The Russian Revolution didn’t start and end in 1917, nor indeed in 1905. There were many things preceding it. As far back as 1894 in fact, a group of intellectuals issued the then Tsar with a series of demands which he refused to implement. They wanted some kind of democratic representation, including a National Assembly. The Tsar responded by saying that his sovereignty was absolute; it was unlimited by laws, parliament, bureaucrats and public opinion. In his opinion, he was answerable only to God. This ear marked the start of the monarchy’s downfall.
Furthermore, despite the Abolition of Serfdom in 1861, most of the arable land continued to be the private property of gentry landlords who rented it to the peasants at ridiculous prices. The ‘liberated’ serfs were still treated abysmally and flogged at the slightest indication of doing something remotely annoying to the upper classes.
As access to education grew, so did opportunity: men who were born as peasants became merchants, engineers and landlords. Some merchants even became noblemen. Their children entered liberal professions that were previously denied to them. Circulation of newspapers increased massively and so, therefore, did the ability of those who wanted reform to spread their message: with better access to education, more could read it.
There were improvements in schools, roads, railways and postal services, decades before the Revolution of 1917. As such, messages could be easily transported.
With increased literacy, transport and communication came the spread of new ideas and those who could not read were able to have the message relayed to them by others.
As industrialisation became more prominent and arable land became too expensive to rent, many people moved to the cities to find work. They worked in mines and factories and sent money home until they could be joined by their families later on. However, their working conditions were dire, there was no legislation to protect them and no unions were established until after the strikes of 1905. Prior to that, strikes were illegal.
All of these criteria, along with periods of horrendous famine, made the workers susceptible to the ideas of the socialist revolutionaries and Marxist ideology. Marx denounced capitalism as the cause of rural poverty. In Russia prior to the revolutions, Marxist groups formed and educated the workers through propaganda.
As Chairman Mao later found out in China: you must first educate the masses before you strike so that you have the masses behind you.
The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the RSDLP, (which Stalin joined as a young student), split into two factions: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin liked Lenin and therefore aligned himself with the Bolsheviks.
The outbreak of WW1 helped to accelerate the collapse of the Tsar’s rule. The Tsar renamed St Petersburg to the less Germanic sounding Petrograd in August.
This was a failed revolution against the dictatorship of the Tsar. There was less of an ideology behind it than the 1917 one. Russia suffered a lot of discontent after the failure of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905: a mostly naval war in which the Russian fleet got slaughtered by the Japanese in the Pacific and again in the Baltic, also by the Japanese. This period saw a mixture of suppression and buying people off to make them happy. The Tsar promised a proper parliament, otherwise known as the Duma (1906 elections), and more civil rights. The more liberal revolutionaries settled for that. The Tsar implemented all of this but gradually the repressive state was geared back up again. Although the Duma remained in place, it was changed. Originally its franchise was quite wide but then the right of the people to vote was taken away. In the first Duma elections, quite a lot of men voted. In subsequent elections, the right to vote was withdrawn from many. There was a representative parliament but the government wasn’t responsible to the parliament. The Tsar appointed the ministers in the government and the parliament was elected. The powers of the parliament and the right to vote were gradually eroded and this fuelled further discontent.
This succeeded but it didn’t last. All the opposition forces were involved. The Bolsheviks were one of the party’s but the main one was the SR party (the Social Revolutionaries). The main Marxist party were the Mensheviks. The Tsar abdicated in March but remained alive and was kept in several safe houses along with his family. It was not until 1918 that Lenin ordered their execution. A provisional government was formed under Alexander Kerenski. The provisional government and the Mensheviks (comprising mainly Socialists and revolutionaries) ran the country. Dual power was necessary as the government needed the support of the Soviets and the Soviets felt unprepared to take on full power. Stalin missed this revolution as he was in exile in Siberia and didn’t return until March.
The one big thing the provisional government failed to do was pull out of WW1. Russia was getting slaughtered in this and the provisional government kept fighting it. Neither did the provisional government manage to do anything about land reform whilst in power: serfdom had been abolished but the land was very unevenly distributed. The government was a very broad coalition, including aristocrats; partly because the war was the main thing on the agenda.
