Russia Becomes the World’s First Communist Country
Unlike the French Revolution with its dramatic events such as the storming of the Bastille, the King’s attempted flight and his execution amid howling mobs, the Battle of Valmy, and so on, the Russian Revolution was a terrible grey phenomenon which began in a confused way in February 1917. The seizure of supreme power by the Bolsheviks in October took place in the middle of the First World War in which Russia was the ally of Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
One of the first major acts of the Bolsheviks was to make peace with Germany, thereby releasing hundreds of German divisions for the Western Front; not surprisingly the Allies intervened in Russia against the Bolsheviks. A number of military revolts followed the Revolution and though the Bolsheviks remained masters of Moscow and Petrograd (now Leningrad) it was hard to know, until around 1920, whether or not the Bolshevik Revolution would last.
Russia in 1914 was a total autocracy, ruled by a weak but obstinate Czar, Nicholas II. In 1905 after the defeat of Russia in the War with Japan there had been revolutionary outbreaks all over the Country and the Czar had had to make concessions. A Parliament, the Duma, was created and measures were taken to see that serfdom, formally abolished in 1861, was ended. But the Czar gradually withdrew the powers granted to the Duma and, influenced by a strong-willed, narrow-minded, bigoted Empress, set his face against any form of representative government.
The middle classes and liberal intellectuals had never had any political experience and, when the Revolution came, power lay with the proletariat of Petrograd and Moscow and with a small group of revolutionary Socialists. The Bolsheviks, who had been only one of the many groups fighting the Czarist regime underground, were the nearest to the workers, the best organized and they were led, when the trial of strength came, by a man of the greatest genius, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as Lenin.
With the aid of French loans, Czar Nicholas embarked on the First World War under the illusion of being prepared for it. At the beginning of 1914, huge Russian armies poured into Austria-Hungary, the Russian steam-roller, and menaced East Prussia. A series of terrible defeats was inflicted on these armies in 1914 and 1915 and, although in 1916 once again a Russian offensive under General Brusilov was mounted, it was apparent that Russia for all its huge population and space could not stand up to the Germans. Only a thorough reorganization of this administration, the building up of a huge munitions industry and fundamental democratic reforms, might have given the Czarist regime power to avoid disastrous defeats and survive the war.
The Russian armies were beaten so decisively much more because of the government’s failure to give them the means of fighting than by superior German generalship. Hard as the Russian peasant soldier could live, he could not face the long periods of starvation caused by the constant breakdowns in supplies. In some of the great battles of 1915, divisions had gone into battle with every third man without a rifle. By 1917 the Russians had lost four million men.
At home, backward Russian agriculture failed to feed the towns and all through 1915 and 1916 bread riots and popular manifestations shook the faith of foreign observers in the Czarist regime. In December, 1916, the favourite of the Czar and the pro-German Czarina, the monk Rasputin, was murdered. But it was too late for Nicholas II to seek better advisers and anyway he was too stupid. The murder showed that autocracy was feeble.
A Russian intellectual, Sukharov, wrote, in February, 1917, in his diary:
“Tuesday, February 21st. I was sitting in my office. Behind the partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties,, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.”
‘Do you know,’ suddenly declared one of these young ladies, ‘if you asked me it’s the beginning of the Revolution.’
“These girls did not understand what a Revolution was. Nor did I believe them for a second. But in those days sitting over my work, over my articles and pamphlets, my manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable Revolution that was swirling down on us at full speed.”
What happened during the February Revolution was first a general strike on 25 February,2 then a tram strike, then more bread riots, then the defection of a regiment sent to repress some demonstrators. On 27 February all factories in Moscow and Petrograd were again on strike and Cossack troops, relied on for their obedience and ferocity, refused to take action against the strikers. The Czar dismissed the Duma, which, however, refused to disperse. Police had disappeared from the streets. Still the government continued to issue menacing orders to the population and the Czar ordered divisions to be sent from the front to Petrograd, which was then the capital of Prussia.
In Petrograd a Soviet consisting of workers’ and soldiers’ representatives, together with some members of the Socialist and Men-slievik Parties, called on soldiers to obey its orders and to refuse obedience to officers who were loyal to the Czar., Czarist ministers were arrested and then the hitherto passive Duma created a Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov. The new government persuaded the Czar to abdicate and this was announced to the world on 2 March by the Foreign Minister Miliukov, together with Russia’s determination to go on fighting in the cause of democracy against the Central Powers. In France and Britain this first phase of the Revolution was warmly welcomed.
