Late evening of October 26, 1917. Lenin stands before the Second Congress of Soviets. He grips the lectern. He has kept his audience waiting — it is nearly 9 PM — and now he waits himself, silent, as applause rolls over him. At last he bends forward and, in a hoarse voice, speaks his first, famous words to the gathering.
“We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” That provokes new delight. A roar.
Lenin follows the Left SRs, proposing the abolition of private property in land. With respect to the war, Congress issues a “proclamation to the peoples and governments of all the belligerent nations,” for immediate negotiation towards democratic peace. Approval is unanimous.
“The war is ended!” comes a hushed exclamation. “The war is ended!”
Delegates are sobbing. They break not into celebratory but funereal song, honoring those who have died in the struggle for this moment.
But the war is not yet ended, and the order that will be constructed is anything but socialist.
Instead, the months and years that follow will see the revolution embattled, assailed, isolated, ossified, broken. We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder.
October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change. Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.
The story of the hopes, struggles, strains, and defeats that follow 1917 has been told before and will be again. That story, and above all the questions arising from it — the urgencies of change, of how change is possible, of the dangers that will beset it — stretch vastly beyond us. These last pages can only offer a fleeting glance.
Instantly after the uprising, Kerensky meets and plans resistance with the hard-right General Krasnov. Under his command, a thousand Cossacks move on the capital. Within Petrograd itself, motley forces around the Mensheviks and Right SRs in the city Duma form into a group, the Committee for Salvation, arrayed against the new Council of People’s Commissars. The oppositionists’ motivations run the gamut, from deep antipathy to democracy to the sincere anguish of socialists at what they see as a doomed undertaking. Strange and temporary bedfellows they may be, but a bed they decide they must share, including with the likes of Purishkevich: the committee plans an uprising in Petrograd to coincide with the arrival of Krasnov’s troops.
But Milrevcom gets wind of the plans. October 29 sees a scrappy, short-lived “Junker mutiny” in the capital, when military cadets attempt to take control. Again, shells rock the city and the resistance is crushed. Again, Antonov deploys his revolutionary honor, the cultivated culture of the militant, to protect captives from a vengeful crowd. His prisoners are spared: others are not so fortunate.
The next day, at Pulkovo Heights, twelve miles out of Petrograd, Krasnov’s forces face a ragtag army of workers, sailors, and soldiers, untrained and undisciplined but outnumbering them ten to one. The fight is ugly and bloody. Krasnov’s forces fall back to the town of Gatchina, where Kerensky is based. Two days later, in exchange for safe passage away, they agree to hand him over.
The erstwhile persuader has a last escapade in him. He makes a successful run for it, disguised in a sailor’s uniform and unlikely goggles. He ends his days in exile, issuing tract after self-exculpating tract.
The pro-coalition All-Russian Executive Committee of the Union of Railway Workers demands a government of all socialist groups. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky, both hardline on the question, attend the resulting conference: those Bolsheviks who do — Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Milyutin — agree that a socialist coalition is the best chance for survival. But at that moment, when the new regime’s survival is under most threat from Krasnov’s approach, many SRs and Mensheviks are as much concerned with military resistance to the government as with negotiation. With Krasnov defeated, they convert to coalition — just as the Bolshevik CC adopts a harder line.
This line is not without controversy. On November 3, five dissenters, including the Heavenly Twins Zinoviev and Kamenev, resign from the CC. But they will retract their opposition in December, when, with fanfare, the Left SRs join the government. For a brief moment, a coalition arises.
The consolidation of the revolution around the country is uneven. In Moscow, there is protracted, bitter fighting. Opponents of the new regime, though, are disoriented and divided, and the Bolsheviks extend their control.
At the start of January 1918, the government requires of the long-delayed, newly convened Constituent Assembly that it recognize the sovereignty of the soviets. When the CA representatives refuse, the Bolsheviks and Left SRs declare it undemocratic and unrepresentative in this new context: after all, its (Right SR–dominated) membership was chosen before October. The radicals turn their back on it, leaving the assembly to wind down ignominiously. It is then suppressed.
Worse soon comes. On March 3, 1918, after weeks of strained, strange, and strung-out negotiations, the treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Soviet government and Germany and its allies brings Russia’s role in the war to a close — but under shockingly punitive terms.
Lenin has fought a lonely battle insisting that the invidious demands be accepted, as for him the priority — at almost all costs — is to end the war, consolidate the new regime, and await the international revolution. Many on the party’s left demur, sure that the Central Powers are so pregnant with revolution that the war should continue until that very upheaval. But in the face of a devastating German advance, Lenin, threatening again to resign, finally wins the argument.
Russia gains peace but loses swathes of land and population, some of its most fertile regions, and vast industrial and financial resources. In these vacated territories, the Central Powers install counterrevolutionary puppet regimes.
