Russia: January,1917

Russia: January,1917

Russia: January, 1917

Task 1: It is January, 1917. Read about the problems faced by Russia during the first two years of the war at Russia: 1914-1916. Write a brief speech about what action the people in your group should take.

Task 2 : Meet in your groups. Discuss what the group should do at this stage.

Group A: Nicholas II and the Autocracy



Group B: Liberals and Moderate Socialists



Group C: Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries


Group D: Bolsheviks



History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union (1917–1927)

The ten years 1917–1927 saw a radical transformation of the Russian Empire into a socialist state, the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia covers 1917–1922 and Soviet Union covers the years 1922 to 1991. After the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), the Bolsheviks took control. They were dedicated to a version of Marxism developed by Vladimir Lenin. It promised the workers would rise, destroy capitalism, and create a socialist utopia under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The awkward problem was the small proletariat, in an overwhelmingly peasant society with limited industry and a very small middle class. Following the February Revolution in 1917 that deposed Nicholas II of Russia, a short-lived provisional government gave way to Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The Bolshevik Party was renamed the Russian Communist Party (RCP).

All politics and attitudes that were not strictly RCP were suppressed, under the premise that the RCP represented the proletariat and all activities contrary to the party's beliefs were "counterrevolutionary" or "anti-socialist." Most rich families fled to exile. During 1917 to 1923, the Bolsheviks/Communists under Lenin surrendered to Germany in 1918, then fought an intense Russian Civil War against multiple enemies especially the White Army. They won the Russian heartland but lost most non-Russian areas that had been part of Imperial Russia. One by one defeating each opponent, the RCP established itself through the Russian heartland and some non-Russian areas such as Ukraine and the Caucasus, It became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) following the creation of the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1922. Following Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the CPSU, became the leader of the USSR, achieving complete dictatorship from the early 1930s to his death in 1953.

On the Eve of the Russian Revolution, a Palace Coup Seemed Inevitable, But Where Would it Come From?

“The revolutionary must penetrate everywhere, into all strata, upper and middle, into the merchant’s shop, into the church, into the manor house, into the bureaucratic, military, and literary worlds, into the Third Section [the Czar’s secret police], and even into the Winter Palace.” – Sergei Nechaev, Catechism of a Revolutionary

During the 300 years that the Romanov dynasty had held power in Russia, palace coups that replaced one monarch with a relative had been the most frequent means of effecting political change. In the 18th century, a series of czars leveraged military support to help them depose the reigning ruler Catherine the Great, in perhaps the most famous palace coup,  overthrew her own husband, Peter III in 1762. Her son, Paul, was murdered by disaffected courtiers in 1801 after being dethroned with the knowledge, if not the complicity, of his son and successor, Alexander I.

So it was with that long, bloody history that January 1917 brought fears of yet another Romanov palace coup, with Nicholas II at the center of it all. The murder of Rasputin, the czar’s close advisor, by the hands of his nephew and cousin foretold of the political chaos to come. The conspirators hoped that Rasputin’s removal would result in Nicholas turning to relatives and other members of Russia’s political elite for advice.

Instead, it widened the gulf between Nicholas and his extended family. The czar was disgusted by the involvement of his relatives in the murder and exiled both from Saint Petersburg. On January 11 [December 29 in the calendar in use in Russia at the time], the Czar received a letter signed by 16 of his relatives imploring him to rescind his order sending Dmitri, his cousin, to the Persian front, where Russian troops were fighting the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Nicholas returned the letter with the handwritten note, “No one has the right to commit murder I know that many are troubled by their conscience, and that Dimitri Pavlovich is not the only one implicated in this. I am surprised by your request.”

Other members of Nicholas’s family declined to comment on Rasputin’s murder but implored the czar to govern more effectively. The demands of Russia’s elite were conservative: the appointment of ministers who would have support from the Duma, the representative assembly granted by the czar in 1905, the czar to reside in the capital, Saint Petersburg, rather than military headquarters in Mogliev, where he had spent most of his time after assuming personal command of the Russian army in 1915, and the unpopular Empress Alexandra to be prevented from further influencing state business.

The czar’s unwillingness to engage on even these modest reforms led to widespread speculation of a coup. After a particularly frustrating audience with the czar, Nicholas’s cousin and brother-in-law wrote to his brother, a historian who also happened to be one of the signatories to the letter advocating clemency for Dmitri, “Either we sit back with folded arms and wait for the humiliation of Russia or we take heroic measures…people who love Russia find themselves at a crossroads and wonder how to act for the first time in our lives, we have to ask how far we are bound by the oath given. In all it’s a nightmare, from which I see no escape.”

Prominent politicians and diplomats heard rumours of a planned “Rising of the Grand Dukes.” There was speculation that Nicholas would be replaced by one of his relatives as ruler or as regent for Nicholas and Alexandra’s 12-year-old hemophiliac son, Alexei.

It was unclear, however, which member of the Imperial family would be willing to lead a palace coup. Efforts to involve the Duma were unsuccessful. When the czar’s aunt declared over lunch with the chairman of the Duma that the Empress “must be annihilated,” he replied, “allow me to treat this conversation as if it had never taken place,” reminding her that his oath of allegiance obliged him to report the comments to the czar.

Russia’s allies in World War I, Great Britain and France, were alarmed by the political turmoil on the Eastern front. On January 13 [New Year’s Eve in the Russian Calendar], British ambassador George Buchanan met with Nicholas and encouraged him to appoint a prime minister who would have the support of the Duma and the nation as a whole. Nicholas replied, “Do you mean that I am to regain the confidence of my people or that they are to regain my confidence.” French ambassador Maurice Paleologue drew parallels to situation of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution. Both diplomats agreed that Nicholas seemed unaware of how precarious his authority had become.

The concerns of Russia’s elite, however, were dwarfed by the discontent brewing among the workers of  Saint Petersburg and Moscow, who wanted an immediate solution to bread and fuel shortages during the especially cold winter of 1916-1917. What would eventually grow into a full-blown working-class insurrection had its roots in the popular revolutionary movements that Nicholas II’s grandfather, Alexander II, had dealt with ever since he abolished serfdom in 1861. (He had consulted with a pre-Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln.)  For a generation of young workers and students, however, the reforms were considered too little, too late and calls for a violent revolution ensued.

These earliest populist movements were particularly influenced by well-known Russian authors. Sergei Nechaev’s 1869 manifesto, Catechism of a Revolutionary, caught the attention of generations of radicals with its call for total commitment to the cause of revolution and Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, examined the differences between the older generation of reformers and a younger generation of revolutionaries.

For most Russians, the most prominent manifestation of these new ideas was the 1881 assassination of the czar when a bomb was thrown into his carriage by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary political organization. Nicholas II was 13 at the time as he stood by his grandfather’s deathbed. His father Alexander III’s subsequent  turn away from reform to a reactionary program of “Orthodoxy, Nationality and Autocracy” left a strong impact on his ideology. His father’s repression did not end revolutionary activity. Older revolutionaries from the People’s Will helped found the Socialist Revolutionary Party, from which the Bolsheviks emerged as the key faction in 1903.

The rise of these revolutionary movements took place amidst growing urbanization and industrialization in Russia. In 1905, two years later, more than 3,000 workers, frustrated by poor working conditions, marched to Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace calling for higher wages, safer factories and a shorter workday. Nicholas, who had been in power for a little over a decade, was not in residence, but his troops fired on the crowd, killing at least 132 people and wounding hundreds. The violence shattered the czar’s image as a protector of his people and led to months of unrest that continued until the Czar reluctantly agreed to establish the Duma.

“Bloody Sunday,” as the massacre was called, came to be a touch point for the cause of workers’ rights. In commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the event, as elite support for Nicholas II was shattering, 145,000 Russians took to the streets, no longer seeking for the czar to solve their problems. The striking displayed red flags and banners emblazoned with the words, “Down with the Romanovs.”

For their part, the Bolsheviks, who were not yet a major political power, were pessimistic about all this revolutionary fervor translating into real political change, let alone a workers’ revolution. That same January month, in a lecture to Swiss socialists in Zurich, a 46-year-old Vladimir Lenin stated, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” His narrow commitment to “revolutionary defeatism” was not shared by all of his comrades.

Party leadership was deeply divided. There were less than 500 committed Bolsheviks in Russia at the beginning of 1917, including Joseph Stalin, who had been conscripted into the army in late 1916. Bolshevik networks often consisted of a handful of revolutionaries.

The exiled Bolsheviks, most notably Leon Trotsky, who arrived in New York City on January 13, 1917, were focused on an international socialist revolution. Those based in Russia, who had often spent years in Siberia, favored a narrower focus on Russian concerns. Lenin wrote at the time that the First World War was “a war between two big freebooters for world domination and plunder” and hoped for Russia’s withdrawal from the hostilities.  

It was clear by this time, 100 years ago, that the Russian empire had a cloudy and unclear future. There was unrest among the working class and discontent among the ruling elite. Within weeks, the popular rising known as the February Revolution would come, ultimately leading to the collapse of three centuries of Romanov rule in Russia. The decisive battles of the coming revolution would take place far sooner than Lenin expected. 

The February Revolution

Contrary to Shlyapnikov’s prediction that the protests would peter out, the unrest snowballed in the last days of February. Red flags and banners began to appear, calling for the downfall of the monarchy.

Despite the turmoil, the authorities could have contained the situation if they had avoided open conflict with the crowds. But the forces of the tsar opened fire, killing protesters. The demonstrations began to turn into a full-scale revolution as angry protesters broke into the barracks of the city’s Pavlovsky Regiment. Rather than attack them, the soldiers joined the protesters, some even firing on their own officers.

