Hist 100: Part 11

Russia, The West and Revolution

Professor Rex A. Wade

We do not belong to any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either.

Peter Chaadaev, 1836

The principles underlying Russian culture are totally different from the component elements of the culture of European [Western] peoples.

Ivan Kireevsky, 1852


As these quotations suggest, Russians have tended to see their society as something separate from, distinct from, the West.  Indeed, they have long debated their placement within the context of world civilizations, and their relationship with the West in particular.  At the same time, that relationship has produced a long history of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, upheavals that in turn have affected the Western world.  In this hour we will explore these two closely related themes, Russia and the West, and Russia in Revolution.  We first will look briefly at the nature of old Russian society and then examine Tsarist, or Imperial, Russia's relation to the West and the Russian response to Western influence, looking at the Russian experience as perhaps the first example of the response of a non-Western society to the Western impact.  The exact nature of this relationship has been complicated by the fact that Russians are a European people, geographically, ethnically, and linguistically, and that in modern times Russia has been a major force in European history.  Russia, then, can be seen as European, but not Western, a seeming paradox that we will explore.  The second major theme of this lecture, revolutionary upheaval in Russia, explores what is certainly one of the most important events of modern history, world as well as Russian: the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the larger revolutionary upheaval of which 1917 was the pivotal event.  It concludes with the continuation of the revolutionary upheaval into the Soviet era via the Stalin Revolution of the 1930s and the creation of the basic features of the Soviet Union, of what might be called the Soviet system.  Both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalin Revolution grew in part out of the intersection of Russian and Western history, became an important part of each, and were seen by many as fundamental challenges to the Western tradition.

Overview of Russian History

Russian history falls into perhaps five broad periods: 1) Kievan Rus, the 9th to early 13th centuries, 2) the Rise of Moscow, 14-16/17th centuries, 3) Imperial Russia, 18-19th centuries, 4) The revolutionary and Soviet era, encompassing most of the 20th century, and 5) the current Post-Soviet era dating from only 1991.   It is the 18th and the early 20th centuries that will be the focus of our attention today, but we need to preface that with a look at the pre-Imperial period, tracing especially the development of the basics of Russian society and politics.

Kievan Rus

A state in modern terms, what is usually called Kievan Rus, comes into existence in the late 9th century, and was the ancestral state not only of the Russians, but of the Ukrainians and Belorussians, and all lay claim to its cultural heritage. It was centered on the Dnieper River system, which was the core of a great trade system linking Constantinople and the Mediterranean world with the northern Baltic Sea world, via a great network of rivers that flow through what is today Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.   By that time this area was densely settled by  East Slavic tribes. Slavic is one of the major Indo-European language families, East Slavic is one of the three Slavic language sub-groups (East, West and South Slavic), and it in turn divides into the three modern East Slavic language/culture groups, the Russian, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. Into this world came the great Nordic explosion we know as the Vikings, and Russians call the Varangians.  Whereas the Vikings helped destroy some of the states of medieval Western Europe,  in the east Varangian (Viking) adventurers forged Slavic tribes into the first state, Kievan Rus, before themselves disappearing into the general Slavic population. 

During the Kievan era enduring cultural patterns took form, based on a blending of old Slavic cultural practices and newly adopted Christianity (988).  The latter had a powerful impact on the society.  With it came the written language and a whole framework of social, cultural, ethical and other beliefs and practices.  Particularly important, for our purposes, is that the conversion came via missionaries from Constantinople, the eastern, or Greek, half of the old Roman Empire, which still survived in the form of the Byzantine Empire, as Professor Butler discussed in an earlier lecture.  In contrast, the rest of Europe, excepting small areas in southeastern Europe nearest Constantinople, received Christianity via Rome and the Latin tradition.  Thus, paradoxically, the conversion to Christianity both brought the Rus more closely into the European world (with which they had trade and other contact), and also separated them, for Christendom was on the eve of the great division into the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches, at a time when religion was central to people's identity.  For the people who later will become the Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, Orthodox Christianity became a central element in their identity, and of their sense of differentness from the West, which was Latin and Catholic (later Protestant and Catholic).  Moreover, the Byzantine and Orthodox tradition produced a very different intellectual and cultural package in Russia than did the Roman and Latin tradition in the West.  For example, whereas the Latin tradition produced a major intellectual and philosophical flowering in Western Europe, as described in the lectures on the Middle Ages and Renaissance by Professors Miller and ffolliott, the conversion in Russia did not.  The major philosophic traditions that developed in the West of the middle ages and early modern eras did not have their counterpart in the East Slavic lands.  What did occur was a major artistic flowering that produced the distinctive church architecture and religious painting of the region.  The cultural response to Christianity produced different results in east and west Europe, and this was an important step in the development of different cultures, which differences will grow, as we will see.

Kievan Rus collapsed in the 13th century with the Mongol invasion from Asia.   After a short period of chaos, most of the western regions of Kievan Rus came under the political domination of Poland-Lithuania, while the eastern parts, broken up into a large number of small principalities,  remained under Mongol overlordship.  This set the stage for the rise of Moscow.

Rise of Moscow

The period of the rise of Moscow, during the 14th-16th centuries, is central to the differentiation of Russia from the West.  After the Mongol conquest, the eastern part of the old Kievan state, the area that would become Russia, was broken up into a large number of small principalities, ruled by their own princes but under the overlordship of the Mongol ruler.  Trade shrank and contact with either the Mediterranean and West European worlds shriveled to insignificance.  Instead, the political, economic, and to an extent cultural, orientation was eastward, to the steppe and warfare there, among themselves and against the Mongols.  In this context the Russian state and people took form.

Moscow originally was a minor principality about the size of Northern Virginia, one of numerous Russian principalities subordinate to the Mongols.  These principalities engaged in constant struggle for territory and influence.  In this process, the princes of Moscow proved especially successful.  By the beginning of the 15th century Moscow had absorbed many of its rivals and emerged as the most powerful of the Russian principalities, and a contender for domination of the East European Plain.

The rise of Moscow was accompanied by brutal warfare and the development of political autocracy.  The prince of Moscow held much more authority than kings in Western Europe.  One important difference was the absence of Western feudalism, which politically comprised a complex system of mutual rights and obligations between lord and vassal; in Muscovite Russia the prince was much more powerful and even the greatest noble had less independent authority.  Moreover, in Muscovy there was a strong emphasis upon the service obligations of the nobles, and of other members of society.  It evolved as a society which stressed the service obligations of the individual to the state, while the sense of individual rights or protections were poorly developed.  Similarly, the concept of rule of law was mostly absent, at least in the Western sense; law was the ruler's decree, softened by the practicality of traditional practice.  There could be no Russian equivalent of the English barons forcing King John to recognize their inherent rights, nor was there the legacy of Roman law, nor a notion of natural law that could be used to develop ideas of inidivual or group rights.  What emerged was a political culture emphasizing autocracy, central authority, the interests of the state,  the organization of the state for continual warfare, both defensive and of conquest, and the obligation of the population to serve the state. 

By the end of the 16th century, a powerful, vigorous, self-confident state had emerged. Moreover, it had grown enormously. Moscow had incorporated all of the ethnically Russian lands, was expanding east across the Volga River and then across Siberia, and pressuring Poland and other states to the West on the eve of beginning its expansion westward into non-Russian lands.   It is at this time that we abandon the terms Muscovy and Principality of Moscow,  and begin to use the term Russia, following the usage of the princes of Moscow, who now became the Atsars of all the Russias The first of whom to be so crowned was Ivan IV, Ivan the Terrible, pictured here.

We might make two asides here.  First, given the territorial expansion we have seen, and which continues after this period, the popular myth in modern times of an invaded Russia rather misses reality, and history in this respect is much more complex, and in fact Russia has invaded outward more successfully than it has been invaded--not by accident did it evolve from a small principality the size of Northern Virginia to a state encompassing 1\6th of the land mass of the earth!

