The main idea here is to provide the true history of Bolshevik coup and then revolution that was the first large scale triumph of new socialist ideology in XX century after the old mainly religious ideologies caused wars and mass extermination in previous centuries become mostly benign (at least in European societies) with advance of industrial revolution and materialistic scientific knowledge. I also this this book designed not only as historical narrative, but also as cautionary tale for the current and future civilizations about general fragility of orderly and humane societies and their vulnerability to ideological zealots that could use any significant problems to break thin layer of civilization and through everything into bloody mess.
PART ONE: The Agony of the Old Regime
- 1905. The Foreshock: University disturbances of 1899 as beginning of revolution Plehve and Zubatov, outbreak of Russo-Japanese War, Plehve assassinated and replaced by Mirskii: the great Zemstvo Congress (November 1904 “Bloody Sunday tsarism tries moderate reform; the debacle of Tsushima and talk of a representative body; university turmoil resumes and leads to general strike; Witte advises concessions; emergence of St. Petersburg Soviet; the October Manifesto; Witte forms cabinet and represses radicals; nationwide pogroms; 1905 as apogee Russian liberalism
This is about prehistory of Russian revolution going back to the beginning of XX century when the first disturbances were to begin. Author looks at the first protests by students that started as non-political but then, after meeting relatively strong suppression, produced significant number of people who were neither broken or annihilated, but had their career ruined. This resulted in them becoming revolutionaries. Then author moves to just a few years later when incompetence of Russian rulers led to dramatic defeat in the war against Japan, demonstrating military weakness of regime, “Bloody Sunday” that resulted in significant decrease of support for the system, and mass movement that forced creation of Duma and October “Constitution”. Author discusses various personalities and their approach to the problem that ranged from accommodation to public demands and cautious movement to some form or semi-democracy, to outright suppression. However, the attitudes and general condition of society allowed only very limited suppression that mainly increased psychological strength of revolutionaries – enemies of regime, rather than eliminating them physically or breaking them psychologically – the processes these revolutionaries brought to perfection when they come to power some 12 years later.
- Official Russia: Patrimonialism; Nicholas and Alexandra; the bureaucracy; ministries; conservative and liberal officialdom; economic development undermines autocracy; the army; the gentry; the Orthodox Church
Here author provides a very interesting description of pre-revolutionary Russia – the society that was definitely flawed and repressive, but functional with relatively moderate levels of corruption. There was little interference of government into economy resulting in healthy growth of industries. However, the unresolved issues of the majority population – rural agriculturalists, continuously produced disturbances in the country. Overall Russian elite was divided into conservative and liberal groups, with liberals getting stronger over time and pushing country to Western way of development. As consequence, the foundation or regime – aristocracy was consistently undermined by economic development of market capitalism. The problem was that aristocracy was not able any more to provide competitive military power that required industrialized army and military production rather than forces based on feudal holdings and aristocrats’ dependents. The ideological foundation of regime – Orthodox Church was also in decline as result of being part of official government. It demonstrated all signs of decay, typical for any ideology that became too bureaucratized.
- Rural Russia: Household, village, and commune; land shortage; industrial workers; peasant mentality; peasant attitudes to law and property; changes in peasant mood after 1900
This is about the majority of population that eventually defined the fate of Russia based on its worldview. This worldview was centered on the 3 pillars: family, village, and commune. The key absent feature was private property on land. The commune allocated and periodically reallocated land, mainly based on number of people in the family. The private property was for outsiders such as aristocracy and later individuals that left commune. Since such individuals often did much better outside than inside commune led to resentment, hate, and continuing aspiration to transfer all land to the commune. Culturally this population was strongly in support of authoritarian model of society, starting with family and going all the way to czar who was the father of the country. Author provides very interesting and detailed review of this most populous part of the people and their slow transfer to rejecting existing system for failure to provide additional land and overall failure to fulfil duties of the father.
- The Intelligentsia: Its European origins; societes de pensee; socialism as ideology the intelligentsia; the Meal of a “new man”; emergence Russian intelligentsia; revolutionary movement in nineteenth century Russia; the Socialists-Revolutionaries; Russian liberals
If peasants were the brown of future revolution that provided manpower, the intelligentsia was its brain. Author provides a very good description of this layer of population and demonstrates how they got to be highly hostile to the regime, mainly because regime, while providing for them opportunity for education and transfer out of peasant’s live of their parents, did not provide real opportunities for achievement and wealth. Also important was ideological part that was mainly developed in the line of socialism as ideal society where pure reason, obviously applied in accordance with ideas and interests of intelligentsia, would rule. The western, especially American way of application of knowledge and skills to business was considered contemptible and shameful. Very interesting is the history of intelligentsia revolutionary development when small parts of this group become professional revolutionaries, sometimes terrorists, while the vast majority provided moral and financial support.
- The Constitutional Experiment: Monarchy and constitutionalism; the Fundamental Laws of 1906; elections to the Duma; the First Duma; Stolypin; Stolypin represses terror; his agrarian reforms; the Second Duma and the electoral law of June 3, 1907; Stolypin’s political difficulties begin; the Western zemstvo crisis; Stolypin’s murder; assessment of Stolypin; Russia on the eve of World War I
This is a history of Russian development after revolution of 1905 until WWII when several attempts were made to eliminate growing pressure in society At first the attempt was via establishment of kind of constitutional regime in form of Duma and then via Stolypin reforms that were targeting to change foundation of Russian society via expansion of private property, dismantling of rural commune, and industrialization of the country. Unfortunately, these attempts failed due to their rejection by country’s aristocratic leadership that could not see that settlement after revolution was temporary and unreliable, by majority of population that still prefer top down authoritarian management, and, very important, by intelligentsia that saw capitalism with contempt and was striving to move beyond it to what they believed would be much more effective and efficient organization of society: socialism.
- Russia at War: Strategic preparations and Russia’s readiness for war; early campaigns: East Prussia and Galicia; Russian debacle in Poland, 1915; changes in government; emergence of the Progressive Bloc and Nicholas’s assumption of high command bringing society into limited partnership in the war effort
This chapter is about Russian participation in WWI and calamity that it created. Russia was not ready for the war of such scale, neither culturally nor organizationally. This led to defeats on the front lines and significant difficulties with army supplies. Nevertheless, contrary to the common views, author demonstrates that these difficulties where in main successfully overcome in such areas as industrial production, providing military with enough ammunition and supplies. However, it was too late because society’s morals and cohesiveness dropped dramatically, opening gates for decline of discipline in military and mass disturbances ignited by the smallest problems. Russia was not the only country that came under pressure as result of the war, but while in UK and France democracy served as a safety valve prevented the explosion, in Germany strong middle class was able to defeat revolution, albeit temporarily, in Russia combination of mass peasant army, restless intelligentsia soaked in socialist ideas, and weak personalities in power led to conditions susceptible for complete breakdown.
- Toward the Catastrophe Inflation: the Brusilov offensive; rise of tension in the country;
Protopopov; the liberals decide to attack; Duma sessions of November 1916; assassination of Rasputin; last days at Tsarskoe Selo; plots against the Imperial family
This chapter is about pre-revolutionary situation in Russia when despite significant improvements in military production, army continued experience defeats, while leadership of the country was messing with Rasputin, court intrigues, and similar staff. The population meanwhile was growing anxious due to decrease in quality of live and especially inflation. Author present a table showing growth of inflation:
- The February Revolution: Mutiny of Petrograd garrison; the Duma hesitates to claim power emergence of Petrograd Soviet and of its Executive Committee; Duma and Soviet agree on formation of Provisional Government; Order No. 1; abdication of Nicholas II; Michael refuses the crown; early actions Provisional Government; Soviet undermines the government; land, Constituent Assembly and war aims; revolution spreads nationwide; ex-tsar returns to Tsarskoe Selo; extraordinary rapidity Russia’s breakdown
Here author clearly describes a spontaneous character of the February revolution. It was not something planned and organized, but rather result of accumulation of public loss of believes in existing system of government’s ability to provide order necessary to maintain normal living condition. Interruption of supplies that created lines for food and fuel, inflation, and continuing agitation against government created environment were support of existing regime mainly evaporated. It was accompanied by incompetence of military leadership that managed to concentrate unreliable troops in and around of the capital city making it practically impossible to enforce any decisions that government would try to implement. The result was nearly bloodless removal of old regime generally supported by all parts of population. After describing how revolution proceed, author moves to detailed description of continuing power play between two emerging power centers: Soviets and Provisional government, none capable to take complete control over the country. As result no effective order could be established, negatively impacting both war effort and ability of population to make living. Interestingly enough support for war remained strong, contrary to usual description of this period in soviet historiography so it was not a significant factor in future rejection of democracy in Russia. It was rather inability of new elite to run country and its unwillingness to move quickly to establish some form of democracy that left huge vacuum of authority.
