Digital

Exclusive online content

The People’s Revolution?

By: Guy Burnett
December 20, 2017

riters and academics continue to be fascinated by the possibility of a fully functioning and paradisiacal communist utopia. A casual stroll through political science conference book displays reveals Marx’s specter, though the picture book Communism for Kids, which is proudly displayed next to academic texts, leaves out some of his less palatable theories—it’s silent on mass murder and the systematic destruction of religion.

That said, most teachers and academics will at least grudgingly admit that the Soviet Union was far from Marx's and Lenin’s vision of a perfect communist paradise. That wasn’t always so. In Witness, Ex-Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers notes that the Russian Revolution held a sacred place in American fellow travelers’ minds:

[N]o sooner had I reached Washington than I found myself wrapped in the aura of a man who had worked with “them”— the Russians. So great is the revolutionary spell of that word “Russian,” that American Communists, who might hesitate to do certain things for another American Communist, will all but beg to do the same things for a Russian or anyone directly connected with the Russians…. 

Progressive historians have whitewashed the Revolution into a “people’s revolution,” inspired by the benevolent and charismatic Lenin and founded on the humanitarian Marx’s principles of equality. In truth, the Revolution wasn’t even supported by a majority of the proletariat. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s recently translated The Red Wheel: March 1917, and Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, are sobering antidotes to this naïve view.In The Red Wheel—the title an allusion to the October 1917 Bolshevik usurpation—Solzhenitsyn examines the Revolution’s effect on the Russian people, from street urchins looting in the chaos to the clueless royal family whose impotence lead to their arrest and execution. His most riveting scenes involve mostly fictional characters in the thick of the action; instead of pensive deliberation or introspective worrying, they are a heady mix of anger, cowardice, and confusion. The government’s police and Cossack units often contemplate betrayal; their inner monologues are filled with self-doubt about their role as guardians in a regime on the brink of collapse. Should they fire on their own people? How far should they let the protestors go?

There was no shortage of blame, but Solzhenitsyn shows how the most dangerous blunders leading up to October 1917 were the Czar’s. He presents Nicholas II as a naïve but devoted family man, a great neighbor but poor leader, whose faith in the protestors was his undoing. By hamstringing the police, the Czar escalated an avertable crisis. Had he committed trustworthy soldiers to defense, or cut the telegraph wires that connected Moscow's rebel forces, or allowed the police to disperse rioters rather than observing and provoking them, he could have prevented his forced abdication. 

 Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train closely examines Vladimir Lenin’s April, 1917 return to Bolshevik Russia from his political exile. Lenin spent the duration of World War I in Switzerland, frenetically and fanatically penning missives spelling out his disgust with the “imperialist” war, alongside a small band of like-minded socialists. Merridale doesn’t see Lenin as a monster; for her, “whatever happened when [Lenin] was in power” was inconsequential because his arrival in Petrograd offered the masses “clarity and hope.” This, despite that under Lenin’s leadership the Bolsheviks waged a massive terror campaign against both class enemies and the Bolsheviks’ own proletariat. In Party Congresses, Lenin and his lieutenants admitted that the proletarians’ grasp of Marxism and the Revolution was insufficiently enlightened, and they needed the Revolution to be waged by others in their name until their reeducation.  Although she glosses over its atrocities, Merridale blames the Bolshevik rise on both the Russian Provisional Government and on the German government. As a penniless revolutionary in exile, Lenin needed to traverse war-torn Germany in order to reach Russia during the Revolution’s opening months. As the war progressed, the Germans realized that failure to neutralize the Russian army would collapse the German war effort. It gambled on a desperate scheme to give Lenin passage to Russia through Germany in order that he might take control of the Revolution. The scheme’s cost was considerable: while waging a two-front war, Germany allowed Lenin’s train to reroute all civilian and wartime traffic. Lenin agreed, but with strict stipulations that quickly devolved into bureaucratic nightmares. He mandated that his train carriage was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, and only Swiss communist Fritz Platten would be free to move between the compartments and the back of the carriage’s white chalk line that delineated the German guards’ seating. As Lenin grew annoyed with fellow comrades Karl Radek and Olga Ravich, who drank generously and sang loudly on the eight-day journey, the arbitrary rules multiplied. In a fit of rage during a particularly boisterous evening, Lenin attempted to banish Ravich to a car further back, before issuing a slate of new rules, obedience to which was “a matter of communist discipline.” Toilet tickets were now required, as well as enforced sleeping hours. This impulse to bureaucratically centralize every aspect of life resurfaced when the Bolsheviks took power; Merridale shows us the bureaucratic state's embryo emerging on the train carrying Lenin to the Revolution.

Merridale’s book captures the Russian government’s chaotic turmoil that left a power vacuum, eventually filled by the Bolsheviks. Although her characters aren’t as complex or introspective as Solzhenitsyn’s, she gives a more academic account of the Provisional Government’s confusion and incompetence. Merridale shows Lenin’s hero’s return and welcome, after he takes over Bolshevik command, but before his subsequent rise to power and the Bolshevik takeover of the government. She ends before the terrors of the Revolution’s later years, which her book doesn't confront.

Both books end in April 1917. Solzhenitsyn and Merridale show what could have been done to prevent the events of April from ending in Bolshevik tyranny. The months leading up to the October Revolution, as well as the next seven decades of Soviet rule, serve as brutal reminders to those who still keep communism’s torch lit. It was one of the worst regimes humanity has ever endured.