In protest at the treaty, the Left SRs resign from government. Tensions escalate as the Bolsheviks respond to worsening famine with brutal measures of food procurement, antagonizing the peasantry, as detailed in a scathing open letter from Maria Spiridonova.
In June, Left SR activists assassinate the German ambassador, hoping to provoke a return to now-“revolutionary” war. In July they stage an uprising against the Bolsheviks — and are suppressed. As peasant resistance to the requisitioning hardens, and Bolshevik activists are assassinated — Volodarsky, Uritsky — the government responds with repressive, often sanguinary measures. Thus the one-party state begins to entrench.
The days are punctuated with unlikely political moments. In October 1918, the Mensheviks, who in many cases remain opposed to it, recognize the October revolution as “historically necessary”; the same year, as the government desperately shores up the collapsing economy, the left Bolshevik Shlyapnikov voices the strange indignation of many in the party that “the capitalist class renounced the organizing role in production assigned to it.”
For a while, Lenin remains bullish about the prospects for international revolution, long assumed to be the only context in which the Russian revolution might survive.
Even as Lenin recovers from a failed assassination attempt in August 1918, even after the dreadful murder of the Marxists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany and the collapse of their Spartacist rebellion, Bolshevik optimism is not, at first, much dampened. In the aftermath of the war, Germany is in the throes of a dramatic social polarization, that will flare up repeatedly between 1918 and 1923. A soviet government arises in Hungary; class struggle erupts in Austria in 1918 and 1919; Italy sees the upheaval of the “two red years” of 1919 and 1920. Even England is rocked by strikes. But over the course of 1919 and beyond, instance by instance this wave is quelled, and reaction sets in. The Bolsheviks wake up to the extent of their isolation, as the situation within their borders, too, becomes desperate.
In May 1918, fifty thousand soldiers of the Czechoslovakian Legion revolt. This, after the false start of Gatchina, kicks off the civil war.
From 1918 to 1921, the Bolsheviks must fight several counterrevolutionary or “White” forces, backed, assisted, and armed by foreign powers. As the Whites encroach on the revolution’s territories, animated by violent nostalgia, “Green” peasant revolts — most famously that of the legendary anarchist Makhno in the Ukraine — stagger the Bolshevik regime. By 1919, Russian territory is occupied by American, French, British, Japanese, German, Serbian, and Polish troops. Socialism, the red bacillus, is more irksome to the Americans, British and French than are their wartime foes. David Francis, the American ambassador to Russia, writes of his concern that “if these damned Bolsheviks are permitted to remain in control of the country it will not only be lost to its devoted people but Bolshevik rule will undermine all governments and be a menace to society itself.”
Churchill is particularly obsessed with the “nameless beast,” the “foul baboonery of Bolshevism,” and perfectly explicit that it is his greatest enemy. “Of all the tyrannies in history, the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading,” he declares in 1919. “It is sheer humbug to pretend that it is not far worse than German militarism.” As the war ends, he publicizes his intention to “Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun.”
The Allies pour troops into Russia, screwing down an embargo, stopping food from reaching the starving population of Soviet Russia. And they funnel funds to the Whites, no matter how unsavory — supporting a dictatorship under Alexander Kolchak, and regarding Grigory Semenov, whose Cossack forces unleash a reign of terror in Siberia, as, in the words of one American observer, “tolerably severe.”
The fractious, squabbling Whites, however, for all their funding, for all the Allies’ support, are unable to win militarily or to gain popular backing, due to their opposition to any concessions for the Russian peasantry or restive national minorities — and to their barbarism. Their troops engage in indiscriminate butchery, burning villages and killing some 150,000 Jews in enthusiastic pogroms, performing exemplary torture — mass flogging, burial alive, mutilation, dragging prisoners behind horses — and summary execution. Their instructions to take no prisoners are often graphically explicit.
Such terror is in the service of their dream of new authoritarianism. If Bolshevism falls to the Whites, the eyewitness Chamberlin writes, its replacement will be “a military dictator . . . riding into Moscow on a white horse.” Not the Italian language but the Russian would have given the world the word for fascism, as Trotsky later puts it.
Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture, and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes its own Red Terror.
And there is no doubt that its reach and depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka, the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism, or the degradation of the moment, are thugs and murderers unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There are no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.
Other agents carry out their work with anguish. One may feel skeptical, even disgusted, at the notion of an attempt, under desperate necessity, at an “ethical” terror, a terror as limited as possible, but the testimonials of agents tormented at what they believed they had no choice but to do are powerful. “I have spilt so much blood I no longer have any right to live,” says a drunken and distraught Dzherzhinsky at the end of 1918. “You must shoot me now,” he begs.
One unlikely source, Major General William Graves, who commanded US forces in Siberia, considers himself “well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks.” Many of the Soviet regime’s leaders struggle to restrain the degrading tendencies of their own Terror, of which they are horribly aware. In 1918, a Cheka newspaper notoriously calls for torture: the CC excoriates the editors and closes it down, and the Soviet renews its condemnation of any such practice. But without question a political and moral rot is setting in.
Faced with the wholesale collapse, and a continuing and devastating famine, in 1921 the regime rolls back the emergency measures of militarized requisitioning and control known as “War Communism,” replacing them with the New Economic Policy, or NEP. From 1921 to 1927, the regime encourages a degree of private initiative, allowing smaller-scale enterprises to make a profit. Wage policies are liberalized, foreign experts and technical advisers authorized. Though the government creates various large collective farms, much land is turned over to the wealthier peasants. The “NEPmen,” spivs and wheeler-dealers, start to make good on speculation and burgeoning black markets.
The country labors through a catastrophic aftermath, a rubble of industry, agriculture, and the working class itself. War Communism was a desperate exigency, and NEP is a necessary retreat, allowing a degree of stability, the boosting of production. An expression of weakness, it comes at a cost. The bureaucratic apparatus is suspended now above the broken remnants of the class for which it claims to speak.
Among the Bolsheviks are dissenting grouplets, official and unofficial. Kollontai and Shlyapnikov lead the “Workers’ Opposition,” hankering to hand power to a working class that barely exists any more. Old-Bolshevik intellectuals, “Democratic Centralists,” oppose the centralization. The Tenth Congress of 1921 prohibits factions. Advocates of the move, including Lenin, present it as a temporary exigency to unite the party. Those factions that, inevitably, come later — the Left Opposition, the United Opposition — will not be official.
Lenin’s health is failing. He suffers strokes in 1922 and 1923, and struggles in what has been called his “final fight,” against the bureaucratic tendencies, the ossification and corruption he sees growing. He grows suspicious of Stalin’s personality and his place within the machine. In his last writings, he insists Stalin be removed from his post as general secretary.
His advice is not followed. Lenin dies in January 1924.
The regime swiftly launches a grotesque death cult, the most ostentatious element of which remains in place today: his corpse. A gnarled and ghastly relic, receiving obeisance from its catafalque.
At the Fourteenth Party Congress, in 1924, against the protests of Trotsky and others, the party performs a giddying about-face.
Now it officially accepts Stalin’s claim that “in general the victory of socialism (not in the sense of final victory) is unconditionally possible in one country.”
The parenthetical caveat notwithstanding, the embrace of “Socialism in One Country” is a dramatic reversal of a foundational thesis of the Bolsheviks — and others.
The shift is born of despair, as any prospects for international revolution recede. But if it is utopian to hope that international support is around the corner, how much more so is it to wager on the impossible — autarchic socialism? A hard-headed pessimism, no matter how difficult to metabolize, would be less damaging than this bad hope.
The effects of the new position are devastating. As any vestigial culture of debate and democracy withers, the bureaucrats become custodians of a top-down development towards a monstrosity they call “socialism.” And Stalin, the “grey blur” at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.
Between 1924 and 1928 the atmosphere in Russia grows more and more toxic, infighting in the party more bitter, the shifting of allegiances and cliques more urgent and dangerous. Allies become opponents become allies again. The Heavenly Twins make their peace with the regime. Trotsky does not: he is squeezed out of the CC and the party; his supporters are harassed and abused, beaten up, driven to suicide. In 1928, his Left Opposition is smashed and scattered.
Threats against the regime multiply, and Stalin consolidates his rule. As crisis grips the world economy, he inaugurates the “great change.” “The tempo must not be reduced!” he announces in 1931. This is his first Five-Year Plan. “We are fifty or one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.”
Thus is justified brutal industrialization and collectivization, a ruthless centralized control-and-command economy and political culture. Party activists are hounded in great numbers, forced to betray others, to confess to preposterous crimes with stentorian declarations. They are executed by this counterrevolution against their tradition, in that tradition’s name. Previous loyalty to Stalin is no defense: the long roll call of Bolsheviks put to death in the 1930s and after includes not only Trotsky and Bukharin, but Zinoviev, Kamenev, and countless others.
With this despotic degradation comes a revival of statism, antisemitism and nationalism, and bleakly reactionary norms in culture, sexuality, and family life. Stalinism: a police state of paranoia, cruelty, murder, and kitsch.
After a protracted sumerki, a long spell of “liberty’s dim light,” what might have been a sunrise becomes a sunset. This is not a new day. It is what the Left Oppositionist Victor Serge calls “midnight in the century.”
Excerpted from October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, out now from Verso.