The 100th anniversary of the October Revolution is upon us. Given the outsize role Russia under Putin has continued to play in our geopolitical life, it is important to consider the roots of the country’s socialist revolution and its long-term outcomes — one of which, argues Anne Applebaum, was Putin himself. She should know: she wrote a major English-language history of the feared Soviet prison system, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Here, she discusses the end of the Empire, the short-lived provisional government, and the motivations and tactics of Lenin, Trotsky, and their fellow insurgents.
Octavian Report: What are the intellectual and sociopolitical roots of revolutionary socialism in Russia? How do they bear fruit in the October Revolution?
Anne Applebaum: There was a long tradition of revolutionary and non-revolutionary socialist ideas in Russia, with socialist movements dating back to the early 19th century. In the 1917 revolution, there were also a lot of different groups who wanted change in Russia: liberals, centrists, people who had their political and economic base in the merchant class and who wanted some form of democracy. There were a wide range of socialists, too: the Social Revolutionaries, who were a peasant-based party, as well as the worker-based parties, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.
That year, there were two revolutions in Russia. There was one in February, which was a spontaneous street revolution provoked by extreme circumstances: the lack of food in the main cities and anger at the war, among other things. Then there was a second revolution in October, led and organized by the Bolsheviks -- a very small, very radical and very extremist group, but the only ones with a concrete plan.
What made it happen? The February Revolution was the result of long-term shifts, as well as bad luck. The long-term causes included profound inequality in Russia plus rapid economic change; the bad luck was the Czar, and the Czarina, and the war. Nicholas II was unusually dim and unusually out of touch with his own country. He resisted all attempts to change the way the country worked, to have a constitutional monarchy, to have a working parliament. He didn't want to give up power. He didn't want to become a constitutional monarch like his wife’s grandmother, Queen Victoria.
He also failed to prevent Russia from entering World War I, a battle which seemed, to the peasants and workers fighting it, pretty pointless. People didn't really know what it was for or why they were fighting. At the same time, the war caused dire food shortages and mass hunger in the cities.
Finally, there was a cultural element. Nowadays we have fake news campaigns, trolls, and bots, but it’s nothing new. The Russian press in Petrograd in 1916 and 1917 was also caught up in tabloid hysteria: ridiculous stories about the royal family, rumors about the Empress, and above all rumors about her relationship with Rasputin, the peasant holy man she had in her entourage.
Rasputin had an extraordinary impact on the royal family, both because he seemed to have an effect on the heir to the throne’s hemophilia and because he reinforced the Czar’s belief in his own legitimacy. Nicholas and Alexandra believed that, although the cities hated them and the media hated them, there were reserves of love and admiration for them in the peasantry. Up until the very end, they believed that the peasantry loved them, that Russia was different from the West and couldn't have a constitutional system. Bolstered by Rasputin, they kept trying to hold on to power right up until the last minute when they abdicated.
OR: What was the provisional government, and why did it lose to the Bolsheviks?
Applebaum: The provisional government was surprised by the Revolution and didn't have a plan. Its leaders didn't understand how to use power, didn’t understand how much people hated the war. Perhaps if they had sued for peace, they might have bought themselves some time. The leader of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, was initially quite popular, and some of his initial instincts were democratic. In the immediate aftermath of the February Revolution, spontaneous, quasi-democratic councils, or soviets, formed in the main cities. There were worker, peasant, and sometimes middle-class councils, but they too were unable to fix the food crisis, fix the bread crisis, or end the war.
Meanwhile, Lenin was in Zurich and Trotsky was in New York. Lenin immediately began plotting to return; he was able to re-enter Russia thanks to the help of the Imperial German government, which arranged for him to cross Germany on a sealed train. The Germans were hoping that he would agitate inside Russia, weaken the Russian state and help end the war. Which is exactly what happened.
At no moment did Lenin ever consider working with the liberal leaders of the provisional government. His immediate reaction to the February Revolution, before he knew anything about what was happening, was: "Kerensky's illegitimate. He has to go." From the beginning he was obsessed with the idea of an extremist coup d'etat, and as soon as he arrived back in Petersburg he began plotting.
The Bolsheviks spent the whole summer planning their coup. If the February Revolution began with a spontaneous street riot, the October Revolution began with a carefully planned street riot. The Bolsheviks and their supporters, who had been very few in the spring but who had grown in number over the summer, surrounded the Winter Palace at a time when they knew the members of the government were meeting and took it over.
In retrospect it's almost absurd how simple it was. They marched into the room. There were minimal guards. The Bolsheviks overpowered them, threw them out, and said, "Right. Now we're in charge."
That, of course, was just the beginning. An extremely bloody and prolonged civil war followed, lasting from 1917 through 1921 and involving a huge range of different groups and people all across the country.
OR: Why did Kerensky fail to create the modern, democratic Russia we are still looking for?
Applebaum: Russia had a very hierarchical state and a very powerful police force -- the secret police force included. He didn’t understand those institutions, couldn’t control them. By contrast, Lenin understood the bureacracy very well. He knew that he had to go department by department, finding allies, figuring out how he could use them. He was also willing -- and don't underestimate the efficacy of this -- to use violence in a way that Kerensky was not.
Starting in 1918, just a few months after taking power, Lenin launched the Red Terror, an attack on his real and perceived enemies. He also oversaw the creation of the Cheka, the precursor of the KGB -- a political police force. It's actually unfair to call them secret police because they weren't secret at that time. They were the armed men in a situation of chaos, and it was their job to take over the most important economic institutions and the most important political institutions of the country.
Russia, at that time, had few big companies, weak institutions, a weak civil society, and a very weak media. The ruling class was tiny, and the middle class was tiny. The working class was uneducated, even illiterate. So was the peasantry. In that atmosphere, extreme violence and extravagant promises went a long way.
OR: Who were the big political and military players in the civil war?
Applebaum: It’s perhaps obvious to say so, but Lenin and Trotsky both really did play outsize roles. Lenin was important both as a tactician and as an ideologue: he was convinced that Marxism was not a philosophy but a science. He transmitted this conviction to his comrades with profound effect. Whenever anything went wrong over the subsequent 70 years, they never blamed their own philosophy. There always had to be some other explanation -- saboteurs were responsible, or spies -- because they were so sure that they were endorsed by history.
Trotsky played an important role in the run-up to the Revolution as a public speaker. He would go from event to event, holding vast, hysterical rallies in theaters and public squares. He gave a famous series of lectures at the Petrograd Circus. At a time when there was no radio and the newspapers were barely functional, this was a way of reaching large numbers of people. Later, of course, Trotsky created and then led the Red Army. The fact that Lenin and Trotsky are the two names we know best isn’t accidental. They really were the two most important revolutionary figures.
Another important person to remember is Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat who was also a believing, almost religious Marxist. Dzerzhinsky created the Cheka, which was initially a paramilitary force loyal directly to him. He deployed it as mini-army against the regime's political enemies; in the archives, I once ran across his little black book, where he wrote down the names of people whom he suspected. Starting in 1918, the Cheka went to people’s houses, arrested them, sometimes shot them on the spot. In the early 1920s, they created the first labor camps of what became the Gulag. Later, the Cheka was called the OGPU, then the NKVD -- and then finally the KGB.
Famously, Josef Stalin did not play a great role in the Revolution. Though there is one incident worth remembering. In 1919, Lenin became paranoid about the food supply in Petrograd and Moscow, and with good reason: bread shortages had caused the February Revolution, after all. Unable to get enough grain into the cities, he sent all of the leading Bolsheviks into the countryside, accompanied by teams of Chekists, and told them to bring back grain. Stalin was sent to Tsaritsyn, where he ran a famously bloody campaign. He arrested the local gentry and other leaders, put them on a raft in the middle of the river and then sank the raft. His team then requisitioned all available grain by force, raided all of the local grain silos, put it on trucks, and sent it to Moscow.
These methods led to a terrible backlash against the Bolsheviks, and in fact the Tsaritsyn episode was the cause of the original bad blood between Stalin and Trotsky (who felt Stalin had caused trouble for the Red Army). But Stalin was so proud of his achievement that he later had Tsaritsyn renamed Stalingrad. Now, of course, it is Volgograd.
There were significant figures on the other side too. The White Army's General Denikin took advantage of the chaos in Ukraine in 1919 and led a march that came within 200 kilometers of Moscow. His great mistake, though, was not to see who his potential allies might be. He refused, for example, to cooperate either with the Poles or with the Ukrainians. A Ukrainian national revolution also took place in 1917, and the Ukrainian national movement fought bitterly against the Bolsheviks. But Denikin was fixated on rebuilding the Russian Empire. Had there been an alliance between the Whites, the Ukrainians, and the Poles (who had won their independence at the end of World War I), then they might have been able to push out the Bolsheviks. Instead, the White generals insisted on trying to recreate the empire, and they lost.
OR: How did the Bolsheviks deal with the various ethnic and religious minorities that populated Russia then?
Applebaum: In order to establish Soviet power, the Bolsheviks set out to destroy all forms of opposition. This included the former leaders of imperial Russia, the tiny group of moderates in the middle class, even other socialists. When I once re-read Western left-wing newspapers from that time, I was surprised to see how much many of them actually opposed the Revolution because of the Bolshevik attack on fraternal social-democratic parties. It's only later on that the Left becomes pro-Soviet. Initially they're very shocked.
But -- as your question implies -- the Bolsheviks also sought to destroy any national or ethnic groups which sought autonomy or a separate identity, whether in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, or eventually the Muslim states in Central Asia.
Sovietization played itself out slightly differently in each one of these territories; the one I know most about is Ukraine, where there were actually three different Bolshevik occupations. The first was very brief and ended quickly. The second one lasted about six months before it was overthrown by a Ukrainian nationalist peasant rebellion -- an incident, by the way, that the Bolsheviks remembered for decades.
Eventually the Bolsheviks conquered Ukraine, but they were so bruised by the battles against the Ukrainians, as well as the Georgians and Central Asian Muslims, that in the 1920's they would try a new tactic. In effect, it was a form of affirmative action. They said to the Ukrainians, "All right, we're going to have a Soviet Ukraine and it's going to be a Ukrainian Ukraine. You can speak the Ukrainian language, and you can have signs in Ukrainian -- but it's still a Soviet state." They did the same in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as Georgia and Armenia. They created national elites under Soviet patronage, so they had to be pro-Communist and they had to stay loyal to Moscow. But they were allowed to have their own language and so on.
This system fell apart by the end of the 1920's, because Stalin worried that instead of Sovietizing the local elites, the system was empowering them. In particular, he was worried about encouraging and increasing Ukrainian nationalism. In the 1930's he changed tactics. To put it bluntly, he murdered the national elites instead. In Ukraine, he organized a mass famine which weakened and undermined the peasantry -- the subject of my newest book. But he also carried out mass arrests of historians, artists, museum curators, and whomever else made up the native-speaking leadership. After that -- and continuing well into the 1950's and 1960's -- they were gradually replaced by Russian-speakers, or interspersed with Russian-speakers. Some semi-fictitious form of national leadership remained in all the republics.
Of course, as we learned in the 1980's, the repression of the national leadership didn't eliminate the national idea forever. In a way, it turned out that Stalin was right to be afraid of the Ukrainian nationalists. He worried that if they revived themselves, then they would break up the Soviet Union -- and that is exactly what happened in 1991, when a newly independent Ukraine refused to remain in a political union with Russia.
OR: Can you talk more about the last years of the USSR?
Applebaum: The USSR ended in part the way it began, with leaders who were reluctant ever to admit that the fundamental tenets of Marxism were wrong. They were always reluctant to admit that the centralization of the economy was a problem, or that collectivization of agriculture had failed. They always searched for scapegoats, “saboteurs” and “spies.”
Gorbachev in that sense was no different. He was faced with a stagnant economy, and he knew that the USSR was falling behind the U.S., particularly in the military area. But initially he refused to blame the problems on Soviet ideology. His first explanation, instead, was alcoholism. As nobody really now remembers, Gorbachev's first act when he became General Secretary was to crack down on the production and sale of alcohol -- everything from tearing up vineyards in Moldova to preventing the sale of vodka. This, by the way, led to a huge black market in vodka-making. Some people even think that the Soviet budget collapsed because it lost the income from alcohol, and shortages were caused because people began buying tons of sugar and making vodka with it.
When the anti-alcohol campaign failed, Gorbachev tried something else: glasnost. He decided that the real problem with the Soviet system was that people weren't telling the truth about the economy, that people were covering up corruption and inefficiency. He was, of course, right: people were afraid to tell the truth about anything. All the language used in public had to be in accordance with the party line. As a result, people were unable to explain, "This factory doesn't work because the head of it, the director, is stealing." Problems couldn't be fixed because there was no honest public debate about them.
What he didn’t understand was that an open public discussion would quickly grow deeper. Conversation about the economy led immediately to a broader discussion of history, including the repression and mass murder of the Stalin years. Rapidly, the debate turned to the terrible mistakes that the USSR made during the war, the history of Gulag, the history of the famines in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Very quickly, that conversation began to discredit the Soviet idea itself. People began to ask why, if the USSR had been so evil, it needed to exist. Within the national republics, alternative elites began forming and demanding independence. The same thing happened in the Soviet satellite states, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. Finally you had the revolutions of 1989 and 1991 -- but that’s another story.
OR: How well or badly do you think the U.S., in its policy posture, handled the breakup? Is there something you think we should have done that we didn't?
Applebaum: The actual breakup of the Soviet Union was handled incredibly well. The fact that it was as peaceful as it was; that Gorbachev was consulting the whole time with President Bush and Jim Baker; all of that was extraordinary. Gorbachev was calling the White House to ask for advice! We had positive influence in that part of the world in a way we never had before and have never had since.
I don't want to give us too much credit, because in a way we had very little to do with what followed. But U.S. diplomats helped stabilize the situation by recognizing the new states as states, putting ambassadors in their capitals, treating the end of the USSR as a normal situation.
But if we handled the breakup well, we were less good at dealing with the subsequent decade. Economic chaos followed the end of the USSR. Much of what had been the KGB and the Soviet ruling class took over the economy and privatized it for its own benefit, creating not a recognizably capitalist economy but something different: an oligarchic economy that really has nothing to do with entrepreneurship or people pulling themselves up with their bootstraps to create their own companies.
The economic system that evolved benefited a small number of rich people, but not ordinary Russians. At that time, we made the mistake of thinking and talking about this new system as if it were “democracy” and “capitalism.” In a real sense, we helped give democracy a bad name. Nowadays, Russians think that democracy means “a few people get to steal everything.” There was no effort to establish rule of law, there was very little education.
Perhaps our ability to affect the situation was always limited, but we shouldn't have given this new Russia our stamp of approval. President Clinton moved quickly to recognize Russia as a “democracy,” even inviting it into the Group of Seven. This was a mistake. We didn't recognize or understand early enough what was happening in Russia.
The second and far more important mistake was our collaboration in the laundering of Russian money. Starting in the 1990's, Russian money stolen from the state began flowing out of the country and into Western banks and other institutions. It was then often sent back to Russia and used by a few people to buy out the state. Our participation thus helped create the corrupt, oligarchic Russian political system that exists today.
OR: To what extent is Vladimir Putin a political inheritor of the Soviets?
Applebaum: Putin describes himself as an inheritor of the USSR. He has called himself a Chekist, after Dzerzhinsky’s old organization. He once mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it the greatest geopolitical crisis of the 20th century. It’s worth noting where he was at the time. He actually missed glasnost and perestroika, the upbeat, optimistic moments of the 1980's and the 1990's. A time of great hope, when people did believe that something could be different and that the system could be less evil and less harmful to people. At that exact moment he was a KGB officer in Dresden. From there, he saw only what looked to him like failure: the German revolution in 1989, the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany. And he experienced this tumultuous period as a personal disaster. He lost his job, his friends in the Stasi lost their jobs. They had to burn all their papers and get out of Dresden fast. They had to abandon their houses quickly. It was a terrible loss and a crisis -- that’s what 1989 meant to Putin.
During the subsequent decade, he rebuilt both his personal wealth and power, as well as the power of the former KGB. It is not accidental that he is surrounded by people who are trained in that system, and that he has re-empowered both the political police and in many ways -- familiar-looking, although adapted for current circumstances -- the political system. The old Leninist ideas about power are still present. Putin still demands the elimination of other political parties, the suppression of critical media, the suppression of any kinds of associations or human rights groups or other activist groups.
Indeed, he sees the world very much in black and white and very much in conspiratorial terms. He still believes, for example, that demonstrators in Moscow in 2011 must have been organized by Hillary Clinton, who was then Secretary of State. He does not believe in any spontaneous activity, or that people participate in politics out of conviction. He sees the world very much as a KGB officer would. His training shows all the time. This is true of many of the people around him as well.
You might say that Putin and his colleagues still see the world much as Lenin saw it. Lenin's worldview was also paranoid, territorial: the only people we trust are insiders. Everybody who doesn't agree with us is an “enemy of the state” or an “agent of foreign influence.” Never a partner in building a better state. There's no such thing as loyal opposition. In that very deep sense, the Russian Revolution lives on.
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Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian. Her most recent book is Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.