A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution changed economic and political configurations across the world. Through a series of articles, The Wire revisits the making of The Soviet Century.
At St Petersburg’s Museum of Russian Political History, which stands on Petrogradsky island, lies a giant clock dial, the hands of which stand frozen at 9:40 pm. A legend by its side tells you that the time refers to when a ‘dry’ shell fired from the Cruiser Aurora heralded the storming of the Winter Palace – and the seizure of power by the world’s first workers’ state. It was the night of October 25, 1917 (November 7, by the new calendar). The next day, at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Vladimir Lenin, the revolution’s leader and now the head of the new government, began his first official address with these simple words: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order!”
In his classic Ten Days that Shook the World, an eyewitness account of those stormy days, John Reed tells us how, when he uttered those momentous words, Vladimir Lenin, “gripping the edge of the reading stand, (and) letting his little winking eyes travel over the crowd, ….. stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes”. This was Lenin’s first ‘public’ appearance after he had been forced into hiding in June that year by a slew of repressive measures the provisional government had unleashed on the Bolsheviks. A victorious people now sent out thundering waves of cheers in their leader’s honour, but Lenin looked unmoved himself. He had a job to do, and he wanted to sit down to it as soon as he could.
I could not lay my hands on a recording of this session of the Soviet in the museum’s vast treasure-house of audio-video clips and films, but the galleries are replete with vignettes of those stirring days. The museum building, an early 20th century art nouveau structure with numerous windows of curiously different sizes and shapes, served as the headquarters of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) for a period after the February revolution till the Kerensky government drove the Bolsheviks underground in July. Lenin had a spacious, but unpretentious, office here that is open to visitors today, with several issues from June 1917 of the Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, stacked up on a large table on one side. A first-floor balcony, opening out from this office and overlooking Kuybysheva Street, has made its place in history, because it was from this balcony that Lenin often addressed large crowds of supporters assembled on the street below in those turbulent days in May and June that year.
Petrograd (as Russia’s capital was known then) seethed with anger as Russian soldiers, hungry and sick, continued to desert a war that meant nothing to them and that the February Revolution had promised to bring an end to. An iconic painting exists of an animated Lenin speaking from that balcony, his outstretched left arm emphasising a point, shoulders hunched eagerly forward, a stubble showing on his chin already, even as people throng the street and the pavement below, looking upwards, hanging on to Lenin’s every word, as evening settled over the park across the road. In fact, a copy of the painting is hung on a wall of Lenin’s office itself, adding a tone of immediacy to the whole setting.
One of the most moving sets of photographs in the museum documents the mass burial on March 23 of those fallen in the February uprising, nearly 300 in all. About a million workmen and soldiers marched down the city streets, singing and chanting slogans, carrying the coffins of their dead comrades who were later laid to rest in four massive common graves in a great display of revolutionary ecstasy.
In April 1917, the RSDLP’s Bolshevik faction elected to its Central Committee eight leaders besides Lenin, prominent among them being Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Yakov Sverdlov and Joseph Stalin. The photos of these members, along with those of the committee’s secretariat headed by Sverdlov line the walls. In fact, Lenin’s wife Krupskaya was a member of this secretariat, and her desk, a plain wooden table with several drawers, sits in Sverdlov’s office on the same floor as Lenin’s office.
The exhibits trace the build-up over the spring and summer months of the momentum that eventually hastened the advent of the insurrection. Gripping scenes abound of public demonstrations and protests against the provisional government and its retrograde policies in June and July 1917, and there are stunning photos of the police firing on July 4 on demonstrators at the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Sadovaya Street that left many workers dead and many others injured. By September, Leon Trotsky had thrown in his lot with the Bolsheviks after years of estrangement with Lenin. Pictures from September 30 show Lenin and Trotsky, the tallest leaders of the October Revolution, side by side.Reed’s narrative captures the electric atmosphere of those turbulent days when human history was turning an unfamiliar corner to new-found hope and freedom. The museum mirrors that mood of exhilaration and anxiety with remarkable vividness. There are video clips of Red Guards guarding Lenin’s Smolny office or mounting a trench mortar on the stairs to the Winter Palace, their faces taut and grim, their eyes scanning the distance for enemy fire. In another clip, soldiers hover around a log fire near the Palace Bridge, the warmth lighting up their young faces as they chatter away furiously (my broken Russian unable to make out what about). A short film captures Trotsky’s arrival in Brest-Litovsk in January, 1918, for negotiations with the Central Powers. The fledgling Soviet Republic had by then been pushed into a corner and was obliged, after bitter internal debates, to sign a peace treaty that they themselves despised.
