As the end of the century approached, Russia was in a sorry state. Over 80 per cent of its population were peasant farmers, and only 20 per cent could read or write. (Dukes, 1998, p. 197) Some 80 per cent of agricultural land was held by peasant communes which had been set up following the abolition of serfdom in 1861. However the peasant farmers were using primitive methods and were not educated in contemporary techniques. Famine was commonplace with possibly the worst occurring in the winter of 1891-92, affecting some 15 million people and resulting in nearly 400,000 deaths from diseases linked to malnutrition. On coming to power Nicholas II, who had witnessed his grandfather’s assassination, made it clear that he had no intention of devolving power to parliament, in the manner of most European countries by that time, but would maintain “the principles of autocracy” (Dukes, 1998, p. 176). Newspapers were strictly supervised and there was widespread corruption and oppression.
Unrest was further fuelled by war. In 1904, the Tsar’s expansionist policies eastward triggered a confrontation with Japan which ended in humiliating defeat. As the conflict ended in 1905, widespread strikes broke out in the capital St. Petersburg, spreading to Moscow and elsewhere after ‘Bloody Sunday’ when troops opened fire on protesters, killing more than 100 people. As the army and police fought for control, the Tsar relented to the extent of the October Manifesto which established an uneasy truce by granting limited legislative powers to the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament). However sporadic protests, strikes and acts of terrorism and oppression continued. Indeed it is estimated that over three million workers went on strike between 1912 and Russia’s entry into the First World War in 1914.
Nicholas II took Russia into the War as an ally of Britain and France against Germany, which threatened its western border. The Tsar no doubt hoped that military glory would increase his popularity but in the first ten months, Russia was to lose some 3.8 million men, either killed or taken prisoner. (Harvey, 2004, p. 47) Unrest spread, building into what is also popularly known as the February Revolution in 1917 with over 400,000 striking in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called). Troops were ordered to fire on the strikers but many deserted, and eventually the Tsar was persuaded by his generals to abdicate.
The power vacuum was filled by the Provisional Government, an unstable alliance between what remained of the Duma and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (‘soviet’ is Russian for ‘council’). However April saw Vladimir Lenin return from exile in Europe, where he had fled following the 1905 revolution, to a hero’s welcome. Lenin had led the more radical Bolshevik faction in 1905 and was committed to Marxist ideology. He took the opportunity to reject the Provisional Government and call upon the Soviets to rise up and establish a Marxist state. To avoid arrest he went back into hiding, this time to Finland, but returned in October to direct the overthrow of the Provisional Government by armed groups of Bolshevik supporters known as Red Guards.
Consolidating his popularity, one of Lenin’s first acts was the Decree on Peace, proposing an immediate withdrawal from the War and exhorting the workers of England, France and Germany to demand that their respective governments end the conflict. A peace treaty with Germany was finally signed in March 1918, but only after relinquishing the Ukraine and what is now Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (Poland, Finland and the remaining Baltic states having already been lost).
With regards to the running of the country, Lenin had set out his aims in his April Theses which had been published in Pravda on his return and called for the establishment of a revolutionary government by the various Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, as well as:
“Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. i.e. the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the whole people.
“The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker.
“Nationalisation of all lands in the country.
“The immediate amalgamation of all banks in the country into a single national bank.”
He also elected to change the name of the Bolshevik movement to ‘The Communist Party’ and to move the seat of power to Moscow.
The April Theses is broadly in line with the programme set out by Marx in The Communist Manifesto. However both Marx and Lenin saw two distinct stages to the Communist revolution, which would only end with the “withering away of the State”. Lenin detailed the process most clearly in The State and Revolution, which he completed while in hiding in Finland.
In the first phase, the means of production are transferred into public ownership and managed by the state on behalf of the people:
“Accounting and control – that is mainly what is needed for the ‘smooth working’, for the proper functioning, of the first phase of communist society. All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers. All citizens becomes employees and workers of a single countrywide state ‘syndicate’.” (Lenin, 1917)
At this stage, which Lenin dubbed ‘socialism’ to distinguish it from the final phase, the fruits of production are distributed according to the principles that “He who does not work shall not eat” and “An equal amount of product for an equal amount of labour”. However “this is not yet communism”. As Marx put it in an earlier work:
“In a higher phase of communist society, … after labour has become not only a livelihood but life’s prime want, after the productive forces have increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois law be left behind in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875)
Both Marx and Lenin believed that, once the means of production were in the hands of the worker, productivity would increase dramatically and it will finally be revealed “how incredibly capitalism is already retarding this development”. Once society is cleansed “of all the infamies and abominations of capitalist exploitation … Then the door will be thrown wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase, and with it to the complete withering away of the state.” However the Communist Party in 1917 faced a daunting task. After more than three years of war ending in capitulation, and decades of internal conflict and strikes, the country was on its knees.
