The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

The Russian Revolution — Part 1: From Idealism to Terror

On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, historians Sheila Fitzpatrick and Catherine Merridale detail the events that led up to the dramatic overthrow of the last Romanov Czar, the rise of the revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — and the creation of the Soviet Union.

Originally published November 3, 2017.

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.

Russian Revolution, October 1917. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (Ulyanov - 1870-1924). Undated Communist poster. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Born out of the carnage of the First World War, it helped define the battle lines for many of the 20th century's largest ideological and military conflicts: the Second World War, The Cold War, the Vietnam War.

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.

Deported peasants and political prisoners used as slave labour to build the White Sea - Baltic canal in Northern European Russia, USSR, 1932. (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

In 2017, the legacy of the Russian Revolution is fiercely contested.

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.

(Ruby Buiza/CBC)

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. 

USSR: Women's March, St Petersburg (Leningrad), 8 March 1917. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In October, the Bolshevik Party seized power, overthrew the provisional government, and began building the powerful state that would later become the Soviet Union.

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.

'Lenin at Finland Station in Petrograd'. (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

When he arrived at Petrograd's Finland Station in April 1917, Lenin began pushing his country towards a more radical future, and fundamentally altered the course of history.

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.

Merridale says the Russian Revolution made many Russians "feel they could achieve utopia" — at least for a time. 

"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




International sparks

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.

Gandhi with Rashtrapati Jawaharlal Nehru, during a meeting of the All India Congress, Bombay, India. 1942. (Max Desfor)

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: "Almost at the same time as the October Revolution led by the great Lenin, we in India began a new phase in our struggle for freedom.... And although under the leadership of Gandhi we followed another path, we were influenced by the example of Lenin."

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. 

A propaganda poster marking the 100th anniversary of the Russia's communist October Revolution in Hanoi. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

In Canada, spurred on by the success of the Russian Revolution, 30,000 workers flooded the streets in 1919. The Winnipeg General Strike shut down factories and stopped trains, and is remembered as one of most influential labour protests in Canadian history.

A streetcar is overturned in Winnipeg on June 21, 1919, which became known as Bloody Saturday during the 1919 general strike. The old city hall can be seen in the background. (L.B. Foote collection/Archives of Manitoba)

For some African-American civil rights activists, early Soviet Russia seemed like a shining beacon — offering freedom from the racial segregation of their own country.

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.

When civil rights activist and singer Paul Robeson arrived in Moscow in 1934, he told reporters, "I feel like a human being for the first time."

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.

Russian poster of 1919 showing the benefits to workers of the Revolution of 1917. On the left is the old order, where the rich exploit the Proletariat. On the right is the new order with the rich expelled and the state now claimed by the people. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

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.

French anti-Stalin painting from the 1940s. The face is made up of suffering Russians and references to the Gulag. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

The beginning of the Stalin era was marked by two dramatic policies: forced agricultural collectivization and the rapid transformation of the economy through the first Five Year Plan. Stalin also oversaw the development of the gulag — labour camps for criminals and political prisoners. Many prisoners who were sent to the gulags died there. 

The enemies of the Five Year Plan, 1929. Found in the collection of Russian State Library, Moscow. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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. 

Portraits like this one of Stalin in Leningrad were familiar sites in all of the larger cities and towns in Russia. (Bettmann Archive)

Sheila Fitzpatrick spoke to Michael Enright about Stalin's 'revolution from above' and the terror, shortages, and suspicion that characterized everyday life under his regime.

She is the author of many books, including The Russian Revolution, Stalin's Peasants, and Everyday Stalinism.

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.

German Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop (L), German Under State Secretary Friedrich Gaus, Soviet head of state Joseph Stalin (3rd) and his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (R) in Moscow on 23 August 1939, after signing the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact. (AFP/Getty Images)

At the end of the war, with Europe devastated and reeling, the Americans and the Soviets were the two superpowers left standing. The Red Army had established control over much of Eastern Europe. In some places, they were seen as heroes who had liberated Europe from the Nazis; in others, as brutal occupiers bent on imposing their will by force.

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.

For a time, it seemed like a conflict that would never end, unless it ended with the annihilation of the world.

But in the 1980s, cracks began to appear in the Soviet Union.

In 1991, the Soviet Union — one of the key legacies of the Russian Revolution — was dissolved.

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.