The authorities were, by now, almost deprived of military power in the capital. The expansion of the revolt led some to assume that events were being orchestrated by socialist parties. In fact, they were driven by many individuals: soldiers, workers, and students, people whose names never made it into the history books.

On February 27 a crowd came to the Tauride Palace—the seat of the Duma—looking for leaders. A workers’ council, known as a soviet, was elected. The majority of the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet had no intention of taking power. Instead, they wanted the Duma leaders to form a government in line with the doctrine laid down by Karl Marx: That in a country such as Russia, the first step toward a socialist order would be taken by bourgeois democrats. On March 1, a provisional government was formed. The soviet pledged to support it as long as it adhered to a comprehensive list of democratic principles.

Nothing less than Tsar Nicholas’s abdication, meanwhile, could save the war campaign against Germany—all his senior generals told him so. The Duma also called on him to stand down. On March 2, 1917, Nicholas II gave up the throne. The end of the monarchy was marked by scenes of rejoicing throughout the Russian Empire. Symbols of monarchical power—emblems, coats of arms, double-headed eagles, and tsarist statues—were destroyed.

The Peasant Uprising in the Russian Revolution of 1917

The Russian Revolution was above all a workers’ revolution. It put the working class in power for the first time in history, and promised a world revolution to come which would abolish war, national oppression and exploitation forever. It inspired workers’ rebellions around the world, and came close to succeeding in its ultimate goal. But workers were not the only ones to rebel in Russia in 1917. Without peasant support, indeed without the peasant uprising to throw off their own chains of oppression, the Russian Revolution never could have survived.

Unlike most of Western Europe, Russia was a backward, primarily agrarian society, in which capitalism had a late start, and still, at the opening of the Twentieth Century, held no political rights under the Tsarist autocracy. The overwhelming majority of its populace were peasants. As in most peasant societies, there was a long history of rebellions, all of which were defeated, but which were memorialized in legend and song for centuries. When in February of 1917—in the midst of the devastation of World War I —urban workers and soldiers rose up and toppled the fragile Tsarist autocracy in a matter of days, peasants immediately took notice. Could their grievances, so long ignored, be addressed in this new situation?

Peasant Rebellions Were Endemic in Russia

Peasant rebellions dated back as far as the Russian defeat of the Mongols, and the establishment of the Tsar as the &ldquoruler of all Rus&rdquo in 1503. People of Mongol origin, Tatars, Kirghiz, Kalmuks, etc., were deprived of all rights and could be forced into serfdom by the Russian nobility, and even into outright slavery (slave markets were legal until 1828). Serfdom in Russia was slave-like feudalism—peasants were not allowed to leave the land they were born on. This soon produced uprisings, including major revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The leader of the first of these, Stepan Razin, was memorialized in a statue dedicated by Lenin in 1918 and the second, led by Yemelyan Pugachev, amassed a great army and took several cities before its eventual defeat, and Pugachev’s public beheading.

These rebellions were remembered by the peasants, but also by the landed gentry and the autocracy. When Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Crimean War in the 1850s, at the hands of the decrepit Ottoman Empire and its British and French allies, Russian rulers began to think about modernization. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 under Alexander II was the immediate result. This decree took a step away from feudalism, and at first, peasants were thrilled. The communal land on which peasants toiled had belonged to the landlord, but now it was &ldquoallocated&rdquo to the peasant commune (the village mir). But the devil was in the details, and the problems were many.

Fearful of revolution—such as those of 1848 in Western Europe—the gentry at first had wanted serfs to be freed, but without any land. The also fearful Tsar however, did not want to create a proletariat of landless workers. A compromise ensued, but it did not provide enough land for a growing population of peasants to survive on and still maintain their traditional three-field system. [1] Furthermore, the landlords retained the best lands for themselves, and large sections of what had been commons, including forests, roads and rivers, were now accessible only for a fee. The forests were important to the peasants for building material and for fires in winter. Finally, the peasants were also required to make redemption payments for the land they did receive for 49 years, with interest! The peasants were still tied to the communal land, could not sell their portion of it, and often had to take jobs working on landlords’ farms, to the neglect of their own plots. In short, life remained grim for the peasants.

Capitalism Creeps In

Underlying the land situation in 1861 was the insinuation of capitalism onto the scene. Just as in the latter days of feudalism in Western Europe, the landed gentry in Russia was accumulating debt owed to urban financiers. The redemption payments demanded of the peasants were to be the source of financing of bonds issued to the landlords by the state, so that the loss of ownership of the land could be turned into capital. But the redemption payments were essentially uncollectible from the poor peasants, who lacked sufficient land to be able to survive, let alone sell their produce.

The 1861 reforms had the effect of stimulating a capitalist market, however. The amount of grain for sale on the open market increased, as did non-gentry ownership of farms. The rural proletariat of landless laborers, composed of peasants who couldn’t make it as farmers, also increased. Here we have the background to uneven and combined development: an ancient but still dominant feudal aristocracy was becoming more intertwined with a nascent capitalism.

The 1905 Revolution

As the Twentieth Century dawned however, the Russian autocracy failed another big test on the international stage. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Tsar’s naval fleet was demolished by the Japanese Empire, which the Tsar had seriously underestimated. This debacle quickly sparked the Revolution of 1905. Workers rose up, went on strike, established workers soviets, and appointed a revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, to lead the St. Petersburg Soviet. Peasants rose up as well not all, but enough to make the Tsar pick very carefully for a loyal regiment to shoot down protestors outside the Winter Palace in the Bloody Sunday massacre, killing at least 1,000. The 1905 uprising was put down, but the autocracy knew it had to do something to prevent further risings, and accelerate its modernization without undermining its still feudalistic noble ruling class. A fake parliament called the Duma was created, and the &ldquosolution&rdquo on the land was, essentially, more capitalism.

Based on earlier assessments of what was needed, Pyotr Stolypin, Chairman of the Tsar’s Council of Ministers, laid out a plan in 1906 which was based on &ldquobanking on the strong ones&rdquo (i.e., the rich, market-oriented peasants) The traditional communal land system was to be undermined by empowering peasants with the right to privatize the land by &ldquocutting out&rdquo and selling their section of the commune. The reform also enabled the formation of peasant cooperatives, which became dominated by kulaks and middle peasants, who could trade on the market. This was &ldquoan explosive capitalist shell&rdquo aimed at the commune. The purpose was to promote capitalist farmers who would be a support for the regime. To facilitate this, the redemption payments of 1861, destined to expire anyway in 1910, were abolished. [2]

Peasants Remained Hungry and Rebellious

Again, the penetration of capitalism on the land produced a stronger market, including international grain sales, as a minority of peasants were able to break away from the communes. Meanwhile, peasants who sold out their land because it was insufficient for them to live on added themselves to the ranks of landless farm laborers. Most peasants were enraged, and opposition to the land sales grew. In a year or two there were incidents of peasants seizing land that had been &ldquocut out&rdquo from the commune, as well as attacks on big landlords, including the burning of mansions. The peasants, having gone through all the Tsar’s reforms, were still land hungry and rebellious.

The numbers illustrate the situation. In 1905, about one half of all arable land was private (including church and state-owned land), and about half of that was owned by 30,000 great landed gentry. The other half of all arable land—and often the worst land—was in the hands of some 10 million peasant families, mostly in the communes, or small ownership plots.

The Final Disaster for the Tsar

Enter the next, and as it turned out final, disaster for the fragile regime of Tsardom: World War I. War recruitment carried away 10 million workers and peasants, and stripped away 2 million horses, as well as food stuffs for the army and other resources, while defeats in the trenches mounted. Peasants who could no longer sow the land increased in number, and in the second year of war even some middle peasants began to go under.

An initial surge of patriotism was a set-back for the revolutionary left (the Bolsheviks had been gaining strength in recent years), but that didn’t last long. Workers’ rebellion soon infected the cities, and peasant hostility exploded from month to month. The stress on the economy was shown by the steady decline in bread rations for workers in (newly renamed) Petrograd. This provoked women workers to take to the streets in protest on International Working Women’s Day in 1917 and they were soon followed by the rest of the workers and the soldiers who were garrisoned in and around Petrograd. Tsar Nicholas II, who had foolishly thought he could save his futile war by himself going to the front, abandoned his throne within days. The February Revolution was on.

The workers immediately formed soviets again as in 1905, and peasants began to take action against the landlords, slowly at first, but soon ramping up. The February Revolution had dramatically increased the already high rate of desertions of peasant soldiers from the trenches. Returning to their home villages, these men were armed, impatient and ready to promote radical action. They took a leading role in events that were soon to envelope the countryside. The first weeks in February saw villages remain inert, but by March, the spectre of a peasant war hung over the landlords. This was a mixture of paranoia and reality: in some provinces, peasant committees were arresting landlords, banishing them, seizing the land, or &ldquoreadjusting&rdquo their rents arbitrarily. As some of the frightened nobles began selling properties, often to foreign investors, kulaks began buying them up as well. Poor peasants’ resentment of landlords began to extend to rich peasants as well, and objection to land sales mounted. [3]

The Revolution thus far had unleashed a torrent of organizing activities among the masses, and peasants were no exception. In May, a month-long All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies was held in Petrograd. This conclave, though composed primarily of representatives of the upper layers of the peasantry, provided an opportunity to assess the peasant state of mind. Delegates came from the zemstvos, or elected local assemblies, established by Tsar Alexander II in 1864, which were dominated by village shop keepers, as well as the co-ops of the more well-off peasants and a few from the village mir. The representatives were overwhelmingly supporters of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), the descendants of the Narodniks, who were intellectuals proclaiming to go &ldquoto the people&rdquo as the path to end Tsarist rule. While they declared &ldquoland to the tiller,&rdquo their plan now was to pressure the bourgeoisie to implement land reform, through the projected Constituent Assembly, and they were resolutely opposed to workers’ demands for peace or the 8-hour day, or peasants acting on their own to solve the land question.

