Bill Jamieson: Lessons of the Russian Revolution

Workers in Petrograd fighting during demonstrations in the Russian Revolution, 1917. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
Workers in Petrograd fighting during demonstrations in the Russian Revolution, 1917. Picture: Keystone/Getty Images
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There remain echoes of the tumultuous events of one hundred years ago in modern-day Russia writes Bill Jamieson

In less than three weeks we will encounter the centenary of one of the most defining events of the modern age: the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

In the early days the overthrow of the Tsar was hailed as a great and wholly welcome liberation that would free Russia from tyranny, end autocracy, feed the people, usher in democracy, free the press and light a beacon for the world. For decades the Russian revolution and its aftermath was celebrated by Britain’s Left intelligentsia.

So dust down (for a moment) the red flags. On Thursday 23 February 1917, more than 7,000 women workers from the textile plants of Petrograd marched out to the centre of the city. By noon more than 50,000 were marching. That it was International Women’s Day mattered less than the one word now echoing along the Nevsky Prospect: “Bread!” By the afternoon the cries had progressed to ‘Down with the War!’ To ‘Long Live the Revolution!’

The authorities appeared uninterested. Wrote Protopopov, the Minister of the Interior, in his diary: “Nothing very terrible has happened.” None of Tsar Nicholas’s ministers even bothered to report the disturbances to him at the front. But even if they had, would he have been much troubled? As Nicholas dismissed the increasingly agitated British ambassador Sir George Buchanan: “You tell me I must regain the confidence of the people. Isn’t it rather for my people to regain my confidence?” Even more dismissive was his retort to a journalist: “You’re always writing about public opinion. But we have no public opinion in Russia.”

On the 26th, machine guns appeared on rooftops and intersections. Still the marchers poured on to the streets. This time they were met with gunfire. The following Monday soldiers were no longer willing to shoot unarmed civilians, turned their rifles on their commander and shot him dead. The revolution was unstoppable.

On 2 March the tsar abdicated. Alexander Kerensky became the first minister of justice in the newly formed Russian provisional government.

Lenin was a late arrival to the party. He did not arrive in Petrograd until 3 April, with many of his followers unconvinced that conditions for a revolution were at hand. The Bolshevik overthrow of Prime Minister Kerensky and the provisional government did not unfold until October.

In retrospect, it could fairly be argued that this was not the start of the Russian revolution but its end. It did not take long for the Bolsheviks to oust the social democrats, close down democracy, seize key centres of power and establish the one party state. A murderous civil war saw the crushing of opposition across the countryside and the death of millions of kulaks.

In cities and towns across Russia, anyone associated with the Tsarist regime, or with any semblance of property and wealth, were arrested, evicted from their homes, tortured, exiled or shot. Categorised by the regime as “former people”, it made no difference that many had been critical of the tsar and had offered support for the revolution. The Cheka did not spare spouses, children and other members of the family.

By 1921, Lenin’s health was failing. In a series of treatises before his death he set down his doubts about the increasingly repressive actions of the general secretary of the party, Joseph Stalin – criticisms soon removed from public view.

Before long, Stalin moved against those he perceived to be rivals and opponents in the Bolshevik ruling circle. Central Committee member Sergey Kirov was assassinated. Stalin invented detailed accusations to implicate others such as Leon Trotsky (exiled, later murdered), Kamenev and Zinoviev, also murdered.

For a brief period it seemed the Red Terror had run its course. But then came the Great Terror of 1936-1939, tens of thousands were arrested and forced under torture to testify against friends and family. The show trials were followed by mass executions and exile.

Stalin’s rule of terror reached its peak with the creation of gulags such as the notorious Kolyma prison camps in the furthermost north-eastern corner of Siberia.

This network was vividly exposed by the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. In these slave labour camps, numbering more than 2,000, the regime was barbaric. Vast numbers of people who were party members or supporters also found themselves “former people”. This appalling penal empire existed from 1929 to 1960. During Stalin’s rule more than 20 million people were sent to the camps, where nearly half of them died.

As for life in the Kremlin, vivid accounts have emerged of life in the court of the Red Tsar; of the inner circle around Stalin made to dance and humiliate themselves at dinners that would last till dawn. Stalin would frequently express admiration of the Tsarist autocracy and the ruthless expansion of the Russian empire.

Little wonder that leading figures at the heart of Soviet power lived in terror that they would be next to be murdered or tortured by Laventri Beria, head of the security and secret police apparatus (NKVD) and Deputy Premier in the post-war years - until he, too, was taken to the Lubyianka - and shot.

It was not until 1956 and the secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev denouncing the Cult of the Personality that Britain’s Left intelligentsia was shaken out of its delusional complacency. Among many who defended the policies of the Soviet Union during the 1930s was author and playwright George Bernard Shaw who continued to defend the regime’s excesses and became an apologist for Stalin after being invited to visit the Soviet Union in 1931.

Other sympathisers included Harold Laski, lecturer, briefly chairman of the Labour Party and a professor at the London School of Economics from 1926 to 1950. Eric Hobsbawm, historian and author shocked many when he stated that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result. He was still lecturing his Marxist creed to students and writing books when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968.

And even among those who were critical of Stalin, there was an influential school of apologists who argued that if only the regime had been more Soviet – preferably Trotskyist – all would have been well. There was no shortage of the kind of people whom Lenin would have dismissed as ‘‘useful idiots”.

That so many Western Left intellectuals were the very people who should have been most sensitive to the gross abuse of power only adds to the irony. Today we owe much more understanding thanks to works such as Former People by Douglas Smith; Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar and Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution.

Now we are faced with ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, evidently keen to restore Russian power in Georgia, the Ukraine and the Baltics, and whose period in office has been marked by the sudden and poisonous dispatch of perceived opponents. How apt is that insight attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

We would do well to remember that as the revolution centenary approaches, Russia has a history of ominous rhyming.