The Russian Revolution — Part 1: From Idealism to Terror
One hundred years ago this week, in the streets of Petrograd, armed revolutionaries began their final assault on the old order. By dawn of the next day, they had extinguished what remained of an unsteady provisional government, created the first socialist state, and changed the course of human history.
The Russian Revolution shook the foundations of the known world. It split the globe into socialist and capitalist camps, and offered a radically different vision of the future that influenced the development of revolutionary parties in countries like China, Vietnam, South Africa and India.
It led to the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union. They were starved in famines, executed after politically-rigged show trials, or worked to death in gulags.
For some, the revolution remains a symbol of liberation from oppression — proof that capitalism can be challenged and empires can fall. Some see it as a cautionary tale about how lofty dreams can turn to nightmares — and for others, the whole enterprise was poisonous and doomed from the beginning.
What you think about the Russian Revolution says a lot about how you see the world today. But even if the names Lenin and Stalin only conjure up faint memories of a distant history lesson, we are living in a world shaped by this pivotal moment in 1917.
On this week's program, we're airing Part 1 of a special two-part program on the centenary of the Russian Revolution: "From Idealism to Terror."
Click 'listen' above to hear the full segment.
A note on dates: in 1917, Russia used the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar. By the old calendar, the final assault on Petrograd's Winter Palace began on October 25. By ours, it was November 7. We will use the old calendar, to describe this history as those living through the revolution would have experienced it.
The train ride that changed the world
The Russian Revolution happened in two stages.
The first, in February 1917, led to the abdication of the tsar and the creation of a new provisional government. It was a popular uprising sparked by protests to mark International Women's Day.
But the October Revolution might never have happened if not for an 8-day train ride that brought a man named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — out of exile and back to Russia.
If Lenin hadn't gone back to Russia, there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution. There would have been no Soviet Union. There would have been no Cold War. No relations between the Soviet Union and Germany to lead to Nazism. I can't end the list that would describe all the things that were down to Lenin getting back.- Catherine Merridale
Catherine Merridale, a scholar of Russian history, traces that journey in her new book, Lenin on the Train.
She spoke to Michael Enright about the conditions that led to the first revolution in February, Lenin's historic train ride, the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, and the impact of the revolution.
"People had the most remarkable ideas about what the new society could be like ... A lot of those dreams were destined to be disappointed by the end of the 1920s, and those that weren't ended up in the gulag in the 1930s."
I think it's very important to hold on to the idea that people shouldn't tolerate authoritarian government... It was a people's spring in February and March. It was the moment of great liberation - as good as any of the Arab Springs, as hopeful as the Maidan or the Tulip Revolution in Europe, and look where it ended up. And I think we should learn a lesson from that, which is to try to be as inclusive and socially aware of justice and freedom as we can be, while we are democracies - not to let that slip. Because the alternative of revolution is a very bloody one.- Catherine Merridale
People around the world watched the Russian Revolution unfold with a mix of queasy horror, astonishment and delight.
Emboldened by the precedent set in Russia, revolutionaries in other countries dove into their own projects of transformation with fresh enthusiasm.
It was through studying Lenin that Ho Chi Minh, the first leader of North Vietnam, developed his conviction that only socialism and communism could liberate oppressed nations.
In 1932, the poet Langston Hughes travelled to Moscow. In his poem "Good morning, Revolution," written during that trip, he calls revolution "the best friend I ever had."
"You see, the boss knows you are my friend. He sees us hanging out together. He knows we're hungry and ragged, and ain't got a damn thing in this world – and are gonna to do something about it," he wrote.
The Stalin years
Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has written, "The October seizure of power was not the end of the Bolshevik Revolution, but the beginning."
Less than a year after the Bolsheviks took power, the country was gripped by a civil war between the ruling Reds and groups opposed to the new government known as the Whites.
I think the Bolsheviks welcomed that fight. I don't think they thought power could ever be truly transferred from one class to another without a violent conflict. In other words, they needed to win that conflict to really win.- Sheila Fitzpatrick
Lenin also launched the Red Terror in 1918, which was aimed at eradicating "enemies of the revolution" like capitalists, nobles and clergy.
Lenin suffered three severe strokes in the early 1920s. By the time he died in 1924, a power struggle to replace him was underway. The victor was Joseph Stalin.
While under Lenin, terror and violence were most often directed at those perceived to be "class enemies," Stalinist terror was also directed at internal enemies. During the Great Purges in 1937-38, many members of the Communist elite were accused of "counterrevolutionary crimes" and executed or sent to the gulags after hastily-conducted show trials.
I think ultimately it's one of those outbursts of national hysteria which is not amenable to explanation, like the witch panics of the Middle Ages... The term used for the bad people who needed to be arrested and sent away in the Great Purges was "enemies of the people." And how do I know an enemy of the people? Well, I kind of know it by instinct. I look at you, and I think, my goodness, there's something in his eyes that isn't quite right.- Sheila Fitzpatrick
Despite the millions who died under his regime, Stalin created a massive cult of personality.
The Cold War
In 1939, Stalin signed a pact of nonaggression with Adolf Hitler. It paved the way for the Second World War and sealed the fate of millions. In 1941, Hitler broke the nonaggression pact and invaded Russia, thrusting Stalin and the west into an uncomfortable marriage of convenience. The Red Army played a crucial role in Hitler's defeat.
By the end of the 1940s, the battle lines for a new conflict — the Cold War — had been drawn.
The Cold War was not just a power struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was a global conflict, which transformed life on every continent and defined the latter half of the 20th century.
But in the 1980s, cracks began to appear in the Soviet Union.
It was the beginning of a new era. The Soviet order, and the Stalinist terror used to prop it up, had been consigned to history — or so we thought.
In Part 2 of our special program on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Michael Enright speaks with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about what the centenary means in the Russia of Vladimir Putin — a country where the old Soviet order, supposedly dealt a death blow in 1991, is undergoing a terrifying resurrection. Her new book is called The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
We also examine how the Russian Revolution influences the way we think about socialism and capitalism today, and whether it is possible to separate the original ideals from the brutal realities of 20th century history.
Click 'listen' above to hear our full segment on the Russian Revolution — Part 1.