Another problem was that there were two sources of authority: (1) the Soviets; and (2) the Provisional Government. The Soviets were workers’ councils elected by workers and soldiers etc. and they became increasingly influenced by the Bolsheviks. This parallel state structure existed in tandem with the provisional government.
In April, Lenin returned from his exile in Switzerland and mocked the February Revolution. He criticised the provisional government as imperialist. In July 1917, demonstrations against the provisional government broke out in Petrograd and the provisional government ordered troops to break up the demonstrations by firing on them. Dozens of people were killed. At the time, the Bolsheviks did not feel the time was quite right to take power and Stalin helped Lenin to hide: first in the woods on the outskirts of Petrograd and then in Finland. He returned late October and on 25th October, the Soviets, under Bolshevik/Lenin leadership, overran the provisional government and took control of the Winter Palace.
During the overthrow, slogans such as ‘All power to the Soviets’ (i.e. let’s forget about the provisional government) and ‘Peace, Bread, Land’ were chanted. The chant about peace referred to Russia pulling out of the war and the one about land was of a call to redistribute the land from the aristocrats to the peasants.
Lenin called for an immediate end to the war. The Bolsheviks pinpointed capitalism as the cause of WW1 and predicted further global struggles unless capitalism came to an end.
Culture was purged and anything that was seen as bourgeois, idealist or religious was frowned upon. The old intelligentsia were forced into exile. Some freedoms remained initially for artists, authors an historians, so long as they didn’t oppose the new regime. Lenin ensured that the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries were side lined and that effective power lay with the Bolsheviks: he did not want to share power with people that he had accused of betraying the Revolution. He instituted a new government, The Council of People’s Commissars, which later became known as the Communist Party.
The monarchy were assassinated, the order for which is given by Lenin. They were already under house arrest. The Bolsheviks feared that the royal family would be liberated by the White Armies (the anti-Bolshevik armies, some were royalists, some were socialists, some were brutal fascists, but they were all against the revolution). If they were liberated, the Bolsheviks worried that the royal family would be a rallying point for the opposition. They could claim the Tsar was the legitimate government as he still inspired a lot loyalty and furthermore, was also the focus of a lot of religious sentiment as he was Orthodox. (A lot of orthodoxy is about hierarchy, deference and kingship). This would be a powerful thing for the anti-revolutionaries to have. Sadly also, the hereditary principle being what it is, you can shoot the Tsar but you still have an heir: hence the order to shoot the entire family.
The Russian Civil War. During this period, the Bolsheviks hold on power was tenuous. Across Russia, groups opposed to Lenin joined forces to oppose the new Bolshevik government by violent means. A jumbled alliance of Tsarist officers, monarchists, disillusioned socialists and various ethnic groups, (they came to be known as ‘The Whites’) had nothing in common in their cause other than their shared hatred of the Bolsheviks. During this period, Stalin (who has been appointed a political commissar by Lenin) and Trotsky (Stalin’s military superior) clashed frequently. It was Trotsky, a military genius according to some, who was able to take much of the credit for his Red Army eventually winning the civil war and defeating The Whites.
During the civil war, Georgia (where Stalin is from), enjoyed a brief spell of independence: from May 1919 until February 1921).
Crackdown on Georgian autonomy and the leaders were executed, by Stalin, Georgian by descent! The same year, Lenin suffered the first of 3 strokes. It was clear at this stage that Lenin regretted having given Stalin so much power. In December he described Stalin as having unlimited authority concentrated in his own hands and he expressed concern as to whether Stalin would be able to exercise that authority with sufficient caution.
10 days later, Lenin suggested to other party members that Stalin be removed from his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party and replaced with someone who was more tolerant and amenable. It never happened.
Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party
Trotsky now expelled from the Soviet Union and exiled to Turkey. He later moved to France, then Norway, and in 1936, to Mexico, where he was warmly welcomed by the Mexican President. Whilst there, although married, Trotsky had an affair with the famous painter Frida Kahlo (herself married to the equally famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera).
The Communist world was monolithic in appearance only. There were divisions in the 1920s. Stalin put a stop to those. Some followers remained loyal to Trotsky and founded a movement called the Fourth International which was based outside the Soviet Union.
In Russia under Stalin, a series of 5 year plans increased industrialization and the number of urban workers. The vast majority of workers had come from the countryside and around 43% were women.