Lenin Addresses Peasant Congress

The Bolshevik delegation to this assembly was small, but Lenin addressed the congress on May 20th, and he proclaimed a program of land nationalization through organized direct action by the peasants regardless of legality. According to eyewitness Nicolai Sukhanov, &ldquoIt would seem that Lenin had landed not merely in a camp of bitter enemies, but you might say in the very jaws of the crocodile.&rdquo But Sukhanov went on to report that, &ldquoThe little muzhiks listened attentively and probably not without sympathy. But they dared not show it…&rdquo [4]

In fact, Lenin (not for the first time) had put his finger on the central problem facing the revolution: the fact that the bourgeoisie, which was tied in with the landed aristocracy, was incapable of making a democratic revolution. The Bolshevik position, in distinction from the Mensheviks, had always been that the working class alone was capable of making the democratic revolution. The Bolsheviks’ formula for this was the &ldquodictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.&rdquo With the influence of Lenin’s thinking, and Trotsky’s promotion of the Marxist understanding of the revolution in permanence, this formula was revised to assert the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. And that alliance, while it would expect the workers to take the lead in making their own revolution, and establishing a workers’ state, would not depend on the workers substituting themselves for peasant action. This was to be an alliance, not an overlordship.

The Key to the Russian Revolution

The revolution would necessitate that the workers put forward their own demands, not limiting themselves to the democratic simplicities of the capitalists. After all, the masses had rebelled in February against the imperialist war, yet it went on and against the approaching famine (largely due to the war), yet that went on workers demanded the 8-hour day, but that was ignored and the peasants were rebelling against the icy grip of the aristocracy over the land, yet the Provisional Government let that go on. Of all the supposedly &ldquorevolutionary&rdquo parties—Mensheviks, SRs, etc.—the Bolsheviks alone said that the masses should act for themselves in putting forward their own demands.

And that is the key to understanding the Russian Revolution: it was not a &ldquocoup&rdquo it was a coming together of what the masses wanted and needed, and a leadership prepared to facilitate their success. That formula included the peasants, and explains the Bolshevik’s Land Decree, and its relation to the theory of permanent revolution.

For most of 1917 however, the peasants were represented by the SRs, not the Bolsheviks. At the peasants’ congress in May, at which Lenin spoke, the SRs promoted and passed an extremely radical resolution, calling for: &ldquoConversion of all land into national property for equal working use, without any indemnity.&rdquo But they didn’t mean that the peasants should act on their own! As Trotsky explains, &ldquoTo be sure, the kulak understood equality only in the sense of his equality with the landlord, not at all in the sense of his equality with the hired hands. However, this little misunderstanding between the fictitious socialism of the Narodniks and the agrarian democratism of the muzhiks would come out in the open only in the future.&rdquo [5]

SRs or Bolsheviks, Who Should Lead?

That &ldquofuture&rdquo came quickly. As the congress was winding down, reports came in of peasants taking the Congress’ resolutions seriously in the localities, and appropriating the land and equipment of the landlords. The SRs, at their own conference in early June, immediately sounded a retreat! They condemned all land seizures done arbitrarily by the peasants, and insisted that they wait for the Constituent Assembly. Their line was based on the fact that they were in alliance with the Provisional Government, of which they would soon be a part (their representative Alexander Kerensky became Minister of War, and then Minister Chairman).

And so it went for months. The peasants clung to the SRs at the local level because of their avowed aims, but the SR tops were all about compromising with the bourgeoisie, which was financially interlinked with the landed gentry. The landlords complained of the mounting confiscations of their land, and the Kadet (bourgeois liberal) bankers were loaned out against the real estate for billions of roubles. So the SR tops supported the bourgeois government’s feeble attempts to defend the gentry’s land. They planned to dicker with the landlords over reconciling their utopian slogans with bourgeois interests at the Constituent Assembly but the peasants were not waiting around for this pie in the sky.

Assault on the Landlords

The action in the countryside soon became a stampede, with kulaks in the lead, with poor peasants drawn in on the general assault on the big landlords. The rich peasants had horses and wagons with which to sack the estates and carry off the goods, while the less well-off followed their lead in a wholesale demand for land. This was certainly not what the SR compromisers wanted, but it wasn’t exactly what the Bolsheviks wanted either. Lenin had called for organized confiscations, with peasant organizations taking over the big estates to work as collectives and he emphasized the need for the landless workers and poor peasants to form soviets to present their own needs for socialization of the land. With some exceptions, neither of these calls were being heeded.

Yet the Bolsheviks, by October, though still a minority in local peasant organizations, had been the only party to call for peasant direct action, and peasants were listening. Trotsky reported that, in the escalating rush to attack the gentry’s estates, the SR leadership was increasingly pushed aside. This was documented by one Bolshevik in the Volga region: &ldquoThe muzhiks called [their SR leaders] &lsquoold men,&rsquo treating them with external deference, but voting in their own way.&rdquo Trotsky continues, &ldquoIt is impossible to weigh the influence of the revolutionary workers upon the peasantry. It was continuous, molecular, [and] penetrating everywhere…&rdquo [6]

The October Revolution: Bolsheviks Conquer Power

This was the situation at the time of the Bolshevik conquest of power on October 25th: the peasant masses, in opposition to their own SR leadership, and under the influence of revolutionary workers and Bolsheviks, were seizing the land. While carrying out the SR program of land to the tiller, rather than the Bolshevik plan for organized takeovers to establish collectivization, the peasants were staking their claim as a petty bourgeois class: they wanted the land. The brilliance of Lenin’s leadership now lay in accepting this, for the present, as the will of the masses.

The working class took power in alliance with the peasantry, who were the vast majority in the country, and Lenin knew that simply declaring the Bolshevik program as law would not change the reality of what the peasants were doing. The workers were in power, but no revolution can impose socialism by decree it must be built brick by brick. The Land Decree, the second (after the peace decree) to be passed by the 2nd Congress of Soviets, was based on the resolutions of peasant organizations, passed under the leadership of the SRs. But while the SRs saw this as a bargaining chip to present to the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks saw it as the will of the peasants, taken by direct action, and endorsed it as such.

But how does this square with the theory of Permanent Revolution, which affirms that the working class in a relatively backward country such as semi-feudal Russia, must not only make the democratic revolution that the bourgeoisie could not make, but must also put forward its own demands for socialism and workers’ rule? The workers’ own demands, for bread, peace and land, had been out there on the street from the February beginning. But complaints were heard, both within the Bolshevik Party and from without, about how the Bolsheviks failed to implement the socialist revolution on the land.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Critique

Foremost among these critics was that of the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Writing from prison in 1918, Luxemburg asserted that, &ldquothe direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy.&rdquo And, she goes on, &ldquoIn the first place, only the nationalization of the large landed estates…can serve as the point of departure for the socialist mode of production on the land.&rdquo In the second place, she asserts that, &ldquoone of the prerequisites of this transformation [is] that the separation between rural economy and industry…should be ended in such a way as to bring about a mutual interpenetration and fusion of both.&rdquo

All of this is right on the mark. Luxemburg then continues, &ldquoThat the soviet government in Russia has not carried through these mighty reforms—who can reproach them for that!&rdquo She insists that the Soviet government, &ldquoin the brief period of their rule, in the center of the gripping whirlpool of domestic and foreign struggles,&rdquo could not have been expected to have accomplished these reforms, which she calls, &ldquothe most difficult task of the socialist transformation of society!&rdquo Again, well and good.

But then we come to the crux of the matter: Luxemburg says that, &ldquoA socialist government which has come to power must…take measures which lead in the direction of that fundamental prerequisite for a later socialist reform of agriculture.…&rdquo This, she says, the Bolsheviks did not do by calling for &ldquoimmediate seizure and distribution of the land by the peasants,&rdquo or, she says, Lenin’s slogan of &ldquogo and take the land for yourselves,&rdquo which &ldquosimply led to the sudden, chaotic conversion of large landownership into peasant landownership.&rdquo (emphases in original) [7]

Lenin Promotes Organized Land Seizures

What Luxemburg missed here was probably not her fault. News of the Russian Revolution was highly restricted in Germany in 1918 under a government of Social Democrats who were soon to be her murderers and especially if one was in prison, as she was. But the truth she missed is that Lenin tirelessly made clear two things: First, the call for the peasants to seize the land themselves was directed explicitly against the program of the SRs, which called for land nationalization, but instructed the peasants to wait for &ldquonegotiations&rdquo with the landlords, or for the bourgeois Constituent Assembly to decide. Secondly, Lenin consistently called for land seizures to be organized. As he said at the aforementioned Peasant Congress in May 1917, &ldquoLet him [the peasant] know that the land he is taking is not his land, nor is it the landowners, but the common property of the people…&rdquo and, &ldquoUntil [the power of the working people is established], the local [peasant] authorities…should take over the landed estates and should do so in an organized manner according to the will of the majority.&rdquo [8]

In order to facilitate these aims, Lenin tried to promote the organization of landless and poor peasants, both before and after October, with, unfortunately, little result at first. Lenin also consistently argued for the preservation of gentry property for peoples’ use, rather than its destruction, which is what many peasants were doing. (In this, peasants were remembering their long experience with failed rebellions. They were saying, you must destroy everything, lest they come back.)

But Lenin’s Land Decree was very clear in laying down what Luxemburg advocated, ie, &ldquomeasures that lead in the direction [of] a later socialist reform of agriculture.&rdquo According to the Decree, &ldquoAll land…shall become part of the national land fund. Its distribution among the peasants shall be in [the] charge of the local and self-government bodies, from democratically organized village and city communes, in which there are no distinctions of social rank, to central regional government bodies.&rdquo [9]

Peasants Withhold Grain in Famine

Nevertheless, it’s true that the peasants’ appropriation of the land for themselves led to trouble for the workers state, in that peasants began to withhold grain to the cities, sparking threat of famine, as Rosa Luxemburg noted. But Luxemburg’s plea for a &ldquofusion&rdquo of agriculture and industry, much to the chagrin of the Bolsheviks, was impossible just then. Starting with the early days of the Revolution, factories began to lock out workers in defiance of the Bolsheviks, and the trickle of workers who went back to the peasant villages where they were from increased.

Then, with the start of the Civil War, workers and peasants were called upon to form the Red Army, which they did with little hesitation, further interrupting what little production capacity was left. This became a key to the famine which gripped urban Russia in 1918-19: the workers—and their new state—had nothing to offer the peasants in the way of manufactured tools and goods in exchange for foodstuffs. Forced requisitioning of grain became essential. But without this Land Decree, solidifying the removal of the landlords, the Bolsheviks would have lost the civil war.

Bolsheviks Finally Make Headway on the Land

This dismal situation ironically improved somewhat with the resignation of the Left-SRs from the Soviet government after the ratification of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which ended Russia’s participation in World War I. I say &ldquoironically,&rdquo because under the treaty, the Bolsheviks had to cede the Baltic states to Germany, and they had to recognize the independence of the Ukraine, which quickly came under German influence: not good. This is not to say that signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was not necessary: it was of utmost importance to end the imperialist war that had devastated Russia and Europe. But the Ukraine was the most highly developed, most capitalistic, and most productive of agricultural areas of the former Russian Empire.

However, with the SRs out of the government, their influence over the peasants declined. The SRs had tended to favor individual action by the richer stratum, while the Bolsheviks, whose influence now increased, continued to support poor and landless peasants. The &ldquoimprovement&rdquo was that with this rising influence, and with the onset of the civil war in mid-1918, Lenin finally succeeded in mobilizing poor and landless peasants, through Poor Peasants Committees and Communes. This signaled that the Bolsheviks had succeeded in splitting the peasantry along class lines, and this was a good thing for a transition to socialism.

Lenin Explains Collectivist Goals

Lenin explained this in a speech to a peasant congress of the Poor Peasants Committees and Communes, in December of 1918: &ldquoAt first there was the general drive of the peasants against the landowners… This was followed by a struggle among the peasants themselves, among whom new capitalists arose in the shape of the kulaks, the exploiters and profiteers who used their surplus grain to enrich themselves at the expense of the starving non-agricultural parts of Russia.&rdquo Lenin emphasized that now, &ldquo …our common task and our common aim is the transition to socialist farming, to collective land tenure and collective farming.&rdquo This was to be done gradually, using persuasion and &ldquotransitional methods,&rdquo and involving middle peasants as well as poor. [10]

The Kulaks and poor peasants had been united in overthrowing the landlords, but now rich peasants were selling their grain on the black market at high prices, defying the workers’ state’s monopoly, and even threatening its survival. The organization of poor peasants promoted the state monopoly on the sale of foodstuffs, aided in grain seizures from the rich peasants, and supported the mobilization of peasants in support of the workers state in the face of imperialist and white army reactionaries mobilizing to destroy it.

The drive to collectivize would not be completed in Lenin’s lifetime, nor would it prevent the &ldquoone step back&rdquo that the Bolsheviks had to take at the end of the civil war in 1921, in the form of the New Economic Policy, or NEP, which became necessary to jump start Russia’s devastated economy. However, the Bolshevik’s commitment to the permanent revolution is fully confirmed by their handling of the peasant question. Just barely out of feudalism, the peasant majority in Russia, oppressed by the landlords and hungry for land, had to go through the stage of making the bourgeois revolution on the land, which they could only do with the alliance, and leadership, of the urban proletariat.

But this &ldquostage&rdquo of the peasant revolution must not be confused with the stagism of the Mensheviks or the Stalinist epigones who later led the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. In the Menshevik/SR/Stalinist world view, the bourgeois revolution had to come first, while the working class waited for the bourgeoisie to complete a revolution (which it was incapable of completing). But the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky were not so inclined. They showed that, indeed, the working class had to press forward with its own demands in order not only to complete the bourgeois revolution (including that of the peasants), but to move forward toward socialism for workers, and in timely fashion, for the peasants as well.

Throughout history, peasant revolts had never been capable of leading to a peasant revolutionary state. The peasants, being class divided among themselves, could only prompt a new dynasty (as in China), or a new urban petty-bourgeois layer into power. They had never been so capable, that is, until the Russian Revolution, when, together with the working class, they made history.


1 The three field system, in which two fields were planted and one left fallow, rotating each year, was a standard throughout feudal Europe. This helped prevent soil depletion from over-working, and from the planting of single crops endlessly on the same fields. Modern agriculture attempts to circumvent this with artificial fertilizers, but that is another story.

2 Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1967, vol. I p. 59.

4 N. N. Sukhanov, &ldquoThe Russian Revolution 1917,&rdquo Harper, 1962, vol. 2, p. 371. Sukhanov was a Menshevik with a wide range of contradictory opinions, but he was a great eyewitness reporter. A &ldquomuzhik&rdquo is a Russian peasant.

7 Rosa Luxemburg, &ldquoThe Russian Revolution,&rdquo in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1970. This was written in mid-1918 and not published until years later.

8 Lenin, &ldquoSpeech On the Agrarian Question,&rdquo to First All Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, May 22 (June 4th) 1917, Collected Works (CW), vol. 24. pp. 486-505.

9 Lenin’s Decree on the Land, in Mervyn Matthews, ed., Soviet Government: A Selection of Official Documents on Internal Policies, New York, 1974, p. 319.

10 Lenin, &ldquoSpeech To The First All-Russian Congress of Land Departments, Poor Peasants’ Committees and Communes.&rdquo December 11, 1918, in CW, vol. 28, pp. 338-48. Transitional methods included state support and incentives for collective farms.

Russian Revolution timeline 1918-1919

This Russian Revolution timeline lists significant events and developments in Soviet-controlled Russia in 1918 and 1919. This timeline has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors.

Note: Entries in this Russian Revolution timeline use the Gregorian or New Style calendar, which was adopted by the Soviet government on January 24th 1918.

January 19th: Bolshevik guards close down the new Constituent Assembly after just one day. The assembly is effectively dissolved and does not meet again.
February: Bolshevik edicts enforce the separation of church and state religious worship becomes a matter of choice.
February 10th: The official formation of the Red Army. Leon Trotsky is appointed war commissar.
February 18th: The lack of progress in treaty negotiations at Brest-Litovsk prompts Germany to restart hostilities and launch an invasion of Russia.
March 3rd: Trotsky signs the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ending Russia’s involvement in World War I. The treaty surrenders large amounts of land, people and resources to the Germans.
March 6th: The Bolshevik party changes its official name to the Russian Communist Party.
March 14th: The Congress of Soviets narrowly ratifies the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, though the Left SRs oppose this and leave in protest.
April 13th: The tsarist General Kornilov, while leading guerrilla assaults against Bolshevik positions, is killed by an artillery shell.
April: British and French troops land in outlying port cities, the first instances of foreign intervention in the Russian Civil War.
May 9th: Bolshevik troops in Kolpino open fire on workers striking protesting about food shortages.
May 14th: A 30,000-strong Czech Legion, making its way through Russia, joins counter-revolutionaries determined to remove the Soviet government.
June: The Czech Legion, along with SRs and other White forces, put an end to Bolshevik control in many rural areas.
June 28th: Vesenkha, the Soviet economic committee, announces its policy of ‘war communism’.
July 6th: The German ambassador, Mirbach, is assassinated by a member of the Left SRs
July 6th: A 2,000-strong band of Left SRs attempt an October-style rebellion in Moscow but are soon defeated and arrested.
July: The CHEKA, now numbering more than 10,000 personnel, respond to the Moscow uprising by purging and executing Left SRs.
July 17th: The Romanov family and their entourage are shot by a local CHEKA detachment while under house arrest in Ekaterinburg.
July: US president Woodrow Wilson approves a 5,000-strong American force to support the White Army in northern Russia.
August 19th: Lenin issues his famous ‘hanging order’, demanding the public execution of a hundred kulaks in Penza.
August 30th: Uritsky, head of the Petrograd CHEKA, is assassinated as an act of retaliation for violence and killings carried out by the Bolsheviks.
August 30th: An assassination attempt by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, leaves Lenin seriously wounded.
November: The White commander Kolchak establishes control of Siberia.