PART TWO: The Bolsheviks Conquer Russia
This part describes how the existing vacuum of authority was filled by a small, not really well organized, but dedicated, ruthless, immoral, well financed by enemy power, and, very important, highly ideological group of revolutionaries that had no limits in their readiness to kill and die in struggle for victory of their ideology.
- Lenin and the Origins of Bolshevism Lenin: Lenin’s early years; Lenin and Social Democracy; his personality; his disenchantment with Social Democracy; emergence of Bolshevism final split with the Mensheviks; Lenin’s agrarian and nationality programs; financial affairs of the Bolshevik party; the Malinovskii episode; Zimmerwald, Kiental, and connections with enemy agents
Here author describes Lenin’s personality as it developed from mainly apolitical son of self-made high-level bureaucrat who achieved heritable nobility, to highly political and ideological individual with somewhat misanthropic characteristics. Author stresses, that the turning point of this development could be traced to university of Kazan disorders that practically put end to Lenin’s career opportunities within existing system, pushing him into revolutionary movement. Interestingly author points to Lenin’s contempt to individual human lives combined with cowardice and deep care of his our wellbeing. As Lenin’s assets author listed hard work, organizational capability, and dedication to revolution. Lenin’s intellect was keen, but severely limited by his concentration on narrow area of revolution and theoretical Marxism. Important and obvious part of Lenin’s personality was complete immorality in all things big and small. This immorality was a huge asset that allowed Lenin not only successfully take over control of the party and then country by manipulating other people, but also to survive in power by playing off leadership of other countries from Germany to Britain and Japan.
- The Bolshevik Bid for Power: The Bolshevik Party in earls 1917; Lenin returns to Russia with German help; Lenin’s revolutionary tactics; the April 1 ~ Bolshevik demonstration; socialists enter Provisional Government; Bolshevik assets in the struggle for power and German subsidies; the aborted Bolshevik street action in June; Kerensky’s summer offensive; the Bolsheviks ready another assault; preparation for putsch; the events of July.3=S; the putsch suppressed: Lenin flees, Kerensky dictator
This chapter is about the first phase of Lenin’s revolution when he and his supporters return to Russia with German help that was provided in hope to use his movement to push Russia out of war. The first attempt to take power by Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917 was unsuccessful mainly because their nature as German allies working to undermine Russian war effort was disclosed. However weak provisional government and ideologically sympathetic members of other socialist movements helped them to get away with it, recover and start preparation for the second attempt.
- The October Coup: Kornilov appointed Commander in Chief; Kerensky asks Kornilov’s help in suppressing anticipated Bolshevik coup; the break between Kerensky and Kornilov; rise in Bolshevik fortunes; Lenin in hiding; Bolsheviks plan their own Congress of Soviets; Bolsheviks take over Soviet’s Military-Revolutionary Committee; the critical decision of October lo Milrevkom initiates coup d’etat; Kerensky reacts; Bolsheviks declare Provisional Government overthrown; the Second Congress of Soviets ratifies passage of power and passes laws on peace and land Bolshevik coup in Moscow; few aware of what had transpired
This is a story of Bolsheviks’ October coup that become possible due to Kerensky’s intrigues against Kornilov, concentration of unreliable troops in and around of Petrograd, and complete absence of understanding of reality on the part of SR – the most popular party in Russia.
- Building the One-Party State: Lenin’s strategy after power seizure; Lenin and Trotsky rid themselves of accountability to the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet; strike of white collar employees; the Council of People’s Commissars; accord with Left SRs and the breakup of the Peasant Congress; elections to the Constituent Assembly; decision to be rid of it; the dissolution of the Assembly; effects and implications; movement of Worker Plenipotentiaries
This chapter is an interesting recount of Bolsheviks’ solidifying their power despite absence of any significant support to their ideas among population. The tools used were simple: hide unpopular ideas that one believes in, use slogans and promises one does not believes in and has no intention to implement, but which are popular at the moment, concentrate reliable element of power structure in critical point and use it massively, quickly, without hesitation, and without any moral and other limitations. It took time to implement all this, so initially Bolsheviks allowed election of Constitutional Assembly, even if they had only minority in it. However by the time it was opened, they were strong enough to shut it down the same day. Here is result of this election:
- Brest-Litovsk: Bolsheviks and traditional diplomacy; German and Bolshevik approaches to talks; divisions in the Bolshevik command; initial negotiations; Trotsky at Brest; bitter divisions among Bolsheviks and the German ultimatum; Germans decide to be firm; they advance into Soviet Russia; Allied efforts to win over Bolsheviks; Moscow requests Allied help; Russians capitulate to German terms; Soviet government moves to Moscow; terms of Brest-Litovsk Treaty; first Allied landings in Russia. American reaction to Bolshevik policies; principles of Bolshevik foreign policy
This is about Russian separate peace with Germany. By this time Lenin and his faction were strong enough to control central Russia, but majority of its members did not really understand the deep link that Lenin had with German intelligence and military command, so the Russian surrender was resisted within and without Bolshevik party. Obviously such person as Lenin could not possibly feel any duty to his German handlers and financiers, but he had one overriding objective to survive in power and capitulation to all German demand was helping this objective. At the end of chapter author summarizes key points of Lenin and Bolshevik actions during this process that later become keystones of Soviet international policy:
- The Revolution Internationalized: Small Western interest in Russian Revolution; foundations of Red Army laid; further talks with Allies; German embassy arrives in Moscow; Soviet embassy in Berlin and its subversive activities; the Czechoslovak rebellion; Bolsheviks adopt military conscription; Czech advances; the Kaiser decides to continue pro-Bolshevik policy; the Left SRs plot uprising; they kill Mirbach; suppression of their rebellion; Savinkovs clandestine organization; the Yaroslavl rising; Riezler fails in attempt to reorient German policy; further Allied activities on Russian soil; Bolsheviks request German intervention; Supplementary Treaty with Germany; Russians decide the Germans have lost the war; the problem of foreign “intervention”
This is about generally poorly understood international help that Bolsheviks managed to obtain from practically all WWI belligerents. Germany continued to provide financial and material help including occasional military support in order to assure that Russia would not return to WWI. Western allies provided some support in hopes that Russia will return. Meanwhile Bolsheviks continued successful maneuvering between all sides on international arena, while achieving their objective of establishing one party rule by eliminating their former allies – Left SR from any positions of power. It ended with SR half-baked revolt that succeeded only in they own elimination. This chapter also discusses formation of Red Army that moved from kind of militia formation to regular army with commanding officers mainly military professionals from Russian army and conscripted troops. This formation proved to be decisive factor in Bolsheviks victory over multiple revolts against their power.
- “War Communism”: Its origins and objectives; “Left Communists plan implementation; attempts to abolish money; creation of supreme Economic Council; decline of industrial productivity; decline of agricultural productivity; efforts to abolish the market and the growth of a shadow economy; anti-labor legislation; trade union policy; effects of War Communism
This chapter is about truly communist economic policy that Bolsheviks attempted to implement. It included elimination of money, complete top down planning and control over productive activities, and multiple other socialist measures, which resulted in complete economic disaster. Here is a table demonstrating the scale of disaster:
- War on the Village: Bolsheviks view peasants as class enemy; what peasants gained in 1917-18 and at what cost; food requisition policies and hunger in the cities; campaign against the village begins; May 1918; food supply detachments meet with resistance: massive peasant revolt; “Committees of the Poor”; assessment of the campaign
This is another chapter on economically disastrous results of socialist approach to power. It basically came down to outright robbery and even annihilation of the productive part of population, the process, which made Russia not capable to produce enough food for its population until the end of Soviet power some 74 years later. It is not that socialists managed to remove market. The market just became a black market with access only to a small share of country’s productive resources, when vast majority of resources coming under government control and used very ineffectively.
- Murder of the Imperial Family: Russian regicide unique; the ex-tsar and family in the first months of Bolshevik rule; Yekaterinburg Bolsheviks want ex-tsar in their custody; Nicholas and Alexandra transported to Yekaterinburg; the “House of Special Designation”; murder of Michael as trial balloon; Cheka fabricates rescue operation; decision to kill ex-tsar taken in Moscow: Cheka takes over guard duties; the murder; disposal of the remains; assassination of other members of the Imperial family at Alapaevsk; Moscow announces execution of Nicholas but not of family; implications of these events
This is detailed description of events related to imperial family and its sad fate. Author quite reasonably points out that comparatively to the huge tragedy of millions of people, the murder of imperial family does not seem as very significant, but it has deep symbolic meaning as the milepost separating previous development of humanity that led to relatively organized society with at least some formal law and order to totalitarian regimes of XX century. It moved from situation during English or French revolutions when such things as regicide were committed with formal legal proceedings and public execution to outright murder of the family including children followed by denials, cover ups, and later justification with no legal formalities whatsoever.
- The Red Terror: Lenin’s attitude toward terror; abolition of law; origins of the Cheka; Cheka’s conflict with the Commissariat of Justice; Lenin shot, August 3, 1918; background of this event and beginning of Lenin cult; “Red Terror~ officially launched; mass murder of hostages; some Bolsheviks revolted by bloodbath; Cheka penetrates all Soviet institutions; Bolsheviks create concentration camps; victims of Red Terror; foreign reactions
The last chapter is about mass terror conducted by Bolsheviks that started soon after their take over. It is the gruesome, but necessary reading. Author points out a very strange fact of lack of serious resistance from victims of terror and even kind of cooperation on their part when both sides perceived what was happening as part of some huge historical processes that was unstoppable and inevitable. Interestingly enough, even in such environment there was some resistance to terror and torture even from some in party leadership, especially at the middle level. Eventually terror did not stop, but become relatively less virulent and more covered up with all forms of disinformation. This was somewhat necessary for both internal purposes to prevent desperate revolts or at list prevent their synchronization, but also for international purposes so all this socialist intelligentsia of western countries could pretend not to know about it and provide support to their spiritual socialist brothers doing hard Cheka work of nudging humanity to the bright future.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This is magisterial work on Russian revolution and even if I grew up in the society created by this revolution, it still provides quite a bit of new information about events and people that were integral part of the culture of this society. One of the most important lessons of this story is recognition of hugely dangerous character of intelligentsia and especially its misfits who could not find place of power they want in exiting society. The typical attitude to people like Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini before they came to power was such as if they were mainly impotent, often not even capable to make living. However they proved themselves smart, ruthless, and, most important, effective leaders capable to achieve their objectives when circumstances allow it. People, who perceive today’s aspiring Lenins, Hitlers, and Trotskys in American universities as somehow benign and call them snowflakes, should learn this lesson. These little outgrows on the body politics should be watched with full attention and full understanding of their malignant cancerous nature and, if necessary, treated as such cancerous outgrowths should be treated to prevent metastasizing.