Lenin immediately set about implementing the programme that he had defined in his April Theses, but there was little Party representation outside the major cities and much of the administration was in a state of disarray. The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Profiteering, otherwise known as the Cheka and the forerunner of the KGB, was set up to root out “enemies of the people”, a branding which could encompass those showing bourgeois or entrepreneurial tendencies, and those opposing the aims of the Communist Party. Cheka activity was stepped up following an attempted assassination of Lenin in August 1918 with tens of thousands being tortured, executed or sent to the newly-established penal labour camps in Siberia which were to become the basis of Stalin’s Gulag.
Agricultural land was turned over to the state and the right to farm it was given to the peasants. The hiring of labour was forbidden, so each was allocated only the land they could cultivate for themselves. Any surplus grain was meant to be handed over to the state, but what counted as ‘surplus’ was ill-defined and many were accused of hoarding which Lenin regarded as sabotage. Lenin had imposed rationing and banned the private trade of food, but by early 1918 the bread ration in Petrograd had fallen to just 50 grams a day. Despite the risks there was a growing black market with contemporary estimates suggesting that 60 per cent of the food consumed in the city was being traded illegally. It is estimated that agricultural production in 1921 was just 60 per cent of that produced in 1913 (Nove, 1992, p. 62), while the amount of land being cultivated had fallen by a third.
Another mandate decreed that worker soviets could “actively interfere … in all aspects of production and distribution of products … The owners of the enterprises had to make available to the organ of workers’ control all accounts and documents.” (Nove, 1992, p. 42) However committee leaders did not have the training to manage production and distribution, and there were plenty of opportunities for petty pilfering and corruption. By 1921 industrial output was just 21 per cent of that in 1913.
Nationalisation of the economy proceeded with the establishment of the General Commission on State Planning (Gosplan) in 1921 which began gathering the statistics necessary for drawing up a coherent economic plan. However the situation required immediate action, and in the same year the Party introduced the New Economic Plan (NEP) which effectively legitimised the burgeoning black market, although large-scale private enterprises were strongly discouraged. Lenin described it as a “transitional mixed system” but by 1923, nearly 90 per cent of industry was back in private hands. (Harvey, 2004, p. 54) By 1928, both agricultural and industrial output had returned to the levels achieved in 1913. (Service, 1997, p. 124) Nevertheless the position of those who had taken advantage of the NEP was precarious as they could still be accused of ‘speculation’ or ‘profiteering’ and penalised.
Both Lenin and Stalin, who took power following Lenin’s death from a stroke in 1924, regarded the Soviet state as essentially democratic, and indeed the 1936 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly referred to as Stalin’s Constitution, did specify secret ballots for both men and women over the age of 18, with elections held for higher governmental positions in the Supreme Soviet every four years. It also explicitly guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assembly – including the right to hold mass demonstrations – for all citizens.
What was missing was the right to establish a political party. This was not explicitly banned, but it was clear that the aims of the Constitution were identical to the aims of the Communist Party. It affirmed that the USSR was a “socialist state of workers and peasants” which had been achieved through “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and “the abolition of the capitalist system of economy”. It also confirmed that all economic resources “are state property, that is, belong to the whole people.” Any alternative to the Communist Party could only represent those opposed to such goals – in other words the capitalists and bourgeoisie landlords against whom the revolution had been fought and who could safely be branded traitors and saboteurs. The Communist Party represented the people, so anyone opposing the Party must, by definition, be an enemy of the people. It also meant, as Lenin himself put it in a 1921 article for Pravda, that “A situation is gradually taking shape in which one can ‘rise in the world’, make a career for oneself, get a bit of power, only by entering the service of the Soviet regime.”
A case in point was the judiciary. The Constitution described a structure headed by the Supreme Court whose members were to be elected by the Supreme Soviet every five years, and extending to the People’s Courts who were elected by the local citizens in secret ballots. However in practice nomination for such positions was only open to members of the Communist Party, so any plaintiff opposing or questioning the actions of Party members was unlikely to get a fair hearing.
Even before the Revolution, Russia’s jails had held hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, with thousands executed for political offences each year. During Stalin’s reign, In the period known as ‘The Terror’ between 1937 and 1938, it has been estimated that the Gulag camps held some eight million prisoners, most accused of sabotage, espionage, ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ or indulging in ‘bourgeois activities’. By the end of 1938, fully five per cent of the urban population had at some point been arrested. (Hughes & Welfare, 1992, p. 127) Lenin was quite open about it, writing in 1922 that the task of the judiciary was to provide “a principled and politically correct … essence and justification of terror. The court is not to eliminate terror … but to substantiate it and legitimise it in principle.” (Pipes, 1995, p. 220)
The guarantee of “freedom of press” was similarly meaningless. Again, as Lenin himself stated in 1918, “The press must serve as an instrument of socialist construction …” (Lenin V. I., 1918). The official newspaper of the Soviet Union was Pravda which is the Russian word for ‘truth’. In practice it contained whatever the Communist Party wanted it to contain. By the 1930s under Stalin the state employed some 80,000 censors, and any form of creative expression that did not simply extol the virtues of the Party had become extremely risky (Harvey, 2004, p. 88).