The Rise of the Soviets

Russia In Revolution - John Robertson

It is always difficult to write a book covering an historical period when there are generally so many events leading up to one event and so many repercussions radiating out from the said event. It is even more difficult when one is writing a book for highschool students. This particular book was recommended by our year 12 history teacher since she believed that it covered most of the topics that we would be looking at during our topic on Russian History. However, while it touched on the events before 1905, it finishes off around 1920 after Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy.



Russia had always been a backward country, the Reformation had not reached its borders nor had the democratic revolutions of the 19th century. Out of the European powers Russia was one of the last countries to industrialise. While many of the Western European states had become industrial powerhouses by the turn of the 20th Century with a rising middle class, Russia was still an autocratic state with a substantial peasant population with a rigid class structure. There was really no upwardly mobile middle class and the reigns of government was tightly held by the Tsars.



That is not to mention that there were no reforms, serfdom had been abolished (though this was relatively late) and factories were beginning to appear in many of the major cities, but the backwardness of the country was ripe for a revolution. Throughout the late 19th century numerous left wing groups (such as the anarchists and the nihilists) were agitating for change, and this agitation lead to the assassination of one of the Tsars. The response was a brutal crackdown on these extreme groups. Obviously the boiling point came in 1905 when the country collapsed into revolution, and the most famous event of this period was the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin where the sailors (which I believe was the pride of the Russian fleet at the time) rebelled and took over the ship.



The revolution was quickly crushed, but Tsar Nicholas did institute some reforms introducing the Dumas, which was their form of parliament. However the Duma was quite weak and Russia was still very much an autocratic state. While tensions still mounted through the period, when war broke out in 1914 Russia quickly joined the side of Britain and France. In their mind the defeat of Napoleon still loomed large and they believed that nobody could take Russia (they had forgotten the embarrassing defeat during the Crimean War, a war which they should have won). However things did not work out as they planned. Germany did not invade Russia, but rather they would launch strike missions against their lines, but did not go deep into Russian territory as Napoleon had done. This meant that when the Russian troops pulled back, scorching the earth as they went, they were causing more damage to themselves than to the Germans.



To say that the war went badly for the Russians is an understatement. It went so badly that in February 1915 the country once again collapsed into revolution and this time the Tsar was deposed as a parliamentary democracy was established. However this did not last long. The country was still at war, the war was still going badly, and the lot of the people had not changed much at all. This was what Lenin and his Bolsheviks needed, and in a coup in October 1915 seized control of the important institutions of Russia and established the Soviet Union.



Now a couple of things we need to remember: Russia was never meant to become a communist state at this stage; this is not what Marx had envisioned. The communist state was supposed to come about through a workers revolution, where the workers rise up enmass, overthrow the Bourgeoisie employers, and establish a series of communes. The idea was that the concept of the management structure was to be disbanded and the workplace was to run along democratic principles. We see echos of this idea today with the union movement, though many people look down on the unions as being under the control of the employers that they are supposed to stand against, though this is a debate for another time (or corrupt, militant, and incredibly dangerous).



Secondly Lenin's following was quite small. The Bolsheviks were the more radical of the groups, with the Mensheviks being supportive of Marx's ideas but somewhat moderate. However, the Bolsheviks won, and with control of the government structure of Russia, proceeded to execute the royal family (so that they could not seize control - oe method is establishing control in a coup is to kill the previous leaders for as long as the previous ruler is still alive there is always a chance that they will rally support and make another tilt at the throne). He then pulled Russia out of the war (which upset the allies no end, and resulted, after the conclusion of hostilities in Western Europe, in a civil war in Russia).



It is interesting to speculate as to whether it was withdrawing from the war was the cause of the rift between the Bolsheviks and the west, or was it more on ideological lines. We see that during the 20s there was a growing rift between the communists and the capitalists, but then the ideological differences between the two was always going to lead to conflict, particularly since the communists in Russia were agitating for a world wide communist revolution (which never came).



The tipping point was during the Great Depression, and shortly after the end of World War II. In 1933 Germany was divided between the two extremes of Facism and Communism, and the Facists won (with a little help from the Americans) and the West then sat back hoping that Germany and Russia would destroy each other in a war of attrition. This never happened, particularly since Hitler and Stalin signed a peace treaty. However I am getting way ahead of myself.


I will finish off with the New Economic Policy. This was pretty much a response to the fact that Lenin's extreme version of communism pretty much failed. Granted, Russia had been economically devastated by World War I, and was now facing pressure from the White Russians and their allies in the west. A completely state run economy was not working, so Lenin, while maintaining control of the means of production (that is agriculture and industry), he allowed small business to flourish. As with the civil war he didn't need to do all that much. The West was sick of war and did not want to continue the fight against Russia, and the White Russians were pretty weak without them, so the whole war collapsed leaving the Soviet Union to dominate world politics for the next 70 years.


Finally the means of production. The truth is, who owns this? Modern Russia (under Putin) has seized back control of Russia's oil and gas wealth, which was taken out of government hands during the rise of the oligarchs in the 1990s. Russia now uses its energy wealth as a very powerful bargaining chip to force her neighbours to heel (though this has since change with the collapse in the price of oil). However we see the struggle between public and private interests all the time. It is my position that all mineral wealth in a country is owned by the people of that company, so foreign (especially foreign) miners who want to come in and mine these minerals need to pay for them like everybody else. It is like walking into a shop, paying a flat fee to the store owner for being in the store, and then taking what you like. I have to pay to take something out of the store, so why don't the miners pay for the minerals that they want to take (as China is doing by restricting the sale of Rare Earth Elements into the market). Granted, it may cause fluctuations with the price of the commodity, but hey, all of that iron ore up in the Pilbara belongs to us Australians and that should be remembered.