The Russian Revolution was a direct product of the First World War. As you know, that war killed an entire generation, devastated Europe’s economies, and spread misery across the Continent. The political fallout in Eastern and Central Europe was revolution in Germany, Austria, Ottoman Turkey, and Russia.
What we call the Russian Revolution was actually two revolutions. The first one began in March of 1917 and resulted in the Tsar’s abdication. The second started in November and brought Russia’s Communists to power. The first Russian Revolution began on March 8, 1917, when the St. Petersburg military garrison joined food riots that had broken out across the city. Without military support Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 2, and more than 300 years of Romanov rule in Russia ended. Russia had broken with its autocratic past, or so it seemed.
A power struggle began immediately, as rival political bodies fought for control over the government. On the one hand, the Russian Duma, a representative body that had come into being through a previous revolution in 1905, appointed the Provisional Government. On the other hand, workers and soldiers in Petrograd had organized themselves into the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, a body of 2,500 members that had been elected by workers and soldiers in Petrograd. In the Duma a group called the Mensheviks emerged in a leading position by July of 1917 and set up a Provisional government, which promptly instituted a policy of continuing the war against Germany. At that point, the western allies were sending large amounts of aid to Russia, and the government wanted to keep that aid flowing.
The Petrograd Soviet soon showed, however, that it had greater authority. On March 14, the Soviet issued its famous Order Number 1, which directed the military to obey only the orders of the Soviet. The Provision Government was unable to countermand this order, and the Petrograd Soviet only refrained from declaring itself openly as Russia’s real government for fear of provoking a conservative coup.
Between March and October the Provision Government reorganized itself four times. The first government was composed entirely of liberal ministers, with the sole exception of the Menshevik Aleksandr Kerensky. The subsequent governments comprised coalitions of various factions. None of these governments was, however, able to cope with the two major problems that confronted the country. First, peasants, who had always lived in the verge of starvation in Russia, began seizing land without government approval. This put the countryside in a state of chaos. Second, the Russian army was collapsing, making an organized defense against the Germans impossible.
The Provisional Government continued to insist, nonetheless, that Russia prosecute the war further. This was a bad strategy, since the war had become increasingly unpopular. When Aleksandr Kerensky became the head of the Provision Government in July 1917, he first had to put down a coup attempt by the army commander-in-chief Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, though he was still unable to halt Russia’s slide into political, economic, and military chaos. Kerensky’s Russian Social-Democratic Worker’s Party suffered under the strain, too, as a left-wing splinter group called the Left Socialist Revolutionaries eventually left in protest. While the Provisional Government’s power waned, the Soviet government’s power was increasing. By September, the Communists, also known as Bolsheviks, and their allies the Left Socialist Revolutionaries had overtaken the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.
The Russian Revolution included two Civil Wars. One was between the Czars and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The other was within socialism, between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The two groups were originally part of the same party called the Russian Social-Democratic Worker’s party. In 1903, however, a split emerged between Vladmir Ilyich Lenin and his followers and another group around a Socialist named Yuly Osipovich Tsederbaum, who went by the pseudonym L. Martov. Martov wanted the party to be a mass organization modeled on western European Social Democratic Parties. Lenin, however, wanted the party to be a tight-knit group of professional revolutionaries that were devoted to overthrowing the economic and political system. When Lenin and company gained a majority on the party’s central committee they also gained editorial control over the party’s newspaper. This position afforded them the privilege of naming themselves Bolsheviks (those of the majority), while the other side became Mensheviks (those of the minority). The labels stuck, even though the reverse was actually true.
On the night of November 6, 1917 the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries staged a nearly bloodless coup, occupying government buildings, telegraph stations, and other strategic points. Kerensky’s organization of resistance proved futile and he fled the country. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which convened in Petrograd at the same time as the coup occurred, approved the formation of a new government that was composed mainly of Bolshevik Commissars.
Now we need to consider just who these Bolsheviks were. The Bolsheviks were an orthodox Marxist party whose avowed goal was the overthrow of capitalism. Their leader, known today as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, was born Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov in 1870 into a comfortable middle-class family. (He took the name Lenin in 1901, as a cover for his revolutionary activities.) His father was a schoolteacher who had risen within the hierarchy to the status of school inspector. His mother was the daughter of a physician who had also received a small inheritance. Lenin was a good student, and it looked for a time as if he would become a classicist. Two events, however, change the course of his life. The first event was the Czarist government’s attack on public education. Having grown suspicious of all potential sources of subversion, the government bullied and threatened people like Lenin’s father.
The second event was his brother’s execution by the Czarist government for conspiring to assassinate the Czar. In Russia, this was a far worse event than one would expect. Not only had the family lost someone to the Czarist police, but since the family had produced a criminal against the state, it was also stigmatized. Lenin’s sister was, thus, banished to Siberia as a potential source of sedition. In 1887, Lenin was nonetheless able to attend university in Kazan, but he was soon expelled for taking part in illegal associations there. This also got him banished to Siberia. He was eventually allowed to return to Kazan, but could not get readmitted to the university.