January: The Sovnarkom formally announces the beginning of prodrazvyorstka: compulsory grain requisitioning.
January: The Soviet policy of war communist triggers sporadic peasant rebellions in central Russia
January: The Bolsheviks execute minor royals who, like the Romanovs, had been held under arrest since 1917.
January: The Mensheviks are granted legal status as an official party and are allowed to publish a newspaper.
February: The CHEKA closes down the Menshevik newspaper after it publishes strong criticism of Bolshevik policy.
March: The Third Communist International, or Comintern, is convened in Moscow, with a mission to aid and advance the cause of world revolution.
March: Socialist revolutionaries declare a workers’ soviet republic in Hungary it lasts until August before being dispersed.
May: Green Army commander Grigoriev captures a central region of Ukraine, where he launches pogroms against local Jews.
June: Finland declares war on the Bolshevik regime in Russia.
October: The White general Yudenich launches an assault on Petrograd that almost succeeds in capturing the city, a critical point in the Civil War.
November: Yudenich’s forces are pushed back by Red Army reinforcements and take refugee in Estonia.

This article was published in the Russian-language New York newspaper Novy mir (New World) on January 20, 1917. It was published in Russian in Trotsky’s 1923 Voina i Revoliutsiia (War and Revolution), Vol 2, pp. 424-428. It appeared in English in Our Revolution (1918). Below is an original translation.

The article is translated by Fred Williams, who will be delivering an online lecture, “The Legacy of 1905 and the Strategy of the Russian Revolution” on Saturday, March 25, at 5:00 Eastern Daylight Time. For more information,

Revolutionary anniversaries are not so much days of reminiscences, as days of learning. Especially for us Russians. Our history is poor. What has been called our uniqueness, consisted to a significant degree in being backward, poverty-stricken, ignorant and unwashed. Only the revolution of 1905 led us onto the great highway of political development. On January Ninth, the Petersburg worker knocked strongly on the gates of the Winter Palace. But it could be said that this was the entire Russian people knocking for the first time on the gates of history. The crowned janitor did not respond to the knocking. But nine months later—on 17 October 1905—he was forced to open the heavy gates of autocracy, and, despite all the ensuing efforts of reaction, a small crack always remained. The revolution was not victorious. The same forces and almost the same figures remain in power who were there twelve years ago. But the revolution made Russia unrecognizable. The kingdom of immobility, servitude, Orthodoxy, vodka and submissiveness has become a kingdom of ferment, criticism and struggle. Where once there was only shapeless dough—the faceless, formless people, “Holy Russia”—new classes have consciously opposed each other, and political parties with their programs and methods of struggle have arisen. The Ninth of January opens a new Russian history from this line of blood there is no turning back. There is no return to the accursed Asiatic backwardness of previous centuries, and there will never be.

It was not the liberal bourgeoisie, nor the petty-bourgeois democracy, nor the radical intelligentsia, nor the many-millioned peasantry, but the proletariat in Russia that opened the new period of history in Russia with its struggle. This is a basic fact. And on this, as a foundation, we Social-Democrats are drawing our conclusions and are forging our tactics. On the Ninth of January, a priest, Georgi Gapon, ended up leading the Petersburg workers. He was a fantastic figure, combining in his person adventurism, hysteria and charlatanry. His priest’s robes were an umbilical cord still connecting the workers with the past, with “Holy Russia [Rus’].” But nine months later, during the October strike, the greatest political strike which history had ever known, the Petersburg workers were led by their own, elected, self-governing organization: the Council [Soviet] of Workers’ Deputies. Its members included many workers who earlier had been on Gapon’s staff, but in the few months of revolution they had grown considerably, just as the entire class which they represented had grown. Gapon, who had secretly returned by this time to Russia, tried to revive his organization and make it a weapon for Witte. “Faithful” Gaponov supporters gathered several times in Solyanoi gorodok, in the center of Petersburg, right next to the Council of Workers’ Deputies, and during our sessions, sounds of “Eternal Memory” frequently made their way to us: beyond funeral dirges for victims of January Ninth the Gaponovtsy did not go.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), was the co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, socialist opponent of Joseph Stalin, founder of the Fourth International, and strategist of world socialist revolution.

In the first period of the revolution, the activities of the proletariat met with sympathy and even support from liberal society. The Miliukovs figured that the workers would give tsarism a sound thrashing and make it inclined to compromise with the opposition bourgeoisie. But the tsarist bureaucracy, which had become accustomed over centuries to dominating the people, was by no means in a hurry to share their power with the liberals. Even in October 1905 the bourgeoisie became convinced that they could only come to power by breaking the backbone of tsarism. Apparently, this noble cause could only be carried out by a victorious revolution.

But essentially, the revolution moved the working class to the forefront, united it and hardened it with irreconcilable hostility not only to tsarism, but also to capitalism. During October, November, and December 1905—in the epoch of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies—we observe how every new, revolutionary step taken by the proletariat cast the liberals toward the monarchy. Hopes for revolutionary collaboration between the bourgeoisie and proletariat prove to be a hopeless utopia. Whoever failed to see this then, and did not understand it later, whoever still dreams about a “national” uprising against tsarism—for such people revolution and class struggle are a book behind seven seals.

At the end of 1905, the question had become urgent. The monarchy had already become convinced in practice that at a moment of decisive revolutionary battle, the bourgeoisie would not support the workers the monarchy then decided to move against them with all its forces. The ominous December days began. The Council of Workers’ Deputies in Petersburg was arrested by the Izmailov Guards Regiment, which had remained loyal to the government. A magnificent response followed: the strike in Petersburg, the uprising in Moscow, the stormy revolutionary movements in all the industrial cities and centers, uprising in the Caucasus and in the Latvian areas. The revolutionary movement was crushed. And there were many a quasi-“socialist” who hastened to conclude from our December defeat that the revolution in Russia was impossible without the support of the liberal bourgeoisie. If this were true, it would mean that a revolution in Russia is generally impossible.

Our large industrial bourgeoisie—and only they have true power—is separated from the proletariat by insurmountable class hostility and needs the monarchy as a pillar of order. The Guchkovs, Krestovnikovs and Riabushinskys cannot fail to see the revolutionary proletariat as their mortal enemy. Our middle and petty commercial-industrial bourgeoisie has little significance in the economic life of our country, and is entangled from head to foot in the nets of dependence on big capital. The Miliukovs, the leaders of the lower middle class, only play a political role to the extent that they operate as clerks for the big bourgeoisie. Precisely for this reason the Cadet leader called the banner of the revolution “a red rag,” repeatedly renounced it, and very recently, during the war, declared that if revolution were necessary for victory over the Germans, then he would refuse victory.

The peasantry occupies an enormous place in Russian life. In 1905 it was shaken to its very deepest layers. The peasants were driving out the landlords, burning estates and seizing the gentry’s lands. But the curse of the peasantry is that it is scattered, disconnected and backward. In addition, the interests of various layers of the peasantry differ greatly. Against their local landlords, they rose up bravely, but they stopped in reverential fear before the all-Russian master. Moreover, the peasant soldiers did not understand that the proletarians were shedding their blood not only for themselves, but for them, and as a blind weapon of tsarist power they crushed the workers’ uprising in December 1905.

Whoever thinks carefully about the experience of 1905, and draws the threads from it to the present day, will understand how lifeless and pitiful are the hopes of our social-patriots for the revolutionary collaboration of the proletariat with the liberal bourgeoisie. Over the last twelve years, big capital in Russia has made enormous conquests. The middle and petty bourgeoisie has fallen into even greater dependence on the banks and trusts. The proletariat, which has grown numerically, is separated from the bourgeois classes by an even greater abyss than in 1905. If a “national” revolution did not succeed twelve years ago, then there are less hopes for it now. During this time, it is true, the cultural and political level of the Russian peasantry has greatly risen. But once again there are incomparably fewer hopes for the revolutionary role of the peasantry, as a class, than in 1905. The industrial proletariat can only find a truly reliable ally in the proletarian and semi-proletarian layers in the countryside. “But in that case, are there any chances of a victory of the revolution in Russia?”—the skeptic may ask. This is a special question, and we will try to show on the pages of Novy mir [The New World] that such chances exist and that they are quite solid. But before approaching this question, we must clear the way of any superstitions regarding the possibility of revolutionary collaboration between labor and capital in the struggle against tsarism.

The experience of 1905 tells us that such collaboration is a pitiful Utopia. To become familiar with this experience, to study it, is the duty of every thinking worker who wants to avoid tragic mistakes. It is precisely in this sense that we said above that revolutionary anniversaries for us are not only days for reminiscences, but also days of great learning.

Trotsky in January 1917: “Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution”

2017 marks the centenary of the greatest event in world history: the Russian Revolution. The names Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky will forever be connected to that momentous social, political, and economic upheaval, which forever changed the course of humanity. Many people familiar with 20th Century history know that when the Russian working class overthrew the tsar in February 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland, soon to return to Petrograd in the famous sealed train. But where was Trotsky before returning to the maelstrom?

On January 1, 1917, Trotsky wrote in his diary: “Two New Years of the war I have spent in France, the third is spent on the ocean. What has 1917 in store for us?” Trotsky, his wife Natalia Sedova, and their two children, Lev and Sergei were on the steamship Montserrat, bound for the United States from Spain, from whence they had been expelled from the European continent.

One hundred years ago today, on January 13, 1917, just weeks before the collapse of tsarism, the thirty-eight-year-old Trotsky arrived in New York City. For two-and-a-half months he lived and worked in the exuberant city before returning to revolutionary Russia. A professional revolutionary socialist and internationalist, he threw himself headlong into political activity from the moment he stepped ashore.

Trotsky was quite literally a man without a passport, hounded his entire adult life by the authorities, exiled, deported, and expelled from one country after another. He was twice exiled to Siberia for his revolutionary activities in Russia and escaped both times. From England to Austria and the Balkans, Switzerland, France, and Spain, Trotsky lived and breathed revolutionary Marxism wherever he went. He was a prodigious writer and editor of newspapers, articles, books, pamphlets, and gave countless speeches for socialist revolution and against capitalism, imperialism, and war in multiple languages.

