Max Hastings

The brutal legacy of the Russian Revolution must never be forgotten

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.

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