Here we might also mention, as another aside, that it was during these same centuries as the rise of Moscow, 13th-16th, that the East Slavic peoples of the old Kievan Rus area evolved and divided culturally, because of local circumstances and differing external influences, into the three closely related modern peoples:   Russians (Great Russians), Ukrainians, (Little Russians), and Belorussians.

 Russia and the West

The Rise of Moscow and its domination of the East European plain led it into renewed, expanded contact with Western and Central Europe, with major implications for both Russian and the West.

During the period of the rise of Moscow, Western and central Europe followed a very different path than the Russian eastern edge of Europe.  There already were significant differences, as we have noted, but during the 14-17th centuries these differences became enormous.  During these centuries, as you have seen in earlier lectures,  Western Europe was transformed, experiencing the great events that to a significant degree define Western Civilization.  There were many elements of this: the Renaissance, with its enormous intellectual and cultural transformation, including secularism, humanism, and its immense creative vitality;  the commercial revolution and growth of cities; the Reformation; the Scientific Revolution, which changed the way we think about the natural world and our place in it; the voyages of exploration and discovery, which changed the Western world in so many ways; the challenges to traditional monarchy and the flourishing political thought; new directions in art and literature growing out of the Renaissance.  One could go on listing the changes.  Russia did not participate in these events, events that transformed and to some degree made the West.  These events, discussed more extensively by professors Miller, ffolliott, Holt, and Censer, happened entirely outside the Russian experience.  Instead, Russia was struggling with the Mongol overlordship, developing the autocratic political system and a service oriented, militarily mobilized society.  There was no intellectual and cultural transformations equivalent to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, or a body of political philosophy that might limit the power of rulers or emphasize the rule of law and individual rights.  By the time extensive contact is reestablished in the 17th century, they each, Russia and the West, felt that they were indeed different civilizations, and both sensed their differentness.  If Russia did not appear to Western explorers and merchant-adventurers as exotically different as India or China, it was nearly so.  The eighteenth century Enlightenment that professor Censer discussed and the rise of representative political assemblies and democratic thought in may ways broadened the differences, even after Russia reestablished extensive contact and began efforts at Westernization.

The renewed Western contact, therefore, had a dramatic impact on Russia, which in some ways becomes the first non-Western country to struggle with how to react to the many Western influences that have flooded the world in the modern era, and how to respond to the obvious military and technical superiority of the West (which had undergone a tremendous revolution in military technology and methods among other changes).  The result, once direct conflict came, was crushing military defeat, and following that, self-doubt and then the beginnings of borrowing from the West.

The 17th century represented something of a transitional period.  Western contact increased dramatically (not least of the reasons being that by the 16th century expansionist Moscow had conquered all the Russian states to the west and now abutted non-Russian states of north and central Europe).  During this period both military technology and Western culture begin to seep in, affecting primarily the aristocracy, some of whose leading members were strongly attracted to Western culture.  At the same time, Russia retained a strong sense of its own cultural identity and itself as a powerful state, and there were determined efforts by church and state to limit the extent of Western influence.  Westerners in Moscow, for example, were required to reside in a special German quarter, so as to limit contact with Russians.

This period of ambivalence came to an abrupt end with the reign of Peter I, Peter the Great, 1682-1725.   Peter made Westernization state policy, and equated it with modernization.  His legacy in this respect lasts to the present, as Westernization and relations with the West quickly became central issues of Russian history, and continues today.

Peter, as a child, had an usually extensive contact with the Western community in Moscow, and was fascinated by them, a fascination with the West that was to last his lifetime and which an 18 month grand tour of Europe early in his reign strengthened.  It was solidified by military need.  Peter, as some earlier Russian tsars, undertook to conquer a foothold on the Baltic Sea.  He was soundly defeated by a much smaller Swedish army (40,000 x 8,000).  This convinced Peter that if Russia was to become a great European power, and to continue her territorial expansion westward, then both the military and the society had to be reconstructed along Western lines.  Peter's great insight was that Western power did not rest merely on military technologies that could be purchased and copied, but on a much broader social and cultural foundation.  Russia must become modern, and thus Western; Peter made Westernization state policy, and firmly equated modernization with Westernization.

Peter now undertook a vigorous Westernization policy.   He ordered the nobility and then all townsmen to discard the traditional Russian clothing, such as shown by this nobleman on the left, and to dress in Western clothing, i.e., the knee britches and short jackets one identifies with George Washington and our founding forefathers, such as is shown on the right.   He ordered them to shave their beards, an act which had strong cultural symbolism, for the Orthodox Church equated the beard with the saints and Russianness.  Peter even personally shaved the beards of reluctant noblemen, an event caught in this woodblock print. He ordered the end to the virtual seclusion of upper class women that had been a fundamental part of traditional Russian culture, insisting that they now mingle with men at Western style evening parties, wearing Western style dresses.  His reorganization of the army along modern lines required literacy and a different kind of service.  Service to the state was still required, but now young noblemen were forced to attend school, including the study of mathematics (essential for the new military system).  Many were sent to study abroad, where they were exposed to a wide range of social, cultural and political ideas far removed from their specific studies.  Peter also introduced the first Russian newspaper, and simplified the alphabet (to facilitate literacy).  The government was reorganized, drawing on Western models of administration.  To symbolize the new Western orientation, Peter founded a new capital, St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, intended to be a thoroughly Western city in appearance, as this picture of Peter building the city suggests. The list of actions, large and small, goes on and on. Peter undertook to transform the country, both because he admired the Western way of doing things and because of his military needs.  At the same time he thrust Russia into European affairs in an unprecedented way--ever since Russia has been one of the European great powers.  He and his successors also continued Russian territorial expansion westward conquering all of Ukraine and the Baltic region in the course of the 18th century. Expansion continued in the 19th century, including the annexation of Poland and Finland after the Napoleonic Wars, as well as expansion into Central Asia, the Caucasus Mountains (from which came the historic and current conflict in Chechnia), and elsewhere.

Historians have debated the extent to which Westernization was happening and would have happened to some degree irregardless of Peter, or to what extent it was his doing.  What is clear, certainly, is that Peter stirred the country up, shook it from old ways that it could never return to, and he made Westernization state policy.  Westernization in all respects, that is, except politics and the relationship between state and subjects.  The state remained an autocracy.  The subjects, even the greatest nobles, were still bound to state service in return for their estates, privileges and social standing, while notions of rule of law and individual rights remained slight..

After Peter, the process of the Westernization of the upper classes continued.  During the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the upper class not only adopted Western clothes, but Western learning and ideas. The new capital, St. Petersburg, was built in the neo-classical style of 18th and early 19th century Europe, not in Russian traditional styles. The contrast is clear in these two churches, Moscow on the left and St. Petersburg on the right, with the typical domes of the one and the typical classical style of the other.   Palaces and public buildings were now in the Western style, such as this Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.   The vast peasantry, however, was largely unaffected by this, remaining traditional in its culture and dress (and beards).  Russian society thus was divided not merely by wealth and privilege, as it had been and other European societies were, but also by culture, a gap between westernized elites and traditional masses that itself became a source of worry among thoughtful Russians.  

{Another aside: names and capitals become a bit confusing from Peter the Great onwards, so to help we might pause to look at this guide. The Russian capital was moved from Moscow to the new city of St. Petersburg in the early eighteenth century; and then back to Moscow in 1918.  St. Petersburg saw name changes, being renamed Petrograd in 1914, then Leningrad in 1924, and after 1991 reverting to the original name, St. Petersburg. Thus the name you see in books for Peter's western city depends on the period.}

Toward the middle of the 19th century some educated Russians began to be concerned about and to debate the implications of Russia's partial westernization, and quickly divided into two schools of thought that have lasted down to today, Westernizers and Slavophiles.   One, the Westernizers, argued that there was a unity of human civilization and that at a given moment one area took leadership and showed the rest of the world its future.  At that time, they argued, the West exercised such leadership.  Prudent state policy, and individual action, therefore, was to facilitate the process of Westernization.  In contrast, the Slavophiles (admirers of the Slavs) rejected the notion of such a unity of civilization and instead stressed that each major culture must build its future on its own past institutions, and rejected Westernization. Their problem was how to show that traditional Russian culture could produce anything but the same relative backwardness (as Russians themselves put it) that it had produced in the past.  Within each of these two broad schools of thought, Westernizers and Slavophiles, a wide variety of political and social thought, from conservative to liberal to radical, was possible. What they represented were two basic ways to look at and debate Russia=s place in the world, and especially its relationship to the West, and as such they have continued to divide the society and to inform debate about Russia=s future, down to the present.  What kind of society should we have: more Western, with close ties to the West, or more uniquely Russian and perhaps even anti-Western?

Despite the Slavophiles' criticism, by the mid-19th century educated Russians were strongly influenced by the West, especially the ideas of the Enlightenment, that great 18th century cultural flowering that expanded the ideas of limited, constitutional government and the rights of man that so influenced our own founding fathers, which Professor Censer discussed.  Inspired by these ideas, resenting their own lack of rights and freedoms, revulsed by the continuing poverty of the Russian peasantry, and humiliated by their society's backwardness, which they blamed on the increasingly conservative Russian government and the autocratic political system, many turned to ideas of reform, or even revolution.  Reform failed, and revolution came in the early 20th century.  It is to that subject, the Russian Revolution, that we now turn.

The Coming of the Russian Revolution

Revolution, as we said at the beginning of the lecture, is our second major theme. We turn now to that, although the theme of Russia's relation to the West continues.  Indeed, if one was to ask, why was Russia revolutionary at the opening of the 20th century, the answer would lie in the coming together of specific Russian sources of discontent, Western ideas about political freedoms and the rights of man, and a revolutionary movement committed to the transformation of Russia that drew inspiration in significant part from the West. 

Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century found itself in a peculiar situation.  Although one of the great powers, it lagged behind in many of the key elements of modern power, such as industrialization, while large segments of its population were impoverished and extremely discontented.  Russia was one of the poorest countries in Europe on a per capita basis.  Russia also was a diverse multinational empire, not a modern nation-state. Sprawling across Europe and Asia, from Poland in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, it contained over 100 different ethnicities, including about twenty major nationalities.  Russians made up less than half of the population.  East Slavs, (Russians along with the closely related Ukrainians and Belorussians) composed about two-thirds of the total population.  A wide variety of peoples made up the other third.

Political discontent was widespread, especially among educated Russians, who resented a political system that denied them civil and political rights.  Russia was the last major power of Europe in which the monarch was an autocrat, unlimited by laws or institutions.  Censorship restricted open political discourse, forcing most of it into illegal, often revolutionary, channels.  Rather than create a more modern political system in which the populace became citizens instead of subjects, with at least a modest stake in political life and the future of the state, Emperor Nicholas II clung to an outdated autocratic view of God-given ruler and loyal subjects.  His wife, the Empress Alexandra, constantly encouraged him to defend his autocratic authority, but not even Alexandra's constant urging could make Nicholas an effective ruler.  Mild-mannered, of limited ability, but stubbornly committed to maintaining his autocratic rights, he led Russia into two unsuccessful wars and two revolutions in just over two decades of rule.  Although personally kind and a loving father and husband, he became known to his subjects as Nicholas the Bloody.

The society over which Nicholas ruled was changing, putting enormous strains on the population and making continuation of the old political system doubtful.  Recognizing that industrialization was essential if Russia was to retain its great power status in a world where industrial might and military power were increasingly linked, the government undertook to spur industrial development.  As a result, Russia entered the industrial age in the late 19th century.  Industrialization in turn sparked a social transformation with enormous political implications.  It created a new, deeply discontented, industrial working class of enormous revolutionary potential.  The factories demanded long hours at low pay, amid unsafe conditions, a harsh and degrading system of industrial discipline, and a total absence of employment security or care if ill or injured.   Families often shared single rooms with other families or single workers.  Some workers shared bunks in barracks in the ever warm bed system--one bunk for two workers, one using it, the other working, each in 12 hour shifts.  Moreover, the government blocked efforts of workers to organize to improve their lot, thereby stimulating a belief that improvement in their economic condition required a change of political regimes.  This paved the way for their attraction to the revolutionary movements.

The social and economic changes in Russia also produced a new educated middle class of professionals and industrial managers--doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, and other white collar professionals and employees.  Along with some of the old nobility, they made up an educated society that provided the basis for a liberal political movement focused on changing the political system through reform, aiming at some form of constitutional, parliamentary, government.

At the same time, old grievances continued to stir the countryside.  The peasantry, only recently released from the bondage of serfdom, continued to resent their impoverished conditon and looked to appropriate the estates of noble landowners.  They too were attracted to revolutionary parties.

Russia at the opening of the twentieth century was changing fast, witnessing a rapid expansion of education and literacy, new directions in art and literature, the emergence of a feminist movement, nationalist stirrings among some of the half of the population who were not Russians, a broader contact with the Western world, and many other changes. In this changing world, symbolized by this photo of the main street of St. Petersburg, the capital, on the eve of World War I, the old political structure seemed increasingly out of tune and, more important, unable to deal effectively with the needs and problems of society.

Not surprisingly, numerous political movements came forward to give expression to these discontents and to offer alternative political and social visions and leadership.  Because of the autocracy, these movements were mostly illegal and revolutionary before 1905.  Nonetheless, by 1905 three major political movements had emerged which will play key roles in the Russian Revolution:  the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), the Social Democrats (SDs), soon to divide into the Bolshevik and Menshevik Parties, and the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets).

The first two of these were revolutionary socialist movements, dedicated to a violent overthrow of the monarchy and a sweeping social revolution.  The earliest movement focused on the peasantry and on an agrarian revolution that would expropriate landowners and divide the land among the peasants-- Land and Liberty became their slogan.  They fit into the Slavophile tradition, looking to Russia's own peasant world and traditional values for inspiration.  By the beginning of the 20th century this movement produced one of the main revolutionary parties, the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs.   Soon dubbed the peasant's party, they became the largest party in Russia in 1917.

Other Russian radicals turned toward Marxism, by then the dominant revolutionary philosophy in Europe.  They saw industrialization as taking Russia down the same path as Western Europe and focused their attention on the new industrial working class as the vehicle for revolution.  This led in 1903 to the formation of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, or SDs, which immediately split.  The key role in the split was played by Vladimir Ulianov, soon to be known to the world by his revolutionary name, Lenin.   In 1902 he published  What Is to Be Done?, outlining  the fundamentals of his political ideas for organizing a revolutionary party (and, by extension, of the Soviet state that followed).  It became one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.   In it, Lenin argued that a successful revolution required a small party of professional revolutionaries from the intelligentsia that would provide leadership for the revolution in the name of the people.  This would be a disciplined, tightly organized cadre of revolutionaries, united by theory and subordinated to central leadership.  After 1903 Lenin formed the Bolshevik party in the image of his ideas (the party name was changed to Communist Party in March 1918).  His Social Democratic opponents from the 1903 split coalesced as the Mensheviks, a somewhat more moderate but still revolutionary party that placed less emphasis on leadership and more on worker participation and democracy.

Along with the revolutionary movements a significant liberal political movement also emerged, influenced by Western liberalism and focused on achieving constitutional and representative government, rule of law, civil rights, and improved conditions for the masses of the population, It found its primary expression in the Constitutional Democratic Party, or Kadets.

By the first years of the 20th century, then, popular discontent was widespread, and revolutionary and reformist parties had emerged (although illegal).  They faced a ruler and government determined to preserve the autocratic principle.

In 1905 popular discontents, fueled by the unpopular and unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, exploded into revolution, what came to be called the Revolution of 1905.  It began when police and tsarist troops in St. Petersburg fired upon unarmed working-class demonstrators attempting to petition Nicholas II for redress of grievances.  Hundreds of men, women, and children were killed.  Bloody Sunday ignited riots and demonstrations across Russia that the government could not contain as virtually all sectors of society turned against it. The year 1905 unfolded as a series of uncoordinated, overlapping revolutions by the peasantry, industrial workers, educated society and the middle classes, and even mutinies in the army.  Finally, at the urging of advisors, Nicholas issued the October Manifesto promising expanded civil rights and an elected legislature, called the Duma, and the revolution subsided.

The Revolution of 1905 left the political situation unsettled.  The creation of the Duma opened the possibility of starting Russia down the road toward constitutional, parliamentary, even democratic, government.  The Duma, under the leadership of the liberals, attempted to broaden the democratic features of the new system, to make it more responsive to popular will and to further reduce Nicholas' authority.  Nicholas and his advisors successfully defeated these efforts,  as suggested in this cartoon of the constitution as a house of cards.  While these maneuvers to retain most of his own autocratic power succeeded in the short run, they also dramatically increased the likelihood of a new revolution, for the ultra-conservative, semi-autocratic system he fashioned was unlikely to resolve the deep-seated roots of popular discontent

It was against this background that Russia entered World War I, which erupted across Europe in 1914 (for which Russia bore a significant share of the blame).  The war put enormous strains upon Russian society and government, and profoundly influenced the coming of the revolution of 1917, its outcome, and the regime that followed.  Russia was poorly prepared for the war and suffered massive losses.  Nearly 15,000,000 men were called to active service during the war, and by the end of 1916 five million were casualties or prisoners.  Public opinion turned against the regime, which was seen as having mismanaged the war and as responsible for the terrible losses. The war, moreover, led to serious economic dislocations and worsened the situation of the lower classes, among whom anti-war and anti-regime sentiment grew ever stronger.  The army, comprised mostly of peasants, was demoralized as a result of the heavy losses and the sense of futility.  The educated classes mostly remained supportive of the war itself, but increasingly critical of the government.  By the opening of 1917, the forced removal of Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, whose interference was widely seen as a major cause of mismanagement and incompetence in the government, was broadly discussed.

By 1917, the conditions for revolution were present: incompetent government, a discredited and obstinate monarch, alienation of educated society, deteriorating economic conditions, a revival of social-economic tensions, an extreme war-weariness, resentful soldiers, and a revival of activity by revolutionary parties.  The sense that something had to break soon was widespread.  Meanwhile, Nicholas, on whom any attempt to head off revolution through political reform depended, waved away all warnings of approaching disaster. On February 24, 1917, even as revolution was beginning in the capital, he wrote from front military headquarters to his wife: "My brain is resting here--no ministers, no troublesome questions demanding thought."

1917: The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution, stretching across the year 1917, includes two major revolutions within itself.  It starts with the February Revolution, which overthrew the imperial regime.  Then later in the year the Provisional Government formed from the February Revolution was itself overthrown in the October Revolution, bringing the Bolsheviks to power.  Because of the importance of the Russian Revolution as one of the key events of the 20th century, and also confusion surrounding its history, we will look at it in somewhat closer detail.

{At this point perhaps we should explain something about the Russian calendar and resulting confusion of terminology. In 1917 the Russian calendar, the Julian Calendar, was 13 days behind the Western, or Gregorian, calendar, adopted in Western Europe after the Renaissance.  Therefore, the February Revolution ( Russian calendar), occurred in March by the Western Calendar.  Similarly, the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power took place in November, Western calendar.  Thus you will see the same two events referred to as either the February Revolution or March Revolution, and the October Revolution or November Revolution, in different books.  The Bolshevik government brought the Russian calendar into line with the general European calendar in February 1918, and so this dating problem disappeared}.   

The February Revolution (we will use the Russian dating) developed out of a wave of industrial strikes in Petrograd in January and February 1917.  It gathered force when, on February 23, Women's Day, women workers at a few factories, angered by the food shortages on top of their already difficult economic situation, as well as by general discontents over issues such as the war, marched out from their factories demanding bread.  The next two days more and more factories joined the demonstrations, which grew to include most of the industrial work force.  By the 25th they were joined by students and broad sections of the urban lower and middle classes, as virtually the entire population of Petrograd joined the anti-government demonstrations.  Soldiers called out to help break up demonstrations acted with reluctance.  When the government on February 26 ordered troops to fire into the crowds, this strained the fragile bonds of discipline among the soldiers, who were mostly recent draftees and who shared the same grievances as the demonstrators.  Dismayed by the previous day's shooting, army troops rebelled on the morning of February 27.  By midday the government lost control of the means of armed coercion in the capital and collapsed, as armed workers, students and rebellious soldiers took control of the streets, while joyous crowds celebrated the overthrow of the autocracy and burned tsarist symbols, as in this photo.

To this point the revolution had been mainly a popular revolt, with little leadership. What there was came from lower-level activists at the factory level and from isolated individuals who emerged as street orators and organizers of factory demonstrations.  The revolutionary parties, whose main leaders were in exile, played little leadership role during the February demonstrations.  Now, however, leadership was necessary to consolidate the revolution that had taken place in the streets.  Two groups stepped forward to play this role.  One was a group of Duma leaders, mainly liberals, who had helplessly watched the events of the preceding days.  Finally, on the evening of the 27th, they stepped forward and announced that they were taking over governmental responsibility in Petrograd.  They hoped to limit revolution and focus on liberal political reform.  At the same time a multi-party group of socialist intellectuals led workers and soldiers in the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies (soviet = council).  This was a more avowedly revolutionary body, committed to making the street revolt into a sweeping social and economic as well as political revolution.   The Duma leaders and the Petrograd Soviet leaders immediately began to cooperate to consolidate the February Revolution and form a new government.  On March 2, they announced formation of a Provisional Government that would govern Russia until a new governmental system could be created by a Constituent Assembly, which was to be elected by universal franchise.   The same day Nicholas II gave way to reality and abdicated.

The new government was drawn primarily from the liberal political leadership of the country.   Its head, Minister-President, was Prince Lvov, a well known liberal. The Petrograd Soviet leaders--who were mostly moderate socialists--promised to support the new government in so far as it pursued policies of which they approved.  The new political structure, however, was very unstable.  The continued existence of the Petrograd Soviet alongside the Provisional Government robbed the latter of much of its actual authority, giving rise to what quickly was dubbed dual-authority.  In this the government had the generally recognized official authority and responsibility, but not the effective power, while the Soviet had the actual power but not responsibility for governing.  This was because the Soviet commanded the primary loyalty of the industrial workers and garrison soldiers, the main bases of power in Petrograd, and could call on this support in a conflict with the government. This imbalance of political power created a basic instability.  In an attempt to solve it, the moderate socialists of the Petrograd Soviet joined the government in May, and a coalition of liberals and moderate socialists led the Provisional Government until it was overthrown in October.  Moreover, a similar situation developed in the cities across the country.  News of the revolution in Petrograd sparked mostly peaceful revolutions in the cities and towns of Russia, and local politics were transformed along the lines of what had happened in Petrograd

The new political structure rested on a fundamental political realignment that took place immediately after the February Revolution,  producing three major political blocs that cut across party lines.  On the right were the various non-socialist groups, led by the main liberal party, the Kadets (the traditional conservative parties were swept away by the revolution).  On the left, the socialist parties coalesced into two broad blocs of moderate socialists and radical left socialists.  Although the Provisional Government formed on March 2 seemed to represent the triumph of liberal, reform-oriented Russia over autocratic Russia, public opinion soon revealed that it was the revolutionary socialist parties that had real popular support.  Therefore the political future of the revolution hinged on the outcome of struggles for influence among the socialist parties and within the Soviet, and especially between the two socialist blocs, the moderates and the radicals.  Two political leaders returning from exile with fundamentally different programs of revolutionary action, Irakli Tsereteli and Vladimir Lenin, drove the realignment among socialists and the evolution of Soviet policies.

