My aim is to provide a brief account of the Russian Revolution in the longue durée, to chart one hundred years of history as a single revolutionary cycle. In this telling the Revolution starts in the nineteenth century (and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy) and ends with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.
It might seem odd to plot the Revolution in one hundred years of history. Most short books on the subject focus on the years immediately before and after 1917. But to understand the Revolution’s origins, its violent character and tragic course from freedom to dictatorship, one must look more closely at the tsarist past; and to perceive its lasting outcomes, one must see it in the broader context of Soviet history. Many of the themes of the first chapters on the tsarist period—the absence of a political counter-balance to the power of the state; the isolation of the educated classes from the common people; the rural backwardness and poverty that drove so many peasants to seek a better life in the industrial towns; the coercive basis of authority in Russia; and the extremism of the socialist intelligentsia—will reappear in the later chapters on 1917 and the Soviet regime.
When did the Russian Revolution end? Historians have chosen various dates, depending on the stories which they wish to tell, and these of course can all be justified. Some have ended their accounts in 1921 with the ending of the Civil War, when armed opposition to the Bolsheviks was finally defeated, and the consolidation of the Soviet dictatorship. Others have concluded with the death of Lenin in 1924, as I did in A People’s Tragedy, a work on which I draw in these pages, on the grounds that by this time the basic institutions, if not the practices, of the Stalinist regime were in place. One or two have ended in 1927, with the defeat of Trotsky and the Left Opposition; or in 1929, with the onset of a new revolutionary upheaval, the forced industrialization and collectivization of the first Five Year Plan, implying that the Stalinist economy was the significant outcome of 1917.
One of the most influential historians of the Soviet period, Sheila Fitzpatrick, concluded her short history of the Revolution in the mid-1930s, a period of ‘retreat’ from its utopian objectives when the structural economic changes of Stalin’s Revolution were consolidated as a permanent system. By her own later admission, this was to suggest that the Great Terror of 1937–8 was a ‘monstrous postscript’ to the Revolution, an aberration explained by the regime’s fear of war, when in fact it was a part of it—the biggest in a series of waves of terror whose origins can only be explained by the insecurities of the Soviet regime going back to 1917. To omit the Great Terror from a history of the Russian Revolution, Fitzpatrick acknowledged, would be the equivalent of writing an account of the French Revolution of 1789 without the Reign of Terror (1793–4) for which it was chiefly known.1
The Great Terror was not the final wave of violence by the Soviet state. The population of the Gulag labour camps, which Solzhenitsyn placed at the very core of the Bolshevik experiment, reached its peak, not in 1938, but in 1952. So it does not make much sense to end a history of the Revolution with the halting of the Great Terror. But then it doesn’t make much sense either to break it off in 1939 or 1941. The Second World War did not interrupt the Revolution. It intensified and broadened it. Bolshevism came into its own during the war—with its military discipline and cult of sacrifice, its willingness to expend human life to meet its goals, and its capacity to militarize the masses through its planned economy, it was made to fight. The Revolution was reforged and toughened by the war. Through the Red Army and its NKVD units, the Soviet empire tightened its control of its borderlands in West Ukraine and the Baltic, purging towns and villages and sending to the Gulag, in their hundreds of thousands, nationalist insurgents, repatriated Soviet servicemen and ‘collaborators’ with the Germans. By force of arms, the Bolsheviks exported the Russian Revolution into Eastern Europe—first in 1939–40 and again in 1945.
The Cold War, in this sense, has to be seen as a continuation of the international civil war started by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The global ambitions of the Revolution’s leaders remained essentially unchanged, from their first attempts to extend Soviet power into Europe through the invasion of Poland in 1920 to their final foreign adventure in Afghanistan after 1979. Lenin’s power seizure had been based on the idea that the Revolution could not survive on its own in a backward peasant country such as Russia, that it needed the support of revolutions in the more advanced industrial states or in countries that could give it the resources it needed to industrialize: a life-or-death conflict between socialism and the capitalist powers was unavoidable as long as capitalism existed. Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov, if not Gorbachev, were all Leninists in this belief.
Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun. Their means of rule altered over time, of course, particularly after Stalin’s death, when they gave up on the use of mass terror, but they always saw themselves as Lenin’s heirs, working to achieve the same utopian goals envisaged by the founders of the Soviet state: a Communist society of material abundance for the proletariat and a new collective type of human being. That is why I think a good case can be made for the Revolution being treated as a single cycle of one hundred years, ending with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991.
Within this longer cycle I aim to explain the Revolution’s rise and fall in three generational phases. The first corresponds to the lifetime of the Old Bolsheviks, mostly born in the 1870s or 1880s and, if not already dead, eliminated in the Great Terror. Their utopian ideals and austere party culture of military unity and discipline had been shaped by years of struggle in the conspiratorial underground. But they obtained their revolutionary power from the cataclysm of the First World War—which seemed at once to undermine the value of a human life and to open up the possibility of altering the nature of humanity out of the destruction it had caused—and reached the height of their destructive fury in the Civil War, from which the Bolsheviks emerged victorious and strengthened in their conviction that any fortress could be stormed. From these killing fields they set about the building of a new society. But they could not overcome the problem of the peasantry—the smallholding family farmers who made up three quarters of the country’s population and dominated its economy—with their individualistic attitudes, patriarchal customs and attachment to the old Russian world of the village and the church. To so many of the Party’s new supporters—peasant sons and daughters who had fled the ‘backward’ village for a better life—the Revolution could not banish peasant Russia fast enough.
Here were the roots of Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’, the second phase of the cycle charted here, beginning with the Five Year Plan of 1928–32. Stalinism’s vision of modernity gave fresh energy to the utopian hopes of the Bolsheviks. It mobilized a whole new generation of enthusiasts—young ambitious workers, officials and technicians born around the turn of the century and schooled in Soviet values—who forced through Stalin’s policies of crash collectivization and industrialization and who, through the purges of the 1930s, took the places of the old élites. Collectivization was the real revolution of Soviet history—the complete overturning of a peasant way of life that had developed over many centuries—and a catastrophe from which the country never recovered. It was a social holocaust—a war against the peasants—uprooting millions of hardworking families from their homes and dispersing them across the Soviet Union. This nomadic population became the labour force of the Soviet industrial revolution, filling the great cities, the building-sites and labour camps of the Gulag.
The industrial infrastructure built by Stalin in the 1930s remained in place until the end of the Soviet system. His Five Year Plans became the model for Communist development throughout the world. They were said to be the cause of the Soviet military victory in 1945—the justifying rationale for everything accomplished by the October Revolution according to Soviet propaganda. But these achievements came at an enormous human cost—far bigger than we had imagined before the archives opened after 1991—so big that they challenge us to think about the moral nature of the Stalinist regime in ways reserved previously for historians of Nazism.
Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes marks the start of the Revolution’s third and final phase. The Soviet system never recovered from the crisis of belief caused by Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. For the next thirty years the leadership was split about how far they could build on Stalin’s legacies, or even recognize his influence, except as a war leader. The country was divided between Stalin’s victims and those who revered his memory or took pride in Soviet achievements under Stalin’s leadership. But the speech was the defining moment for a younger generation that identified itself by the years of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ (the shestidesiatniki or ‘people of the sixties’), among them a 1955 law graduate from Moscow University called Mikhail Gorbachev, whose ideas of socialist renewal were first sown by Khrushchev’s programme of de-Stalinization.
The challenge facing all the later Soviet leaders was to sustain popular belief in the Revolution as it became a remote historical event. The problem was particularly acute for the generation born since 1945: they were too young even to relate to the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the other main legitimizing Soviet myth after the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’. Better educated and more sophisticated than the Stalin-era generation, the post-war Soviet baby boomers were less engaged in the Revolution’s history or ideas than in Western music, films and clothes. Did this make the demise of the Soviet system unavoidable? Is any revolution destined to run out of energy, to die from old age, if it lives as long as the Soviet Union did? The Chinese endgame (liberalizing the economy within the one-party state) could briefly have been an alternative for the Soviet leadership under Andropov and Gorbachev, although it is doubtful whether economic modernization could have saved the system in the longer term (the Soviet population had forgotten how to work). But in the end it was Gorbachev’s commitment to political reform—a belief rooted in his Leninist ideals—that brought the system down.
In 2017 the world’s media will reflect on the Revolution during its centenary. It is a good time to look back at 1917. A generation after the collapse of the Soviet regime, we can see it more clearly, not as part of Cold War politics or Sovietology, but as history, a series of events with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Retrospective distance enables us to see the Revolution from a fresh perspective and to ask again the big questions: why Russia? why Lenin? why Stalin? why did it fail? and what did it all mean? Questions as worth engaging with at the start of the next hundred years as they were during the last.
Seen from today’s perspective the Revolution appears very differently from the way it looked in 1991. Communism now seems, more than ever, like something from a stage of history that has been passed. Capitalism may have its crises, but outside North Korea no one sees the Soviet model of the planned economy as a viable alternative, not even China or Cuba any more. Russia has become very much weaker as a power in the world. Its loss of empire and foreign influence has been so dramatic that it makes one wonder how it held the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for so long. Russia is no longer an aggressive state. It does not start foreign wars. Economically it is a pale shadow of the powerhouse it was on the eve of the First World War. Seventy years of Communism ruined it. Yet the authoritarian state tradition has revived in Russia in a manner unexpected twenty years ago. This resurgence, based on Putin’s reclamation of the Soviet past, demands that we look again at Bolshevism—its antecedents and its legacies—in the long arc of history.
Copyright © 2014 by Orlando Figes