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Spirit of 1917

Spirit of 1917

IN retrospect, it’s all too easy — and convenient — to look at the events of a century ago in Russia and visualise the genesis of a monumental tragedy. A common corollary of this perception is the tendency to take for granted the October Revolution of 1917, construing it, and its aftermath, as somehow inevitable.

The Bolshevik assumption of power 100 years ago also often tends to be viewed as a coup rather than a proper revolution, notwithstanding the fact that it proved considerably more transformative in any number of ways than the February Revolution earlier the same year.

The overthrow of tsarism was undoubtedly a key moment in Russian history, but those who ascended to office thereafter had little idea about how to cope with the demands of a suddenly liberated populace, a substantial proportion of which envisaged the death of autocracy not just as a desirable end in itself but as the beginning of an era in which the depredations of the tsarist order would be reversed.

The revolution survived the efforts to reverse it.

The provisional government established following the overthrow of Nicholas II proved incapable of exercising power without the cooperation of the soviet that had simultaneously sprung up, representing workers and soldiers and eventually peasants, in an echo of the 1905 revolution.

Initially, much of the Marxist left in Russia was inclined to cooperate with the provisional government, seeing it as a harbinger of the capitalist development that was, in the orthodox view, a necessary means of conveying the nation to a stage where socialism would emerge as the logical alternative. But Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, had other ideas. On his way home from European exile, he was livid about the conciliatory comments in Pravda, edited at the time by Lev Kamenev and Josef Stalin.

Lenin arrived in Petrograd in April 1917 with a slogan on his lips: “All power to the soviets.” He had a tough time convincing his comrades. And when, a couple months later, the Menshevik head of the Petrograd soviet proclaimed from the lectern that no political force in Russia was at that point willing to assume the responsibilities of power, a member of the audience rose up to contradict him: “There is such a party,” Lenin declared.

There was some derisory laughter, but no one was grinning out of disdain when, after a few months, Lenin informed the second all-Russia congress of soviets: “Now we shall begin to construct the new socialist order.” He received an ovation.

Not long before, most of those who disagreed with the idea of assuming power had walked out of the soviet, their ears ringing with a livid denunciation by the head of the soviet’s military revolutionary committee, Leon Trotsky. Go where you belong, he shouted at them, to the dust heap of history — thereby coining a phrase that polemicists of all stripes have deployed ever since.

Trotsky was a recent convert to Bolshevism, and his surprising abilities as a military strategist were key not just to the political takeover of Nov 7, but to the almost miraculous salvation of the revolutionary regime in the war that followed. The latter has gone down in history as a civil war, but world powers were actively involved in the concerted effort to, as Winston Churchill put it, strangle the Bolshevik beast in its infancy.

The revolution survived the efforts to reverse it, even though a number of its initial achievements — for example, the first instance anywhere in the world of the decriminalisation of homosexuality — were subsequently crushed as Stalin consolidated his power, having defied Lenin’s attempts from his deathbed to disempower his undesignated successor.

Once the civil war had been won, Lenin was keen by 1922-23 to sharply reduce the levels of repression. He was always willing to change his mind when circumstances de­­ma­n­ded it. He badgered his comrades when he thought they were wrong, but at worst they faced humiliation or expulsion rather than imprisonment or execution. Stalin took a different tack, and many of Lenin’s closest comrades met their death at his command, alongside innumerable other communists.

“We know where this is going,” China Mieville writes in October. “Purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder.” But, he adds: “October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change. Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.”

Indeed. It could have been otherwise. And, despite Stalin, the Soviet Union had its redeeming features. But, within 10 years of the revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevist ideals had little to do with what ensued. Lenin and Trotsky, despite their various disagreements, realised that the Russian revolution would not go far without complementary uprisings across Europe. Perhaps it took 70 odd years for them to be proved right.

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Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2017

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