Tsereteli, Menshevik, returned from Siberian exile on March 20 and headed a group that forged the Menshevik-SR led bloc of moderate socialists under the banner of "Revolutionary Defensism."  This bloc dominated the Petrograd Soviet until September and most provincial soviets until then or later. The key to the Revolutionary Defensist bloc's identity and success was a program to end the war by negotiations rather than fighting on to victory.  This had great appeal in March and April, but continued popular support rested on successfully ending the war as well as solving other problems.  This proved difficult.

The radical left was ill-defined, disorganized, and lacking strong leadership until the return of major political leaders, mostly from abroad.  These included Vladimir Lenin of the Bolsheviks as well as some prominent Mensheviks and SRs, who quickly formed left wings of those parties in opposition to the more moderate right and center wings.   Lenin in particular galvanized the radical left.  On his return to Russia (from exile in Switzerland) on April 3, he delivered the speech that became the April Theses, one of the most important documents of the revolution.  In it he denounced all cooperation with the Provisional Government or even with the moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet, and called for rapid movement toward a radical revolution.  Led by the Bolsheviks, the radicals pressed for more rapid and more sweeping social and economic revolution, demanded more vigorous efforts to end the war, criticized the policies of the coalition government and Soviet leadership, and called for the Provisional Government's replacement by a socialist government based on the soviets.  The Bolsheviks were the most strident, but the left SRs, left Mensheviks, anarchists, and others were a key part of the radical left bloc. Initially the radical left's extremism was out of keeping with the mood of optimism following the fall of the autocracy.  However, their opposition stance positioned these radical parties and groups to become the beneficiary of any failures of the government and moderate socialist leadership to solve the many problems facing the country and to satisfy popular aspirations.

The role of popular aspirations is extremely important to understanding the history of the revolution.  After the February Revolution removed press censorship and other controls, the population put forth a wide range of demands, expressing what they expected from the revolution.   The industrial workers, here shown demonstrating, who had begun the revolution, demanded increased wages, an eight-hour day, better working conditions, dignity as individuals, an end to the war, and other aspirations. Soldiers demanded and implemented fundamental changes in the conditions of military service, and then became the most vocal opponents of continuing the war.  Women demanded the right to vote and better access to education and jobs.   Peasants demanded land distribution. National minorities, as in this group of Estonian soldiers, demanded expanded use of their language, respect for cultural practices, and political autonomy within a federal state, as the full force of modern nationalism was now unleashed inside Russia for the first time.  Hundreds of groups--youth groups calling for equitable wages and better educational opportunities, soldiers' wives demanding an increase in their stipends, wounded soldiers, medical workers, religious minorities, others--expected the government to address their needs, and organized to advance their interests.  Russia became a vast meeting house filled with thousands of committees, associations, clubs, councils, and other organizations, all advancing  the aspirations and needs of their members in the newly free atmosphere of revolutionary Russia.  The workers' Factory Committees and the soldiers' army committees became especially important, influencing the later development of the revolution.  The nature of the February Revolution as a popular uprising unleashed a great wave of popular self-assertiveness that profoundly affected the later course of the revolution.  Indeed, the often conflicting aspirations quickly led to political, social, and economic conflict, as workers confronted management, soldiers challenged the authority of officers, peasants began to encroach on landlords' property, to name only the most significant of the many conflicts.  All groups turned to the government for support, and most were disappointed.

The new Revolutionary Defensist (moderate socialists) and liberal political coalition that controlled the Provisional Government found it impossible to meet the many aspirations of the population, and the general optimism of spring gave way to a summer of discontents.  First and especially pressing, the coalition not only failed to find a way to end the war, as public opinion overwhelming demanded, but decided to launch a military offensive in June.  Unpopular from the beginning, the offensive soon turned into a devastating defeat. By midsummer the economy began to crumble, marked by shortages of food, consumer goods, and industrial raw materials, as well as breakdown of the transportation system, which exacerbated social tensions.  Unfulfilled aspirations, opposition to the war, worsening economic conditions, and a foreboding sense of pending social conflict amplified the demand for "All Power to the Soviets, especially among the urban workers and garrison soldiers. On the surface this slogan meant simply that an all-socialist government based on the Petrograd Soviet or Congress of Soviets should replace the Provisional Government.  Beyond that, it contained an underlying demand for a government that unequivocally advanced the interests of the worker, peasant, and soldier masses against the upper and middle classes that in the terminology of the time was lumped together as the bourgeoisie, a government that would rapidly carry out radical social and economic reforms and end the war.  These yearnings came together in the simple slogan of "All Power to the Soviets.  Whether such a soviet-based government, especially a multi-party one, could in fact solve the country's problems and fulfill aspirations is problematic, but irrelevant to the point that millions did believe it in 1917.  The concept of Soviet Power, and its growing popularity is, without doubt, one of the most important features of the revolution.  Without grasping that, the true nature of the events of the summer and fall of 1917, especially the October, or Bolshevik, Revolution, are not understandable (and have to be explained in some strange way, such as the emphasis on Bolshevik manipulation of inert masses or a coup d'etat, as has so often been the case by writers on all parts of the political spectrum).

The demand for Soviet power and the underlying frustrations of the workers and soldiers led first to massive anti-government demonstrations in June, and then burst loose with the tumultuous disorders usually called the "July Days," in which enormous crowds of workers and soldiers paraded through the city and besieged the Petrograd Soviet headquarters, where they demanded that the Soviet take power. The Soviet's leaders, who were Revolutionary Defensist, i.e., moderate Mensheviks and SRs, refused.  The demonstrations failed, although there was widespread violence, even shooting,   as shown in this dramatic picture of a major Petrograd intersection, and fear of civil war. The July Days, however, were a genuine outburst of popular anger and a demand for a radical reconstruction of the government as a socialist government that excluded the liberals, and with them the middle classes.  As a result, although on the surface there was what contemporaries considered a conservative reaction, beneath the surface a steady radicalization of the population and growth of the demand for soviet power continued.  The radical left bloc captured one worker or soldier committee and organization after another in re-elections of their leaderships.  The radical left--Bolsheviks and others--now moved into positions of power by advancing their own visions of a new and more radical revolution that promised a more certain fulfillment of the aspirations of the revolutionary masses, pressed for rapid and radical action on the main political and social issues, and addressed popular concerns over matters of daily life such as the rise of crime and the general economic collapse that caused enormous hardships and raised the specter of famine.  Moreover, they provided clear and believable, if often simplistic or even erroneous, explanations for the complex problems and uncertainties of the times.  The result was a rapid growth of popularity for the radical left, and for the slogan of All Power to the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the government was terribly unstable, undergoing constant reorganization,  as this cartoon suggested--the government ministers sit behind a table resting on suitcases, some in traveling garb. The appointment of Alexander Kerensky, one of the popular heroes of the February Revolution, as head of the government did nothing to change that.  The appearance in August of a possible military dictator, the potential Napoleon of the Russian Revolution, General Kornilov, polarized political opinion and aroused fear of counter-revolution.  His appearance mobilized all the discontents and fears of the mass of the population into an even more insistent demand for Soviet power.  The main beneficiaries of Kornilov's appearance and failure to grasp power successfully were the radical parties, especially the Bolsheviks.  They had been gaining influence and support in August. The Kornilov fiasco catapulted a Bolshevik-led radical left coalition into control of the Petrograd Soviet, the main bastion of revolutionary authority, and also into the leadership of the Moscow and many other city soviets.  It is worth stressing that the Bolsheviks and their allies, primarily the Left SRs, won control of these soviets through elections, as moderate deputies either became radicalized and switched parties or were replaced by their factory and army electors with more radical spokesmen.  This popular support was genuine and essential to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, something often lost sight of because of the later Bolshevik (Communist) dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the government was terribly unstable, undergoing constant reorganization,   as this cartoon suggested--the government ministers sit behind a table resting on suitcases, some in traveling garb.    The appointment of Alexander Kerensky, one of the popular heroes of the February Revolution, as head of the government did nothing to change that.  The appearance in August of a possible military dictator, the potential Napoleon of the Russian Revolution, (here being shown carried from a railway station by supporters), polarized political opinion and aroused fear of counter-revolution.   His appearance mobilized all the discontents and fears of the mass of the population into an even more insistent demand for Soviet power.  The main beneficiaries of Kornilov's appearance and failure to grasp power successfully were the radical parties, especially the Bolsheviks.  They had been gaining influence and support in August. The Kornilov fiasco catapulted a Bolshevik-led radical left coalition into control of the Petrograd Soviet, the main bastion of revolutionary authority, and also into the leadership of the Moscow and many other city soviets.  It is worth stressing that the Bolsheviks and their allies, primarily the Left SRs, won control of these soviets through elections, as moderate deputies either became radicalized and switched parties or were replaced by their factory and army electors with more radical spokesmen.  This popular support was genuine and essential to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, something often lost sight of because of the later Bolshevik (Communist) dictatorship.