There are also extensive reports from the terrible Civil War that engulfed the young republic during 1918-21 and threatened her very existence, as well as some from the time of the traumatic Kronstadt rebellion in March 1921, with one memorable frame showing a corps of army engineers, their bayonets bristling against the background of miles and miles of fierce Russian snow, who find themselves thrust in the unlikely role of fighters and seem to be enjoying that role famously. Another photo of March 22, 1921, has Lenin, Trotsky and Kliment Voroshilov smiling into the camera along with a group of Red Guards who had helped put down the Kronstadt uprising. That smile must have hidden much more than it expressed, for the Kronstadt rebellion, being a genuine challenge to the new regime from the political left (unlike the Kornilovs, the Denikins, the Kolchaks and all the rest who represented unabashed right-wing reaction), troubled the revolution’s conscience as nothing else did. Indeed, it was after Kronstadt that Lenin insisted on dismantling what had come to be known as War Communism, opting instead for a much-liberalised new economic policy that recognised and reinstated some rights to private property and eased the state’s control over the peasantry’s grain produce in some measure.
A little over 40 years after those heady days of October-November 1917, over a third of all humanity lived under socialism or some variant of it. When the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt the western economies a body blow they desperately struggled to recover from, the Soviet Union, not quite 20 years old yet, seemed immune to its catastrophic impact and forged ahead in industrial production at unbelievable speed. Agricultural productivity, long the Soviet Union’s blind spot, also picked up momentum in dramatic fashion. Hunger was eradicated, primary and even secondary education became universal, as did primary healthcare. Russia was the first country to send a man into outer space, and Soviet athletes vied with the best and the brightest from the prosperous western capitalist nations at international competitions and held their own with remarkable poise. In most human development indices, the Soviet Union did better than wealthier nations. Not only was it a superpower, the Soviet Union was also looked upon with admiration and respect by large groups of people living in non-socialist countries. A British prime minister, no less, went on record in the early 1960s that Nikita Khrushchev’s claim that the Soviet Union could soon overtake every country including the US in overall industrial output was far from being an empty boast. And even the worst detractors had to concede that, but for the Soviet Union, the battle against Nazi Germany could perhaps have not been won.
And yet, the socialist dream soured quickly enough. The mighty Soviet Union was razed to the ground in 1991, but ‘truly existing socialism’ had started to seriously unravel quite some years earlier, much before the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989. Looking at the world around us today, it is hard to imagine what it looked and felt like only 40 years back.
The end of the dream
With the benefit of hindsight, it is not hard to figure out what really went wrong with the great October dream. Russia was one of the most backward economies in Europe, poorly industrialised and with often primitive social infrastructure except perhaps in its two largest cities. Classically, Marxism considered the highly industrialised economies with their evolved social relations and formations to be the right candidates for social revolution. Indeed, even the Russian socialists themselves – Lenin included – considered Germany to be the ripest for the transition to socialism, and thought of themselves as only the revolution’s ushers in whose hands a combination of fortuitous circumstances – the Great War, devastating famines, a doddering royalty too weak to steer the country in any direction whatever, and a deeply disenchanted and militant working class in Petrograd – had placed a unique opportunity to push a decrepit, exploitative state over the precipice.
While seizing power, the Bolsheviks looked to Germany and other developed industrial societies, where working-class movements appeared to have gained great strength and currency – to rise in unison and take over power in their own countries, thus setting in motion a European revolution that could only guarantee the success of October. For a while, it did look as though the European revolution would truly follow close on the heels of October. That never happened, however, and as Russia was plunged in a crippling civil war, as some of Europe’s ‘great’ democracies also advanced to break the back of the young Soviet republic, as the deeply conservative Russian peasantry broke off a brief honeymoon with the militant urban working-class, and as all the propertied and privileged classes sabotaged the economy in determined fashion, Lenin’s Bolsheviks found themselves pitted against the wall, unable to move or breathe. Lenin himself took an (attempted) assassin’s bullets as early as in August 2018, never fully recovering from the wounds. Two or three paralytic strokes followed, and by December 1922, he was virtually immobilised.
Meanwhile, hemmed in from all sides, the party and the government drifted inevitably to ever tighter state controls, police surveillance and suppression of popular democracy. The European revolution turned out to be a mirage and its increasing isolation made the Soviet Union abjure the internationalism that was truly its life-blood. Slowly but surely, the cultural ingredients of Tsarism reappeared and reasserted themselves in Bolshevism. Stalin embodied this crude amalgam of vastly disparate elements in his natural proclivity towards authoritarianism and, after Lenin died a broken man in January 1924, set about building the party in his own image. The revolution faltered, and eventually died, its empty shell of a ‘truly socialist state’ eventually filling out with a privileged and corrupt bureaucracy/technocracy that appropriated the revolution’s gains in large measure.
As I walked out of the museum, however, I looked up at Lenin’s famed balcony and thought yet again of those few days in October 100 years ago. Counterfactuals are not encouraged in either academics or in political thought, but we could not help telling ourselves that this was not necessarily the only way history could have gone forward. At any rate, so long as the great dream of human freedom remains unextirpated, the spirit of that turbulent October will live on.
Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He has published a book of translations from the work of the well-known Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhayay.