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Russia’s turbulent century of revolutions, from Lenin to Putin

How five great upheavals, from 1917 to 2017, shaped the country as we know it today.

Russia 1917. That country’s two revolutions – in February to  topple tsarism, and in October bringing the Bolsheviks to power – mesmerised the 20th century and still fascinate us today, in this centenary year. That’s the benefit of anniversaries: they prompt debate in the media about history. Yet often that debate is sharply focused on a brief flashback moment, rather than illuminating the longue durée – history made up of vivid dots instead of continuous lines.

So let’s attempt to join up some of the dots of Russian history, to trace a line from 1917 to 2017. It is very much a story of revolutions (plural) because Russia is a country that has been changed significantly during the course of that century: sometimes violently and very publicly, at other times through quiet revolutions that did not hit the headlines but nevertheless made history. I want to pick out five such moments of Russian upheaval that take us from Lenin to Putin.

British reactions to these “revolutions” are also revealing. In the case of Russia, as with other countries, by looking at “the other” we can learn something about ourselves – just as Edmund Burke, in his 356-page pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), used the turmoil in France to ponder the British political experience. In Brexit Britain, where self-knowledge and historical awareness are woefully lacking, such reflection may be no bad thing.

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The first revolution in 1917 in Russia came as almost a relief for the British government. It suddenly eliminated the embarrassment of fighting for the freedom of France and Belgium hand in hand with the world’s leading autocracy. Britain recognised the new provisional government little more than a week after Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication and welcomed the liberalising project of its leader, Prince Lvov, to reduce the coercive power of the state and promote local self-rule. This all sounded agreeably Gladstonian. But Russia’s new rulers saw themselves in the guise of the French revolutionaries of 1789; the crowds in the streets eagerly adopted the Marseillaise as their anthem, with new words. 

Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, however, was not playing that kind of history game. He envisaged nothing less than a new world. Although the Bolsheviks seized political power in Petrograd on 7-8 November 1917, the country was plunged into a five-year civil war, which cost far more lives through combat, famine and disease than were lost during Russia’s involvement in the First World War from 1914 to 1917 – perhaps ten million, as against two million. And the Bolsheviks never forgot or forgave Western intervention on the side of their foes.

Initially the Allies intervened for military rather than ideological reasons. They sent troops and supplies to support the so-called Whites (a mishmash of competing local warlords) because Lenin and the Reds pulled Russia out of the war and it was vital to maintain an eastern front against Germany as the struggle reached its climax in 1918. Yet keeping Allied troops in Russia in 1919-20, once the war against Germany had ended, was a counter-revolutionary act – and no one was more explicit about this than Winston Churchill.

Although not prone to cite Edmund Burke, Churchill offered a take on the Russian Revolution that was distinctly Burkean – in both its intellectual argument and its florid language. “The essence of their policy is to produce worldwide revolution,” he told the cabinet in May 1920. “They have committed and are committing unspeakable atrocities and are maintaining themselves in power by terrorism on an unprecedented scale.” Churchill asserted that Bolshevism was not a “policy” or even a “creed” but a “disease” and a “pestilence”. His language had a positively orientalist flavour, expostulating about the “foul baboonery” of Bolshevism. After one such tirade in 1919, AJ Balfour, the foreign secretary, told Churchill: “I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth.”

But David Lloyd George, the prime minister, became infuriated with Churchill’s persistent and hyperbolic lobbying for an expensive anti-Bolshevik crusade. On one occasion, he urged Churchill to “throw off this obsession which, if you will forgive me for saying so, is upsetting your balance”. Lloyd George had no compunction about, in Churchill’s phrase, grasping “the hairy paw of the baboon” – in other words, negotiating with the Reds – accepting, unlike Churchill, that communist Russia was a fact of life with which Britain and the West had to live.

In 1921, Lloyd George pushed through a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that was, in effect, a de facto recognition of the regime. His pragmatic policy was continued by Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour governments, which – despite the need to disprove Tory accusations that they were Bolshie wolves in Methodist dress – opened formal diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1924 and again in 1929, after a temporary severance by the Tories. By contrast, the US did not extend diplomatic recognition until 1933, under Franklin Roosevelt.

