The Russian Revolution (1917–1918)
An End to the War
After Lenin’s government secured power, one of its first major goals was to get Russia out of World War I. Following his Decree on Peace, Lenin sent out diplomatic notes to all participants in the war, calling for everyone to cease hostilities immediately if they did not want Russia to seek a separate peace. The effort was ignored. Therefore, in November 1917, the new government ordered Russian troops to cease all hostilities on the front. On December 15, Russia signed an armistice with Germany and Austria, pending a formal peace treaty (the treaty was not completed until March 1918).
Russia’s exit from the war was very costly, but Lenin was desperate to end the war at any cost, as the Germans were threatening to invade Petrograd. In the peace, Lenin consented to give up most of Russia’s territorial gains since the time of Peter the Great. The lost territories included Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bessarabia, and the Caucasus region, along with some of the coal-mining lands of southern Russia. The Soviets would not regain these territories until the end of World War II.
The SPC and the November Elections
Following the revolution and the Second Congress of Soviets, Lenin’s new government, the SPC, faced the overwhelming task of governing a country in chaos. Communication was poor, and large chunks of the country, including the Ukraine, were still occupied by foreign armies. Outside of Petrograd and Moscow, especially in more distant regions such as Siberia and Central Asia, it was hard even to define what was happening politically, much less to take control of it.
At least in theory, the SPC was a democratic institution. They had been voted into power (after they had taken it) and were supposed to answer to the Executive Committee and in turn to the future Constituent Assembly. Indeed, Lenin, expecting the Bolsheviks to do well, allowed elections for members of the Constituent Assembly to proceed as scheduled throughout the month of November. When the final tally was in, however, Bolshevik candidates received less than 25 percent of the vote. The highest percentage, 40 percent, went to the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party, which at the time was mildly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. However, members of other more hostile parties, including the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats), had strong showings as well.
Because the Bolsheviks placed only modestly in the elections, the Constituent Assembly became a problem for them. Initially, it appeared that the Bolsheviks might have to make some severe compromises in order to stay in power. However, they dealt with this problem first by declaring the Cadet Party illegal and then by demanding that the Constituent Assembly voluntarily give up its legislative authority—a move that would have remade the body into essentially a rubber stamp for Bolshevik policy.
In the end, the Constituent Assembly met only once, on January 5, 1918. During the meeting, the assembly refused to give up its authority but did nothing to challenge the Bolsheviks, who watched over the meeting with loaded guns. When the assembly adjourned the next morning, the Bolsheviks declared the assembly permanently dissolved and accused its members of being “slaves to the American dollar.”
The Third Congress of Soviets
The assembly was replaced by the Third Congress of Soviets, 94 percent of whose members were required to be Bolshevik and SR delegates. The new group quickly ratified a motion that the term “provisional” be removed from the official description of the SPC, making Lenin and the Bolsheviks the permanent rulers of the country.
Until this point, the Bolsheviks had often used word democracy in a positive sense, but this changed almost instantly. The Bolsheviks began to categorize their critics as counterrevolutionaries and treated them as traitors. The terms revolutionary dictatorship and dictatorship of the proletariat began to pop up frequently in Lenin’s speeches, which began to characterize democracy as an illusionary concept propagated by Western capitalists.
The Bolsheviks’ Consolidation of Power
In March 1918, even as Lenin’s representatives were signing the final treaty taking Russia out of World War I, the Bolsheviks were in the process of moving their seat of power from Petrograd to Moscow. This largely symbolic step was a part of the Bolshevik effort to consolidate power.
Although symbolism of this sort was a major part of the Bolsheviks’ strategy, they knew they also needed military power to force the rest of the country to comply with their vision while discouraging potential foreign invaders from interfering. Therefore, they rebuilt their military force, which now largely consisted of 35,000 Latvian riflemen who had sided with the Bolsheviks when they vowed to remove Russia from World War I. The Latvian soldiers were better trained and more disciplined than the Russian forces upon which the Bolshevik forces had previously relied. These troops effectively suppressed insurrections throughout Russia during the course of 1918 and formed the early core of the newly established Red Army.
The other major instrument of Bolshevik power was the secret police, known by the Russian acronym Cheka (for Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage). Officially formed on December 20, 1917, the Cheka was charged with enforcing compliance with Bolshevik rule. At its command, Lenin placed a Polish revolutionary named Felix Dzerzhinsky, who would soon become notorious for the deadly work of his organization. Tens of thousands of people would be murdered at Dzerzhinsky’s behest during the coming years.
The Roots of Civil War
Although the Russian Civil War is a separate topic and not dealt with directly in this text, some introduction is appropriate because the war evolved directly from the circumstances of the Russian Revolution. No specific date can be set forth for the beginning of the war, but it generally began during the summer of 1918. As the Bolsheviks (often termed the Reds) were consolidating power, Lenin’s opponents were also organizing from multiple directions. Groups opposing the Bolsheviks ranged from monarchists to democrats to militant Cossacks to moderate socialists. These highly divergent groups gradually united and came to fight together as the Whites. A smaller group, known as the Greens, was made up of anarchists and opposed both the Whites and the Reds.
In the meantime, a contingent of about half a million Czech and Slovak soldiers, taken prisoner by the Russian army during World War I, began to rebel against the Bolsheviks, who were attempting to force them to serve in the Red Army. The soldiers seized a portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and attempted to make their way across Siberia to Russia’s Pacific coast in order to escape Russia by boat. In the course of their rebellion, they temporarily joined with White forces in the central Volga region, presenting the fledgling Red Army with a major military challenge. In response to these growing threats, the Bolsheviks instituted military conscription in May 1918 in order to bolster their forces.
The Red Terror
At the end of the summer, on August 30, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin. He survived, but a brutal crackdown on all forms of opposition commenced shortly thereafter. The Bolsheviks called it the Red Terror, and it fully lived up to its name. This was the atmosphere under which the Russian Civil War began. It lasted well into 1920–1921, by which point the Bolsheviks had fully crushed the rebellion.
Assessing Bolshevik Russia
After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had very little planning in place, and their rule got off to a rough start when they came in behind the SRs in the elections of the Constituent Assembly. The working class was still a minority in Russia; the Bolsheviks would change that in time, but at the outset their rule could be maintained only by force.
The Bolsheviks faced major opposition from within Russia and for many different reasons. Among the most contentious issues was Russia’s costly exit from World War I. Though many had wanted out of the war, they did not approve of Lenin’s readiness to lose vast amounts of territory. In addition, the Bolsheviks’ sudden dismissal of the Constituent Assembly and their silencing of all other political voices was offensive to many as well. The result was the Russian civil war, which would be horrifically painful for the country and that, in the end, would cost even more lives than had World War I. The years following, with the violence of Joseph Stalin’s purges and forced collectivization of Russia’s lands, would not be much better.