Few 20th-century historians doubted that the 1917 Russian revolution was one of the most influential events of their time, indeed of all time. As the centenary commemoration approaches, however, it seems remarkable how far and how fast the ideology that inspired Lenin and millions of his worldwide followers has receded in significance. Many are the imperfections of capitalism, but almost nobody outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office any longer supposes that communism, least of all the old Soviet brand, offers a credible alternative. This would amaze our grandparents’ generation on both sides of the struggle.
The novels of C.P. Snow are indifferent fiction but intriguing middle-class social history. During the interwar era, many of the intelligent acquaintances of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s fictional alter ego, took it for granted that socialism, or perhaps communism, not only should but would prevail as the guiding doctrine of most democracies.
Lower down the social scale, Clyde shipworkers, indeed most of the world’s industrial classes, saw the Bolsheviks as harbingers of hope. The bayonets thrust into the bosoms of the imperial family in the cellar at Ekaterinburg roused a pleasurable frisson in some radical hearts. Ten Days that Shook the World, the American reporter John Reed’s eyewitness account of October 1917, conveys the thrill the revolution evoked among those who, like himself, considered capitalism doomed.
In the cities of western Europe, class hatred towards the ruling caste, ‘the bosses’, was strongest in those industries that demanded most toil and peril, especially mining. When the second world war came, Churchill was baffled by the intransigence manifested in many British coal communities amid the death-struggle against fascism. It had to be explained to him in a series of harshly frank reports how wide gaped the chasm between the political vision of Welsh miners and that of the duke’s grandson occupying Downing Street. This was not, of course, a direct consequence of Lenin’s revolution, but that event remained a focus for the aspirations of many workers and intellectuals.
October 1917 would not have made its seismic impact had it represented merely a domestic Russian change of government, however bloody. Foreign observers had long predicted the Romanovs’ doom. Russia’s condition fulfilled de Tocqueville’s dictum that servitude becomes intolerable when there is some lightening of its chains. Contrary to later Soviet propaganda, industrialisation was making great strides across the 1914 Russian empire.
But the Bolshevik ascent to power took place in the midst of the greatest war in human history. Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict, through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, for some weeks seemed likely to precipitate a victory for the Central Powers. Though such an outcome was averted, the new dispensation in Moscow put the fear of God into the western allies.
The Bolsheviks proclaimed their commitment to the destruction of established governments worldwide. The Communist International, established in 1919, promised to fight ‘by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State’.
The objectives of Lenin, Trotsky and their followers thus threatened the interests of rulers and property-owners everywhere. Churchill persuaded Lloyd George, as Britain’s prime minister, together with the governments of the US, France, Canada, Italy and other allies, to launch a half–hearted and disastrous armed intervention in Russia, aimed at assisting the Whites and especially the Czech Legion to reverse the events of October 1917.
Three VCs were awarded in 1919 to Royal Navy torpedo-boat commanders who attacked Bolshevik warships in the Baltic. That extraordinary episode cries out for a good modern history. Until this gets written, I recommend a very slight but rewarding 1967 historical novel by John Harris entitled A Light Cavalry Action, which focused on the British army’s role.
It is a familiar student essay question, whether the revolution could have been averted, but for the world war and resultant loss of up to three million Russian lives. It seems more useful merely to suggest that, in the political and ideological climate of the early 20th century, the collectivist experiment was bound to be attempted somewhere, and Russia or China were obvious testbeds. The consequences for millions of Russian peasants, together with the ferocity of Soviet oppression, were successfully concealed from most western eyes for half a century. The 1789 French revolution killed only a few thousand aristocrats and transferred land to peasants, who thus became ardent upholders of property rights. The Russian version required liquidation of the entire governing class and transfer of land to collective ownership, an incomparably more radical proceeding. Douglas Smith’s 2012 book Former People gives a harrowing account of the fate of the Tsarist aristocracy.
In the West, the gullibility of the Webbs, Bernard Shaw and the rest of the ‘true believers’ was fed by a desperation to suppose the Soviet example viable. ‘Looking around us at our own hells,’ wrote the historian Philip Toynbee, who became a communist at Cambridge, ‘we had to invent an earthly paradise somewhere else’. As late as 1945, the leftist publisher Victor Gollancz brought posterity’s contempt upon himself by declining to publish Animal Farm, George Orwell’s great satire on Bolshevism.
For a counter-revolutionary contemporary perspective, it is impossible to understand the 1930s appeasement of the dictators without grasping the traumatic impact of events in Russia on the propertied classes everywhere. The Winter Palace was stormed only 16 years before Hitler came to power. For at least two decades, Europe’s ‘haves’ were far more frightened of Bolshevism than of fascism.