Ideological hostility v pragmatic acceptance: here were two positions around which British attitudes to the USSR tended to polarise. This contradiction was not surprising, because Moscow was operating a dual foreign policy, institutionalised on the one hand in the foreign ministry (Narkomindel) and on the other in the Comintern (the Third International). By creating a foreign ministry, the new regime recognised that, needing to survive in a largely non-communist world, it would have to play the game of bourgeois diplomacy, at least for the moment. But the Comintern’s role was to exploit any opportunity for global revolution, especially in China, India and other volatile areas under Western rule or influence.

Was one dealing with a “normal” state that accepted the basic international order, or with a “revolutionary” state that sought to undermine that order? This was a recurrent challenge for Britain and the West throughout the Soviet period – and, indeed, after it. Yet there was another way to see the USSR: as a harbinger of modernity.

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It was the historian Robert C Tucker who popularised the idea that Stalin mounted nothing less than a second revolution, this time directed “from above”, which exceeded even the ambition of Lenin’s revolution because it aimed to transform both society and the economy.

But the idea originated from Stalin himself. In a situation of what he called “capitalist encirclement”, the threat of war was one pressure. “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries,” he warned in 1931. “We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it or we shall go under.” A more personal motive was Stalin’s desire to eclipse the heroes of Russia’s past – not just Lenin but also Peter the Great. These were the titans against whom the nondescript little Georgian measured himself in the struggle to etch his name into history. And, as the American scholar Stephen Kotkin has argued in his book Stalin: Paradoxes of Power (2014), the Soviet leader’s brutal campaign of agricultural collectivisation and mass industrialisation was a gratuitous programme of zealotry, imposed by a man who was no mere pragmatist or power-seeker but a passionate believer in revolution.

Certainly the Soviet Union in the 1930s seemed one of the prodigies of the world. This was the decade when, across the Atlantic, boom turned to bust, as the American dream morphed into a depression that was not merely economic but also psychological. The country so recently viewed as the embodiment of modernity now seemed to epitomise the economic and moral failures of capitalism.

Meanwhile, the Russian epic commanded global attention – all the more exciting because the details were often obscure. The centrepieces of Stalin’s revolution were gigantic prestige projects such as the iron and steel complex of Magnitogorsk, the “magnetic mountain” in the Urals, modelled on US Steel’s giant works at Gary, Indiana; and the huge car plant at Gorky on the Volga, which was based on Henry Ford’s factory in Dearborn, Michigan. Such mimesis was ideologically deliberate. Stalin told party workers in 1924, “The combination of Russian revolutionary zeal and American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.”

Foreign fascination with the new revolution was particularly intense among members of the political left, some of whom were unbelievably credulous. Take, for instance, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the grand old couple of British Fabian socialism, who abandoned their philosophy of gradualism in the economic crisis of 1931 when Britain was forced off the gold standard. Likening the struggle between American capitalism and Russian communism to that between Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages for “the soul of Europe”, Beatrice declared: “Without doubt we are on the side of Russia.”

In 1935, the Webbs published Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? – two huge volumes running to 1,100 pages. When the book was reprinted in 1937, they deleted the question mark, confident that Stalin had indeed created a new civilisation characterised by “planned production for community consumption” and a scientific ideology that “rejects every element of the superstition and magic” still pervading the West. Privately, however, the Webbs did have some doubts. In 1937-38, Beatrice pored over reports of the purges and show trials, fearing that Stalin and his clique “may have lost their heads”. In public, she and other fellow travellers kept the faith.

At least, they did so until August 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact exploded many of the international left’s illusions about Stalin and Stalinism. Yet the pact reflects a far more serious illusion on Stalin’s part. Not about Nazism: the Soviet leader knew that conflict with Adolf Hitler was only a matter of time. Stalin’s illusion was about the amount of time he had bought. Instead of triggering a war in the west that tied down Germany, France and Britain for years, Stalin’s devilish pact allowed Hitler to mop up the Western Front in a few weeks in 1940 and then turn east with near impunity in 1941.

The stage was set for perhaps the most tragic upheaval in the history of 20th-century Russia – Hitler’s revolution.

A Russian poster designed in 1970 to celebrate the 1917 revolution. Picture: Rex

The term “Hitler’s revolution” is, of course, tendentious: for most Russians, 1941-45 is still the “Great Patriotic War” – their equivalent of Britain’s “finest hour”. But Hitler’s “surprise attack” on 22 June 1941 was the catalyst for what proved a double-edged revolution – destructive but also potentially liberating.

