Revolution in Russia/Soviet Russia before World War II

Causes of the Russian Revolution:

Long -term causes included:

unwillingness of the Autocracy to grant political reforms--all political opposition is therefore revolutionary

growing political radicalism among the students and the intelligentsia, who feel duty to create a more just society

serf emancipation in the 1860s that rendered the peasant majority as "second class subjects" of the Tsar and created continuing social tensions

growing class tensions as the urban proletariat grew during the industrialization of the late 1800s

weakness of the middle class, which fails to provide any stable social base for liberal reforms

rise of radical socialist political parties dedicated to overthrowing both Tsarism and (eventually) capitalism: Major (illegal) political parties were the Liberals
[Kadets and Octoberists]; Socialist Populists [the SRs]; Marxists [Bolsheviks and Mensheviks...the two marxist groups split over issues of tactics]

Failure of the 1905 Revolution to achieve real lasting political reforms: in 1905 the Tsar declared that he would recognize civil rights of all subjects and
promised a create an elected parliament (duma), but by 1907 the duma electoral laws had been changed to weaken any opposition

Short-term causes included:

Great economic and social strains of World War One on Russian society

Failure of Tsarist government to prosecute the war effort effectively in 1914-1917

Behavior of Tsar Nicholas II and his entourage, which undermined any shred of popular legitimacy left to the monarchy

The February Revolution: Main Turning Points

Jan-Feb 1917 strike wave

Workers'/women's demonstrations in late February [mid-March] in the capital city of Petrograd [St. Petersburg] lead to a spontaneous mass rebellion, which
in early March led to the collapse of Tsarist government.

At the beginning of March 1917, Liberals from the Duma created a Provisional government.  At the same time, socialist organizers created the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies--a workers' "council" to coordinate the workers' protest and strike movement. The Provisional government claimed power in March, but the Soviet really controlled more popular support. The Soviet agreed to support the Provisional government under condition that the government grant equal rights to all, refuse to agree to any imperialistic war aims, quickly hold a Constituent (national) Assembly, and institute an extensive land reform (to give land to the peasants). The Provisional government did grant equal rights, but failed to complete other reforms.

In April 1917 there was a government crisis when it became public that the Liberals had promised to keep "imperialist" war agreements with France and England; this led to the removal of many Liberals from the government.  Members of the Mensheviks and SRs parties from the Petrograd Soviet then joined the government, which became a coalition of Liberals and Moderate Socialists. But Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, refuse to join the government. Lenin rejected any cooperation with the "bourgeoisie" and called for "all power to the Soviets" (that the Soviets [workers' councils] take over power).  That means that Lenin, who was not a member of the government, could blame the Moderate Socialist parties (the Mensheviks and SRs) for any problems faced by the government. At the same time, this April Crisis also triggered an increase in labor unrest and strikes.

In June, the Provisional government's popular Commissar of War, Kerensky, launched a new military offensive against the Germans (remember that Russia was still fighting WWI).  Kerensky's military offensive proved to be a great failure, and the Russian army seemed to be collapsing.  In the meantime, living conditions got worse, workers demanded pay raises, and a growing number of unions declared strikes. Soldiers' committees begin refusing to execute officers' orders. Peasant committees begin demanding the re-distribution of land of private landowners.  Faced with what seemed to be uncontrollable popular radicalism, the Mensheviks and SRs in the Provisional government urged workers, soldiers, and peasants to maintain order.

In early July there was another crisis when rank-and-file Bolshevik workers and soldiers try to seize power in the capital city of Petrograd.  The uprising failed and the government began arresting Bolshevik leaders. But since the economy kept spiraling down and the government seemed unwilling to make reforms, the lower ranks of society [including soldiers] became increasingly willing to support the far-left position of the Bolsheviks.

In late August 1917 there was yet another crisis, when the Commander of the Russian Military, General Kornilov, tried to seize power and overthrow the Provisional government.  He failed, but this crisis further weakened the Liberals, the Mensheviks, and the SRs. Although Kerensky went on to form yet another version of the Provisional government coalition, it was clear that the Bolsheviks and other militant leftists were becoming stronger.

In September and October 1917, the Bolsheviks, the left SRs, and the Anarchists won majorities in elections to local Soviets (workers', soldiers', and peasants' council) across Russia.

In early November, Lenin's party (the Bolsheviks--who later changed their name to the Communists), used the Petrograd Soviet to seize power and announced creation of a [temporary] Soviet government.  Lenin announced this at the 2nd all-Russian congress of soviets. Lenin's government was basically a Bolshevik one-party regime.

The First Months of Soviet Rule:

Lenin's government was viewed as an "outlaw regime" not only by its opponents in Russia (including the other socialist parties--the SRs and Mensheviks), but also
by of the other governments of Europe and North America.

Lenin's initial program was made up of measures that had been delayed by the Provisional government: a decree giving peasants control over the land, a decree calling for immediate peace talks to end WWI, a decree giving workers more control over the factories, and nationalization of a few key industries (such as banking and transportation). Lenin's initial program was not designed to build socialism in Russia right away: he believed that the Russian revolution would trigger a socialist
revolution in the rest of Europe, and that Socialist Europe would then help backward Russia to develop its own socialist economy.

In December 1917, Lenin shut down the opposition newspapers and began ordering the arrests of opposition political leaders.

At the same time, first Finland, then several other national minority regions of the former Russian empire declared independence. Also, the Bolshevik government signed a cease-fire agreement with Germany and began negotiations towards a peace treaty.

In January 1918, the Constituent Assembly, Russia's first democratically elected legislative gathering, met for just one day. Since the Bolsheviks did not have a
majority (the SRs had the majority), Lenin ordered pro-Bolshevik soldiers to shut down the Assembly.

In March 1918, Lenin's government signed a peace treaty with Germany (the Brest-Litovsk peace) that gave the Germans control over a large portion of Russia's
territory. This move was opposed by many members of Lenin's own party (now called the Communist Party), as well as by the SRs. 

At the same time, in Spring 1918, as the economy collapsed even more, Lenin's government nationalized all private property, so that the state became the only owner of factories, stores, etc.

The 1918-1920 Civil War:

Between 1918 and 1918, the Communist regime's enemies included the other socialist parties in Russia (now all outlawed), the "White Armies" (which include former tsarist officers, monarchists, and some liberals), and invading armies from 13 different countries (including the USA). The Communist government built its own army, the Red Army, made up of workers and peasants and led by Communist party organizers.

The Red Army managed to defeat the Whites in years of very brutal, bloody fighting (some 3 million people were killed).  The Reds won in part because: a) the Reds were better organized and controlled strategically important territory in the country's center; b) the Whites and foreign interventionists never coordinated their activities; c) the policies of the Whites alienated peasants, who may have disliked the Communists but hated the Whites even more.

The economy completed collapsed during the Civil War: money became worthless and most factories shut down. People fled the cities to the villages hoping to find
food. The Communist regime used force to collect food from the peasants, and described its emergency policies as "War Communism"

During the Civil War the Communist regime became increasingly dictatorial and militaristic. Not only was it a one-party dictatorship, but in this "workers' and
peasants' state" anyone who opposed the Communists was accused of being a "class enemy." Lenin's government freely used force against all opposition, including
force against workers or peasants who protested.

By the end of 1920, the Reds had managed to win the Civil War and hold on to power, but the country was in ruins. The peasantry was now in rebellion against the
communists (the so-called "Green" army of peasant rebels began fighting the Reds as soon as the Whites had been defeated). The working class had shrunken to
half its size in 1917, and tens of thousands of workers were now striking and protesting against the Communist government. And in early 1921, soldiers and sailors
began to mutiny. At the Kronstadt naval base, once pro-Bolshevik sailors seized control of the city and called for "Soviet power without the Communists" in
March 1921. Lenin had been waiting for the European Socialist revolution, but it simply did not happen.

And so in spring 1921, Lenin began a policy of "strategic retreat," the New Economic Policy (NEP).

NEP, 1921-1928:

Lenin's NEP policies restored elements of private property and capitalism in order to rebuild Russia's economy. Peasants could now sell their grain surplus at
privately-run markets, and individuals cold own small stores, businesses, and factories. But the government still completely controlled entire sectors of the economy,
such as weapons production, coal and metal production, transportation, and banking. A state-planned sector of the economy therefore existed side-by-side with
the capitalist sector of the economy.

Although NEP "liberalized" the economy, there was no political liberalization: the Communists remained the only legal political party, and the regime crushed any and
all political opposition with extreme force. Moreover, the Communist Party would no longer tolerate dissent within its own ranks.

Soviet Russia remained an "out-law" state in the 1920s, and the only European country to enter into direct relation with it was the new democratic government of
Germany (with the 1922 Rapollo Treaty). In that same year, Soviet Russia and several of the smaller states of the former Russian Empire in the south and the east
(also under Communist control) signed treaties to create a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR). Although the Soviet Union was supposedly a federation
of equal states, it was clear from the start that Russia dominated the union.

The first years of NEP were years of terrible famine in Soviet Russia, but by 1923-1924 the economy was beginning to recover. However, agriculture recovered
much more quickly than did industry, and the capitalist sector was growing faster than the state-owned socialist sector. Moreover, NEP was very unpopular with
rank-and-file Communist Party members, who saw its as a step backwards.

In January 1924 Lenin died after having suffered a series of debilitating strokes.

Even before Lenin's death, a great struggle for power had begun within the Communist Party leadership. At one level, the struggle was about personalities and the
desire for personal power. But more importantly, it was a struggle over what policies the party and state should follow.

