Thursday, November 7, 2013

RUSSIA | Nov. 7–The Bolshevik Revolution

Lenin, a few days before the October Revolution, 1917.
On this day in 1917 -- which was October 25 in the old Russian calendar, so it is called the October Revolution in Russia -- Bolshevik partisans in Petrograd overthrew the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky.

Petrograd was the new name since 1914 of St. Petersburg. The name was changed to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St. Petersburg in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.

Kerensky's interim government, ruling Russia since February 1917, had been authorized by Czar Nicholas II. The Bolsheviks under Lenin formed a new government that would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until 1990.

(In 1990, I participated in a Military Conversion conference in Moscow and we were allowed to stay at the October Hotel in Moscow, previously barred to Westerners and reserved for top Communist Party officials.)

Czar Nicholas II and his family, the Romanovs, had ruled Russia for 300 years. Russia included more than 150 million people and one-sixth of the earth's land. But workers had been restless for decades, back at least to 1825 when 3,000 soldiers rebelled on behalf of greater equality and freeing the serfs. This Decembrist revolt was suppressed by Nicholas I, but its ideals of equality of freedom for serfs endured. In 1905, Nicholas II agreed to reforms.  World War I devastated Russia. Hyper-inflation occurred. Russian casualties during the war were the highest of any nation ever in any war. In March 1917, riots broke out and Nicholas II abdicated, with Kerensky forming a government.

That created a vacuum. Vladimir Lenin saw his opportunity and returned to Russia after a decade in exile in Switzerland. With the slogan "Peace, land, and bread!" he gained popular support for his Bolshevik ("Majority") Party, which grew from 24,000 to 200,000 members. Bolshevik Party leaders agreed that the time was right for an armed uprising. They made their headquarters at the Smolny Institute, which was created as a school for girls from wealthy families.

In "Red October" (November 7 in the Western calendar), Bolsheviks took over post offices, bridges, train stations, government organizations, and the state bank without a single shot being fired. People were ready for a change, and most of the Russian armed forces were fighting in the trenches. At 2 a.m. the next morning, the cruiser Aurora fired a blank shell at the Czar's Winter Palace in Petrograd, to signal that it was time to attack it. The revolutionaries found a few members of the provisional government there and arrested them.

The coup was bloodless and undramatic. Soviet propaganda later changed many facts to make it look more heroic.

Although the Bolshevik Revolution was formed as a democratic overthrow of a despotic czar, it was itself despotic. Lenin's successor Stalin is widely believed to have killed 12 million of his own people to maintain his power and ensure the collectivization of farms in the teeth of resistance by independent farmers, the kulaks.

The Bolsheviks were more successful than the Decembrists at creating equality, but they did it not so much by raising the lowest individual incomes as eliminating independent entrepreneurs who were the key to initiative and responsiveness to markets.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he saw that the be competitive in world markets, Russians needed to be more open (glasnost') and market-oriented (perestroika).  As he succeeded in these goals, Russians decided that Communist Party controls needed to be loosened. This process led to the dissolution of the Soviet Federation.

(Thanks to Garrison Keillor and The Writer's Almanac for the post on which this one is partly based.)