University of Iowa

In the news: The legacy of the Soviet Revolution

October 30th, 2017

Michael Andrew Žmolek

By Michael Andrew Žmolek, Guest Opinion, The Press Citizen

One hundred years ago this October, the Red Army deposed Russia’s Provisional government and declared the world’s first socialist state. How did a revolution waged in the name of liberating workers and peasants from oppression and ending war produce one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history?

During World War I, over 2 million Russian soldiers and nearly as many Russian civilians perished. Rampant inflation and shortages of food brought about untold hardship. In February of 1917, bread riots led by women touched off a wave of sympathetic strikes, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The resulting provisional government was unable to solve the economic crisis. Ordinary Russians were meanwhile taking government into their own hands amid a crisis of epic proportions by forming hundreds of self-governing councils called soviets.

In August, when an attempted military coup aimed at crushing the Petrograd Soviet was thwarted, the government lost what credibility it had. Popular support for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party soared. The Bolsheviks alone had taken the popular slogan "all power to the Soviets" seriously. Upon taking power in October, the Bolsheviks subordinated the Soviets to party control. Efforts by union leaders to restore local autonomy and return to the kind of decentralized democracy that was the promise of the Soviets were suppressed.

Socialists outside Russia were confounded. Marxist theory held that only an advanced capitalist society was ready for socialism. Russia was still a mostly backward, peasant economy. Bolshevik leaders understood that without the "absolute guarantee" of worker-led revolutions across Europe, a socialist revolution in Russia would likely fail, but they believed a revolution in Russia was needed to provide the necessary spark.

German socialist Karl Kautsky, the "pope" of Marxism whom Friedrich Engels had entrusted with the manuscripts of Marx, had presciently predicted that a Bolshevik seizure of power would result only in dictatorship, corruption and civil war, which followed the Great War. Former tsarist "White" generals launched a counterrevolution with the support of Western powers, including nearly 13,000 soldiers from the United State. In the fighting and in mass murder campaigns committed on all sides — the so-called Red Terror and White Terror — the number of Russians who perished, mostly civilians, approached 10 million, eclipsing the holocaust.

When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, he left behind not so much Marx’s "dictatorship of the proletariat" as a party dictatorship claiming to represent the proletariat. To deal with counter-revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks established a secret police force known as the Cheka. Those not subjected to extrajudicial execution were sent to correctional labor camps or "gulags."

Joseph Stalin created a cult of personality around Lenin and later around himself as he assumed truly dictatorial powers. When the Nazis came to power in 1932 and began liquidating socialists and communists in Germany, Stalin’s paranoia led to the purges: Hundreds of thousands were arrested and sent to the gulags. High ranking Soviet officials were subjected to show trials and execution.

What then is the legacy of the first experiment in socialism? The civil war and two world wars cost Russia and the USSR tens of millions of lives. The only comparable experience in U.S. history is the Civil War, but the USSR’s losses were nearly 50 times greater. In such a historical context, the USSR’s achievements in science, medicine, technology, the arts and in being the first nation to put a man in space must be seen as extraordinary. Yet throughout the 75 years of its existence, the USSR remained a dictatorship. This then became the West’s perception of communism, a grotesque parody of what socialists once envisioned: a peaceful society of free and equal citizens fulfilling the enlightenment principles of liberty, fraternity and equality for all.

You are invited to attend the Nov. 1 WorldCanvass panel discussion “The Russian Revolution 100 Years On” at MERGE, moderated by Joan Kjaer from International Programs. WorldCanvass is free and open to the public. Pre-show reception from 5-5:30 p.m.; live show from 5:30-7 p.m. Details: international.uiowa.edu/news/russian-revolution-explored-november-1-worldcanvass

Michael Andrew Žmolek is a lecturer in History and International Studies at the University of Iowa