There was a famine in 1932-1933, during which deaths occurred in their millions.
The mass influx of people from the country coming in to the city to work put a strain on housing and Stalin had not planned for this. They crowded into communal flats, makeshift dormitories and barracks. Outside of Moscow and Leningrad, few urban residents had access to a central water supply or basic sanitation. It was only in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years that these problems were addressed.
A fall in living standards in the 1930s provoked widespread mass protests and strikes. As the regime increased its use of violence and repression, the protests decreased.
How did Stalin increase production and work effort in a communist society?
With his campaign of Shock Work, ‘Udarnichestvo’, and after 1935, a similar campaign, ‘Stakhanovism’. Basically, a selected group of workers would volunteer to set a production record. Those achievements would then become the standard requirement. Those who failed to achieve that were punished by a massive fall in earnings. In 1930, the average workers stayed in their job for less than 8 months before quitting and labour turnover was high. The regime dealt with this by restricting workers’ freedom of movement and tightening labour laws. In 1940, the regime made changing job a criminal offence. Some were punished by being sent to a gulag for several years.
Trotsky’s book that he wrote whilst living in Mexico, The Revolution Betrayed, was published in Paris. The book was very anti-Stalin.
This was the period of Stalin’s ‘Great Terror’: a ‘monstrous postscript’ to the Revolution (Sheila Fitzpatrick, cited in the Introduction of Orlando Figes). Figes said of the Great Terror:
‘To omit the Great Terror from a history of the Russian Revolution would be the equivalent of writing an account of the French Revolution of 1789 without the Reign of Terror (1793-1994)’.
Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940 under Stalin’s order, with an ice pick to the head. It was a second attempt as the first attempt, by gunfire, had failed. He was 60.
A reduction in the workforce as a result of those involved in the war. Wages had fallen some 40% since 1928. There was mass starvation during the war; not just in Leningrad (under siege) but in other areas of the country. Communist led movements appeared in Europe around WW2 under the guise of liberation from fascism and Nazism. Germany invaded the USSR 1941.
After WW2, the USA, the USSR and the United Kingdom emerged as the Big Three in global power. They established the United Nations in October 1945. Losses after WW2 were devastating. Roughly 26 million citizens of the USSR had died. The regions in the west had suffered enormously and as much as a quarter of the population of Ukraine and Belorussia failed to survive the war. The urban landscape in the west of the Soviet Union was in ruin and hardly a factory, collective farm, mine or residential area was left intact. It had been Nazi policy to reduce the Russians and other Soviet nations to starvation, poverty and cultural dissolution.
Relations between the Soviet Union and their former allies, Britain and America, worsened. America had concerns over increasing Soviet influence and Stalin saw The Marshall Plan (the money that was lent to countries in Europe to help them recover from the economic devastations of the war), as an economic device on America’s part to destroy Soviet military and political hegemony over Eastern Europe.
Until Stalin’s death in 1953, there were over 7 million new workers in industry and construction. Many were young people who were conscripted, often against their will, into the priority areas of coal mining, construction and metallurgy. Many worked inhospitable regions such as the Urals and western Siberia. Stalin’s industrialisation resulted in a fall in the standards of living for workers.
In 1947 there was another famine that claimed between 1 and 1.5 million lives, many of whom were urban workers.
After WW2, the Soviet Union was no longer an isolated state but surrounded by a belt of countries subject to its influence. Between 1945 an 1948, those countries also became communist.
On 22nd September, Stalin called a conference in Poland of communist parties from the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, France and Italy (France and Italy had large communist parties). The aim was to establish an international communist body that would be called the Information Bureau. This soon became known as Cominform and it replaced the defunct Comintern. Cominform was not based in Moscow but in Belgrade in Serbia.
There was a break between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia which was a blow to Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Yugoslavia’s leader Tito had considered himself as an equal to Stalin. Between 1946 and 1947, he had canvassed for the creation of a federation of Yugoslavia and other communist states in south eastern Europe. Stalin decided that such a federation would be hard for him to control. Tito was also keen on supporting the Greek communist attempt at revolution. This threatened the understandings that had been reached between the Soviet Union and their Western allies over the territorial limits of Soviet influence. It was Stalin, who in June 1948, ordered the expulsion of Yugoslavia from Cominform. Tito was subjected to tirades of vilification that had not been seen since Trotsky’s death and he was accused of being a fascist underdog for America.
The expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc terrified the other Soviet bloc countries into submission. None of them were allowed to accept the financial aid from America under the Marshall Plan that was offered to help them recover after the war.
In January, as an alternative to the Marshall Plan, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) was formed.
Stalin died and Khrushchev came to power. There were some uprisings shortly after Stalin died, including one in East Germany in which the Soviet Army intervened. There was a great deal of discontent in the Soviet Union. Workers were too afraid to go on strike but they resented the conditions of labour, bad housing, poor diet and low wages. There was acute and lasting bitterness over Stalin’s mass deportations of nationalities during and after WW2. Stalin had elevated the Russians over all over all other people in the Soviet Union and this had caused considerable resentment.
Under Stalin, science and culture had been subjected to excessive supervision and many worked in fear, including writers, lawyers, engineers and managers. Initiative from below was non-existent as a result.
The Soviet state was vastly over centralised with policies for the whole country having been decided by a tiny group of leaders, leaders who had also been subject to intimidation under Stalin.
Under Khrushchev came a period of de-Stalinisation and whilst outward loyalty was shown to Stalin’s memory, his policies underwent reconsideration. Khruschev’s main priority was agriculture and articles appeared in the Pravda newspaper saying that it was the masses, not single leaders, that made history.
Poland: In June, on hearing of Khruschev’s February 1956 speech to a closed Congress, there was a large scale rebellion in Poznan. Polish industrial workers went on strike as the rumours of the speech spread. Compromises were swiftly agreed, Khrushchev assented to becoming the First Party Secretary for the Polish United Workers’ Party and with additional police intervention in Warsaw and order was restored.
By October, things were fine.
Hungary: On 23rd October a revolt in Budapest took place. The following week there was a further revolt against Soviet domination. On 4th November, Soviet Army tanks moved in against the protesters. The NATO countries failed to come to Hungary’s aid as they were involved in the Suez Crisis at the time. A tame Hungarian regime was established and other Warsaw Pact countries were informed that, under Khrushchev (as under Stalin), no challenge to Moscow’s rule would be tolerated.
In June, the Soviet Union terminated their secret nuclear weapons cooperation with China. An agreement was signed promising Soviet technical and financial aid to China but it didn’t last.
In September the same year, Khrushchev visited the United States which annoyed China.
In late 1960/early 1961, the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha decided to align himself with Communist China and not the Soviet Union.
In October, Khrushchev was removed from power and Brezhnev took his place.
Romania in the mid 1960s started to embrace foreign and domestic policies that weren’t always in line with those of the Soviet Union. They were the first Eastern European country to establish domestic ties with West Germany, which annoyed East Germany. In June this year, there is a war in the Middle East and the Warsaw Pact countries (except Romania) broke ties with Israel.
Prague Spring. Political reforms were introduced in Czechoslovakia after Alexander Dubcek came to power early in the year. Moscow saw these changes as a threat and were concerned that it may spur on similar changes in other Warsaw Pact countries. The Soviets intervened on 20th August by sending in their army and using force to crush the reform movement. They were joined by 4 other Warsaw Pact countries: East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Crushing the Prague Spring took a few months and eventually in April, Dubcek was ousted from power.
Poland: Solidarity, an independent trade union was established. This rivalled the Polish Communist Party for power.
As a result of the above, in December, the incumbent power in Poland imposed martial law (spurred on by Moscow).
This year saw enormous changes in the communist world. In June, elections were held in Poland and Solidarity, a non-communist government, came to power. Later on in 1989, communist rulers in East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania were forced from power as non-communist governments took over. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
Free elections were held in all the East European countries.
Who were the leaders after Stalin and what did they do?
Nikita Khrushchev: General Secretary, 1953-1964
Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Under his rule there was a relaxation over workers’ freedom to change jobs. One problem Khrushchev faced was how to get millions of non-working women into industry. He never managed to overcome this and the economy was blighted by labour shortages. He never democratized trade unions or political life. There was a renewal of mass protests, only one of which had an overtly political and organized character: the workers’ uprising in 1962 in Novocherkassk. This was suppressed by KGB troops. Food sources improved under Khrushchev but they still weren’t great and daily consumption in families was still well below the recommended daily requirements.
Khrushchev gave a famous speech on 25th February 1956 to a closed session of Congress in which only delegates from the Communist Party were permitted to attend. Journalists were banned. Distinguished foreign communists were also barred from attending. The speech lasted 4 hours.
During this speech, Khrushchev told everyone present about Lenin’s wish, in 1923, that Stalin be replaced as General Secretary of the Communist Party. He went on to talk about the abuses perpetrated by Stalin during his time in power. Furthermore, Stalin had brought about a drastic decline in internal party democracy. After 1945, the Central Committee rarely met and the Politburo fell into disuse.
For Khrushchev, there needed to be a reversion to the days of Lenin and as such, the future of the Soviet Union lay in a return to the past, but not a Stalin past. Briefings of the speech were given to foreign communist party leaders and a copy was also sent to the American CIA. The London Observer printed a full version. In the West, Khrushchev’s policies became known as a process of ‘de-Stalinisation’. People in countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had suffered greatly as a result of Stalin’s military campaigns of 1955-45.
Khrushchev tried to improve relations with the United States. Sadly this upset some countries in the Soviet bloc and it really annoyed China. Mao had been treated very badly by Stalin.
Leonid Brezhnev: General Secretary, 1964-1982. Died in office.
Brezhnev managed to garner an influx of female industrial workers and by 1978, they constituted just under half: 48%.
The food situation improved from a nutritional perspective under Brezhnev although there were still enormous shortages. Wages were increased but this wasn’t matched by better supplies of food or consumer goods and this caused major discontent with the regime. Under Brezhnev it was made very clear that any attempt to engage in independent political activity would be violently repressed.
Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov: Fourth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1982-1984
Following the 18 year rule of the late Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov served in the post for only 15 months, from November 1982 until his own death in February 1984. Earlier in his career, Andropov served as the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary from 1954 to 1957, during which time he was involved in the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. He was Chairman of the KGB from 1967 until 1982. The Hungarian Uprising was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR’s forces drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War II.
Mikhail Gorbachev: General Secretary, 1985- 1991
President (this role newly created) 1990-1991,
Gorbachev hoped that his perestroika reforms would lead to greater industrial efficiency and a rise in living standards but his policies faltered and as such, food shortages worsened and workers became disenchanted with his government. Gorbachev wanted to increase the supply of consumer goods and relax state control over civil society but some of his policies were not popular amongst industrial workers as they threatened to introduce mass unemployment and remove state subsidies on basic foods. In 1989 there was a nationwide miners’ strike. The Soviet government now allowed workers to strike and form independent trade unions. Workers were therefore in a position to undermine attempts by managers to increase productivity, which helped to contribute to the country’s economic collapse.
When Gorbachev was in office he also introduced a series of reforms to increase transparency in politics and get rid of corruption.
One of Gorbachev’s great achievements was bringing about an end to the Cold War which happened when Reagan was in power.
Boris Yeltsin: President, 1991-1999
A new miners’ strike in 1991. Yeltsin financed the independent miners’ union in what was then known as the Russian Federation. He was the first President of the Russian Federation (as opposed to the Soviet Union) and held office for 2 terms: he won the elections in June 1991 and again in July 1996. The United States flung money into the second elections as they were too afraid of the alternative if he didn’t win.
Yeltsin announced that he was stepping down in December 1999 and he died of a heart attack in April 2007. He famously drank a lot. There is a funny story when he was visiting The White House (under President Clinton) and was picked up on Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, in his underpants trying to flag down a taxi to get a pizza. Clinton was in office at the time and recounted the story to a writer who was working on his memoirs.
Vladimir Putin: President, Prime Minister, President
A confusing this one. He was first elected President in March 2000 and then re-elected for a second term in March 2004. In May 2008, he became Prime Minister as it was not permissible to be President for 3 terms in a row. During his time as Prime Minister, he made Dmitry Medvedev President from 2008-2012,but the powers of the Prime Minster increased substantially. In March 2012, Putin was elected President again and Medvedev is now Prime Minister (with less power than Putin had as Prime Minister)
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