The ‘clubland hero’ novels of John Buchan and Sapper offer embarrassing glimpses of the British bourgeois view of Lenin’s people and their followers in the decades following the revolution. A belief took hold in polite circles that the bloodiest revolutionaries were not merely communists but also Jews, which meant they were doubly damned in St James’s clubs.
Even by the usual standards of historical irony, it remains astonishing that Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union not only failed to destroy Bolshevism, but instead conferred a new legitimacy on Stalin’s dictatorship, and probably protracted by a generation the existence of his empire. Successful resistance to Hitler was only possible because of the Soviet leader’s industrialisation programme, which had been carried out at appalling human cost.
The Russian people’s 21st-century notion of what they call ‘the Great Patriotic War’ bears little relationship to our own. It ignores Stalin’s 1939-41 pact with Hitler, and the fact that the Luftwaffe planes that bombed London in the Blitz were powered by Russian fuel. President Putin has made unlawful all published mention of the unspeakable cruelties the Soviet regime inflicted on its own citizens — shooting an estimated 300,000 soldiers for alleged desertion or cowardice — in order to prevail. Antony Beevor’s books, and for that matter my own, are nowadays banned because they describe the Red Army’s 1945 campaign of rape and pillage in Germany.
I have argued elsewhere that the ruthlessness of Stalin’s tyranny was essential to contrive the defeat of Hitler’s tyranny; that if the liberation of Europe had proceeded at a pace determined by the US and British armies, we might still stand short of the Elbe.
That line is hyperbolic, of course, but underpinned by a harsh reality. Stalin emerged from the second world war as its most successful warlord, head of a nation whose contribution to the destruction of Nazism had won worldwide admiration. Although the leaders of the western states quickly understood the threat posed by the new Soviet Empire to freedom and democracy, many of their citizens did not.
Between 1941 and 1945 so much praise had been heaped upon Uncle Joe, the defenders of Stalingrad, heroic factory workers of the Volga and suchlike, that thereafter it proved a hard task to disabuse many people of their illusions about Mother Russia. They were not wrong in believing that hundreds of thousands of young British and American men were alive in 1945 because Red soldiers had done more than their rightful share of dying.
Any examination of the Bolshevik revolution and its legacy must linger on the Great Patriotic War, because that victory remains the only indisputable and durable achievement the rulers of Russia can boast since 1917, save the invention of some remarkable weapons systems and spacecraft.
No believable economist would claim that the Russian people benefited from Leninist or Stalinist social and economic policies. It is easier to project an upward trend for Russian living standards after 1918 had the Tsarist regime survived than to make a case that the Soviet system profited anyone, save the commissars. It has proved a common characteristic of communist regimes around the world that — to paraphrase Orwell — all pigs are equal, but some secure access to bigger troughs than others. British visitors to Moscow in the darkest days of the second world war cringed at the extravagance of the banquets they were served at a time when most of the country was starving and even — in extreme circumstances, such as those of besieged Leningrad — eating each other.
Yet until the last years of the 20th century the supply of useful idiots — western apologists for the Soviet Union — seemed limitless, and included such figures as Tony Benn. Anthony Powell’s novel Books Do Furnish a Room captures the enthusiasm for Soviet communism that pervaded post-1945 London socialist sitting rooms and literary gatherings.
No modern reader can set down the works of Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest, Robert Service or Anne Applebaum without a sense of awe at the cruelties committed in the name of ‘the people’, the cause of Russian communism; cruelties indulged almost to this day by their western defenders. It bears notice that German people under the Nazis, with the exception of Jews, enjoyed much greater personal freedom than did Russians at any time after 1917.
Putin’s land retains only nominal links with communism, and has been transformed into an authoritarian gangster society, much less dangerous than the old Soviet Union partly because it is smaller, and also because its leaders seek only personal wealth and power, rather than to promote an ideology. Even the cruelties are much reduced: the occasional enemy of the state is murdered in the street by hired killers, but dissidents are no longer executed by hundreds and thousands in state prisons… or in the forests of Katyn.
Modern Russians will celebrate the cent-en-ary of the revolution while being allowed to know almost nothing about its real course and cost, still less to recognise its fundamental inhumanity and historic failure.
David Aaronovitch, in his impressive recent memoir of childhood in a passionately communist British family, argued that no one should denounce such misguided people without recalling the hideous sufferings also inflicted upon the world by white imperialists and racists.
That point deserves due heed. Nonetheless, in the matter of scale, the Russian revolutionaries and their later successors in China achieved a record of mass killings such as even the Nazis struggled to match.
The world will no doubt experience the consequences of plenty more barren ideologies and brutal dictatorships, but it is doubtful that any will impose as much misery as did the doctrine first empowered by the Bolshevik revolution. Its looming receivership offers just cause for gratitude.