With nothing better to do, Lenin began reading Marx and joined revolutionary Marxist reading groups. By 1889, Lenin had converted to Marxism. Later that same year, Lenin’s family moved to Samara, where he was able to study law. He later moved to St. Petersburg and opened up a legal practice, though his revolutionary activities continued on the side. In 1895, Lenin was sentenced to fifteen months in jail for sedition and after serving out his term was exiled to Siberia again. In 1900, Lenin left Russia and moved to Munich, where he founded the revolutionary newspaper Iskra, which means “The Spark,” and organized a revolutionary political party that would, ultimately, defeat the Mensheviks. With the outbreak of World War I, he left Germany to hide in neutral Switzerland, where he remained until 1917. In that year the Germans allowed him to cross their territory by train, hoping that he would fatally weaken their enemy’s government. Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg on April 16, 1917 and set to work.
Lenin was a dogmatic Marxist. He firmly believed in the overthrow of capitalism, the development of a classless society, the withering away of the state, the temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and the ultimate spread of communist democracy, promising all of these things before the revolution. Marxist dogma held that revolution would come only through war, though when the Russian Revolution finally did come, it seemed that everything would run peacefully. The Communists seized power and then property, with little resistance. The people who had opposed the Communists were given amnesty, and reprisals were discouraged. Soon, however, the situation began to change, as the government became dictatorial. In early November, the Bolsheviks seized control of all Russia’s newspapers, leaving only Pravda and Izvestia to publish the news. (Pravda means “Truth,” and Izvestia “News.” A joke eventually spread among Russians that ran: “In the news there is no truth, and in the truth there is no news.”) On November 22 the government authorized house searches without the need for warrants. On December 11 it took over all of Russia’s schools. On December 14, the banks were nationalized. On December 21, the government empowered Revolutionary Courts to try enemies of the revolution. On December 24, the government nationalized all factories. On December 29, all bank accounts were frozen and the charging of interest was banned. Thus, in a very short time, the government had taken over the essentials of private life. Homes were no longer safe. The news was controlled. Money and property were now under state control. A series of kangaroo courts then made sure that no one did anything about it.
The most important government change was, however, the replacement of the Czar’s secret police the Okrana by a revolutionary secret police known as the Cheka. At first, the Cheka was limited in scope. It had only 120 agents and during the first six months of the revolution was responsible for 22 deaths. Nonetheless, even this trend was worrying, since under the Czars the government had killed only (!) 17 people annually. By 1919, however, the Cheka was killing 1,000 people per month. Two years later it had 250,000 full-time agents, whereas at its height, the Okrana had only 15,000. In addition, the Cheka became a government unto itself, setting up its own secret courts and penal camps for punishing the state’s enemies. (The Cheka’s ability to strike fear into the average Russian is evidence by the word Chekist, which was a pejorative term used by the populist for anyone who worked for the Soviet Union’s internal security forces.)
It is important to understand that Lenin knew about and fully supported this slaughter. His slavish adherence to dogma meant that the bourgeoisie had to be eliminated as a class, lest they impede the revolution. People were, therefore, arrested and shot, solely because they belonged to the wrong class. This attitude eventually led to the wholesale execution of the Tsar and his family on July 16, 1918. Nothing, not even pity for the Tsar’s children, would stay the hand of revolutionary justice.
Lenin’s dogmatic desire to kill his enemies was succored by the difficult political situation in which he and the revolution found themselves. After the Bolshevik Revolution got under way, Russia rapidly descended into chaos. At one time, eighteen different governments existed in Russia, all claiming sovereignty over the whole country. The result was a massive civil war, particularly between Loyalists, Bolsheviks, and Mensheviks. Lenin responded by declaring war on everyone and essentially turning himself into a Marxist czar. In this sense, the Bolshevik turn to violence was inevitable, as the new government confronted a series of problems on all sides. First, the Germans won the war and imposed a harsh peace treaty on the Russians as Brest-Litovsk. Many people within Russia objected to the treaty’s terms, and this peeled support away from the government at a crucial stage. Second, the western allies invaded Russia from all sides. The British and Americans landed troops in the north at Archangel. The French came in from the south. And the Japanese took Vladivostok in the east. The Communist government was in deep trouble.
At this moment, however, the Bolsheviks reacted creatively to the many pressures they confronted, including making the prudent decision to end the repression. In 1919, the Bolsheviks suddenly declared the Mensheviks to be legal again. Meanwhile, the Czarist forces engaged in their own repression, shooting Communist sympathizers with abandon, which made them appear worse to the many people who had previously removed their support from the Bolsheviks. By 1921, the Russian Civil War was over, and Leon Trotsky began reshaping the Russian army to defend Mother Russia. He would later pay for his loyalty to the revolution with his life. The allies had no real purpose in Russia other than to prevent the supplies they had sent from falling into the Germans’ hands. When the Civil War was over, they left, too.
The Civil War’s resolution was, therefore, the perfect moment to restart the repression. This was deemed necessary, because even good revolutionaries were turning on the new government. In Petrograd-Kronstadt, for example, which is an island in St. Petersburg’s harbor, navy sailors demanded that Lenin fulfill his previous promises about devolving power to the local level. (Lenin had originally begun the Revolution with the cry, “All power to the Soviets!”) Bolshevik armies massacred the sailors, even though they had been at the revolution’s center, and the need for repression intensified as the government’s policy of “War Communism” took full effect. Under “War Communism” the government took over the economy. It outlawed all unions, the official view being that since the Soviet Union was a worker’s state, the government already had the workers’ best interests at heart. In addition, the government took over agriculture, going into the countryside and stealing all the food that the peasants produced to give to the workers in the city. In a preview of the devastation that Mao Zedong’s policies would wreak on the Chinese economy, “War Communism” caused the Russian economy promptly to collapse. By 1920, St Petersburg had lost 75% of its population, and Moscow 50%, while the industrial labor force shrank by 75% overall. Many workers died in the fighting, others starved to death, most simply returned to the land. Thus, industrial production halted and total manufacturing fell to 87% of 1913 levels. This was a reversal of a trend toward industrialization that had begun under the Czars. Twenty years of economic progress was destroyed in one fell swoop.
The Communists soon realized that they had to adapt or perish. So in 1921, they announced the New Economic Policy, which represented a temporary retreat from full implementation of the Communist program. Lenin, in effect, became a temporary and tactical capitalist, declaring that it was perfectly all right to allow small businesses to be run independently as part of a larger transition. In 1922, the state even reintroduced money, which had been outlawed earlier in the revolution. As for larger operations, the party took over all big industries, because these were crucial to the economy and had too much power to be out of government hands. Thus, party heads assumed control of factories without having any expertise in industry, and workers were allowed no voice in daily management, since the party was, after all, on their side.
The NEP succeeded in stabilizing the Russian economy, and capitalist policies were allowed to persist for a number of years. A fixed tax on income of 20% was instated, which by historical standards is quite low. Agriculture revived slowly and food production increased, though famine did strike across the country. This famine’s worst effects were alleviated, however, by a massive relief effort led by future US president Herbert Hoover. (In later polemics between the United States and the Soviet Union over who started the Cold War this fact was often forgotten on the Soviet side, while a great deal of attention was given to those allied armies that had landed in Archangel.) Even large factories had to work according to vague capitalist practices. Companies paid workers wages, and talented managers even got slightly higher pay. It was even legal to fire people who refused to work. Unions also began to appear and gained the right to bargain collectively, though only with privately held companies. The revolutionary potential of these new unions was dampened, however, by the requirement that the leaders be members of the Communist Party.
The NEP also sparked the return of public life. Since it was now legal to buy and sell goods for profit, lively local markets and small stores began to appear. Middlemen began to appear as well. Known as NEPmen, they played the market by positioning their money in particular products or places. Most striking, perhaps, was that cafés opened in Moscow, a notoriously dour town. And there was even that ultimate signal of capitalist enterprise, interest. Interest was still officially illegal, so the government began issuing bonds that were priced at 95 rubles and could be redeemed for 100 rubles after the passage of a fixed amount of time.
Russia was, however heading for trouble, since capitalism and Communist Party dogma could not exist over the long term, as Mikhail Gorbachev was to find out much later. As some people began to get rich and independent, a government crackdown became inevitable. Already in 1921 Lenin publicly denounced free speech, calling it deviationism. In addition, he kept his system of authoritarian control in effect. Lenin had promised during the revolution that the Cheka would be disbanded after the dust had settled, and he kept that promise, more or less, when he disbanded the Cheka and renamed it GPU in 1922. Later this organization became world famous under the initials KGB, or Committee on State Security. The need for the tools of oppression never disappeared while the Soviet state existed.
Lenin died in 1924, leaving behind a most unstable political situation. There was no clear procedure for succession and a battle for power ensued. By 1928, Josef Stalin had managed to maneuver himself into a position of supreme power, and the authoritarian trends that had begun with Lenin reached their fullest development. In 1928, Stalin ended the NEP, because it never resolved the problem of supplying adequate quantities of grain to the cities. He then imposed on the Russian people a massive forced collectivization program that killed millions. Throughout the late 1920 and early 1930s the government forcibly deprived all Russian peasants of their land, leading to famine in the countryside. In addition, by 1931 the state reimposed its controls on all production and commerce. The Soviet Union was now without any economic freedoms at all. It was also a police state and would remain so until its final dissolution in 1991.