s case, we might add that imagining Russia, the practice of measuring the country’s political course against western-oriented expectations, helped give birth to and structure this mass opinion. Though Harper was in many senses highly peripheral to the breakdown of the Russian autocracy and the subsequent rise of the Bolsheviks, his commentary on these events was nonetheless central in the formation of mass opinion on them. 

Harper’s photograph of a Russian peasant circa 1915. Source: Samuel N. Harper Russian Pamphlet Collection, Special Collections Rare Book Archive, University of Chicago.

Griffin B. Creech is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied Russian and Soviet history and wrote a thesis entitled "Imagining Russia, Informing America: Samuel N. Harper, U.S. Public Opinion, and the Russian Revolution, 1917-1921" from which this post is drawn. The thesis was awarded highest honors by the university's department of history. 


[1] Horace G. Lunt, “On the History of Slavic Studies in the United States.” Slavic Review 46 (2) (1987): 294-301; J.A. Posin, “Russian Studies in American Colleges,” Russian Review 7 (2) (1948): 62.  [2] Samuel N. Harper, The Russia I Believe In: The Memoirs of Samuel N. Harper, 1902-1941 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), 87.  [3] Telegram to State Department, March 15, 1917, Box 3, Folder 12, Samuel Northrup Harper Papers, University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center; Harper, The Russian I Believe In, 97. [4] For a small sample, see “Regards Revolution in Russia Culmination of Long Work for Freedom,” April 26, 1917, Box 4, Folder 2, Harper Papers; “Struggle of Russia: Over Half Century of Move for Free Government,” April 29, 1917, Box 4, Folder 2, Harper Papers; Harper to Beymer, April 6, 1917, Box 3, Folder 14, Harper Papers.  [5] “Prof. Harper Tells Causes of Revolution,” Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1917, 5. [6] Harper to Prince, July 12, 1917, Box 4, Folder 9, Harper Papers.  [7] ““Treason to Russia:” Professor Harper Thus Sums Up Operations of Bolsheviki,” Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 1917, 2-3. [8] Donald J. Raleigh, “Languages of Power: How the Saratov Bolsheviks Imagined Their Enemies,” Slavic Review 57 (2) (1998): 321-22, 330. [9] Donald J. Raleigh, Experiencing Russia’s Civil War: Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917-1922 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 227.  [10] For a record of Harper’s remarks to the American public via a report of the US Committee on Public Information, see Committee on Public Information, War Information Series, “The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy,” 1919, 29. Harper’s remarks here were in response to his examination, along with historian J. Franklin Jameson, of the so-called Sisson Documents, a cache of Russian documents collected by Edgar Sisson, a representative of the U.S. Committee on Public Information stationed in Petrograd, which allegedly showed that the Bolsheviks had taken money from the Germans in order to finance the October Revolution. [11] “Memorandum on Certain Aspects of the Bolshevist Movement in Russia: Character of Bolshevist Rule, Economic Results of Bolshevist Control, Bolshevist Program of World Revolution,” October 27, 1919, Box 61, Folder 2, Harper Papers. [12] Harper to Allen, January 27, 1921, Box 8, Folder 23, Harper Papers. [13] See, for example, Matthew S. Hirshberg, Perpetuating Patriotic Perceptions: The Cognitive Functions of the Cold War (Westport: Praeger, 1993).

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