Category Archives: USSR

How Gorbachev Came to Power

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4437-4453:

Who knows what would have happened if Andropov had lived longer. Perhaps the Soviet Union might have undergone a more gradual transition from the old command system, modernizing the economy without relinquishing political controls, as done by the Chinese, though one wonders if this could have been achieved given the extent of the Party’s opposition to de-collectivization, the key to China’s revival. As fortune would have it, Andropov became terminally ill with kidney failure only nine months after coming into power and died, at the age of sixty-nine, in February 1984. From his death-bed in hospital, he wrote a speech to be read out at the Plenum of the Central Committee recommending Gorbachev to succeed him. But the crucial paragraph was cut by the old guard in the Politburo, opposed to reform, who on his death voted to replace him with Chernenko. Within weeks of his appointment the 73-year-old Chernenko became terminally ill. The Bolsheviks were dying of old age.

Gorbachev bided his time—careful not to alarm the old guard by giving the impression that he might go on with Andropov’s reforms yet building his support in the Central Committee and increasing his prestige by trips abroad, where he impressed the British leader, Margaret Thatcher, in particular, on a visit to London in December 1984. Such impressions were important to the Soviet government, which needed Western credits and disarmament. They no doubt helped him make the deal with Gromyko, the Foreign Minister, by which Gorbachev agreed to promote him to head of state (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) if he supported him to succeed Chernenko as the Party’s General Secretary. It was the backing of Gromyko, a veteran Brezhnevite, that tipped the scales in Gorbachev’s favour in the Politburo vote on Chernenko’s death the following March. There was no battle for the leadership: the old guard simply stepped aside to let in a younger man.

The selection of Gorbachev was arguably the most revolutionary act in the history of the Party since 1917. Had the Politburo known where he would lead the Party in the next few years, it would never have allowed him to become its General Secretary. But at this stage Gorbachev’s intentions were still far from clear.

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High Oil Prices and the Brezhnev Era

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4290-4335:

By the end of the 1970s, these small garden plots, which took up 4 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, were producing 40 per cent of its pork and poultry, 42 per cent of its fruit and over half its potatoes.

Brezhnev responded to the agricultural crisis by allowing larger garden plots to stimulate production. He might have improved the Soviet system’s chances of survival by doing what the Chinese were doing at this time: de-collectivizing agriculture and returning to an NEP-like system of cooperatives and household farms on contracts, with the state allowing them to sell what they produced beyond their quotas on the free market. Soviet reformers were not unsympathetic to these policy ideas, even if they stopped short of recommending them. Gorbachev, who at this time was in the Agricultural Department of the Secretariat, proposed giving more autonomy to enterprises and associations in deciding various production and financial questions in a memorandum to the Central Committee in May 1978 (an idea repeated by Andropov on becoming General Secretary in 1982). But the Brezhnev leadership would not accept these proposals—even as trial policies. The old guard was too committed to the Stalinist collective farm system which they had implemented as young men. The Party’s power was heavily invested in the direct management of the collective farms by thousands of officials in the localities. Perhaps, in any case, fifty years of collectivization (twice as long as in China) had destroyed any hope of bringing the Soviet peasantry back to life.

Relying on their tiny garden plots to feed themselves, the kolkhoz workers lived in squalid poverty. Many inhabited houses without running water or electricity. The ablest and most enterprising, mostly men of conscript age, ran away from the countryside, which became a ghetto of the old, the infirm and the alcoholic, who worked badly. Entire villages were abandoned or left to rot with only a few elderly inhabitants where once perhaps a hundred families had lived.

Alcohol consumption more than doubled in the Brezhnev years. People drank out of despair. By the early 1980s, the average kolkhoz family was spending one third of its household income on vodka—an official figure which does not include the moonshine made by kolkhoz workers in their homes (for every bottle bought from shops, they drank a bucket of moonshine). Alcoholism was the national disease. It had a major impact on crime rates (around 10 million people every year were detained by the police for drunkenness) and a bad effect on male life expectancy, which declined from 66 in 1964 to just 62 in 1980. The regime was unconcerned by the problem. It increased its vodka sales to extract money from the population which had little else to buy. Better to have people drunk than protesting against shortages.

Oil revenues rescued the regime from probable food riots and possible collapse. They gave a lease on life to the Soviet economy, which would have been in severe trouble without a five-fold increase in crude oil prices as a result of the 1973 crisis. The Soviet Union doubled oil production in the 1970s, mainly by developing new fields in Siberia. With its dollar earnings from the sale of oil and gas, the government was able to buy consumer goods and foodstuffs from the West. Before the revolution, Russia had been a major agricultural exporter. But within sixty years it had turned into the biggest food importer in the world. One third of all baked goods in the country were made from foreign cereals. Cattle production was totally dependent on imported grain.

High oil prices also allowed the Soviet Union to be more assertive in its foreign policy. They financed an eight-fold increase in military spending under Brezhnev’s rule. By 1982, the military budget consumed approximately 15 per cent of the country’s GNP. The rise showed the growing power of hardliners in the Brezhnev government, particularly in the KGB, the armed forces, and the defence and foreign ministries, who were committed at all costs to maintaining military superiority over NATO as the foundation of Soviet security.

Their confidence was boosted by the failure of NATO to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek in August 1968—an invasion that the Soviet Defence Minister, Andrei Grechko, had pledged to carry out ‘even if it leads to a third world war’. The Kremlin emerged from the crisis with renewed boldness. ‘The new correlation of forces is such that [the West] no longer dares to move against us,’ claimed Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister.

Moscow justified its invasion and reinforced its grip on Eastern Europe by issuing the Brezhnev Doctrine, outlined in a speech by the Soviet leader to the Polish Communists in November 1968. When ‘forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a socialist country towards capitalism,’ Brezhnev warned the Poles, ‘it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.’ In practice what this meant was that the Soviet Union reserved for itself the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any Warsaw Pact country if it deemed it necessary for its own security.

Revolutionary ambitions also fuelled the Kremlin’s military spending. While Brezhnev talked détente with the Americans, the hardliners in his government were increasingly directing Soviet arms in support of Third World socialist revolutions and anti-colonial movements. The Americans approached détente in the belief that the Soviet leadership was becoming more pragmatic and less ideological or revolutionary in its foreign policy—a rational approach allowing them to ‘manage’ and contain it through deterrents and rewards. A CIA report of 1969 maintained that the ‘USSR tends to behave more as a world power than as the center of the world revolution’. But this assumption soon proved wrong.

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Stalin’s Great Terror and Its Mitigation

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3100-3114, 3297-3309:

But the Great Terror was more than a bloodletting among Bolsheviks. It was a complex series of repressions involving many different groups. The striking thing about it, compared to other waves of Soviet terror, is that such a high proportion of the victims were murdered. Of the 1.5 million people arrested by the secret police (and we do not have the figures for arrests by the regular police), 1.3 million were sentenced, and more than half of these (681,692 people) were executed by a firing squad for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. At the height of the Great Terror, between August 1937 and November 1938, on average 1,500 people were shot each day. The population of the Gulag labour camps meanwhile grew from 1.2 to 1.9 million, a figure which conceals at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves.

The sheer scale of the Great Terror makes it all the harder to explain. The types of people caught in it were so diverse. Some historians have maintained that it is best understood as a number of related but separate waves of terror, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single phenomenon. There was certainly a complex amalgam of different elements that made up the Great Terror: the purging of the Party, the great ‘show trials’, the mass arrests in the cities, the ‘kulak operation’ and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse these various components separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror, not, as some have argued, as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos and infighting of the Stalinist regime, nor as something driven by social pressures from below, as argued by ‘revisionist’ historians, but as an operation, which we now know from studying the archives was masterminded and controlled by Stalin directly in response to the circumstances he perceived in 1937.

At the rate the arrests were going on, it would not be long before doubts spread. How many ‘enemies of the people’ could there be? By 1938 it was becoming clear that unless the arrests came to an end the terror system would be undermined. The terror was getting out of control. In January Stalin warned the NKVD not to carry on arresting people solely on the basis of denunciations without first checking their veracity. He spoke against ‘false vigilance’ and careerists who made denunciations to promote themselves. Yezhov’s power was gradually reduced. In November he was replaced by his deputy, Lavrenty Beria, who immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases were reviewed; 450,000 convictions were quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed those with doubts to explain the ‘Yezhov terror’ as a temporary aberration rather than as a product of the system. Their reasoning went like this: the mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes, and uncovered Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ (he was shot in 1940), who had tried to undermine the Soviet government by arresting so many innocent people and thus spreading discontent. People now accepted that anybody not released by Beria, and everyone arrested under him, must be guilty of the crimes for which they stood accused. The belief system had been stabilized, allowing rule by terror to go on.

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Changing Soviet Family Values, 1920-1930s

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2973-3024:

Under Stalin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks retreated from their earlier revolutionary policies towards the family. Instead of undermining it, as they had tried to do in the 1920s, they now tried to restore it. As Trotsky wrote, it was an admission by the Soviet regime that its attempt to ‘take the old family by storm’—to replace its ‘bourgeois’ customs with collective forms of living—had been impossibly utopian.

From the mid-1930s a series of decrees aimed to strengthen the Soviet family: the divorce laws were tightened; fees for divorce were raised substantially; child support was raised; homosexuality and abortion were outlawed. Marriage was made glamorous. Registration offices were smartened up. Marriage certificates were issued on high-quality paper instead of on the wrapping paper used before. Wedding rings, which had been banned as Christian relics in 1928, were sold again in Soviet shops from 1936. There was also a return to conventional and even prudish sexual attitudes among the political élites, who had been more experimental in their lifestyles in the early revolutionary years. The good Stalinist was supposed to be monogamous, devoted to his family, as Stalin was himself, according to his cult. Bolshevik wives, like Stalin’s, were expected to return to the traditional role of raising children at home.

This dramatic policy reversal was partly a reaction to the demographic and social disaster of 1928–32: millions had died in the famine; the birthrate had dropped, posing a threat to the country’s military strength; divorce had increased; and child abandonment had become a mass phenomenon, as families fragmented, leaving the authorities to cope with the consequences—homeless orphans, prostitution and teenage criminality. The Soviet regime needed stable families to sustain the rates of population growth its military needed to compete with the other totalitarian regimes, which heavily supported the patriarchal family in their ‘battles for births’. But the Soviet turnaround was also a response to the ‘bourgeois’ aspirations of Stalin’s new industrial and political élites, most of whom had risen only recently from the peasantry or the working class. They did not share the contempt for bourgeois values or the same commitment to women’s liberation which had been such a vital part of the Old Bolshevik intelligentsia world-view characteristic of the revolution’s earlier generational cycle. According to Trotsky, who wrote a great deal about the Soviet family, the Stalinist regime had betrayed the revolution’s commitment to sexual equality:

One of the very dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of the Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory ‘joys of motherhood,’ who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Trotsky’s assertion is supported by statistics, which reveal how household tasks were split within working-class families. In 1923–34, working women were spending three times longer than their men on household chores, but by 1936 they were spending five times longer. For women nothing changed—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children, on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional duties in the home (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the provision of running water, gas and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

The restoration of the patriarchal family was closely tied to its promotion as the basic unit of the state. ‘The family is the primary cell of our society,’ wrote one educationalist in 1935, ‘and its duties in child-rearing derive from its obligations to cultivate good citizens.’ The role of the parent was supported as a figure of authority enforcing Soviet rule at home. ‘Young people should respect their elders, especially their parents,’ declared Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1935. ‘They must respect and love their parents, even if they are old-fashioned and don’t like the Komsomol.’

This represented a dramatic change from the moral lessons which had been drawn in the early 1930s from the cult of Pavlik Morozov—a fifteen-year-old boy from a Urals village who had denounced his father as a ‘kulak’ to the Soviet police. In the first stages of his propaganda cult, Pavlik was promoted as a model Pioneer because he had placed his loyalty to the revolution higher than his family. Soviet children were encouraged to denounce their elders, teachers, even parents, if they appeared anti-Soviet. But as the regime strengthened parent power, the cult was reinterpreted to place less emphasis on Pavlik’s denunciation of his father and more on his hard work and obedience at school.

From the middle of the 1930s the Stalinist regime portrayed itself through metaphors and symbols of the family—a value-system familiar to the population at a time when millions of people found themselves in a new and alien environment. There was nothing new in this association between state and family. The cult of Stalin presented him in paternal terms, as the ‘father of the people’, just as Nicholas II had been their ‘father-tsar’ before 1917. Stalin was depicted as the protector and ultimate authority in the household. In many homes his portrait hung in the ‘red corner’, a place of honour, or above the doorway, where the icon was traditionally displayed. He was often photographed among children, and posed as their ‘friend’. In one famous image he was seen embracing a young girl called Gelia Markizova, who had presented him with a bunch of flowers at a Kremlin reception in 1936. The girl’s father, the Commissar for Agriculture in Buryat-Mongolia, was later shot as a ‘Japanese spy’. Her mother was arrested and sent to Kazakhstan, where she committed suicide.

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Did Stalin Target Ukraine for Famine?

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2532-2548:

The outcome of this wholesale seizure of the harvest—encouraged by exaggerated surplus estimates from local officials eager to win favour from Moscow—was widespread famine in 1932–3. The number of deaths is impossible to calculate accurately, but demographers suggest that up to 8.5 million people died of starvation or disease. The worst-affected areas were in Ukraine, where peasant resistance to collectivization was particularly strong and the grain levies were excessively high. This has prompted some historians to argue that the ‘terror-famine’ was a calculated policy of genocide against Ukrainians—a claim enshrined in law by the Ukrainian government and recognized in all but name by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

Stalin had a special distrust of the Ukrainian peasantry. He was more than capable of bearing grudges against entire nationalities, and of killing them in large numbers, as he would demonstrate during the Great Terror and the war. The Kremlin was undoubtedly negligent towards the famine victims and did very little to help them. If it had stopped exporting food and released its grain reserves, it could have saved million of lives. Instead, the government prevented people fleeing from the famine area, officially to stop diseases spreading, but also to conceal the extent of the crisis from the outside world. Perhaps it used the famine as a punishment of ‘enemies’. In the reported words of Lazar Kaganovich, who oversaw collectivization and grain procurements in Ukraine, the death of a ‘few thousand kulaks’ would teach the other peasants ‘to work hard and understand the power of the government’. But no hard evidence has so far come to light of the regime’s intention to kill millions through famine, let alone of a genocide campaign against the Ukrainians. Many parts of Ukraine were ethnically mixed. There is no data to suggest that there was a policy of taking more grain from Ukrainian villages than from the Russians or other ethnic groups in the famine area. And Ukraine was not the only region to suffer terribly from the famine, which was almost as bad in Kazakhstan.

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Trotsky: ‘Our Party is for civil war!’

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1777-1789:

The story of the Civil War is often told as a conflict in which the Bolsheviks were forced to fight by the Whites and the Allied intervention in Russia. In this left-wing version of events the Reds were not to blame for the ‘extraordinary measures’ they were forced to take in the Civil War—the rule by fiat and terror, the requisitionings, mass conscriptions and so on—because they had to act decisively and quickly to defend their revolution against counter-revolutionaries. But this misses the whole point of the Civil War and its relationship to the revolution for Lenin and his followers.

In their view the Civil War was a necessary phase of the class struggle. They embraced it as a continuation of the revolution in a more intensive and military form. ‘Our Party is for civil war!’ Trotsky told the Soviet on 4 June. ‘Long live civil war! Civil war for the sake of the … workers and the Red Army, civil war in the name of direct and ruthless struggle against counter-revolution.’

Lenin was prepared for a civil war and perhaps even welcomed it as a chance to build his party’s power base. The effects of such a conflict would be predictable: the polarization of the country into ‘revolutionary’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’ sides; the extension of the state’s military and political power; and the use of terror to suppress dissent. In Lenin’s view all these things were necessary for the victory of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. He often said that the defeat of the Paris Commune was explained by the failure of the Communards to launch a civil war.

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Marxism in Tsarist Russia

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 345-371:

Marx’s Capital had been published in Russia as early as 1872. It was the book’s first foreign publication, just five years after the original German edition and fifteen years before its appearance in English. The tsarist censors had passed it by mistake, assuming that ‘very few people in Russia’ would read the heavy tome of political economy, and ‘even fewer understand it’. Contrary to expectations, Marx’s critique of the capitalist system would lead to revolution earlier in Russia than in any of the Western societies to which it had been addressed.

The intelligentsia were drawn to Marxism by its ‘scientific’ nature—it was seen as a ‘path of reason’, in the words of Lydia Dan, offering ‘objective solutions’ to the misery of poverty and backwardness—and by its promise that Russia would become more like the capitalist West. ‘We were attracted by its European nature,’ recalled a veteran of the movement in Russia. ‘Marxism came from Europe. It did not smell and taste of home-grown mould and provincialism, but was new, fresh, and exciting. Marxism held out a promise that we would not stay a semi-Asiatic country, but would become part of the West with its culture, institutions and attributes of a free political system. The West was our guiding light.’

Here perhaps was the root of Marxism’s attraction to the Jews, who played such a conspicuous role in the Social Democratic movement, providing many of its leaders (Trotsky, Martov, Axelrod, Kamenev and Zinoviev, to name just a few). Where Populism had proposed to build on peasant Russia—a land of pogroms and discrimination against the Jews—Marxism offered a modern Western vision of Russia. It promised to assimilate the Jews into a movement of universal human liberation—not just the liberation of the peasantry—based on principles of internationalism.

Even the young Lenin only became fully converted to the Marxist mainstream in the wake of the famine crisis. Contrary to the Soviet myth, in which Lenin appeared as a fully fledged Marxist theorist in his infancy, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution came late to politics. In his last school year he was commended by his headmaster (by an irony of fate the father of Kerensky, his arch-rival in 1917) as a model student, ‘moral and religious in his upbringing’, and never giving ‘cause for dissatisfaction, by word or deed, to the school authorities’.

Lenin’s father was a typical gentleman-liberal of the type his son would come to despise. His noble background was a source of embarrassment to Lenin’s Soviet hagiographers. But it was a key to his domineering personality. It can be seen in his intolerance of criticism from subordinates, and his tendency to look upon the masses as no more than human material needed for his revolutionary plans (during the famine he argued that the peasants should be denied aid because it would make a revolution more likely). As Maxim Gorky wrote in 1917, ‘Lenin is a “leader” and a Russian nobleman, not without certain psychological traits of this extinct class, and therefore he considers himself justified in performing with the Russian people a cruel experiment which is doomed to failure beforehand.’

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Nexus of War, Bureaucracy, Totalitarianism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1860-1883:

The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society. For this reason the Soviet bureaucracy ballooned spectacularly during the Civil War. The old problem of the tsarist state—its inability to impose itself on the majority of the country—was not shared by the Soviet regime. By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government. There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia, and these officials were the main social base of the new regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy.

Joining the Party was the surest way to gain promotion through the ranks of the bureaucracy. From 1917 to 1920, 1.4 million people joined the Party, nearly all from lower-class and peasant backgrounds, and many through the Red Army, which taught millions of conscripts how to think and act like ‘Bolsheviks’, the foot-soldiers of a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. The leadership was worried that this mass influx would reduce the Party’s quality. Levels of literacy were very low (in 1920 only 8 per cent of Party members had more than four years of primary schooling). As for the political literacy of the rank and file, it was rudimentary: at a Party school for journalists none of the students could say who the British or French leaders were, and some believed that imperialism was a republic somewhere in England. But in other ways this lack of education was an advantage for the Party leaders, for it underpinned their followers’ political obedience. The poorly educated rank and file mouthed the Party’s slogans but left all critical thinking to the Politburo and the Central Committee.

As the Party grew it also came to dominate the local Soviets. This involved a transformation of the Soviets—from local revolutionary bodies controlled by an assembly to bureaucratic organs of the Party-state where all real power was exercised by the Bolsheviks, who dominated the executives. In many of the higher-level Soviets, especially in areas deemed important in the Civil War, the executives were not elected: the Central Committee in Moscow simply sent in commissars to run the Soviets. In the rural (volost’) Soviets the executives were elected. Here the Bolsheviks’ success was partly due to the open system of voting and intimidation of voters. But it was also due to the support of the younger and more literate peasants who had left the village in the First World War and returned in the Civil War. Newly skilled in military techniques and organization, and well versed in socialist ideas, these were the peasants who would join the Bolsheviks, and dominate the rural Soviets by the end of the Civil War. In the Volga region, for example, where this has been studied in detail, two thirds of the volost’ Soviet executive members were literate peasant males under the age of thirty-five and registered as Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1919, compared with just one third the previous spring. In this sense the dictatorship depended on a cultural revolution in the countryside. Throughout the peasant world Communist regimes have been built on the ambition of literate peasant sons to join the official class.

One-party-dominated democracies always fighting a War on This and a War on That against their internal enemies display the same tendencies.

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The October 1917 Coup d’Etat

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1480-1493:

In the big industrial cities there was a similar process of radicalization in the wake of the Kornilov crisis. The Bolsheviks were the principal beneficiaries of this, winning their first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on 31 August. The Soviets of Riga, Saratov and Moscow fell to them soon afterwards. The rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks were due mainly to the fact that they were the only major political party which stood uncompromisingly for ‘All power to the Soviets’.

This point bears emphasizing, for one of the most basic misconceptions about the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the Party. They were not. The October insurrection was a coup d’état, actively supported by a small minority of the population, but it took place in the midst of a social revolution, which was focused on the popular ideal of Soviet power. After the Kornilov crisis there was a sudden outpouring of resolutions from factories, villages and army units calling for a Soviet government. But almost without exception they called on all the socialist parties to participate in its establishment, and often showed a marked impatience with their factional disputes.

The real significance of the Kornilov Affair was that it reinforced the popular belief in a ‘counter-revolutionary’ threat against the Soviet—a threat the Bolsheviks would invoke to mobilize the Red Guards and other militants in October. In this sense the Kornilov Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Bolshevik Military Organization emerged from the underground—where it had been since July—with renewed strength from its participation in the struggle against Kornilov. The Red Guards were also reinforced: 40,000 of them had been armed in the crisis. As Trotsky later wrote, ‘the army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October revolution’.

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Literacy Spreads Nationalism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 242-270:

Until the development of rural schools and networks of communication, nationalism remained an élite urban movement for native language rights in schools and universities, literary publications and official life. Outside the towns its influence was limited. The peasants were barely conscious of their nationality. ‘I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers,’ recalled a farmer after 1917. In many areas, such as Ukraine, Belorussia and the Caucasus, there was so much ethnic intermingling that it was difficult for anything more than a localized form of identity to take root in the popular consciousness. ‘Were one to ask the average peasant in the Ukraine his nationality,’ observed a British diplomat, ‘he would answer that he is Greek Orthodox; if pressed to say whether he is a Great Russian, a Pole or an Ukrainian, he would probably reply that he is a peasant; and if one insisted on knowing what language he spoke, he would say that he talked “the local tongue”.’

The growth of mass-based nationalist movements was contingent on the spread of rural schools and institutions, such as peasant unions and cooperatives, as well as on the opening up of remote country areas by roads and railways, postal services and telegraphs—all of which was happening very rapidly in the decades before 1917. The most successful movements combined the peasants’ struggle for the land (where it was owned by foreign landlords, officials and merchants) with the demand for native language rights, enabling the peasants to gain full access to schools, the courts and government.

This combination was the key to the success of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917, the first democratic elections in the country’s history, 71 per cent of the Ukrainian peasants would vote for the nationalists—an astonishing shift in political awareness in only a generation. The movement organized the peasants in their struggle against foreign (mainly Russian and Polish) landowners and against the ‘foreign influence’ of the towns (dominated by the Russians, Jews and Poles). It is no coincidence that peasant uprisings erupted first, in 1902, in those regions around Poltava province where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was also most advanced.

Throughout Russia the impact of modernization—of towns and mass communications, the money economy and above all rural schools—gave rise to a generation of younger and more literate peasants who sought to overturn the patriarchal village world. Literacy rose from 21 per cent of the empire’s population in 1897 to 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War. The highest rural rates were among young men in those regions closest to the towns (nine out of ten peasant recruits into the Imperial army from the two provinces of Petersburg and Moscow were considered literate even by 1904). The link between literacy and revolution is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history—the English, the French and the Russian—all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 per cent. Literacy promotes the spread of new ideas and enables the peasant to master new technologies and bureaucratic skills. The local activists of the Russian Revolution were drawn mainly from this newly literate generation—the beneficiaries of the boom in rural schooling during the last decades of the old regime, now in large enough numbers to pass on the new ideas to those still illiterate. In its belated efforts to educate the common people, the tsarist regime was helping to dig its own grave.

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