Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on 25 October 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.
Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descent, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.
By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’
Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.
According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:
the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.
What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore, Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he issued the following order:
1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names
3. Take all their grain away from them.
4. Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out your instructions.
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the ‘tougher people’ he unleashed would prove highly problematic.
Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:
there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried underground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.
The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.
Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.
According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.
The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.
Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’ who ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’
‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed,’ according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents,’ a few recording Stalin’s direct connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances playing one faction off against the other, as he awaited a chance to strike to power which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.
Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:
All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.
This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:
I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!
He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that.’
During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed.’ He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.
Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most ahocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act.’ Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic transforming mankind. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.
Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex- Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of “The God that failed” only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’
The experience can be likened to that of a devout Catholics coming to terms with revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’
The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be.’ He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile.’ Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.
Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.
History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world.
Frank Armstrong (@frankarmstrong2) earned a degree in history in University College Dublin before training to be a barrister. He also completed a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures in SOAS, and trained to be a secondary school history teacher. Following accusations of being an eternal student, he began writing articles for the Spectator, The London Magazine, as well as Irish publications including Village Magazine, the Dublin Review of Books and the Irish Times. Latterly, he managed a folk band and ran a Dublin venue that combined music with vegan food. Currently he divides his time between writing and teaching.