The Russian Revolution of 1917 passed through two distinct iterations. The first was a precarious attempt at Social Democracy which was severely handicapped by the effort to keep Russia involved in World War I. Throughout this period, from March to November 1917, the Duma never achieved stable control. It faced constant challenge from the radical parties, but especially the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin.
In July an attempted coup by the Soviets[i], the chief rival organization to the Duma (Parliament), failed only when Lenin hesitated to give the final order to seize control of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). However, in November, with the Bolsheviks in control of the Soviets in all the major cities, the second revolution was planned and deliberate. Kerensky’s government collapsed as troops refused to take action to stop the overthrow.
The Bolshevik Revolution had a wider and more secure base than the abortive Social Democratic one. It had a national base in the soviet system, and it no longer needed the Duma or an appeal to democratic methods. But this did not assure its success. The rival factions dispersed as they came under oppressive and coercive and even violent attack. But the old order still had its supporters, especially in the provinces farther from the large urban centers of Russia proper.
By the spring of 1918, opposing forces were beginning to coalesce around leaders who were creating armed militias to combat Bolshevism and the radical agenda it had already begun to impose through nationalization of finances and key economic sectors, as well as land and corporate confiscations without compensation.
Most horribly, the deposed Tsar and his whole family and many of the old aristocracy were brutally murdered. There were stories of wide-spread atrocities being committed by Bolshevik groups acting out of pure revenge and hatred while using ideology as a shield for what really amounted to old-fashioned pillage and rapine. Trotsky, the main organizer of the Bolshevik forces being prepared for the civil war which was shaping up, either could not or would not restrain many of these “actions of pacification”, although, eventually, he began insisting that the newly forming “Red Army” adopt more regular military behaviours and discipline. A real and serious Civil War was obviously beginning, and foreign intervention by Russia’s former allies was on the horizon with Germany’s defeat approaching as 1918 wore on.
The Bolshevik Revolution was not secure until 1922. By that point, all the “White Russian” forces had been defeated and hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled to Europe. The foreign interventions had all failed for lack of support and focus, and their troops had been withdrawn from what was now styled “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (USSR). To achieve this union, sacrifices had had to be made. Poland had declared its independence as soon as German troops were withdrawn at the conclusion of the Great War. Finland had already done so, with German help, even earlier, and then Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia swiftly followed. Ukraine declared independence in 1919, but by 1921 the now victorious Red Army invaded and put an end to Ukraine’s first brief foray into independence.
The most “successful” foreign intervention had been that of the Japanese, based at Vladivostok. British Empire troops, including a Canadian contingent to which my grandfather was assigned, also participated. The Japanese marched far inland with the idea of hooking up with a White Russian force under Admiral Kolchak, but the White Russian opposition to Bolshevism collapsed. Japan seriously considered annexing the Eastern part of Siberia to its empire, but under vehement Allied opposition eventually withdrew in 1922.
Disunity, huge distances separating the various “White” forces, and lack of supplies and heavy weapons doomed the opposition to the Red Army, which had inherited the arsenal of the Russian Imperial Army. Trotsky also proved to be a formidable War Minister and controlled the Red Army with an iron fist.
The most serious challenge to the new Soviet State actually came from Poland. Extremely reluctant to let Poland go, Lenin refused to recognize its independence, for Poland was a major bridgehead into Europe to spread the new Communist Gospel. Germany seemed ripe for the picking in 1919, as the tremendous turmoil after the collapse of the Kaiser’s regime and the terrible shock of the loss of the war opened up the possibility of Communist Revolution in that nation as well as in the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For a brief moment, Berlin came under Communist control, but this was ruthlessly crushed by returning army commanders using “demobilized” troops who remained loyal to them. Hungary briefly fell under the sway of Bela Kun, a wannabe Lenin. That too ended by Rumanian army intervention and mob action in Budapest.
The newly independent Polish Republic’s response to the threat of the Red Army invading its territory was to take the offensive. Armed by France and with French officers acting as “advisers”, Poland’s new armies (many veterans of the Russian Imperial Army, and some even of the German and Austrian armies) gave Poland a large number of already trained troops. They invaded Belarus and Ukraine, pushing deep into Soviet territory. The Red Army soon recovered as it consolidated its control and pushed forward to the gates of Warsaw, but, contrary to all expectation, Marshal Pilsudksi’s Polish Army routed the Soviet forces and drove them far back. A peace-treaty followed in March 1921 recognizing Poland’s independence and ceding territory in what is now Belarus and western Ukraine to Poland.
When the Japanese withdrew their troops from Eastern Siberia, the Russian Civil War ended. Lenin lived another two years, and laid much of the groundwork for the brutal, tyrannical Soviet system that followed. His successor, Stalin, would “perfect” the whole monstrous regime that would, over the next almost 70 years, leave tens of millions of dead in its wake through deliberate starvation, work-them-to-death prison camps (really extermination camps without the gas chambers), genocide (the Crimean Tatars were victims of this, as were other smaller groups), and silent disappearance, which took hundreds of thousands.
To this day, admirers of Communism and defenders of what happened under the Soviet regime (which really had nothing to do with communist as Marx preached it, but was the main tool used by the Bolsheviks to gain and maintain their iron, inhuman grip) cite the “amazing achievements” of the Collectivization of agriculture which resulted in the deaths of 1-2 million “kulaks” (prosperous peasant farmers) and the collapse of Russian grain production for at least three years while the government continued exporting much of what was produced to fund the goverment’s programs – with famine and desperation even in the cities. Perhaps 5 million died of starvation – a truly remarkable achievement for one of the agriculturally most potentially productive regions on the planet!
The other area much admired at the time and since was the breakneck industrialization of the Soviet State, especially Russia, ruthlessly executed under Stalin’s succession of “Five-Year Plans”. Huge steps were taken in hydro-electric production and the construction and improvement of infrastructure, and heavy machinery and the production capacity made great strides. This helped prepare the Soviet Union to absorb the Nazi onslaught of 1941-3, and then drive deep into Europe in 1944-45. Often forgotten were the human costs to the long-suffering populace, and, during World War II, the enormous Western Allied support which did much to enable the Soviets to not just survive, but rebound.
One of the great questions debated to this day is whether Russia would have fared better under a continuation of the Tsarist regime, or perhaps under a Social Democratic successor regime had Kerensky and his like successively navigated the storm of 1918.
One can hardly imagine that either of those two alternatives could have been more monstrous than what ensued under Bolshevist-Communism.
What we are left with is having witnessed Russia suffering under worse tyranny than Tsarism ever devised or was capable of devising, given the influence in Old Russia, however marginal, of a form of Christian conscience and compassion that was woven into the system. The question we are still left with is whether Russia can live under anything but a form of autocratic, elitist regime. We have not yet seen it truly tried there. It was quickly quashed and rejected as unworkable in the two brief interregna when it seemed about to appear (1918, 1991-99). The Soviet system had its own definition of elitism and its own cadres of neo-aristocrats. Stalin was an absolute Tsar in all but name. Other Soviet leaders were Oligarchs who rose to the top. The present regime has come out of that, but has reverted to accepting money and privilege and all the perks of power in the old style.
[i] Soviet – an organized assembly of workers, labourers, ordinary people of various backgrounds claiming to represent their interests. Even military units formed such associations. This had begun in the 1905 quasi-revolution and was resurrected in early 1917. The Bolsheviks did not invent the soviets, but quickly saw them as a way to power without having to go through a democratic and election-based process. The soviets were also seen to be a short-cut or end-run around the standard Communist doctrine of passing through the phase of a bourgeois state in which the working class learned how to wage class-warfare against the capitalist overlords.
2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 28 – What Good Are Revolutions?, 3”
Russia’s history makes me very thankful to have been born in Canada!
Indeed! Our troubles have been comparatively minor.