The destruction was appalling. A precise death toll is impossible to calculate. There were perhaps 27 million “premature deaths” from combat, starvation, disease and mass murder – a figure that represents the loss of a seventh of the USSR’s pre-war population. It is more concrete to say that a larger number of Russians died in the 900-day siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944 (around a million) than the total British and American war dead put together. The enormity of war on the Eastern Front is something that remains difficult to grasp.

There was another side to the story, though. For ordinary Russians, military service represented a huge social upheaval – as it had for the generation of 1914. It opened up new horizons for young men from the countryside – the source of 60 per cent of Soviet military manpower during the war. The mass movement of factories, workers and their families hundreds of miles to new sites east of the Urals – vital to maintain the Soviet industrial base – had a similarly dislocating effect. Intellectuals and artists, even though harnessed to the war effort, were permitted greater cultural freedom than at any time since the early 1920s, and writers such as Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman gained a massive circulation. When the Red Army finally fought its way into Hitler’s Reich, despite the destruction many soldiers were struck by the goods and housing enjoyed by ordinary German worker families within the capitalist system. In all these ways, war mobilisation had the potential for social liberalisation.

After victory, however, the regime was determined to restore control. Stalin was particularly wary of potential “Bonapart­ists”: Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who stole the show in May 1945 on his white horse at the victory parade through Red Square, was packed off to obscurity in Odessa. An official campaign against “cosmopolitanism” was soon in full swing, to root out all internationalist tendencies, backed by renewed propaganda about capitalist “encirclement” and about a new war being prepared by the USSR’s mendacious former allies.

Those allies – Britain and America – never understood Russia’s war. In 1941-43, the epics of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad were front-page news in the West and vivid viewing on the newsreels. Enthusiasm for “our gallant Russian allies” was not merely a leftist passion; it was shared by the whole of Britain’s coalition government, including ardent anti-communists on both the right and the left, from Churchill to Ernest Bevin. In February 1943, the British government sponsored official events across the country to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Red Army. “How times change!” mused Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to Britain, in his diary, noting wryly that this government was led by the same man “who led the crusade against the Bolsheviks” at the end of the Great War. “History has turned full circle.”

It had, and it hadn’t. Churchill remained a visceral anti-communist and his wartime papers are full of warnings about the looming red tide. “It would be a measureless disaster,” he told the Foreign Office in November 1942, “if Russian barbarism overlaid the culture and independence of the ancient states of Europe.”

Yet Churchill also placed remarkable faith in Stalin. The little dictator was someone with whom Churchill felt he could do business – terse, often blunt, but never ranting like Hitler or bombastic in the style of Mussolini.

“If only Stalin and I could meet once a week, there would be no trouble at all,” Churchill told a journalist friend in January 1944. “We get on like a house on fire.” Nasty messages from the Kremlin were blamed on the politburo, the marshals or other shadowy forces; Stalin was seen as a relative moderate, battling hardliners in the “machine”. Churchill’s last private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, lamented: “I have never been able to explain WSC’s remarkable blind spot in judging Stalin.”

Yet this blind spot is emblematic of the general British failure to take seriously Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s war. The enthusiasms of 1941 and 1942 were what one might call tabloid moments – vivid, emotive and crudely labelled. The Russians were now “goodies”, not “baddies”, as they had been in the days of the civil war or the Nazi-Soviet pact. Churchill’s conception of “two Stalins” was his attempt to make some sense of a complex reality, of an ally whose success would help Britain win the war but would also jeopardise the ideals for which the war had been fought.

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Stalin died in 1953. There ensued a succession struggle from which Nikita Khrushchev emerged as principal leader for a decade until he was toppled in 1964. Best known in the West for his programme of “De-Stalinisation” and also his bellicosity over Berlin and Cuba, Khrushchev seems like another cartoon figure – a small, pudgy braggart. But he was complex and volatile, a product and beneficiary of the Stalinist system who was in many ways revolted by it. “Some people are waiting for me to croak in order to resuscitate Stalin and his methods,” he declared in 1962. “This is why, before I die, I want to destroy Stalin and destroy those people, so as to make it impossible to put the clock back.”

On the face of it, Khrushchev failed. His successor as party secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, put the clock back, or at least re-established order and stability. His new nuclear arms race brought the USSR to superficial strategic parity with the US and ushered in an era of détente: relaxation of tension. The cult of Stalin was replaced by the cult of the Great Patriotic War – celebrating the heroism of the Russian people and the resilience of the Soviet system – in which the dictator had his place as war leader. But then, in the 1970s, as the ailing Brezhnev became bloated and immobile, so did the whole Soviet system. The Brezhnev years became known as the “era of stagnation” – the butt of innumerable “Brezhnev jokes”.

One of these imagined various Soviet leaders travelling by train through the vast Russian plains. Suddenly the train comes to a shuddering halt. Stalin cries, “Flog the driver!” The driver is flogged but the train does not move. So Khrushchev gets up and orders: “Rehabilitate the driver!” Rehabilitation duly takes place, but still nothing happens. Then Brezhnev leans forward, drawing the curtains of the compartment and smiling his hooded smile: “Let’s just pretend the train is moving.”

Yet there was another side to Russia’s era of stagnation. As the journalist Martin Walker put it, “The country went through a social revolution while Brezhnev slept.” And this was a revolution that Khrushchev had unleashed. The creation of an urban middle class was, in part, the natural consequence of increasing industrialisation and urbanisation after 1945 – a Europe-wide phenomenon – but in the USSR it came with at least two political twists.

First, there was education. In 1955, less than 3 per cent of the workforce had a university degree; 30 years later, the proportion was 11 per cent. Even more important, most of these people were party members – a card being essential for positions of responsibility – but they were increasingly fed up with the failings of the system.

The second twist is that, to quote the 1970s dissident Leonid Pinsky, millions of people could now “shut their own front door”. Khrushchev’s housing programme was the biggest such project in postwar Europe. It enabled millions of Soviet citizens to move from communal apartments (kommunalka), built around a shared eating area, to single-family flats.

These prefabricated five- or nine-storey apartment blocks, known as Khrushchevki, were supposed to be temporary, but many are still to be seen in Russian cities, disparagingly nicknamed Khrushchoby – or “Khrushchev slums”. Yet they permitted the creation of what has been called a “Soviet personal sphere”. Behind closed doors, around the kitchen table, it was possible for families and friends to engage in relatively safe and free discussion about society and politics. The public glasnost of the 1980s would have been impossible without this earlier, private glasnost.

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By the 1980s, the Soviet system was obviously failing. The West had emerged strongly from the 1970s oil crisis and stagflation, with the new service economy and the PC revolution leading the way.  In the USSR, by contrast, computers were primitive, mostly pirated versions of old IBM mainframes, and the economy was stifled by the rigidities of nationwide five-year economic plans and the voracious appetite of the military. And the country was ruled by a politburo of old men, unwilling and unable to effect radical change even though its members kept dying.

The gerontocratic succession became something of a sick joke. The US vice-president George HW Bush attended the funeral of Brezhnev in November 1982 and then that of Yuri Andropov in February 1984. As Bush left Moscow for home after this second funeral, he joked to staff at the US embassy: “See you again, same time next year!” Bush was wrong – but by only one month. Konstantin Chernenko wheezed his last in March 1985.

Third time round, the politburo finally got the message and jumped a generation. Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 – and was therefore a full 20 years younger than Chernenko. In some ways, Gorbachev was a product of the recent past – of Khrushchev’s silent revolutions in education and housing – like millions of his supporters. But he grew far above those roots into a leader whom his recent biographer William Taubman, in Gorbachev: His Life and Times, rightly calls “exceptional” both as “a Russian ruler and a world statesman”.

A son of the system, Gorbachev exerted all his influence, contacts and persuasive skill to induce the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to vote away its monopoly on power, which Lenin had secured by brute force and civil war 70 years before.

A product of world war and the Cold War, Gorbachev was ready to let the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe go its own way and even to permit East Germany to join West Germany in the interests of a more harmonious continent. Together with Ronald Reagan, another bizarre anti-nuclear peacenik, Gorbachev managed to cut superpower nuclear arsenals and defuse the Cold War.

All this in less than seven years! The debate about what happened and why will reverberate for years to come, but the revolutionary nature of the Gorbachev years is beyond dispute. And so is its predominantly peaceful character, at home and abroad – in total contrast to the revolutions of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler.

