As the ideas of Karl Marx swept through Europe in the late 1800s they were taken up by Russian revolutionaries. The Russian empire, ruled as it was by an autocratic tsar who refused to share political power, was a harbour for political radicalism and revolutionary ideas. In 1898 a newly formed group, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, or SDs for short, embraced Marxism as its ideological platform. The SDs split into two factions, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The cause of this split was conflicting views over tactics and membership. The leader of the Bolshevik faction, a young lawyer named Vladimir Ulyanov – later known to the word as Lenin – wanted a small, tightly controlled and elite group of ‘professional revolutionaries’. This group, Lenin said, would not be contain with waiting for revolution: they would make it happen, and sooner rather than later. The culmination of Lenin’s vision came in October 1917, when his Bolshevik party – by then backed by more than 200,000 Russian workers – took advantage of the turmoil caused by World War I and seized control of the government. Thus began the emergence and the development of communist Russia – and the birth of the Soviet Union.
Once in power, the Bolsheviks did not pause: they immediately set about transforming Russia into a socialist state. Just days after coming to power, Lenin issued a series of decrees promising radical reform. His government promised to end Russia’s involvement in the war, negotiate peace terms with Germany and bring all Russian soldiers home. The old symbols and structures of tsarist Russia were abolished, including noble titles, bureaucratic ranks and government departments. Private ownership of land was ended; the gigantic estates once owned by Russia’s rich landlords were given over to peasants. The Bolsheviks legislated civil rights and improved conditions for workers, as well as near complete equality for women, who were promised equal pay, working conditions and voting rights. Social reforms such as healthcare and literacy programs were announced. Imperial Russia was politically remodelled and renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). These grand plans and promises created a good deal of optimism among the Russian people – though it soon became apparent that the new government was incapable of fulfilling them.
As weeks passed, the Bolshevik regime – plagued by internal opposition, external threats and economic deprivation – resorted to old undemocratic methods to maintain control. Elections for a constituent assembly were held in December 1917, but when they failed to return a Bolshevik majority, Lenin sent in troops to dissolve the assembly after just one day. Facing the possibility of counter-revolution from surviving elements of the old regime, Lenin ordered the formation of a Soviet Red Army and a secret police force called the CHEKA. When armed opposition to the Bolsheviks erupted in mid-1918, the regime imposed a brutal economic policy called ‘war communism’, which required peasants to hand over most of their food supplies at the point of a gun. For three years Russia endured a divisive and bitter civil war between the Bolshevik ‘Reds’ and the counter-revolutionary ‘Whites’, a disparate group made up of tsarist supporters, democrats and non-Bolshevik socialists. The civil war, along with Bolshevik policies and a series of severe droughts, gave birth to a famine that killed between five and ten million Russian peasants.
These events in Russia terrified American capitalists, who feared the outcomes if socialism was to take root in the United States. The US government took a strong stand against the Bolshevik regime. Washington refused to formally recognise the USSR and its government (it would not do so until 1933). The Americans – along with other western nations like Britain, Canada and France – also provided military support for White counter-revolutionaries in their struggle to overthrow the Bolsheviks. In July 1918, US president Woodrow Wilson approved the deployment of 13,000 American soldiers – known as the Polar Bear Expedition – to support White counter-revolutionaries. Though these troops did not play a major role in the Russian Civil War, they remained in Russia until 1920. The involvement of foreign forces hardened Bolshevik attitudes to the West. Soviet propaganda, like the image shown on this page, portrayed the western Allies as greedy capitalists eager to defeat socialism and re-enslave Russian workers. By 1921 the Bolsheviks emerged victorious and the Whites were defeated, dispersed or forced into exile. The USSR, now politically secure, entered a period of recovery and rebuilding.
The Soviet Union under Stalin
John M. Thompson, historian
In January 1924 Lenin, who had been desperately ill for many months, died after suffering a major stroke. After a brief power struggle, a new leader emerged: Josef Dzhugashvili, better known by his revolutionary codename Stalin. Unlike his predecessor Lenin, Stalin had not been an intellectual figure or a natural leader – in fact his early role in the Bolshevik movement was to raise funds by robbing banks or extorting money from local capitalists. But what he lacked in genius Stalin made up for in ruthlessness, manipulation and political nous. He also had a clear vision for the Soviet Union and its future. Unlike Lenin, who had hoped to export socialism and promote revolution elsewhere in Europe, Stalin advocated ‘socialism in one country’. A paranoid who feared both foreign powers and internal opposition, Stalin wanted to transform the nation into a military power so it could withstand attack. Most of his policies of the late 1920s and 1930s were aimed at industrialising and modernising Russia; anticipating a future attack from Europe or the US, Stalin wanted Soviet military capacity to match that of the West. The emergence of Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933 only hastened Stalin’s plans (Hitler was bitterly anti-communist and had long-term plans to expand Germany to the east, which would necessitate an invasion of the Soviet Union).
While Stalin was largely successful at hauling his backward nation into the 20th century, his reforms came at enormous human and social cost. The USSR was not the ‘workers’ paradise’ imagined by Soviet propagandists – in fact it was, for most workers, a forlorn and oppressive place, where the needs of the party and state were paramount. Millions of Russian peasants, once promised land and freedom, were instead herded into giant collectivised farms to work for the state. Grain was seized and sold abroad to fund Stalin’s economic program, a policy that triggered another deadly famine in the mid-1930s. Those who refused to work or who stood against the Stalinist regime were whisked away by one of several secret police forces: the OGPU, the NKVD and the KGB. Many were silenced and never seen again; many more ended up in remote labour prisons called gulags, where they were worked to death.
Through all this change and misery, state propaganda created a personality cult that hailed Stalin as a hero: a benevolent leader, the saviour of Russia, protector of women and children, upholder of the ideological traditions of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The reality was that while Stalin called himself a Marxist and a communist, he was very little of either. The Soviet despot had more in common with Adolf Hitler, his fellow dictator and arch-rival, than with true Marxists. To capitalists in the West, particularly the United States, Stalin’s Russia was a case study of how flawed ideologies like communism created much more suffering than successful reform. Yet while Western nations loathed the Soviet example, they also feared the industrial, technical and military progress it had delivered to Russia. By the late 1930s the world pondered the spectre of a future war involving two rapidly industrialising dictatorships: Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. It would not have to wait long for this spectre to become a reality.
1. Marxist ideas had been popular in Russia since the 1890s and manifested themselves in the Bolshevik movement.
2. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, instigated a revolution that seized control of the Russian government.
3. They attempted to transform Russia into a socialist state, though this was hampered by war and economic crises.
4. Lenin was succeeded by Stalin, who strived for modernisation and industrial growth, though at enormous human cost.
5. The transformations in Soviet Russia worried Western capitalists, who both despised and feared communism.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Communist Russia”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/communist-russia/.