By September, with the Bolsheviks and their allies in power in the Petrograd and some other soviets, the question naturally arose as to what the Bolsheviks would do.  They had been the most vocal advocates of Soviet power and presumably would attempt to implement that.  The question, widely debated, was when and how?  The Bolshevik leaders disagreed on how to proceed. Lenin was in hiding in Finland, where he had been since a July order for his arrest in connection with the July Days. He now advocated an immediate armed seizure of power.  He bombarded the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd with a series of letters.  On September 12 he wrote that the Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies of both capitals, can and must take power in their own hands, adding that History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now. Lenin's call divided the party leadership.  A minority supported Lenin's call to arms.  Another important group, led by the prominent Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev, urged caution and favored a broad coalition of socialists in a democratic left government, probably created at the Constituent Assembly. An intermediate position, increasingly identified with Leon Trotsky and probably representing a majority of the party's leadership, looked to the forthcoming Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets as the vehicle for the transfer of power. The Congress was to be the second gathering of representatives from soviets around the country (every city, town, and army garrison had a soviet). The Bolsheviks and other parties supporting Soviet power almost certainly would have a majority at the Congress, and the Congress could then declare the transfer of power to itself.   Although this itself would be a revolutionary move, they believed that Kerensky=s government would be unable to resist.  Despite Lenin's demands, therefore, the party's political efforts focused on the forthcoming Congress of Soviets and the transfer of power there.

At this point Lenin was the recipient of a series of unforeseeable lucky breaks that made possible the violent seizure of power that he wanted, and gave rise to the durable myth of a secretly and well-planned Bolshevik seizure of power.  The October Revolution began, in fact, not in response to Lenin's demand for a seizure of power or any Bolshevik plan, but because of an action by Kerensky.  The Kerensky government, apprehensive over the rising demand for Soviet power and Bolshevik behavior in drumming up support for it, decided on a minor strike against the Bolsheviks on the eve of the Congress of Soviets.  During the pre-dawn hours of October 24, the government sent military cadets to close down two Bolshevik newspapers.  The alarmed newspapermen ran to Soviet headquarters, where Soviet leaders declared that counterrevolution had again reared its head, and called on soldiers and armed workers to defend the Soviet, the revolution, and the opening of the Congress of Soviets the next day.  Unbeknownst to anyone, including Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders, the October Revolution had begun.

The initial reaction of the Soviet leaders to Kerensky's move was basically defensive, focused on defending the Soviet against a presumed government attack and on guaranteeing that the Congress would meet the next day--they had feared all along that the government might try to prevent it.  They called for soldiers and workers to rally to defense of the revolution, the Soviet, and the Congress of Soviets.  Throughout the 24th, pro-government soldiers and pro-Soviet soldiers and workers engaged in a series of confused and uncoordinated confrontations for control of key buildings and the bridges over the rivers.  The pro-Soviet supporters had the greater numbers, morale and determination--nobody wanted to die for the Provisional Government--and by midnight they controlled most of the city, with almost no shooting.

At this point the character of events changed.  Lenin had been hiding the past few days on the edge of the city and unable to have much influence on events.  Hearing rumors of the events in the city, he made his way to the Soviet headquarters shortly after midnight.  Lenin, the one leader who had advocated a seizure of power before the congress, and had not been a part of the defensive posture of the previous day, pressed the Soviet leaders to offensive action.  Indeed, about 2 a.m. the morning of the 25th, the pronouncements and instructions coming from the Soviet took on a more offensive flavor.  Around mid-morning on October 25, Lenin wrote a proclamation declaring the Provisional Government overthrown, which was quickly printed and distributed through the city.  Lenin had, against all odds and logic, achieved his goal of an armed seizure of power before the Congress, but he got it because of Kerensky's ill-considered action, not because the Bolsheviks planned or began such an armed seizure of power.

This was not necessarily the seizure of power Lenin wanted, however, because it was in the name of the Soviet, not the Bolsheviks.  Therefore, events of the Congress of Soviets were critical and provided Lenin with another unpredictable stroke of luck. The Congress, when it convened the night of October 25,  as expected, had a majority in favor of Soviet power.  The Bolsheviks, although the largest party, were not a majority and had to rely on the Left SRs and others to form a majority.   However, shortly after the Congress opened and discussion of forming a multi-party socialist government had begun, the right SRs and Mensheviks denounced the Bolsheviks and walked out. This left Lenin and the Bolsheviks with an absolute majority and in full control of the Congress, which proceeded to declare the Provisional Government overthrown and all power to rest in its own hands, and to form a Bolshevik government

The Bolshevik Consolidation of Power

The Bolsheviks moved quickly to consolidate power.  At the second session of the Congress of Soviets on October 26, they passed a Decree on Land that distributed land to the peasants and a Decree on Peace announcing their willingness to enter into immediate peace negotiations. Lenin wrote and presented both of these to the Congress, as shown here, in a later Soviet era painting, in a rather more dramatic pose than probably was the case, dramatic though the moment was. These decrees were important in consolidating their mass support, especially among the soldiers.  A third decree announced the new government, termed the Council of People's Commissars, headed by Lenin.  Unexpectedly, it was all-Bolshevik rather than multi-party, as everyone had assumed a Soviet-based government would be.  The October Revolution and the creation of an all-Bolshevik government had not been the expectation of most advocates of Soviet power, who assumed a broad coalition of socialist parties.  Neither had it been the well-planned Bolshevik seizure of power of Soviet and Western myth.  The story of a planned Bolshevik seizure of power under Lenin's direction was a myth of later Soviet writers to glorify Lenin and taken over by Western writers as well to explain an event they did not understand.  The October Revolution was in fact something quite different and more complex.  It represented the coming together of the popular demand for a more radical government based on the soviets, the rising popularity of the Bolsheviks and other radicals, their control of key soviets and popular institutions, some lucky breaks for Lenin on October 24 and 25, and Lenin's determination to turn this to his advantage to take and hold power.  The question now was whether the Bolsheviks could hold it. Answering that propelled the Bolsheviks down the path of dictatorship and pushed Russia into civil war.

Over the next few days and weeks, Lenin and the Bolsheviks struggled to consolidate power and turn revolution for Soviet power into Bolshevik power. This involved first of all political control.  The had to create a new government structure.  They developed means of applying repressive measures against political opponents, including press censorship and creation of a political police,   the Cheka.  Most of all, they had to decide what to do about the forthcoming Constituent Assembly.  Throughout 1917 all parties, including the Bolsheviks, had demanded the quick convocation of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly that would have the moral authority to settle the political future of Russia.   Elections were finally scheduled for November, by which time the Bolsheviks had taken power.  After hesitation, Lenin allowed the elections to take place.  As expected, the Bolsheviks received a minority--about a quarter--of the vote, while the SRs got about half.  The Bolsheviks were faced with relinquishing power, which Lenin and Trotsky were unwilling to do.  Therefore, they allowed the Constituent Assembly to meet on January 5, 1918, but after one session closed it by force on January 6.  Dispersal of the Assembly was not essential for maintenance of a socialist government, or even Soviet power, but it was if Lenin and Trotsky were to hold power and for such a radical and Bolshevik government as they envisioned.

Dispersing the Constituent Assembly made civil war unavoidable.  The Bolsheviks' opponents, deprived of all possibility of voting them from power, had no recourse but to take to the fields with arms, and Russia was plunged into a brutal, multi-faceted, civil war.  For the next three years the fledgling Bolshevik regime fought a variety of rivals, while at the same time consolidating its political hold, implementing a variety of policies designed to begin the transition to a socialist society, and launching what it saw as the beginning of an international revolution.  During this period, in 1918, the Bolsheviks officially changed the party name to Communist.  By 1921 they prevailed militarily, emerging in control of most of the territory of the former Russian Empire.  It was, however, a shattered society and economy, with industrial production at about 13% of the prewar level, large cities emptied of one-quarter to one-half of their populations, and about 15 million dead from civil war and war related famine and disease, on top of the deaths in World War I and the flight abroad of 2-3 million of the best educated people. It was a devastated country that the Bolsheviks ruled..

Faced with this, Lenin in 1921 called an end to the more radical policies of nationalization and socialization of society that had followed the October Revolution, and introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP).   NEP was a semi-socialist, semi-capitalist and free-enterprise system that, it was hoped, would allow the economy to recover and give the regime breathing room.   The socialist vision was not abandoned, however.   Indeed, during the 1920s the Communist Party leaders debated the future of the new regime and revolutionary transformation, but always with an expectation that revolutionary transformation would continue.  Simultaneously, the party tightened its political control over society while engaging in a bitter internal power struggle.  The latter was both a political battle over who would assume Lenin's leadership mantle (he died in 1924), and a fight about differing ways to proceed with economic development.  All Soviet leaders agreed on the main points.  They all shared a belief in socialism, in the importance of the Communist Party holding an absolute monopoly of power and decision-making, and a readiness to use repressive measures to ensure it.  They agreed on the need for industrialization and the importance of centralized economic planning to achieve that. They disagreed on the tempo and methods of industrialization.

The central problem for the new Soviet Union was not dissimilar to what Imperial Russia had faced: how to generate the industrial strength to guarantee the country's military strength, which was necessary both for defense and to advance the country's great power status.  This was the more pressing in that the Communists leaders not only felt themselves threatened by a hostile outside world, but also were putting the Soviet Union forward as the new future of mankind.  In its extreme form, this view saw Soviet Russia replacing the West as the model of the world's future, the society to which others should look and upon which they should pattern themselves.  Nonetheless, they still faced the same problem that Imperial Russia had faced during the initial industrialization drive of the late 19th century--where do you get the money, the capital, to pay for this?  In simplified terms, one can think of it in this way.  Any country has a total economic production, a national gross product.   Most of this gets consumed either in production or by people.  The small amount left over is the capital available for investment in economic growth.  The problem for a poor country wishing to expand its economy rapidly, is how to increase the capital available for investment in growth.  This was the problem facing late 19th century Russia, and now Stalin's Russia.  (ASIDE: This problem, incidentally, will face non-Western societies around the globe in the 20th century, and the Soviet claim to have solved it thus became one of the sources of Soviet global influence in later years).  Where do you get the money for rapid economic growth?

The Stalin Revolution

This economic debates, combined with the rise of Joseph Stalin to leadership of the Communist Party, produced a new revolutionary upheaval, what some historians have termed The Stalin Revolution. The Stalin Revolution was many respects another stage in the ongoing upheaval accompanying repeated efforts to transform Russia along lines inspired from the West.  The emphasis this time was on rapid industrialization and military power, as had been typical in Imperial Russia, rather than to the democratic or human rights aspects that had animated the February Revolution of 1917.  The Stalin Revolution attempted to completely reshape the Soviet Union while undertaking an extremely rapid industrialization under centralized state direction.  It was to be a command economy, in which the basic economic decisions of what gets produced and how that is distributed were made by central planners.  Moreover, every aspect of society was subordinated to the needs of industrialization.  In turn, the Stalin Revolution set the basic features of the Soviet , features that, with some modification, remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union. What, then, was the Stalin Revolution and what were those features?  We might approach this question by looking at the three main components of the Stalin Revolution: economic, cultural, and political

At the heart of the Stalin Revolution was economic development, in particular the decision to push ahead with rapid industrialization at all costs.  In 1928 the State Planning Agency completed it's first Five Year Plan, a massive blueprint for the economic life of the country, and Stalin's phase of Russia's industrial revolution and social transformation began.  It provided for an extremely high rate of economic growth, with special emphasis upon heavy industry and military production.  Although the target growth rates were absurdly high, and production fell far below plan projections, the Soviet Union began a remarkable industrial spurt. The production of iron and steel quadrupled, vast new electric power stations were built, while new factories turned out military armaments, machine tools,  tractors, chemicals, and other products of heavy industry.

The social cost of the industrialization drive was enormous.  As indicated earlier, Stalin faced the problem of where to get the capital to pay for it.  Basically, this was done by restraining consumption and holding down the standard of living, and plowing the resulting savings into capital investment instead of consumption. The peasantry suffered most of all.  To pay for industrialization, and to control the peasants, the Stalin Revolution collectivized  agriculture.  Collectivization involved a complete social and economic revolution in the countryside. Peasants were driven from their traditional landholding and farming systems onto new collective farms, large farms, often encompassing a whole village, where they worked under the direction of Communist Party farm officials and the Five-Year Plans. For the regime, the collective farms were a device by which the famously restive peasants could be controlled while the state extracted from them the grain and other resources to help subsidize industrialization.  The peasants resisted collectivization, and the state resorted to armed force.  Millions were killed or shipped to forced labor in Siberia and remote new industrial sites. Another five million, especially in Ukraine, died in the famine that followed.   In the short run collectivization gave the regime the control over agricultural resources needed to subsidize industrialization.  In the long run, however, it produced a highly inefficient agricultural system that soon became a major drag on the economy, and one of the contributors to the ultimate economic collapse of the Soviet Union, and to the ongoing economic crisis of the post-Soviet era.

Not only the rural population suffered.  Millions streamed from the countryside to the new industrial centers, enduring low pay, incredible hardship, and horrible living and working conditions.  The regime devoted relatively little resources to housing and consumer goods, as financial resources were continually reinvested in heavy industry.  Not until after Stalin's death in 1953 did the regime begin to devote a larger part of the economic resources to housing and consumer goods, and the standard of living begin to rise significantly.  Even so, an emphasis on central planning, heavy industry, and military armaments remained a feature of the Soviet economy to the end, with consumers trailing behind in the regime's priorities as well as in comparison to other European countries.

If economic transformation, especially industrial growth, was the keystone of the Stalin Revolution, the second major part was the cultural revolution that accompanied it.  The revolutionary era and the 1920s had been periods of extensive cultural experimentation and flowering.  This now ended.  The regime moved swiftly to harness all social and cultural life to support the industrial transformation.  In the arts, this meant the imposition of Socialist Realism, whereby literature, painting, music, and other arts were required to carry themes that supported the party's policies in every respect and rallied popular support for industrialization.  Art and literature were to be realistic in form (abstraction was largely banned), but a special kind of realism.  They did not show things as they were, but as they should and would be under socialism.   Artists painted healthy, strong, determined, people working happily to create the new society, not ill-nourished, tired, or apathetic real people.  The arts would show the future and point the way toward it, as in this heroic sculpture, meant to inspire.   Literature became filled with stories of local Communist Party leaders overcoming sabotage and incompetence in fulfilling the industrial plan, of heroic feats of labor and output, and similar themes.  Boy meets girl, boy meets tractor, boy goes off with tractor to fulfill the plan. Or the girl does.  But the arts were not merely to support the industrial drive . They were to help build a new type of person, The New Soviet Man, the person of the new era of human history, here shown striding purposefully forward to fulfill the industrial plan.  The arts also portrayed life in an idealized future,  as in this painting of collective farmers enjoying a holiday, very much different than the reality of the life of the peasants on collective farms of the time.  In other words, Socialist Realism was not merely the old kind of censorship that forbade saying certain things, but a new kind that required the artist or writer to say certain things.   The same principles applied to a wide range of social contexts--in schools, in youth organizations, in family relationships, in group social relationships--all designed to simultaneously increase the party's control over society while creating a new society and person.  No aspect of life, personal as well as public, was considered to be outside the realm of the regime's intrusion and supervision.  In this respect, it is worth again reminding ourselves that from the beginning the Bolsheviks, and foreign admirers, had seen their revolution as the beginning of a new world, a new era in the history of mankind.  Although this messianic drive lessened in the post-Stalin era, it never disappeared and remained a central part of the Communist Party's vision of itself and its role, and of its behavior toward both its population and the outside world.

The third part of the Stalin Revolution was political. The economic debate of the 1920s was closely tied to a bitter power struggle among the Communist leaders, from which Joseph Stalin emerged dominant; at his 50th birthday in 1929, banners proclaimed that Stalin is the Lenin of today.  By this time the Communist Party leadership had also established a tightly controlled, one-party state, the prototype of such states in the modern world.  This, however, proved far from enough.  The Stalin Revolution was accompanied by efforts by the regime to tighten even more the leader's control of the party and the party's control over the society.  It was accompanied by an extraordinary use of repressive measures against the population, a process that quickly expanded into what came to be called the Great Terror. Indeed, there was no way that the industrialization drive, requiring as it did such enormous sacrifices, and based as it was on command rather than incentives, could be achieved without extensive use of coercion.

This quickly went beyond what industrialization required, however.  During the 1930s millions perished and millions more went into forced labor camps.  These were populated by peasants who resisted collectivization, technical experts accused of sabotage when overly ambitious industrial plans failed, intellectuals who criticized the policies or simply were insufficiently enthusiastic in praising the new cultural line, targeted ethnic minorities, religious believers,  people who told an ill-timed joke or were denounced by someone else (sometimes for personal revenge), and others who in some way fell afoul of the system, often entirely accidentally, including relatives, co-workers, and friends of those already arrested, or who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.   So many millions of people were poured into the forced labor camps of the 1930s that, in a grim irony, they became an important economic group that had to be factored into the economic plans.

Alongside the labor camps were the infamous show trials and great purges.  These actually originated in 1922, under Lenin, but took on new magnitude under Stalin.  The most spectacular came in 1936-1938, in the carefully staged public trials of the men who had formerly made up the top Bolshevik leadership of the revolution and the early Soviet era, the men who had been Lenin=s closest associates and Stalin's former colleagues--and rivals--in the leadership.  At the same time, the party, government, and army leaderships were purged.  Most of the upper levels of the party leadership perished (70% of the Central Committee of 1934, for example) and most of the army high command as well.  The estimates for the totals killed and arrested during 1930s vary dramatically, but perhaps as many as 7-10 million perished, which does not count millions who survived terms in the forced labor camps, or the unknown millions whose health was permanently damaged by prison or poor food and conditions.

Curiously, throughout the Stalin Revolution and 1930s, when ever larger percentages of the Soviet population lived in fear, the counterpoint was an enormous Cult of Stalin. Arts and literature presented Stalin as a beloved, kindly, wise and beneficent guide to the new promised land, as we saw him in the picture a few minutes ago, or in heroic guise, as in this picture showing him as the director of national defense and inspirer of soldiers.  Stalin now presented himself in the tradition of great reformers such as Peter the Great, and as fulfilling the goals of a new world long sought by the revolutionary intelligentsia.  Nor should we forget that many in the party, especially younger members, accepted this, and that despite the bloodshed that came later, that Stalin's policies, especially his industrial policies, enjoyed significant popular support at the time, and are recalled favorably by many still today, when they are credited with contributing to the Soviet Union's victory in World War II and its post-war status as one of the world's two super-powers.  Similarly, in the 1930s many in the West (which was mired in the Great Depression and confronted by the rise of fascism), saw Stalin's Russia in similar glowing terms.  But Stalin's Revolution and society was a grotesque caricature of the dream of a better world that had animated revolutionaries in 1917 and earlier.  It was a brutal system that, along with Hitler's Nazism, comprised the terrible modern dictatorships that gave rise to the concept of totalitarianism (a subject Professor Deshmukh will cover in the next lecture).

By the end of the Stalin Revolution, the Soviet Union stood as a peculiar combination of old Russia, Western influence, and the revolutionary upheaval of the 20th century.  The Bolsheviks had originally seen themselves as enlightened Westernizers, bringing the latest Western ideas (Marxism) to bear on Russian development, and through that leading, via revolution, to a new future.  That future soon came to be seen, however, as something in opposition to, or at least as bypassing, the West (ironically, some 19th century Russian Slavophiles had a similar vision of surpassing and replacing the West).  In their drive to outdo the West, however, Soviet leaders depended on the Western import of industrialization, and even during the most despotic and terrorist periods insisted loudly that the Soviet Union was a democracy, the Western political concept that by that time had become a global aspiration.  To be modern was to be industrial and democratic, and the Soviet Union became the former,  while insisting, falsely, that it was the latter. 

Moreover, these two issues, democracy and military-industrial capacity, still today stand at the core of the current Russian problems as post-Soviet Russia struggles to rebuild its shattered economy, and is still struggling politically over whether it will become genuinely democratic or revert to some version of its autocratic tradition (the same debate is being played out in Ukraine and other new republics that emerged out of the wreck of the old Soviet Union in 1991).  The relationship between Russia and the West also remains a source of tension and of internal debates in Russians continue their love-hate relationship with the West, still debate whether their future development should be along the lines of the Western model or some uniquely Russian alternative (implicitly anti-Western but otherwise unclear).  Similarly, the Russians today still debate whether to position themselves internationally as part of the Euro-Western tradition, or in opposition to the West, as the self-appointed spokesman for anti-Western (anti-American) states.  The long shadow of history continues to influence the modern Russian state, both in and of itself and in its relationship to Western Civilization.

Conclusion: Russia

Russians continue their love-hate relationship with the West, still debate whether their future development should be along the lines of the Western model or some uniquely Russian alternative (implicitly anti-Western but otherwise unclear).  Similarly, the Russians today still debate whether to position themselves internationally as part of the Euro-Western tradition, or in opposition to the West, as the self-appointed spokesman for anti-Western (anti-American) states.  The long shadow of history continues to influence the modern Russian state, both in and of itself and in its relationship to Western Civilization.