In 2017, the Russian Revolution celebrated it's centennial. Despite the massive impact it had on the world, Russian Revolution history, even at it's most basic (such as the Russian Revolution timeline), elude many casual observers. Since the success of the revolution, "communist" has been something of a catchall phrase for red-blooded capitalists looking to blame others for undermining the foundation of society. Surely, you can blame the Russian Revolution for likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
What began as a demonstration for bread evolved into 75 years of "communist" rule that altered the course of world history. Lesser known Russian Revolution facts are mind-blowing when you consider their impact on history. Through the decades, many have asked how a movement intended to emancipate humanity from the yoke of tyranny took so many wrong turns and caused so much suffering throughout the Soviet empire. This sentiment was reflected by Irving Berlin when he quipped, "The world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl."
Choosing the word or phrase is sometimes all you need to achieve huge success, and that’s exactly what Vladimir Lenin did with his social revolutionary party. Ironically, the great communist leader was really good at branding.
Before the Russian Revolution of March 1917, there were many outlawed revolutionary parties that operated underground. Marxists, democrats, socialists, anarchists, populists and others all had specific gains they were working towards. These included overthrowing the monarchy, ending war, abolishing capitalism, and modernizing Russia.
In the age of the printing press, these groups directed their revolutionary messages to the Russian peasantry, intellectuals, and working class by producing newspapers and leaflets, which were distributed by party agents. The most well known publications were Pravda and Iskra. At Iskra, Lenin and fellow revolutionary Julius Martov differed in their approach to achieving shared goals. Lenin rigidly believed in swift, disciplined, violent revolution led by a tight-knit group of party members. Martov believed in a reform movement open to all opinions.
Lenin feared a revolution wouldn’t survive without his approach, because an open, long-term reform movement could be easily infiltrated and crushed by Tsarist forces. In order to build popular support for his group, Lenin claimed the name Bolshevik, meaning ‘majority,’ to give the impression that his revolutionary party already enjoyed the support of the majority of Russians. As a result, Martov and his followers accepted a name practically bestowed upon them - Menshevik, or ‘minority’.
In truth, most Russians favored the more gentle approach to social and political change touted by Martov. In the end, by claiming to enjoy majority support, Lenin planted the seeds of the Bolshevik myth that would live on through the 1917 revolution and subsequent 75 years of communist rule.
Mythology was the glue holding power structures together in the Soviet Union. As seen today in North Korea, foundation myths and propaganda cast a spell over the masses to gain absolute loyalty to the ruling elite.
To consolidate power, the communist party of the Soviet Union reinforced the myth that the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the Romanov Dynasty, was staged by devoted communist party members led by Lenin and Leon Trotsky. This is only half true, but the misconception was exploited and reinforced by media and propaganda, most notably filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, whose 1929 film October: Ten Days That Shook the World contains scenes of thousands of revolutionaries taking over the Tsar's Winter Palace with nary a women in sight.
The Great War proved to be disastrous for Russia; almost every decision the government made created a domino effect of problems. Most of the enlisted Russian soldiers were peasant farmers who produced valuable crops propping up the economy. With farmers at the front, the agricultural sector broke down, a problem exacerbated by Russia’s lack of roads and rudimentary railway system. Food shortages occurred across the country.
On International Women’s Day, February 23, 1917, (March to the rest of the world, as Russia was using a Julian, not Gregorian, calendar) 90,000 citizens, most women who had spent countless hours standing in line for bread, began rioting throughout Petrograd. They soon formed a mob and began gathering other workers to demonstrate not just for bread but for the abdication of Czar Nicholas II.
The commander of the local military garrison, General Khabalov, ordered his soldiers to shoot the rioters if they refused to disperse. The soldiers, disgusted by this order and at themselves for following it, soon revolted and arrested other officers. After four days, the city of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) was in a state of insurrection.
Vladimir Lenin, meanwhile, had been living in exile in Zurich, but with the help of the Imperial German government, was traveling across Europe back to Russia. Very simply, Lenin and the communists were never responsible for the popular revolution that toppled Tsar in Russia. It is fitting that he once said, “A lie told often enough becomes truth”
Following the October Revolution in 1917, Lenin is quoted as (supposedly) saying; “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”. Whether or not he actually said this is irrelevant. The bellicose tone is far more important, as it belied the nature of the Soviet State and its secret police apparatus.
Felix Dzherzhinsky, Lenin's colleague, was the first director commissar of the newly established Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counter-Revolution (Cheka). Cheka was a secret police agency established by Lenin that acted as muscle for the Soviet Union.
Tactics employed by Check under Dzerzhinsky, who was known as Iron Felix, include verbal and physical intimidation, kidnapping, arrest without warrant, beatings, lengthy interrogation, show trials, and mass execution by firing squad. Other notable directors after Iron Felix include Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenty Beria. Each left his own brand of sadism in the pages of Cheka’s history.
From 1917 to 1991, Cheka it was given various names, divided into several departments, and reestablished as one agency numerous times through the fall of the Soviet Union. GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, and NKGB are just a few of the acronyms Cheka went by until it was renamed KGB in 1954. It continued as KGB until 1991, but even when the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin spires for the last time, the agency survived. It was renamed Federal Security Service (FSB), and came under the control of Vladimir Putin.
The writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have been interpreted to fit many a political agenda. Applying their ideas to the Russian Revolution, it's clear Russian society and its economy weren’t developed enough to support revolution, or class struggle of any kind; it was still, as they would have called it, "backward."
Both Marx and Engels took this general view when Russia cast off feudal serfdom in 1861. In Edvins Snore’s 2008 documentary The Soviet Story, professor and historian George Watson of Cambridge University states:
“It first appeared in January 1849 in Marx’s journal, Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Engels wrote of the class war in Marxian terms. When socialist class war happens, when the class war happens, there will be primitive societies in Europe two stages behind because they’re not even capitalist yet. And he had in mind the Basques, and the Bretons, and the Scottish Highlanders, and the Serbs. And he calls them racial trash. ‘Volkerabfall’ And they will have to be destroyed, because being two stages behind in the historical struggle, it will be impossible to bring them up to the point of being revolutionary”
The horrific statement by Engels likely was a permanent thorn in Lenin’s side when trying to apply Marxist theory in 1917 to post-feudal revolutionary Russia.