The leading figures in this struggle were Leon Trotsky (often considered a co-leader with Lenin in 1917-1918), Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev (old allies of
Lenin's), Nicholas Bukharin (a popular young party leader), and Joseph Stalin (the head of the party's bureaucratic machinery).

Between 1923 and 1928, various factions involving these leaders formed, fought over policy, then dissolved:

1923-25: Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Stalin vs Trotsky [the "left opposition"]. Trotsky argued that the country was not industrializing fast enough and that the
peasants had to be taxed more heavily; he also criticized the bureaucracy as corrupt. Stalin, et al, accused Trotsky of opposing Leninism. Trotsky was isolated as a

1925-1926: Kamenev and Zinoviev vs Stalin and Bukharin. Kamenev and Zinoviev began repeating Trotsky's basic criticisms. Stalin et al accused them of
breaking with Leninism.

1926-1927: Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotsky [the "united opposition"] vs Stalin and Bukharin. The opposition again warned that the "pro-peasant" economic
policies of Stalin and Bukharin were leading to disaster and that the state machine was becoming corrupt. Stalin not only defeated them, but had them and their supporters stripped of their positions in the party and state.

1928-1929: Stalin vs Bukharin [the "right opposition]. During a grain shortage in 1928, Stalin adopted many of the policies proposed by Trotsky five years
earlier.  When Bukharin protested, Stalin claimed that Bukharin opposed Leninism. Bukharin and his supporters were defeated in 1929, and Stalin launched a new
policy that ended NEP and nationalized all property in the USSR.

Stalinism Before World War Two:

The Stalin program was based upon rapid, forced collectivization of all agriculture (peasants are driven off of their farms onto giant "collective" and state farms; those
who resist are accused of being class enemies [kulaks] and arrested, killed, or deported). It was also based upon extremely rapid industrialization and state ownership of all factories, plants, stores, etc.  Stalin's policies led to a disastrous famine in 1932-33 in which well over a million people starved to death (most in Ukraine, the "breadbasket" of the USSR).  Conditions improved somewhat in the mid-1930s, but collectivization proved an inefficient form of agricultural organization.

Both agriculture and industry were run according to massive "5 year plans" that set targets for the entire economy. But the plans were not based upon the resources
(labor, fuel, machines, etc) that are available; instead, the plans set targets based upon "needs." The result was that the targets generally were unreachable. But the
government still claimed that it was meeting all targets.

If any factory manager or collective farm manager did not meet his or her target, or if anything in the system failed, the Stalin regime blamed it on "class enemies," "wreckers," "spies," etc. The Stalin regime never accepted the idea that its own planning could be to blame: instead, they would hunt out the internal enemies who "must be to blame." These alleged class enemies (etc) would be arrested, sent to labor camps, deported to Siberia or Central Asia, or shot.

The result was a system in which corruption and abuse of power was rampant, in which managers regularly cheated or falsified production statistics, in which quantity of goods was more important than quality, and in which denunciations could be used revenge or for career advancement.

The Stalin regime set as its goal creating a "new Soviet man and women" who would think, feel, and behave according to Communist ideology and doctrine. To
achieve this, the Soviet party-state outlawed all opposition and carefully cut Soviet citizens off from "pernicious" foreign influences, it carried out a constant mass
campaign against religion and used the schools, youth organizations, clubs, etc., to indoctrinate people with Communist ideology.

Amazingly, in 1930-1941, the USSR did industrialize. In one decade it more or less caught up with the capitalist industrial powers. Moreover, the Stalin regime
managed to increase literacy rates and improve health care for most of the population. We need to understand that the idea of building socialism in the USSR really
was popular, and that millions of people considered Stalin a great hero. But the costs of the USSR's rapid progress were enormous--between the forced
collectivization of the countryside and the chaos of rapid industrialization, the entire society was in almost constant crisis.

In addition, the regime's almost reflexive habit of hunting for enemies became more and more deadly with each year. After the murder of an important party official
(named Sergei Kirov) in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1934, the Stalin regime initiated a campaign of terror. The first victims were Stalin's old opponents, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, who with their supporters were tried as "spies" and "enemies of the people." At the same time, the Stalin regime's efforts to combat corruption turned into a series of mass purges of party members. The purges and the terror came together in 1937-1938: in those years, the secret police executed hundreds of thousands of innocent people who had been denounced as "enemies." The terror destroyed much of the leadership of the universities and the scientific community, the army, and the government. There are no exact figures on the number of people killed in Stalin's terror. Some estimates are as low as a million, some as high as ten million. (A conservative estimate is 3 million.)

Still, in the 1930s many leftists outside the Soviet Union refused to believe that the Stalin regime was murdering tens of thousands of its own people. Instead, they
looked to Stalin as the only world leader and the USSR as the only country that seemed to be doing anything to oppose Hitler's Nazi regime (which had come to
power in Germany in 1933) and to fight against fascism....