From February until October “bourgeois” governments tried to keep Russia in the war, to the strains of the “Marseillaise”; the Petrograd Soviet, a huge confused assembly, was at first also in favour of fighting the Germans but more concerned with getting bread and ensuring the end of privileges. The government lacked power, the Soviets at first lacked leadership; each was frightened of the other.
The Bolshevik and Menshevik intellectuals in the Petrograd Soviet themselves believed that a Socialist Revolution should first be preceded by a period of middle-class rule in which a modern state administration would be at least put into place, so that, when a Socialist Revolution came, it had instruments with which to master the country. All over Russia, in the country towns and villages as well as the large cities, the Czar’s abdication was followed by a period of confusion with new right-wing parties, such as the Cadets and groups of officers, hoping to be able to crush the urban Soviets. Kamenev and Stalin, experienced Bolshevik leaders, advised the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets not to take precipitate action against the Provisional Government.
In April, 1917, Lenin arrived back from Switzerland, having travelled by train through Germany, and immediately took over the leadership of the Bolsheviks. In one of his first speeches, in the luxurious house of a great ballerina and former mistress of the Czar, Lenin demanded the overthrow of capitalism as the only way to end the war. Many Socialists thought he was a German agent.
Lenin’s journey, it is now clear, was arranged by Swiss Socialists and he had made no promises to the Germans in return for being allowed to travel through Germany. He had merely, through the Swiss, stated that he would try to secure the release of some German civil prisoners. The German authorities had a closer view than the British of what was happening in Russia and thought that it was in their interest to increase the strength of the Soviets against the Provisional Government. It is doubtful if they appreciated the full importance of Lenin. Nevertheless, Lenin’s arrival via Germany excited the imagination of those who believed, as did Winston Churchill, that the Revolution was tragedy for Russia. He wrote many years later that:
“Upon the Western front the Germans had used the most terrible means of offence. They had employed poison gas on the largest scale and invented the Flammenwerfer. Nevertheless, it was with awe that they turned on Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus.”
Lenin urged that the Soviet should take power at all costs, and alone if necessary. From April to October there was growing clarity of purpose among the Bolsheviks’ fragment. Lenin began to attack the Mensheviks and moderate representatives in the Soviet together with those who had taken office with the Provisional Government; he also attacked the war which the government was still carrying on. Indeed, an offensive had been mounted on the South-western Front with, of course, pitiable results.
In July, after the suppression of popular demonstrations against the war, there took place in Petrograd and Moscow a shift to the Right. Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist with a gift of eloquence and confidence in himself, became head of the government and called a conference in Moscow which was attended by the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian armies, General Kornilov. Lenin was forced to fly to Finland; Trotsky, the military expert of the Bolsheviks, was imprisoned; the death penalty for military disobedience was reintroduced. But the facts of life were against the government, although in a dim, uncertain way the vast areas of Russia were more behind Kerensky than the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.
In September the Germans took Riga. Kornilov, who had already quarrelled with Kerensky, ordered two divisions of picked troops to advance on Petrograd and make an end not only of the Mensheviks but of the Provisional Government. Kerensky was powerless. The Petrograd Soviet was against him. The Bolsheviks persuaded Korni-lov’s troops not to march, saw that the railwaymen tore up the lines connecting the Front with Petrograd, and nipped the counterrevolution in the bud. Kerensky, now Commander-in-Chief of the armies as well, created a five-man Directorate. But his hour had long passed. Lenin was able to create an armed Insurrection which was led by Trotsky.
On the night of 24 October, Red Guards seized the railway stations, power stations, banks and government offices, and on the 25th the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government as of the Czarist regime. Kerensky fled in an American Embassy car to organize troops at the Front for the defence of the Provisional Government. The events leading to the abdication of the Czar had cost some 14,000 lives in Petrograd. The Proletarian Revolution of October was effected in a few hours and without bloodshed.
At the Congress of the Soviets, called on the evening of 25 October, the slogan was Peace, Land and Bread. Private enterprise of all kinds was abolished, including trade, and the property of the Church and of all capitalists was confiscated. Land was given to those who worked it. None of the representatives of the bourgeoisie figured in the Council of People’s Commissars which was set up. Power had passed from an autocracy supported by the Church to a small body of men who were the direct representatives of the proletariat. Lenin, speaking on that historic evening, was described by John Reed in his book Ten Days That Shook the World:
“A short stocky figure with a big head set down on his shoulders bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide generous mouth and heavy chin… dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history had been.”
The Bolshevik regime was at once threatened by wars. General Kornilov, after his failure to march on Petrograd, raised a force of Don Cossacks to fight the Bolsheviks. The Cossacks, joined by thousands of anti-Bolsheviks, penetrated deep into Russia under General Denikin, Kornilov having been killed in action. Denikin’s forces occupied the Ukraine, which the Germans had left in the power of anti-Bolshevik movements. In Northern Russia, General Yudenitch advanced on Petrograd in October, 1919, and, until the failure of his offensive, was helped by an Anglo-French force based on Murmansk. In Siberia, Admiral Kolchak with Japanese troops and a Czech Legion set up a White Government. All these revolts collapsed, partly on account of the Red Army commanded by Trotsky, but also because nowhere did they receive adequate support from the peasants, and there was no representative civil government behind them.
Strangely enough the last period of civil war was marked by uprisings against the Bolsheviks by the peasants, and by other forms of unrest. In May, 1917, it had been the town of Kronstadt, the naval base on the Baltic Sea, which had first declared that it only recognized the Soviets of Petrograd. Yet early in 1921 it was a mutiny of sailors against the Bolshevik Government which made Lenin decide that the Revolution in its present extreme Socialist form must be tempered by a retreat towards Capitalism.
Under N.E.P. (the New Economic Policy) ownership of land was restored to the peasants and the rights of small capitalist entrepreneurs and traders were once again recognized. The N.E.P. undoubtedly saved Russia from economic collapse. Lenin was at once an idealist and a supreme opportunist. He had believed it right to make a revolutionary seizure of power by the proletariat. He had done this because he thought that in spite of the backwardness of Russia, which made a successful Socialist revolution so hazardous, the workers of the world would also revolt against their governments and therefore a Russian People’s Republic would not be alone. This did not happen, and although the British Labour Movement was strong enough to prevent Allied intervention in Russia after 1920, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was long to remain a pariah among the nations of the world.
Lenin was a revolutionary who was capable of the most extreme and ruthless action; but he wanted a Russia, and a world, in which the State with its army, its police, its laws to protect property, would wither away and be replaced by a rational human society in which all men lived in harmony. He thought that once the Bolshevik Revolution had been successful this would be effected, thanks to the sympathy of the outside world. Without great oppression or bloodshed, the bourgeois, he thought, with their attachment to old ideas, could be liquidated gradually and peacefully.
The hostility of the outside world and the civil wars in Russia created a climate of oppression and hatred which brought Lenin’s dream to nothing. Bolshevism could only triumph with bloodstained hands. Already, by the end of the civil wars in 1922, the workers and peasants had been deprived of their liberty and the foundations laid for a new autocracy, that of a one-party State. Stalin, who tried to collectivize agriculture with the maximum speed and to make Russia an industrial power, ended by creating a tyranny as ruthless and far more efficient than that of the Czar.
Though the Russian Revolution ended by being the opposite of what its great founder Lenin had intended it to be, nevertheless the long developments which had made Western European industrial society were, in Russia, compressed into a few decades. Lenin had understood this in his celebrated phrase: “Communism is the power of the Soviets plus electrification.” The 1917 Revolution became the taking-off point for Russia’s advance to becoming one of the two great world powers.
In the Western world, the Socialist and progressive parties gradually began to see that the methods and aims of Communism were not theirs. But during the twenties and thirties, Communism, among all the nations of the West, exercised a disintegrating influence and accounted for some of the support of Italians and Germans for Mussolini and Hitler. The cause of the Spanish Republic became to a large extent that of Communism, and Franco owed, at many different periods, his successes to that fact. As a revolutionary force in the West, Communism had a renewed access of strength after the Second World War; but it has to-day died away as a revolutionary creed although large Communist parties still remain in France and Italy. In the Far East it is another matter and Red China, the world’s most populous country, has adopted Communism; while Russia is increasingly prepared for co-existence with the free world, China is urging world revolution on the proletariat of Asia and Africa.
As in Russia a primary role of Communism in China is the transformation of a backward people into a modern one; whether, slowly, the Chinese will return to the comity of nations, as the Russians seem to be doing, is still an open question. To find a means of creating understanding between Eastern Communists and the free world is one of the most important tasks of our time, and failure could bring civilization to ruin. So the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, although what it stands for has undergone so much fundamental change, is still a live factor today. It was certainly the most momentous single happening during the First World War and is an unmistakable landmark in world history.
- Read, Christopher: Revolutions (Russian Empire), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- Peeling, Siobhan: July Crisis 1917 (Russian Empire), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- The October Revolution Archive
- Let History Judge Russia’s Revolutions, commentary by Roy Medvedev, Project Syndicate, 2007
- October Revolution and Logic of History
- Maps of Europe and Russia at time of October Revolution at omniatlas.com
- How the Bolshevik party elite crushed the democratically elected workers and popular councils – soviets – and established totalitarian state capitalism.