Gorbachev’s revolution, unlike that of Lenin, was welcomed in Britain: it seemed like “they” were finally becoming like “us”. Yet there was little deep understanding of what was going on – Gorby was simply a “goody” whereas Stalin had been a “baddy” – and little readiness in the West to offer practical support. After Gorbachev had gone, the British took little interest in 1990s Russia.

Yet the 1990s were a decade of misery for ordinary Russians. By the nadir in 1998, agricultural output was roughly half that of 1990 and the average state pension fell below the official subsistence line.   Used to fixed wages, fixed prices and fixed rents, people suddenly had to face an era of roaring inflation, acute shortages and half-baked privatisation in which a few became super-rich at the expense of the many. Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin (1991-99), was a populist demagogue whose presidency became increasingly mired in corruption and political infighting. Abroad, Russia became a weak reed with American neocons trumpeting a “unipolar world” and even the “end of history”.

Enter, literally on the eve of the millennium, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer- turned-national politician. Putin fits the Burkean stereotype of a Bonapartist figure bringing order after the anarchy of revolution. But in other ways he is a familiar Russian figure, the would-be strong leader determined to shore up the state after an anarchic time of troubles – and also after a decade of deep national humiliation for a proud country with a keen sense of its history.

In certain respects, Putin has succeeded. During his first two four-year terms (from 2000 to 2008), he presided over renewed order and stability. But opposition hardened around the 2012 election, after it had become clear that Putin intended to hang on to power, come what may. Naturally, he won the election – the Kremlin machine ensured that. And one may assume that in 2018 Putin will seek another presidential term, now extended to six years, and will probably win it. If so, he would have held effective power for almost a quarter of a century, from 2000 to 2024.

But the 2012 mass protests gave Putin a shock. The perestroika generation was coming of age – a new middle class of managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. In order to mobilise opposition, they were ready to take to the streets and, crucially, to the internet.

Social media had been quietly transforming urban Russia for several years. Here is the latest phase of glasnost – again rarely noted in Britain. Between 2008 and 2012, internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Today, the proportion is over 70 per cent. Russia has its own versions of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

After the 2012 election, the threat from this “digital democracy” – supposedly fostered and financed by Hillary Clinton’s US state department – became Putin’s obsession. Determined to retain control, he developed a sophisticated system of internet surveillance to contain protest at home and also refined it as an instrument of cyber-warfare to destabilise democratic politics abroad.

As William Taubman observes, “The Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual. Putin strengthened the Russian state by curtailing individual freedoms.” The political emergence of the perestroika generation amid the Facebook revolution might be seen as the next phase of glasnost, challenging Putin’s attempt to reassert the state over society.

Where is this all going? Will a new balance emerge, perhaps in a post-Putin era, between the individual and the state? Or will the size, diversity and deep urban- rural divide of Russia – a country the size of a continent – continue to make strong leaders seem essential? Will Russia continue Putin’s 1920s-style dualism of operating within the international community while also trying to undermine it? Or, after he has gone, will it pick up again the Gorbachevian refrain of universal values and international co-operation?

We shall have to wait and see how Russia’s latest revolution will play out. But it is certainly a story that we in Britain and the West need to watch, not just because Putin’s Russia is a nuclear power with assertive tendencies – so is Donald Trump’s America, and with far less predictability – but because of similarities that we can easily forget.

Russia lies on the edge of heartland Europe, extending nearly 6,000 miles from the Baltic to the Pacific across 11 time zones. With this geopolitical reality comes a historically complex attitude about whether the country looks west or east: to Europe or to Asia. Russia is also still grappling with the legacies of its most profound revolution since 1917 – that triggered by Gorbachev.

Britain has a similarly complex attitude about where it belongs. Are its closest ties with Europe, or with America? Is the Channel wider than the Atlantic? This ambivalence has become more pronounced with Brexit, which divides society and paralyses government. For a country that spent the 20th century observing the upheavals that overwhelmed continental Europe – secure in an often self-satisfied sense of historical continuity – Brexit is a traumatic revolution.

So here are two Janus-faced countries, on the edge of Europe, each facing an uncertain future amid fractious politics. Perhaps we have more in common than the tabloid view of history might suggest.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century” (Simon & Schuster). A version of this article was delivered as the Annual Register’s Edmund Burke lecture at Chatham House

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions