Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Russian Troika

Pádraig Murphy

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928, by SA Smith, Oxford University Press, 472 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198734826

Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution, ed Tony Brenton, Profile Books, 384 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1781250211

The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution, by Robert Service, Macmillan, 400 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1447293095

The Soviet Tragedy: a History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991, Martin Malia, Free Press, 592 pp, €25.95, ISBN: 978-0684823133

To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson, first published in 1940; republished with a new introduction and revisions in 1972

Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and are left behind! ... And what does this awesome motion mean? And what mysterious strength is in these steeds unknown to the world? Does the whirlwind find a home in your manes? … Rus, whither are you speeding? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give it the right of way.
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

Last year we marked our own significant centenary. The question of how to celebrate it appropriately was not a simple one. The appropriate interpretation of a complicated history was much discussed, and there were many strands of remembrance which had to be taken into account. This year marks the centenary of a world-historical event – the Russian Revolution of 1917 – which sparked off the spread of an ideology which came to provide the basis for regimes which not so long ago governed one-third of the human race. It thereby influenced world history profoundly and, in China, continues to influence it. In Russia itself it can also be seen, and often is seen, as a historical turn which derailed the country’s development for more than a century. Further, while twenty-five years ago it was almost received wisdom that Marxian socialism and the kind of regimes it inspired had been proved wrong by history and, so to speak, buried at the crossroads with a stake through the heart, it is not so clear today that this is the case. So there is far from unanimity in Moscow on the celebration of the anniversary.

Since the eighteenth century, Russian history has seen a pattern of autocratic reforms aimed at the creation and maintenance of state power which have provoked backlashes among significant sectors of the population. The first, and exemplary, figure in this regard was Peter the Great. He set out after his return from Western Europe in 1701 – where he went in order to find examples to follow – to modernise and Europeanise the Russian establishment. The administration, the court, the military and the elite culture were reformed along European lines. A rigid Table of Ranks was imposed, involving essentially these same elite classes. The peasantry and common people generally were ignored. All was carried through in the spirit of Peter’s own personality, his extraordinary drive, his impatience, his ruthlessness. No opposition was tolerated: indeed any attempt at resistance was ruthlessly crushed. In one way or another this paradigm marked Russian developmemt until almost the end of the nineteenth century. It contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. It depended on the creation of a Europeanised intellectual class, the famous Russian intelligentsia. This class contributed to the Petrine project and continued to be committed to the strengthening of the state embarked on by Catherine the Great – even though she formalised and set out in legal form the system of serfdom – and, further, was an essential part of the undertakings of Alexander I, which saw him dominate the European scene after the defeat of Napoleon. But it was the experience of that same elite in the campaigns in Europe, in particular the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon and the revolutions in Piedmont and Naples, which produced under Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I, the stirrings for liberalisation, including the abolition of serfdom, which went by the name of the Decembrist revolt of 1825. These were brutally put down in a series of executions and exiles to Siberia. Among those caught up in this wave of repression was the novelist Dostoevsky.

An important part of the relatively unshadowed – relatively because, of course, the scandal of serfdom continued – success of Catherine and Alexander was their pronounced military triumphs. Under Catherine the territorial acquisitions were enormous. Alexander, as Stalin remarked to Averell Harriman in 1945, “got to Paris” and was hailed as the liberator of Europe. Nicholas, unfortunately for him, was not so lucky. While, especially after his role  in putting down the 1848 revolution further west, he became known as “the gendarme of Europe”, his notions of himself as dominating the Middle East and taking over the Constantinople Straits ended in the fiasco of the Crimean War. And under Nicholas the intelligentsia for the first time exerted the role of more or less public opposition to the autocracy. Above all, during his reign they were exercised by the continuation of serfdom. The influence of German Idealist philosophy, above all of Hegel, in informing their opposition was enormous. Here was a philosophy which interpreted the broad sweep of human history as the progressive realisation of an Idea which was at once Freedom and Reason and which would result eventually in the manifestation of the World Spirit. In partcular, Aleksandr Herzen (1812-1870), while also influenced by Saint-Simon, absorbed Hegel at Moscow University. He in turn influenced Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1840), the most influential literary critic of his day. Herzen, from exile, was to be the main resource, through his periodical The Bell, of the disaffected intelligentsia within the country up to 1870. Both he and Belinsky prided themselves on their social consciousness. Both can be called propagandists for radical change in Russia. The gravamen of their opposition to the system they confronted was, of course, serfdom. Belinsky’s influence was far wider than is conveyed by his characterisation as a literary critic. In the words of Isaiah Berlin:

Because he was naturally responsive to everything that was living and genuine, he transformed the concept of the critic’s calling in his native country. The lasting effect of his work was in altering, and altering crucially and irretrievably, the moral and social outlook of the leading younger writers and thinkers of the time. He altered the quality and the tone both of the experience and of the expression of so much Russian thought and feeling that his role as a dominant social influence overshadows his attainments as a literary critic.

Defeat in the Crimean War led to the discrediting of Nicholas’s repressive policies. His death, in 1855, opened the way for his successor, Alexander II, to open up the empire to reform. Alexander did take up the challenge, and in 1861 succeed in carrying through legislation providing for the liberation of the serfs. He followed this up with the creation of elected local government bodies, the zemstvos, and an independent judiciary in 1864. As if to exemplify de Tocqueville’s remark that the most dangerous time for an autocracy is when it begins to reform, the reaction was an increase in the radicalism of further reform demands. For one thing, the liberation of the serfs was so hedged about with provisions to safeguard the interests of the landlords as to make access to land ownership by the newly freed serfs difficult. On top of this it imposed a financial burden on them designed to compensate the landlords for their loss. The “sons” of Turgenev’s famous novel revolted against their “fathers”. These “sons” were radical idealists who were greatly influenced by Herzen and Bakunin, and set out to fuse German Idealist philosophy, above all Hegel, with French socialism à la Saint-Simon or Proudhon. It was not long before Marxian socialism became the prime influence on the resisters. Marx and Engels had taken Hegel as the starting point of their development of a communist ideology, encapsulated in the words of the Communist Manifesto of 1847:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstance, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

If Hegel had been intent on an explication of world history as a process of evolution of the Absolute Idea, what was adumbrated here was an interpretation of history as class struggle, the eventual outcome of which was no abstract Idea, but a communist society in which class antagonisms would find their end in an economic and social organisation in which there was no contradiction between the well-being of the individual and that of the whole society. In the words of Karl Marx, “Communism ... is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.” This solution to the riddle of history was to find eventually an extraordinary resonance in a Russia where, in the words of James Billlington, quoted by Steve Smith: “nowhere in Europe was the volume and intensity of apocalyptic literature comparable to that found in Russia during the reign of Nicholas II”.

The great internal figure of influence for the “sons” was Chernishevsky, a literary critic and social analyst who preached that everything was subordinate to politics and the service of the people, and all energies concentrated on the Revolution which would lead Russia to a rational society, which he, invoking the London Great Exhibition of 1851, characterised as the Crystal Palace. All this was embodied in his novel, What is to be Done?, published in 1863, which would for the next fifty years be the handbook of the intelligentsia, made up of the “repentant noblemen” and priests’ children who had taken up the cause of the people. Chernishevsky had been enormously moved by the revolutionary events of 1848 in Europe and had lost his faith on reading Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. The amateur student conspiracy “Land and Freedom” begun in 1861 was soon suppressed, with the arrest of many of the conspirators, including their mentor, Chernishevsky, who spent the rest of his life in exile abroad. Significantly, the first translation into any other language of Marx’s Das Kapital was that into Russian in 1868. “Land and Freedom” was followed by a movement called “going to the people” in 1874, premised on the idea that the common people could be roused to campaign for their own rights. The common people, however, received these Westernised exotics with nothing but suspicion. This failure led to more conspiratorial radicalism, and after 1878 the radicals regrouped as “The People’s Will” and turned to terrorism, which eventually resulted in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

His successor, Alexander III, initiated a revival of autocracy and reigned until 1894. The reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, thus began under the sign of repression. Concessions made in the guise of constitutional reform would be made only under duress, and would be withdrawn again at the first seemingly favourable opportunity. The problems were many. The state was overextended. A perennial Russian problem was expressed by the great nineteenth century Russian historian, Vasilii Kliuchevsky: its fundamental characteristic was colonisation on a boundless and inhospitable plain. Between 1861 and the First World War, the Russian empire was to reach its greatest extent, including Poland and Finland as well as the Baltic countries to the west, and expanding into Central Asia to the east. The Crimean War had shown that this was a vulnerable giant, and the huge efforts called for by intervening wars, even apparently victorious ones such as the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78, strained the industrial and agricultural economies. This strain widened the gap between the common people and the privileged classes. The former was made up most importantly of the peasants, who up to the 1890s made up ninety-five per cent of the population. The division of Europe which would eventually lead to World War I was now taking shape. Rapid industrial development was accordingly seen as necessary and, as always in Russia, it was imposed from the top. An industrial proletariat grew up in the largely heavy industry centres of St Petersburg, Moscow and the Donbass. Sergei Witte was a highly successful minister of finance and subsequently prime minister from the 1870s to the early 1900s. His industrialisation bore heavily on the peasantry, who were subjected to high taxes but saw little benefit. The social unrest affected one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, eventually to become Lenin. The execution of his brother for involvement in an anti-Tsarist conspiracy radicalised him, and his radicalism was fed through study of the works of Marx. He published a Marxist analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia, became leader of the Social Democratic movement – as it was called at the time – in Russia, and eventually, in 1900, when police persecution became too oppressive, exiled himself to western Europe to pursue the struggle from there, at first by the publication of the newspaper Iskra (The Spark). In 1902 he published in Stuttgart, in conscious imitation of Chernishevsky, What is to be Done?, a pamphlet in which he laid out a programme for the creation of a revolutionary party, an underground organisation of, so to speak, professional revolutionaries, acting conspiratorially and imbued with Marxist ideology.

As finance minister from 1892 to 1903, Witte had launched an ambitious programme of state-backed industrialisation and extension of the railway network. Between 1890 and 1901 the rail system grew from thirty thousand to 56,500 kilometres, including the famous Trans-Siberian railroad. The mining and metallurgical industries of the Donbass were stimulated by this, and there was a large influx of foreign investment capital, especially from France and Belgium. There was a huge influx of peasants into the industrial cities: it was estimated in 1900 that the proportion of residents not born in the city was sixty per cent. The living conditions were scandalous. There was endemic poverty in the countryside. Without any reform of the land tenure system, which was based on communal ownership, the burden of redemption payments following the emancipation proved very heavy. In the most fertile areas, the amount of grain produced per head declined, and livestock farming was in long-term decline.

Against this background, the defeat of Tsarist Russia by Japan in 1905, in exposing the gross inadequacies of the administration, set off a reaction among the intellectual classes, who had been clamouring for reform, but also among industrial workers and the peasantry. This amounted to a revolution, which called the constitutional and economic arrangements of the empire fundamentally into question. It was accompanied by widespread violence, initiated in St Petersburg by the ruthless shooting dead of two hundred protesters and the wounding of eight hundred others on “Bloody Sunday”. The demonstrators represented a nascent labour movement, which was now joined by the intelligentsia and the gentry opposition in an all-nation struggle for a constitution and civil rights and an end to the war with Japan. There was widespread violence in the countryside, with looting and burning of landowners’ properties and seizure of land and property. Nicholas gave ground in successive concessions, and on October 17th issued the October Manifesto, which granted civil rights and a consultative assembly called the Duma, and a legislative upper chamber. For the centre, alarmed by the level of disruption and violence, it was acceptable. For the left, it was too little too late.

Everything would depend on the extent to which the concessions found reflexion in practice. Here, the verdict was that neither at the level of the Tsar himself nor at that of his prime ministers was the good faith required in evidence. As to Nicholas, it is hard to better the characterisation of Robert Service:

His competence to oversee the governance of Russia had never been better than average, and his autocratic wilfulness wrecked any chances of a gradual transition to a more balanced constitution. The widespread image of him as a blameless monarch is unconvincing. In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist, and a virulent anti-Semite.

It is necessary to add to this that he was egged on and abetted in his negative impulses by his wife, Alexandra. However touching it may be – and undeniably it is touching – the effective result was an instance of folie à deux which proved fatal not just to them but to the prospects of a civilised development of their country. With a determined autocrat like Nicholas on the throne, it was hardly surprising that the post-revolution commitments to constitutional democratic rights were not fated to be observed. And, indeed, the repressive organs remaining largely intact. Pyotr Stolypin, perhaps the most able prime minister Russia has had in the twentieth century, made full use of them while simultaneously whittling down the scope of the reforms agreed by the tsar under duress. Between 1906 and 1909 the field courts martial he set up summarily tried and hanged up to three thousand insurgents, a feat that earned the soubriquet “Stolypin’s necktie”. He also saw, however, the need for agricultural land reform and introduced what he called his “wager on the strong”, aimed at increasing individual land ownership, thus freeing up the spirit of the more enterprising peasants by breaking the connection with the system of communal ownership. The initiative failed, and ultimately, despite the wager, a significantly large number of peasants were still in schemes of communal ownership at the beginning of the new century. This did not mean that the noble landowners had gained. They lost roughly half the land that they held at the time of emancipation, and the average noble landholding was as undercapitalised as the average peasant holding.

Despite the unfavourable conditions, by 1914 Russia was the world’s leading exporter of grain and was ranked the fifth largest industrial power, after the USA, Germany, Britain and France. That this position had much to do with the sheer size of the country is indicated by the fact that Russian productivity was very low – some six times less than that of the United States. Still, the turnover in value of its trade had grown by a factor of eight between the 1860s and the First World War. By 1913, foreign investment accounted for some forty per cent of the total in industry and banking. St Petersburg, with a population of 2.2 million, was the world’s eighth largest city, with Moscow having over 1.6 million. Among the “establishment” parties – the Constitutional Democrats or “Kadets”, the Octobrists, who supported the programme of the October Manifesto, and the Nationalists, there was no dispute that Russia should maintain her position as a great power. This involved her remaining alive to the expansionary possibilities of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the description of which as “the sick man of Europe” is first ascribed to Nicholas I. Apart from the Straits, a perennial object of Russian covetousness, the focus of Russian ambitions was in the Balkans, and it was the clash with the Austro-Hungarian Empire here which drew the country, fatally, into war. In this perspective, some one-third of the budget went to expansion of the armed forces, principally land forces, between 1909 and 1913, so that its military expenditure came to exceed that of Britain, master at the time, after all, of an empire on which the sun never set.

Thus, although there was an extraordinarily high level of strikes in 1912-14, and the radicalisation of the labour movement peaked in 1914 itself, although peaceful reform had stalled and there was a paralysis in government by the time the war started, there was a classical burst of enthusiasm for the regime once hostilities were declared. But once engaged a catalogue of debacles followed. The advance into East Prussia was turned back by the Germans at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, with more than 250,000 Russian troops captured. Russian casualties continued to mount for the rest of 1914. An initial success against the Austro-Hungarians was reversed, with the Germans coming to occupy Poland, Lithuania and a large part of Belorussia. The Russian retreat became a rout, with millions of refugees and as many as a million taken prisoner and a million killed.

The defensive capacity was not completely broken in 1914, but the relentless call on human resources led to a collapse of morale on the home front: the rank and file of those bearing the brunt of the fighting on the front were, after all, peasants. More than 3.3 million Russians became prisoners of the Germans and the Austrians, that is, more than one in every five soldiers, a considerably higher proportion than on any other front. At the rear, by late 1916 there were serious shortages of consumer goods across the country, with grain in short supply in the major cities and a thirty per cent decline in purchasing power. By that winter, food shortages had become acute, and this was commonly blamed on profiteering resulting from government requisitioning. Nicholas had gone to the front under the illusion that he was capable of leading his armies, leaving a vacuum that was filled by Alexandra. A revolving door of prime ministers contributed to the impression of incapacity, and there was no shortage of allegations that Alexandra, a German princess, was involved, along with Rasputin, in selling the country out to the enemy.

At this stage the Soviet, or council, of 1905 was reconvened in Petrograd (the new name for St Petersburg dated from 1914) on the initiative of socialist members of the Duma and the Workers Group of the Central War Industries Committee, now called the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies. The incapacity of the government against the militancy of the disaffected garrison in the capital, combined with the radicalisation of the workers’ representatives, led to a de facto dual power, with no clarity as to where, between the Duma and the Soviet, the decisive power lay. During February 1917 an acute bread shortage arose in Petrograd, leading to riots. Mobs surrounded the place of meeting of the Duma and of the Soviet in Petrograd. The Duma leaders had to decide whether they wanted to place themselves at the head of the demonstrators – the Soviet leaders had decided that the time for doing so was not yet. With many of the soldiers in the capital refusing to participate in restoring order, in effect mutinying, the Duma leaders resolved to constitute a provisional government. When the putative efforts to restore order by means of the army were shown to be without prospect, the tsar and the military leadership were persuaded that the only way out was for the tsar to abdicate in favour of his son, the Tsarevich Alexis, then, at the tsar’s own initiative, in favour of his brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail . Mikhail turned down the dubious honour, meaning that the monarchy was in effect dead. The power was ostensibly in the hands of the provisional government, which in reality depended on the sufferance of the Petrograd Soviet. Liberty and democracy were the hallmarks of this movement, which became known as the February Revolution. It aimed to hold elections to a constituent assembly, which, in turn, would lead to a fully democratically elected government.

In the tumult of the February days, Prince Lvov, a politician who had made his name in the local democracy organisation of zemstvos following the 1905 reforms, became prime minister. He lacked any credibility among the continuing street mobs demanding more democracy, however – after all, he was a prince, and only the minister of justice, Alexander Kerensky, a socialist and sumultaneous member of the Soviet and the provisional government, met with street approval. But Kerensky, not lacking in self-assurance, made the fatal mistake of considering that Russia owed it to its allies to continue the war. That the priorities of the workers, peasants and soldiers nominally represented in the Soviet in fact lay elsewhere was demonstrated in the violent seizure of land and property during the spring. Workers took control of the factories, backed by Red Guards. As for soldiers, they set up committees under the famous Order No 1, which supervised relations with their officers and engaged in discussion on military orders. The workers’ committees and the Red Guard were dominated by the Bolsheviks and the soldiers’ demands for an end to the war were backed by them.

Lenin returned to Russia on the famous sealed train on April 3rd, 1917. His uncompromising commitment to the root-and-branch overthrow of the existing system – not only in Russia – was to mark indelibly developments after that. He is aptly characerised by Smith:

Lenin ... felt that he was the party. [His] politics were rooted in Marxist theory, yet he had a profound grasp of the workings of power and a capacity to take tough and unpopular decisions and to make sharp changes to policy. He applied Marxism creatively to a country that lacked the level of capitalist development that Marx had assumed (not always consistently) was necessary for the building of socialism. Yet theory also distorted his perception of Russian realities. He persistently exaggerated the degree of class differentiation among the peasantry, for example, and called for a policy of turning the imperialist war into a civil war that had no more than a handful of supporters. He expended quantities of ink in denouncing ideological deviations within the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party – from “economism” to “empiriomonism” – that were largely of his own imagining. Despite his principled internationalism and familiarity with foreign cultures, he was a product of Russian political culture, particularly in his obsession with ideological purity, his belief in his own ideological rectitude, his unwillingness to compromise, and in his authoritarian habits of thought and action. While he recognised the role of mass action in revolution, the distinctive feature of his thought was his stress on the vanguard party, a highly centralised organisation whose task was to lead the proletariat through revolution.

Although he had to flee to Finland in the interim, it was this Lenin who was to return to a Petrograd further demoralised by the collapse of order in the factories, in the countryside and, among the military, both at the front and in the capital, in order to bully the Soviet to launch the coup that would in October bring the Bolsheviks power as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Mensheviks, led by Martov, were written out of the picture in the first party congress after the coup in Trotsky’s memorable – and significant, in terms of Marxist ideology – dismissal.  “You are pitiful individuals,” he said, “you are bankrupt; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – on to the rubbish bin of history.” In a moment that they would no doubt come to regret, Martov and his followers left the hall.

The history that played out for Lenin and his Council of Peoples’ Commissars (Sovnarkom), which assumed dictatorial powers exercised on behalf of the Bolsheviks, was an example of Leninist tactical opportunism, coupled with simple good luck. One of the first acts was the setting up of the Cheka, the ancestor of the GPU, OGPU, NKVD and KGB, with the slogan “Death to the bourgeoisie” written on its walls. The constituent assembly elections did not give a majority to the Bolsheviks. When the assembly eventually met, in chaotic conditions in Petrograd, it was swamped with riotous soldiery and in due course dispersed by the Red Guard on the pretext that the guard was tired. Trotsky was deputed to lead peace talks with Germany, and conducted them on the basis of a settlement which would consist neither of war nor of peace, thinking to string them out until the revolution anticipated by the ideology should break out in Germany itself. Germany was not about to play this game, but rather continued to advance. After moving the capital to Moscow to distance the regime from the German threat, Lenin was obliged to sign a “shameful” peace in which Russia lost large stretches of the empire, including Poland, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania. The Ukraine was left under German protection. The losses reduced Russia essentially to the territory of seventeenth century Moscow. Only German defeat in the World War enabled Moscow to regain some of the losses, principally the Ukraine. Eventually, through adroit manipulation of class resentments under the pretext of bringing liberation, a specious nationalities policy, and war weariness in the Western powers which might otherwise have intervened, the USSR regained all the territory, apart from Poland, Finland and the Baltic states, that the empire had lost, and even, in Central Asia, made Russian/Soviet dominance more solidly established.

The Civil War saw what were termed the White forces confront the victorious Reds along three fronts, sometimes with assistance from erstwhile allies Britain and France. Admiral Kolchak advanced from the east, General Denikin from the wouth, and General Yudenich from the northwest. Two factors ensured that the Bolsheviks won. The Whites could offer nothing better than a return to the Tsarist system, fatal to their support among the peasants especially, but also among the industrial workers. Secondly, the strategic position of the Reds, based in Moscow, which was the hub of the country’s transport infrastructure, was ably used by Trotsky to prevent any link-up of the different forces confronting the new regime. Once the White threat was disposed of however, the Bolshevik regime faced a threat from the workers, angered at the removal of basic freedoms and the imposition of pseudo trade unions acting solely at the behest of the regime, and, more especially, the peasants, roused to revolt by forcible requisition of food from the country. The peasant revolt reached very large-scale proportions in the province of Tambov in 1920-21, where it had to be put down by military means. Lenin made a tactical retreat – the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced fully by 1924. This combined a peasant economy, state industry subject to economic accounting, private trade and industry, a credit system, and a rudimentary capital market.

While the NEP freed up the system through liberating to some extent individual and private initiative, it was always a bone in the throat of ideological purists. After Lenin’s death in January 1924, the Stalin group, which had gradually become predominant, for a time continued to support it against what was called the Left Opposition, but eventually moved against it. The war scare of 1927, which was set off by the breaking off of diplomatic relations by Britain following the uncovering of Soviet espionage, made Stalin determined to prepare for the worst by increasing investment in heavy industry. Since the country was shut out from international capital markets, this could only be done by once squeezing the peasantry again. A grain crisis in 1928, which had led to rationing in the cities, was the signal for the first Five Year Plan, under which the elements of privatisation of the NEP were done away with and, more significantly, collectivisation of agriculture began. Thousands of enthusiasts were sent into the countryside and, using force more than persuasion, herded the peasants into collective farms. During the first two months of 1930, more than half the peasantry, some sixty million people in one hundred thousand villages, were collectivised. At the same time, the more efficient peasants, maligned as kulaks, were driven out of their villages and into labour camps. It was effectively the end of a peasantry in the territory of the Soviet Union.

The war scare of 1927 did, as seen, spark off what Stalin called the “Great Breakthrough” of collectivisation and forced industrialisation. A general concern with the dangers of underdevelopment was expressed eloquently in his speech to industrial managers of 1931 – a theme to be echoed by Vladimir Putin in our own time:

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her because of her backwardness, military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity.

The rise of Mussolini and, especially, Hitler reinforced the determination of Stalin not to be caught unprepared by this turn in history. In addition, the Spanish Civil War, in which he intervened, demonstrated to him what he considered the danger of an internal fifth column. This set off the most shameful chapter in the very shameful history of the Soviet experiment, the Great Purges of 1937-38. In 1937 and 1938 around 1.6 million people were arrested, and of these, around 700,000 were shot and an unknown number murdered in the course of investigation by the NKVD. In the course of not quite one and a half years, up to 1,500 “enemies” were shot every day. The documentation clearly shows that the repressions were centralised operations and that the initiative unambiguously lay with Stalin. Among the repressed was the poet Osip Mandelshtam, charged with “counter-revolutionary activities”, who died in a transit camp near Vladivostok in 1938.

The invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler in June 1941 was apparently a surprise to Stalin: despite the lessons he had ostensibly learned from Russian history, it found him unprepared. The beginning of the war was chaotic and disastrous for the Soviet Union, indeed, analogous to the disastrous performance of the tsarist armies in the previous war. From another perspective, nevertheless, the industrial base laid in the Great Breakthrough, which, for example, produced the T34 tank, combined with the tremendous outburst of Russian patriotism, sheer numbers, territorial extension and capacity for improvisation eventually told against the forces of Germany and her allies in order to give Stalin a decisive role in the defeat of Hitler. In the postwar settlement, he found his effective frontier extended to the Elbe. Unsurprisingly, the victory continues to be seen as the greatest achievement of Russian history and the anniversary is the main national commemoration of today.

The expectation after such heroic demands had been made on the Soviet people was that peace would see some easing of the harsh regime of pre-war days. This was not to be; indeed, in significant ways Stalin, who now completely dominated the political scene, became even more overtly paranoid. The sentencing to exile and labour camps resumed, targeting anyone who did not completely agree. Writers were especially prone to repression: the Soviet Writers’ Union was formed to marshal these “engineers of human souls”, as Stalin termed them. Those who did not fit in this box did not find publication, and were publicly denounced, as was the great poet Anna Akhmatova, called “half nun, half whore”, by the chief cultural ideologist, Andrei Zhdanov. There was as well an organised campaign vilifying any contact with foreigners so that a generalised xenophobia prevailed. At the end, Stalin was promoting an anti-Semitic campaign, with allegations of a Kremlin “doctors’ plot” which was de facto aimed at Jewish doctors. He had told a meeting of the Central Committee in December 1952 that “every Jew is potentially a spy for the United States”.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 saw a jockeying for power in which Khrushchev emerged as the victor. Gradually a “thaw”, as it was called by Ilya Ehrenburg, a relaxation of repressive policies, was perceived. Two million “politicals” returned from the Gulag camps, and a similar number from sharashkas, or specialised camps for the exploitation of technical and scientific expertise, between 1953 and 1960. Some 750,000 former political prisoners were rehabilitated, although many had died in the camps, so that millions never returned. Among those who came back was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, sentenced in 1945 for conspiracy, whose camp experience had made him a writer. His first work to be published, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an account of camp life, was published with the explicit authority of Khrushchev himself. The new authorities saw a need to give some explanation for what had gone wrong under Stalin. They could equally see that a full accounting would bring the system itself into disrepute. Khrushchev’s squaring of this circle took the form of a “secret speech” to the Central Committee in February 1956, which, apart from being secret, essentially focused on the repression of party members during Stalin’s time, and Stalin himself as an aberration from the Leninist ideal. Secrecy might have been intended, but realistically it could not be maintained. The “secret” soon leaked out, and stoked a sense of liberation, not only within the USSR itself, but also in the satellites, where Khrushchev soon had to face a rebellion in Hungary. “Dissidents”, or, as the Russian term more accurately has it, people who think differently, made their appearance, and provoked a renewed crackdown. In foreign policy, the Khrushchev regime focused on the Third World, while maintaining it would bury capitalism. Internally, it banked on the ideological mobilisation of the public as a substitute for repression, and engaged in a series of ever more desperate initiatives, such as the Virgin Lands campaign, and an administrative rejigging, abolishing most of the central ministries and dispersing their functions to some 150 regional economic councils. The confrontation with the US over Cuba, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, was the final straw for his politburo colleagues, who, citing the proliferation of “hare-brained, schemes”, removed him in a peaceful coup in 1964.

The succeeding era, marked by the domination of Leonid Brezhnev, is well named the period of stagnation by Russians. The contemporary Moscow joke spoke of the problems of getting the Soviet train to move. The Stalin solution, it was said, was to shoot the driver and replace him. The Khrushchev solution was to increase his ideological motivation, so that he could see the journey was an advance towards the realisation of Leninist ideals. The Brezhnev solution was for everyone to jump up and down and pretend it was moving. This stagnation, it has to be remembered, was a feature of a time when there were acknowledged to be only two superpowers in the world, and that the USSR was one of these. It was also the case that the exponents of a Marxist-Leninist ideology governed one third of the world’s population. For all that, stagnation does have longer-term implications, and by the time Brezhnev died in 1982, these had become inescapable. His two short-lived successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, could not change that: even if some think that the former could have taken on the task, there is nothing to suggest that he could have done it within the only parameters he knew.

Mikhail Gorbachev became the last secretary general in 1985. He recognised the problem, at least to some extent. At the beginning, he had, like many members of the party before him, the illusion that what was called for was a return to “Leninist” norms. Application of glasnost and perestroika over a period made it clear that this was not so. In the interval, however, he had raised so many expectations within the USSR and outside that the situation could no longer be mastered, even by invoking the ideas of “a common European house” and of creating a “normal” life within the Soviet Union itself. And so, it is conventional to say that the dream, or nightmare, held out by Marx, Engels and their epigones died with the Soviet Union on December 31st, 1991.

That is a conclusion not universally shared – we will look at it somewhat later. For the moment, let us ask how the centenary of the revolution will be marked in the country of its origin. The answer is with some embarrassment, if at all. It no doubt will be marked by what remains of the Communist Party, now a minority in Russia. But there will be no big parade in Red Square, presided over by the head ofstate, as there was during the seventy-four years that the party was in power. The Russian National Day is now June 12th and commemorates the declaration of sovereignty by the then Russian Federative Soviet Republic in 1990. A more resonant Russian national celebration, as mentioned, is the anniversary of the Second World War victory. At government level at least, nostalgia for the Soviet period is strictly qualified. Vladimir Putin has said that “Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.” His comment that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century has been widely deplored. In his Oliver Stone interviews, he has said that he was referring to the fact that, as a result, 25 million Russians found themselves outside the country. A more plausible explanation for the sentiment is that of Victor Zaslavsky, quoted by Martin Malia, to the effect that the USSR had suffered the structural equivalent to defeat in a major war.

A fundamental problem of the new state was, and is, that it has not yet decided what it wants to be. Readers of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time will have noted the frequent expressions of nostalgia for Stalin among her interviewees. Gorbachev noted earlier this year that “His popularity rating here has reached 86 per cent. Soon it will be 120 per cent.” And even before the end of the Soviet Union, there was far from being a consensus among dissidents on the shape of the desired alternative. Solzhenitsyn was committed to a kind of archetypal Russia satirised by one Russian commentator as that of Russia in caftans, that is, before Peter the Great. As Solzhenitsyn saw it in his latter Old-Testament prophet mode, the West was on its knees, in a state of collapse “as a result of a historical, psychological and moral crisis affecting the entire culture and moral outlook which were conceived at the time of the Renaissance and attained the peak of their expression with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment”. For him, Marxism was “that murky whirlwind of Progressive Ideology that swept in on us from the West and that has tormented and ravaged our soul quite enough”. Even Nadezhda Mandelshtam, widow of the poet Osip Mandelshtam and herself a notable dissident of the sixties and seventies, shows some ambiguity. On the one hand, at the time of Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956, she reproached the Russian intelligentsia of the twenties, saying “they engaged in suicidal behaviour, denying universal values proper to the most various strata: critical thinking and the concern connected with that, freedom of thought and conscience, humanism”. On the other hand, in her memoirs, published in the seventies, she talks of a new mission for Russia: “Russia once saved European Christian culture from the Tatars, today it is saving it from rationalism and its consequence, the will to evil. And this cost it huge sacrifices. Dare I hope that these are not in vain?”

It is not surprising therefore that there are differences of view today on the model to be aimed at. The authorities have moved on from the situation immediately after the collapse, when the new foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, asked former US president Richard Nixon on the occasion of a visit by the latter to Moscow in 1992, much to his surprise, for advice on identifying Russian national interests. Today, apart from its being clear that there will be no question of associating with the Western camp as at present constituted, one can only glean from the Kremlin that a sui generis outcome is vaguely in sight, probably focused on “sovereign democracy”. That is not to say that there is otherwise silence in public opinion. In a very interesting article in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ of January this year, Vladimir Lukin, a member of the Council of the Federation, says that the only “legal” antecedent of the “new Russia” was the period between February and November 1917, when Russia was a democratic state, even if it was proclaimed a republic by Kerensky on September 1st in completely illegal fashion. But he does not leave it at that. The fundamental challenge for Russia, as he sees it, is to accommodate its history, including its great extent, to the demands of a quickly changing world. This must be done, he says, without engaging in confrontation with Europe or with Eurasia. Another view is that of Arsenii Zamostyanov, deputy chief editor of the periodical Istoriya, in a comment published in the literary weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta of May 17th-23rd this year. Zamostyanov is concerned with the demonisation of the Soviet past. “To what,” he asks

do the efforts to declare the Russian Revolution a “dead zone” of our history lead? The next step is an acknowledgment that we should apologise also for the Second World War. The Revolution can neither be deleted nor cursed if, along with the memory of the “Red Empire” we are not to derail the whole of our country, which is soaked through and through with the Soviet spirit.

During perestroika, he says the songs of the sirens and mythical birds of paradise were substituted for pragmatic tasks. “The present nervous dancing around the centenary of the Revolution shows, alas, that we are far from a return to common sense.” His solution, however, is not a practicable one, in that it implies starting from a point differing from that where the country now finds itself. He says that there is much in the ideas of the Revolution that are sorely needed today, and bewails in effect that the Chinese, Deng Xiaoping route was not taken during the Brezhnev period.

The books under review do not confine themselves to the historical USSR, and their authors, or some of them at any rate, would not completely disagree with Zamostyanov. Steve Smith remarks that in the future, the ambition of the Revolution’s challenge to capitalism may once again inspire. It raised fundamental challenges, he says, about how justice, equality, and freedom can be reconciled, questions which have not gone away. For Tony Brenton, “there is a real question about how much further the deLeninisation of the world will run”. He sees China as the most conspicuous case of “regimes (which) find ways of controlling their internal political processes while still forming part of a highly interconnected world” and, given the phenomenal development of China in recent years, the country is, he rightly remarks, “by far the world’s most significant inheritance from the 1917 revolution”. For Malia, too, the coercive paradigm of a Leninist party may have been discredited,

But does this mean that the maximalist temptation is once and for all behind us? Almost certainly not. Candidates for the role of universal class abound; and, although gender-cum-sexual orientation will surely never get the brass ring, some combination of young, prolific, but poor Third World arrayed against an opulent but graying North could conceivably do so.

Edmund Wilson was of an earlier generation, which did not witness the breakdown in practice of “really existing socialism” of the Brezhnev type. He did, however, see the depths to which Russian communism had sunk. For all that, as of 1940, he retained this much of his earlier enthusiasm for Marxism: he still admired the

desire to get rid of class privilege based on birth and on difference of income; the will to establish a society in which the superior development of some is not paid for by the exploitation, that is, by the deliberate degradation of others – a society which will be homogeneous and cooperative as our commercial society is not, and directed, to the best of their ability, by the conscious creative minds of its members.

Thus, while the riddle of history has not been solved by a force that knows itself as the solution, the alternative paradigm, which in effect envisaged another kind of end to history, has not been realised either. Indeed, it is fair to say that its progenitor, Francis Fukuyama by way of Alexandre Kojève, has admitted as much.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.