Trotsky recalled his first impressions of the city in his 1930 autobiography, My Life: “Here I was in New York, city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.”

The day after he arrived, he wrote, “I left a Europe wallowing in blood, but I left with a profound faith in a coming revolution. And it was with no democratic ‘illusions’ that I stepped on the soil of this old-enough New World.”

As Kenneth Ackerman explains in his highly detailed and extensively researched account, Trotsky In New York, 1917: Portrait of a Radical on the Eve of Revolution, Trotsky hit the ground running. Of Ukrainian-Jewish origin, he landed in the infamous warrens of the Lower East Side (LES) in Manhattan, home to tens of thousands of Eastern European immigrants.

Just a few weeks after Trotsky’s arrival, food riots broke in the LES. Hundreds of women protested against food prices, which had doubled or even tripled on the eve of WWI. Price-gouging merchants and those who did not respect a boycott organized by the socialist-led Mothers’ Anti-High Price League were verbally and physically assaulted, their merchandise doused with kerosene, and a spontaneous protest of hundreds of protesters invaded nearby City Hall. According to Eric Ferrara of the LES History Project: “The enraged women—many with infants in tow—began shouting in both English and Yiddish, ‘We want food for our children!’”

As Trotsky recalled in My Life: “After the Germans came out for unrestricted submarine warfare, mountains of military supplies blocked the railways and filled all the eastern stations and ports. Prices instantly soared, and I saw thousands of women – mothers, in the wealthiest city of the world – come out into the streets, upset the stalls, and break into shops. What will it be like in the rest of the world after the war? I asked myself.”

In short, the working class districts of 1917 New York City were a pressure cooker of class struggle and political intrigue. Socialists, anarchists, labor activists, and police spies swarmed the crowded streets, tenements, mutual aid societies, ethnic clubs, and cafes. With the US on the verge of entering World War I, anti-war sentiment was high—as were accusations of anti-patriotic or pro-German behavior. Even before his arrival, Trotsky was well-known among political exiles and immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe as the leader of the St. Petersburg soviet during the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Trotsky’s first order of business was to meet up with Nikolai Bukharin, who he knew from his days in Vienna, and who insisted on an immediate visit to the New York Public Library. Desperately poor, Trotsky put his famous pen to use and began revolutionary work the very next day. He joined Bukharin and V. Volodarsky in editing the revolutionary paper Novy Mir, produced in the East Village at 77 St. Mark’s Place. Some sources claim that Trotsky lived for a time upon his arrival at Bukharin’s apartment across the street, at 80 St. Mark’s Place. During his short stay in the city, Trotsky also wrote articles for publication in the radical Yiddish paper Der Forverts, as well as for English-language The Call and the German-language Volkszeitung.

1522 Vyse Avenue Natalia found an $18-a-month apartment through a friend of a friend at 1522 Vyse Avenue in the Bronx, near 172nd Street. In My Life, Trotsky writes that he lived on 164th Street in the Bronx—“if I am not mistaken." However, most historians agree that he lived on Vyse Avenue (although the actual building where he lived was torn down and replaced in 1931).

They furnished their tenement apartment on an installment plan, and as Trotsky recalls, it “was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking range, bath, telephone, automatic service elevator, and even a chute for the garbage. These things completely won the boys over to New York. For a time the telephone was their main interest we had not had this mysterious instrument either in Vienna or Paris.”

Trotsky read insatiably in the New York Public Library’s Slavic collection as well as studying the economic history of the United States. Not knowing how long he would remain in this new land, he set about understanding it and was clearly happy to have the opportunity to study the future world superpower up close.

As he explained in My Life: “The figures showing the growth of American exports during the war astounded me they were, in fact, a complete revelation. And it was those same figures that not only predetermined America’s intervention in the war, but the decisive part that the United States would play in the world after the war, as well. I wrote several articles about this at the time, and gave several lectures. Since that time the problem of ‘America versus Europe’ has been one of my chief interests. And even now [in 1930] I am studying the question with the utmost care, hoping to devote a separate book to it. If one is to understand the future destiny of humanity, this is the most important of all subjects.”

But he also paid keen attention to developments in Russia, and despite the depths of the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, maintained his revolutionary perspective. In the commemoration article “Lessons of a Great Year,” he wrote: “One thing is clear—if a revolution comes, it will not be a result of cooperation between capital and labor. The experiences of 1905 show that this is a miserable Utopia. To acquaint himself with those experiences, to study them is the duty of every thinking working-man who is anxious to avoid tragic mistakes. It is in this sense that we have said that revolutionary anniversaries are not only days for reminiscences, but also days for summing up revolutionary experiences.”

Cooper's Union A renowned orator, he was much in demand as a public speaker, speaking in Russian and German in New York, Philadelphia, and other nearby cities. One surviving notice advertises him as the keynote speaker against the war at New York’s famous Cooper’s Union. He also lectured at The Russian Free University the on East Seventh Street.

As he acclimated to his new home, he met with other Russian revolutionary exiles such as Alexandra Kollontai as well as with the leaders of the Socialist Party of America. Not surprisingly, he was not impressed, to say the least, given their reformist outlook. As he relates in My Life “During those months America was busily getting ready for war. As ever, the greatest help came from the pacifists. Their vulgar speeches about the advantages of peace as opposed to war invariably ended in a promise to support war if it became ‘necessary.’ This was the spirit of the Bryan campaign. The socialists sang in tune with the pacifists. It is a well-known axiom that pacifists think of war as an enemy only in time of peace.

“. I once saw, through the window of my newspaper office, an old man with suppurating eyes and a straggling gray beard stop before a garbage-can and fish out a crust of bread. He tried the crust with his hands, then he touched the petrified thing with his teeth, and finally he struck it several times against the can. But the bread did not yield. Finally, he looked about him as if he were afraid or embarrassed, thrust his find under his faded coat, and shambled along down St. Mark’s Place. This little episode took place on March 2, 1917. But it did not in any way interfere with the plans of the ruling class. War was inevitable, and the pacifists had to support it.”

He continued his excoriation of these dilettantes: “Immigrants who had played some role in Europe in their youth, they very quickly lost the theoretical premise they had brought with them in the confusion of their struggle for success. In the United States there is a large class of successful and semi-successful doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and the like who divide their precious hours of rest between concerts by European celebrities and the American Socialist party. Their attitude toward life is composed of shreds and fragments of the wisdom they absorbed in their student days.

“. My first contact with these men was enough to call forth their candid hatred of me. My feelings toward them, though probably less intense, were likewise not especially sympathetic. We belonged to different worlds. To me they seemed the rottenest part of that world with which I was and still am at war.”

Novy Mir He immediately took up the struggle against the smug reformists in the pages of Novy Mir: “The paper was the headquarters for internationalist revolutionary propaganda. In all of the national federations of the Socialist party, there were members who spoke Russian, and many of the Russian federation spoke English. In this way the ideas of the Novy Mir found their way out into the wider circles of American workers. The mandarins of official Socialism grew alarmed. Intrigues waxed hot against the European immigrant who, it was said, had set foot on American soil only the day before, did not understand the psychology of the American, and was trying to foist his fantastic methods on American workers. The struggle grew bitter.”

The one exception was Eugene V. Debs. Again from the chapter “New York” in My Life: “Old Eugene Debs stood out prominently among the older generation because of the quenchless inner flame of his socialist idealism. Although he was a romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader, he was a sincere revolutionary yet he succumbed to the influence of people who were in every respect his inferiors. Hillquit’s art lay in keeping Debs on his left flank while he maintained a business friendship with Gompers. Debs had a captivating personality. Whenever we met, he embraced and kissed me the old man did not belong to the ‘drys.’ When the Babbitts proclaimed a blockade against me, Debs took no part in it he simply drew aside, sorrowfully.”

Just a month after Trotsky's arrival, red flags were flying above the tsar’s palace in Petrograd. Trotsky paints the scene in his autobiography:

“After the mysterious silence of the cables for two or three days, came the first confused reports of the uprising in Petrograd. The cosmopolitan working-class in New York was all excited. Men hoped and were afraid to hope. The American press was in a state of utter bewilderment. Journalists, interviewers, reporters, came from all sides to the offices of the Novy Mir. For a time our paper was the center of interest of the New York press.

“Telephone calls from the Socialist newspaper offices and organizations never stopped.

“‘A cablegram has arrived saying that Petrograd has appointed a Guchkov-Miliukoff ministry. What does it mean?’

“‘That to-morrow there will be a ministry of Miliukoff and Kerensky.’

“‘Is that so? And what next?’

“‘Next? We shall be the next.’


“This sort of thing was repeated dozens of times. Almost everyone I talked with took my words as a joke. At a special meeting of ‘worthy and most worthy’ Russian Social Democrats, I read a paper in which I argued that the proletariat party inevitably would assume power in the second stage of the Russian revolution. This produced about the same sort of impression as a stone thrown into a puddle alive with pompous and phlegmatic frogs. Dr. Ingermann did not hesitate to explain that I was ignorant of the four first rules of political arithmetic and that it was not worth while wasting five minutes to refute my nonsensical dreams.”

Trotsky obviously had the last laugh, as his perspectives were borne out in the weeks and months to come. The Russian working class of New York had a different outlook: “The working masses took the prospects of revolution quite differently. Meetings, extraordinary for their size and enthusiasm, were held all over New York. Everywhere, the news that the red flag was flying over the Winter Palace brought an excited cheer. Not only the Russian immigrants but their children, who knew hardly any Russian, came to these meetings to breathe in the reflected joy of the revolution.”

Trotsky immediately booked passage on the first ship available and prepared for his return to Russia. On the eve of their departure, his nine-year-old son Sergei, recovering from diphtheria, was allowed to go for a brief walk—and got lost while trying to ascertain whether there really was a "First Street." After many panicky hours, he was finally located at local police station. “When my wife arrived at the station an hour later with our older son, she was greeted gaily, like a long-awaited guest. Seryozha was playing checkers with the policemen, and his face was quite red. To hide his embarrassment over an excess of official attention, he was diligently chewing some black American cud with his new friends.”

This may well explain the enigmatic final sentence in Trotsky's 1934 work, If America Should Go Communist: “One final prophecy: in the 3rd year of the Soviet rule in America you will no longer chew gum!” Perhaps he associated this “American cud” with nearly missing his ship back to the revolution!

Despite the hiccup, on March 27, Trotsky, Natalia, and their boys boarded the Norwegian steamer, the SS Kristianiafjord, bound for Russia. After spending nearly a month as the guests of British imperialism at Amherst POW Internment Camp in Nova Scotia, Canada, Trotsky arrived in Petrograd on May 4. The rest, as they say, is history. Trotsky went on to again lead the Petrograd soviet, join the Bolshevik Party and become its key public leader, negotiate the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, create and lead the Red Army, and much, much more.

Trotsky’s time in New York was brief, but it clearly had profound impact on his understanding of the world and imperialism and the struggle for socialism. From a cryptic reference to the “Bronx witch” in his polemic against the petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP, to his discussions on the perspectives for a labor party in the US, his experiences in the US better equipped him to analyze the complexities and contradictions of American problems. Trotsky was keen to return to the US and applied for a visa to receive medical treatment later in the 1930s. Needless to say, this hated enemy of imperialism was not allowed back in.

He ends his chapter on New York as follows: “It would be a gross exaggeration to say that I learned much about New York. I plunged into the affairs of American Socialism too quickly, and I was straightway up to my neck in work for it. The Russian revolution came so soon that I only managed to catch the general life-rhythm of the monster known as New York. I was leaving for Europe, with the feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged. My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope.”

Trotsky may never have returned to the US, but his time in New York City did not pass unnoticed. As the Bronx Home News wrote later in 1917: “Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution.”

A century has now passed since Trotsky first set foot in the city of John D. Rockefeller and Wall Street. Since then, the insoluble contradictions of capitalism have only intensified. The economy once again stands on the brink of a major crisis and confidence in all the system’s institutions has been shattered. While the liberal and reformist apologists wring their hands over the events of 2016, the comrades of the US section of the International Marxist Tendency recognize the historical significance of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and are filled with more revolutionary optimism than ever. Just as in 1917, this is no time to stand on the sidelines of history and struggle. Join the IMT and help us finish the work begun by Lenin and Trotsky one hundred years ago!

Russian Revolution: January 1917 – On the eve of revolution

The month of January 1917 began with more setbacks for the Russian army, as the great imperialist slaughter or World War One drew closer to an end. On the Romanian front troops retreated. Morale in the Russian army was extremely low. One and a half million soldiers deserted in 1916. Over half of the country’s peasant farmers were fighting in the war and their families left at home faced starvation.

At the same time, the Bolsheviks – the revolutionary party spearheaded by Lenin, which was to lead the socialist October revolution – saw their membership and influence rise steadily. They helped organise demonstrations to commemorate the failed 1905 revolution’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ when hundreds were gunned down by the Czarist state. On 9 January, 30,000 Moscow workers went on strike, with 145,000 taking action in Petrograd (Prussian-sounding St Petersburg was renamed at the outbreak of the war). A one-day strike also took place in Baku, Nizhi Novgorod, Novocherkassk, Voronezh, Kharkov, Rostov-on-Don, the Donbass and other cities.

By 31 January, Petrograd was starving and the city stockpile of food would only last another 10 days. Basic foodstuffs had quadrupled in price since the start of the war. Huge food lines appeared in sub-zero conditions. Crowds of women broke into stores.

At the same time, big business made huge profits, particularly those industries involved in producing materials for war.

For the masses, the things could not continue. They were about to storm onto the stage of history. How did the Czarist regime find itself on the verge of extinction?

Disastrous war campaign exposes rotten regime

In late 1914, a series of strikes broke out, but by August social peace seemed to have been restored. War was declared, leading to a surge of Russian chauvinism and popular support for the Czar. Workers’ organisations faced severe repression. Bolsheviks in the Duma (parliament) were arrested and deported. The party paper, Pravda, was shut down.

Initially the Russian army inflicted some defeats on the German forces. But by 30 August, the Russian army had lost 300,000 soldiers at Tanneberg, in the eastern front. Badly equipped and short of ammunition and rifles, the Russian army would face defeat after defeat on the battlefield. At the same time, Russian officers treated the rank and file soldiers with contempt.

The war demonstrated the incompetence and rottenness of the Czarist regime. The Czar appointed and removed a succession of ministers. In August 1915, he took direct control of the war effort, disastrously meddling in his generals’ plans. Much of the running of country was left to his wife, the Czarina, and her coterie, including the “debauched Monk”, Rasputin, a mystic figure with great political influence over the Czarina and her husband. The top of the tottering regime was steeped in obscurantism and superstition. Popular unrest grew. In October 1916 a Petrograd police report stated that the city is “on the eve of great events with which those of 1905 were mere child’s play”. The British Ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanon, warned, “If the emperor continues to uphold his present reactionary advisers, a revolution is, I fear, inevitable”.

In December 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by leading figures from Petrograd society. They hoped to rid the regime of a symbol of decadence in order to try to save it. In January 1917, the Czar appointed his last prime minister, Prince Golitsyn, despite the hapless aristocrat’s plea that he was “dumbfounded” and had no interest in politics.

At the start of 1917, over 15 million Russians were under arms and war time industrial mobilisation had thrown the economy out of kilter. Peasants were unable to export their produce and refused to sell food on the open market (the rouble was near worthless). The railway system had all but collapsed and few supplies could get to the front or to the main towns and cities. Famine stalked not just the countryside but the main industrial cities.

Political crisis at the top as working class begins to stir

With the regime completely discredited, even the craven, pro-war ‘liberal’ and ‘reform’ parties went into opposition to the Czar when it became clear he would not make any concessions to popular demands. They called for the sacking of the most incompetent and reactionary ministers.

Plots were hatched by top military figures to get rid of the Czar in order to save the system overall. But the conspirators vacillated, fearing any such action could unleash revolution from below.

Meanwhile, working class organisations are recovering from the setbacks at the outbreak of war. Strikes rose sharply to 55,000 in 1915 and almost double that figure again in 1916. As prices rose faster than wages, the summer of 1916 witnessed militant strikes in Moscow, Kostrona and Ivano-Vosnessenst. Petrograd was rocked by a general strike of factories. When troops sent to put down the strikes instead fraternise with workers, Cossacks are needed to quell the workers’ protests.

As working class unrest grew, so did Bolshevik membership. The party’s structures redeveloped, including the Petrograd city committee. With many veteran leaders exiled or imprisoned, a younger generation of party cadres took control of local leadership. By 1 January, the Bolsheviks, though a relatively small party, grew in membership to around 23,000, and were largely concentrated in industrial pockets.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks gain authority

The Mensheviks –the party with whom the Bolsheviks had split some years before – were in political disarray. A minority opposed the war while others gave barely-disguised support. During the summer of 1916, militant strikes and a growing mood of war ‘defeatism’ saw a shift of working class support away from the Mensheviks’ equivocal position on war and peace.

As the revolutionary pitch rose in Russia in early 1917, Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, was exiled in Switzerland. Since 1914 Lenin was forced to swim against the tide due to the war hysteria and the betrayal of the parties of the 2 nd (socialist) International who supported the war aims of their own ruling classes.

But Lenin’s stature and authority grew from 1914 to 1917. After the collapse of the 2 nd International, he became a focus for anti-imperialism and genuine socialist internationalism.

In the months following the February revolution, the Bolsheviks won the support of the majority of the working class. This was not only due to the leadership role of Lenin and Trotsky during the tumultuous events of 1917. It was also the fruit of many years of intense debate among Russian socialists about the character of the impending revolution and developing and clarifying a political programme, strategy and tactics for the working class to win power.

As the war dragged on and popular opposition to it grew, Lenin advised Bolsheviks to “organise cells in the army”, to “support all revolutionary actions of the masses of the proletariat” and to encourage “fraternisation between soldiers of belligerent nations, even in the trenches…”

The winter of 1916/1917 was exceptionally cold in Moscow and Petrograd, plummeting to minus 40 degrees centigrade. Women stood in the open air queuing for scarce food and coal. The price of food suddenly shot up by 40% to 60%. At the same time, the rich continued to live in isolated splendour.

By the end of January, class tensions reached breaking point and Russia stood on the edge of the first revolution of 1917.

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.


The February Revolution of 1917

Note - The Russian calendar was thirteen days behind the one used in the West. The dates given are from the old (i.e. Russian) calendar that was in use until 1918.

Russia had entered the war with universal popular enthusiasm among all classes. Support for the Tsarist regime was very strong. The German name of the capital St. Petersburg was changed to the more Russian sounding Petrograd.

However a series of events were to undermine this support until it eventually crumbled.

  1. Thee Tsar took personal command of the army in the summer of 1915 and left the government in the hands of his wife, the hated Tsarina (who also had the misfortune of being German). She was called "the German woman".
  2. The Tsarina was not only unpopular but she was also under the influence of the strange monk Rasputin, who had hypnotic powers. These powers he used with some degree of success to cure the Tsarevich, Alexei (the heir to the throne), of haemophilia. The absence of the Tsar meant that Rasputin's influence was almost total. He dismissed ministers at will and brought complete discredit to the whole Tsarist system of government. The Tsar knew what was going on but refused to take any action. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916.
  3. The offensive of 1916 had cost the Russians a million casualties and discontent was rife in the army. The soldiers lacked proper military training and the supply of arms and artillery were inadequate.
  4. The whole war effort had being organised in a most haphazard way. Manpower was conscripted indiscriminately without any regard for the needs of industry, agriculture or communications. The countryside was dispossessed of horses to serve the army's needs, leaving the peasants with no means of tilling the land. Distribution problems had led to a breakdown in food supplies to the cities. By 1916 Petrograd and Moscow were receiving only a third of their fuel and food requirements. This was made worse by hyper inflation that saw prices increase fourfold during the war. These factors created serious discontent among the working classes in the cities. There were a number of strikes that had to be put down by troops.

By the start of 1917, political parties were totally dissatisfied with the Tsar and his government. The main parties at the time were:

  1. The Kadets who wanted to give more powers to the Russian parliament or Duma. This party could be compared to the Liberals in Britain. They greatly admired the British system of government and wished to imitate it, i.e. a constitutional monarchy - power of the Tsar would be greatly reduced and important decisions would be made by parliament. They were led by the respected Prince Lvov.
  2. The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) were a party that wanted peasant ownership of the land in the form of communes. There was no comparable party in Western Europe. Alexander Kerensky was a leading figure in this party. Extreme members of the party used terrorism to achieve their aims.
  3. The Social Democrats - followers of Karl Marx. They believed that the industrialisation of Russia would lead to the collapse of the Land-owning class and that the Tsarist regime would also collapse with it. The party had split over tactics into the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) in 1903. The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries and were led by Lenin. The Mensheviks favoured peaceful methods and were similar to the SPD in Germany or the Labour party in Britain.

The February (March) revolution 1917

The discontent outlined above led to Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar.

In January, 300,000 workers staged a demonstration on the anniversary of the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Petrograd. Conditions were not helped by a particularly severe winter. During February, a strike for higher wages started at the huge Putilov engineering works. The Tsar departed from Petrograd for his headquarters at Mogilev and was absent from the capital for the next few crucial days.

Petrograd was soon paralysed with 240,000 on strike. From his headquarters the Tsar ordered that the strikes were to be crushed by troops. Forty people were killed as troops fired on rioters. The same evening the Petrograd garrison began to mutiny.

Feb 27-28: The key dates as all military command within the city collapsed as troops joined the strikers. Crucially the Tsar had lost effective control in the city.

At the same time the Petrograd soviet (council) was revived and quickly established itself as the real power in the city. It had full control over the railways and had the loyalty of the troops. The Tsar, against advice, sent General Ivanov to the city to restore order. However his troops deserted to the revolutionaries.

At the beginning of March, the Tsar left Mogilev to personally deal with the crisis but after taking advice from his leading generals, he decided to abdicate at Pskov. A Provisional government was set up under the leadership of Prince Lvov. This government was to rule until a constituent assembly was elected to draw up a new constitution. Nicholas and his family were placed under house arrest.

Quotes on the February Revolution

Norman Stone: “Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of war, and the effort to do so plunged her economy into chaos."
Dmitri Volkognov “The Russian government’s failings in the war and its weakness at home led to the self-destruction of the autocracy on a wave of discontent."

The October Revolution

The Provisional government continued the war and postponed land reform. These decisions were two serious mistakes and were to be exploited by Lenin and his followers, the Bolsheviks.

Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland with German help. The Germans hoped that he would disrupt the Russian war effort and they helped to finance his activities. He published his "April Theses" in Pravda in which he argued for an immediate communist takeover. He advocated a policy of non co-operation with the Provisional government. Lenin policies were summed up in two slogans "Peace, Bread, Land" and "All power to the Soviets".

Soldiers in Petrograd and the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base led demonstrations against the Provisional government. This event became known as the "July Days.”

Trotsky was elected chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd and Moscow Soviets were now under Bolshevik control. This gave the Bolsheviks effective control over Russia’s two largest cities. Lenin returned secretly from exile and a meeting of the Bolshevik central committee decided to stage a revolution by a 10 to 2 majority. Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed the decision.

Kerensky now tried to act against the Bolsheviks. The cruiser "Aurora" suspected of supporting the Bolsheviks was ordered to put to sea and Bolshevik newspapers were closed down. Trotsky was able to have these orders countermanded.

That evening Trotsky issued orders for a coup. At 9.00pm the firing of the "Aurora's" guns signalled the start of the revolution. Most of the main buildings in Petrograd were seized e.g. Winter Palace, railway stations, telephone exchanges etc. The next day the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened with a large Bolshevik majority Trotsky informed the congress that the Bolsheviks had seized power. The Bolsheviks were in full control of the capital. Kerensky's attempts to regain control failed. By early November Petrograd, Moscow and most of the larger cities had recognised the new government.

Lenin in Power

The new government's first acts were to agree an armistice with Germany. They abolished private ownership of land and distributed it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized and workers' control over factory production was introduced. The government or the Council of Peoples' Commissars (Sovnarkom) was set up. Lenin was the president and there were 15 ministers. Trotsky was Commissar for Foreign Affairs.

Lenin was no democrat. The Bolsheviks were determined not to share power. Elections were held for a Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks only received one-third of the popular vote. The Constituent Assembly dissolved at gunpoint by the Bolsheviks. This was the last democratic election in Russia for the next seventy years. All opposition was ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka, or political police. The Red Army was also formed at this time.

In March, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed with the Germans. Russia lost the Ukraine, its Polish and Baltic territories, and Finland. The treaty was hugely unpopular in Russia but necessary if the Bolsheviks were to establish control of Russia. Lenin believed that the revolution would soon spread to Germany and this would reduce the effect of the Treaty.

The Russian Civil War

In June 1918 the Russian civil war broke out. The supporters of the government were called the Reds and their opponents the Whites.

Japan, Britain, France and the US intervened on the side of the Whites. However the aid was half-hearted and morale among many of the foreign troops were low. During July 1918 as White armies advanced the Tsar and his family were shot at Yekaterinburg.

Bolshevik forces defeated the different White generals who never fought together and were separated from each other. The main White armies under the Generals Kolchak Denikin, Yudenich, and Wrangel were each in turn crushed. The war ended in 1921. It is estimated that 9 million people died as a result of the war.

Factors contributing to the victory of the Reds:

  • Control of industry
  • Bolshevik unity, White disunity. Bolsheviks outnumbered the reds by about three to one.
  • Terror and the leadership of Trotsky
  • Most of the industry and railways remained under Bolshevik control
  • Reds promised land to the peasants while the Whites would have restored the lad to its original owner.

War Communism was an emergency programme established by Lenin during the civil war. War Communism included forced seizure of grain, nationalization of all trade and industry and strict control of labour. As a result of this program and of the ravages of the war, industrial and agricultural production declined sharply, and the population suffered severe hardship. It caused a famine that led to the death of an estimated 5 million people.

The following figures show the total collapse of the economy:

1913 1921
Grain 80 million tons 37.6 million tons
Coal 29 million tons 9 million tons
Iron 4.2 million tons 1 million tons
Oil 9.2 million tons 3.8 million tons

By 1921 opposition to the communists had grown. General unrest erupted in a rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base. Shaken by this revolt, Lenin introduced the NEP in order to revive the economy. The new programme signalled a return to a limited capitalist system. Peasants could retain excess produce and sell it for a profit. Smaller businesses were permitted to operate as private enterprises. Large industries remained under state control. By 1928, the NEP had raised the Soviet national income above its pre war level. However, the NEP policies were reversed (1928) by Stalin .

Death of Lenin

In May 1922 Lenin suffered his first stroke. In all Lenin was to have four strokes. He was greatly weakened and was an isolated figure, as a power struggle began to succeed him. After a stroke in 1923 he could not speak. He died in January 1924 in the village of Gorky, near Moscow. His body was preserved and St Petersburg renamed Leningrad in his honour.

Lenin’s ability to seize an opportunity when it arose was one of his major political skills. He was convinced that the Provisional Government was doomed by October 1917. Against the advice of many of his supporters, he led a successful revolution.
He pulled Russia out of the war with Germany which helped to consolidate his regime. Victory in the Civil War ensured the effective establishment of the Communist state. His ability to recognise when his policies had failed led him to abandon War Communism and replace it with the New Economic Policy.

However Lenin instituted a very brutal totalitarian regime. Democracy was banned and a one-party police state was established where political opponents were shot out of hand. The murder of the royal family cast a shadow across the new government. War Communism resulted in a famine in which an estimated 5 million people died.

Perhaps two of the biggest criticisms of Lenin were his failure to stop the rise of Stalin even though he realised his failings and his use of terror as state policy. This policy was directed against different groups in society who were seen as enemies of the people. He devalued human life and Stalin was to take this policy to its logical bloody climax in the 1930s.

"The movement for a just and classless society in Russia began with unbridled violence, denying millions of people all rights except the right to support Bolshevik policy."

"It is surely indisputable that no single leader in the twentieth century exerted as great an influence on the course of world history as Lenin."

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