1.  August 1914
assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo precipitated the crisis
that erupted into World War I. Why did this Austrian-Serbian conflict
envelop the whole continent (and beyond)? Was it because of the Alliance
system or were there deeper seated structural problems that boiled over
at this moment?
2.  World War I
War I is often seen as a critical turning point in European and Global
history. But what made WWI so different from previous wars? Was it
simply the enormous casualties resulting from the war, or do other
factors account for its historical significance?
3. The Russian Revolution
Prof. Merriman explains, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in
Russia in November 1917, they were confident this act would provide the
‘spark’ that would set off a string of worker uprisings throughout
Europe.  It is easy to look back and see the shortcomings of this
vision, but in late 1918-early 1919, the plan seemed to be coming to
fruition.  Revolutions and rebellions were flaring up across the
continent.  Why did none of the revolutions take root, and how were the
Bolsheviks able to maintain power in Russia?Revolution in Russia
Page 1 of 6
Russian had a vibrant, if that is the proper word, revolutionary tradition that dated back
to the mid-century. One of the peculiar features of this movement is that Russian
opponents of the tsarist were consistently drawn to the most radical theories and ideas
formulated in the West. Several theories have been offered to explain this: some argue
that this phenomenon reflects a transference of religious energy to the political realm;
some point to the fact that many Russian youth studied in Europe, where they were
prone to see their country as a laboratory; still others focus on Russia’s retarded
political development – the dearth of democratic, consultative institutions gave little
hope to would-be reformers. At least since the late 1870s, political violence was one a
central defining feature. Although none called themselves a “vanguard,” the
revolutionaries were drawn from the educated youth, who saw no hope for reforming
Russia’s autocratic regime. Moreover, they felt it fruitless to educate Russia’s ignorant
peasant masses on political issues. Thus, they settled on a policy of political
assassination, calculating that this would (1) dispel the myth of the all-powerful
government thus (2) unleashing the destructive energy of the masses, who would
sweep the regime from power. In 1881 they succeeded in murdering Tsar Alexander II – but no revolution followed.
The largest revolutionary party in the early 20th century was the Socialist
Revolutionaries. Their radical wing persisted in a campaign of political assassination. (A
recent monograph on them carried the macabre, ironic title “Thou Shalt Kill.”) Their big
prize was the murder of prime minister Petr Stolypin in 1911, perhaps the most able
Russian politician of his time. Stolypin implemented agrarian intended to create a class
of independent, middle class farmers (NOT peasants) who would support the
government. Lenin feared that successful implementation of this policy would extinguish
any chance for revolution in Russia. With Stolypin’s death, there was no longer any will
to push these reforms further, as many conservative politicians liked the idea of
Russia’s peasants being bound to their unproductive collectives.
When speaking of social classes in Russia, it is important to keep in mind how the
peasantry dwarfed all other social categories, comprising about 85% of the population.
When the wave of agrarian rebellions broke out in 1902-3, there was one issue on the
peasants’ agenda: land – they wanted more of it. The working class was relatively small,
but in 1905 it showed how it could effectively it could paralyze Russia’s cities and
transportation. It was the yet smaller educated liberal class that clamored for a
constitution. Tragically, Nicholas II feared the liberals more than he did the peasants
and workers.
As fitting for someone raised in an environment given to extremist ideas, Lenin
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Revolution in Russia
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formulated a radical interpretation of Marx. Recall that Marx’s prescription for communist
revolution assumed a society in the advanced stages of capitalist, industrial
development. Although Lenin shared Marx’s class-based world view, he clashed with
fellow Marxists over the prospects for a communist revolution in Russia. He was singleminded in the view that it was the party’s task to prepare for revolution at the earliest
possible opportunity. His opponents argued that because Russia was only in the earliest
stages of capitalist development, that it was not ready for a communist revolution, that a
communist revolution would most likely occur first in Western Europe. Lenin countered
that the prospects for revolution were best at capitalism’s weakest link, and that workers
in the West would be inspired by Russia’s example.
Lenin was definitely in accord with Marxist dogma that communism would be achieved
through a violent revolution. One of the targets of What is to be Done? was the
“revisionist socialism” of Bernstein, who argued that the example of the social legislation
in the German Empire showed that true reform could come from parliamentary
democracy. Lenin would have none of this.
Lenin caused a split among Russia’s socialists at their second party congress in 1903
when, by the slimmest of margins, the party adopted the program that Lenin had laid out
in What is to be done?, i.e., a model for the party as a “vanguard” of professional
revolutionaries, as opposed to a mass party of workers. Lenin seized on this, calling his
faction the “Bolsheviks,” or members of the majority, even though this majority was
ephemeral. In fact, he only achieved a majority because the members of the Jewish
Bund had boycotted the final vote — and it is most likely that Lenin fomented the scandal
that caused the Bund to leave. From 1903 to 1917, Lenin and his followers were a
distinct minority within the socialist movement.
As Professor Merriman points out, the idea of a Marxist revolution taking place in
Russia struck many as ironic. Marx formulated a precise vision of history that was
grounded in economic relationships. He argued that the pretty much all political theory
was simply a justification for the economic dominance of a particular social class, with
class being defined by your relationship to the economic process. In the 19th century
Marx argued that the bourgeoisie, i.e., factory owners and financiers, had already
replaced the landed aristocracy as the dominant class. He predicted that the
bourgeoisie would inevitably be toppled by the proletariat, i.e., the industrial working
We can see the flaws of Marx’s prediction, but nonetheless, Lenin considered himself a
strict adherent. Lenin battled with his fellow Russian socialists of how this should be
applied to Russia. Many, the majority, held that the working class was too small to even
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Revolution in Russia
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consider the possibility of a socialist revolution; rather, they should wait until Russia
became more industrialized and socialists could create a mass party. Lenin countered
that in the absence of a large working class it was the duty of committed, conscious
revolutionaries to press the cause of revolution. Moreover, Lenin argued that capitalism
was an international, not a national system, so when one link in that system fell it was
likely that the proletariat in the more economically advanced states would follow suit.
Again, we can see the flaw in his prediction, but it helps explain why many Russian
socialists bitterly opposed the Bolshevik revolution.
Vladimir Lenin saw World War I as the result of a crisis of capitalism. During the 19th
century, capitalist states had avoided revolution by shifting the onus of capitalism from
their native working classes to the colonies. But by the early 20th century, when the
capitalist states had already claimed most of the Southern hemisphere, even the
colonies had ceased to reap the windfall profits, which caused the European powers,
the center of global capital, to turn against each other. At the outset of the war, as
socialists across Europe joined in the patriotic euphoria of their respective nations,
Lenin objected that it was the duty of socialists to “turn the capitalist war into a
revolutionary war.” When Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in
November 1917, they were confident this act would provide the ‘spark’ that would set off
a string of worker uprisings throughout Europe.
It is easy to look back and see the shortcomings of this vision, but in late 1918-early
1919, the plan seemed to be coming to fruition. Revolutions and rebellions were flaring
up across the continent. A Bolshevik-style government held power in Hungary for
several months. And the political elite in West Europe overtly feared the spread of
revolution. But this movement fizzled out as the war ended and those who were lucky
to be left alive were more concerned with trying to restore their old lives than with
While the October Revolution had its own drama, as a formative event, it is probably
more important to look at the ensuing Russian Civil War. As soon as the Bolsheviks
took control of St. Petersburg, many conservative figures and Imperial military officials,
who did not recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet state, began to gather in border
areas, probably anticipating that the Bolsheviks would crash and burn as leaders of the
state. There was no single incident or event that clearly marks the outset of the Civil
War. One might point to the Bolsheviks’ forcible dismissal of the Constituent Assembly
in January 1918. There were the assassinations, and assassination attempts (even on
Lenin himself!), but these were generally the work of left wing opponents of the
Bolsheviks. Serious large scale fighting broke out in the spring of 1918, when a large
contingent of Czech and Slovak prisoners of war who had been interned in Siberia were
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Revolution in Russia
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impeded as they tried to make their way back to their newly independent homeland.
The Civil War is generally characterized as having two distinct sides, the Reds (the
Bolsheviks) and the Whites (basically everyone who was against the Bolsheviks), but
this clear delineation is misleading. Whites was the term the Bolsheviks used to
describe all their opponents, but there was no one organized movement against them.
Basically four different makeshift armies emerged to challenge the Bolsheviks. One was
actually successful in defending Finnish independence. The other three, led,
respectively, by Gen. Yudenich in the Northwest, Adm. Kolchak in the East, and Gen.
Denikin in the South, established overthrowing the Bolsheviks as their goal. Given the
immensity of Russia, there was virtually no communication between these three groups,
even had they wanted to cooperate. The high point militarily of the White movement
came in late summer/early fall 1919, when all three armies were advancing, but once
their advance was halted, they were soon thrown into full retreat. All political and
ideological issues aside, the Whites were unable to overcome the Bolsheviks’ basic
logistic advantage of controlling the center, which included the old tsarist munitions
factories and, most importantly, the railroads. To further complicate the issue, this only
refers to the Russian sector of fighting. The Bolsheviks also had to put down nationalist
movements in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Ukraine. The White armies never
articulated any positive political goals on how they intended to wield power. They were
dominated by arch conservative generals whose only tangible goal was to restore the
Romanovs to the throne. They were equally hostile to Russian liberals as they were to
the Bolsheviks. Had their fortunes been different and the Whites combined to overthrow
the Bolsheviks, the result probably would have been a right wing dictatorship prepared
to use violence against its own population as opposed to a left wing dictatorship
prepared to use violence against its own population.
The Russian Civil War featured a level of barbarity that had not been seen on the
Continent for some time. The southern and eastern fronts fluctuated greatly. Whenever
one side occupied a town, there were almost instant mass executions carried out
against perceived class enemies: the Whites would string up anyone with calloused
hands; the Reds, anyone who wore glasses. The Bolsheviks proudly pointed to their
atrocities as the vigilant hand of the “Red Terror;” the Whites were more circumspect,
but just as vicious.
Besides their logistic advantage, the Reds also benefitted from Leon Trotsky’s inspired
leadership. One of Trotsky’s most important decisions was to allow thousands of officers
from the old Imperial army to serve in the Red Army. This was considered heretical by
many hard core Bolsheviks, who assumed that these officers would not have the proper
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Revolution in Russia
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revolutionary enthusiasm, and might actually sabotage the Bolshevik effort. Trotsky, on
the other hand, understood that in an age of modern warfare that technical skill was
perhaps more important than revolutionary élan in executing a war. To compromise, the
Red Army created a new position of the commissar, to be attached to every unit. We
can think of the commissar as half spy and half morale officer; he was supposed to
insure that the military commander was not undermining the war effort and to try to
supply the troops with a minimal level of political education. Several times during the
war Trotsky had bitter clashes with Stalin over the relative authority of the military
officers (backed by Trotsky) and the commissars (backed by Stalin).
To prosecute the Civil War, the Bolsheviks implemented an economic policy of absolute
state control that was called “War Communism.” Some have suggested that German
state policy during WWI was the model. The money economy was outlawed; all goods
were to be distributed under state direction. Though this meant hardship for many
sectors of the population, it often brought the Bolshevik state into direct conflict with the
peasantry, the largest sector of the population. Recall that one of Lenin’s first directives
was to declare all land to the peasants, which fulfilled the one and only political goal of
Russia’s peasants. Under War Communism, peasants were no longer able to sell their
surplus product on the free market, so they responded in classic peasant fashion by
literally eating their surplus or by simply cultivating less acreage. This posed a crisis for
the Bolsheviks in their urban strongholds who needed to feed workers and an army.
They soon dispatched armed patrols to confiscate grain from the peasants, which often
provoked armed resistance on the part of the peasants. This has caused some
historians to describe a third side, the Greens, in the Civil War. At times entire provinces
were in rebellion against the Bolsheviks, but these peasant bands were never able to
organize into a collective mass capable of challenging the Red Army. (To show how
politically tone deaf they were, the White armies proved entirely incapable of exploiting
this peasant discontent, as their land policy consisted of returning all land to the pre
1917 owners.) This aspect of the war set a portentous precedent in terms of the
Bolsheviks turning arms on their own citizens.
These harsh policies, particularly against the peasants, caused disillusionment among
some of the Bolsheviks’ most hardcore supporters. In 1921, after all the White armies
had been dispensed with, a mutiny broke out on the Kronstadt naval base in St.
Petersburg. Sailors from Kronstadt had been among the vanguard troops when the
Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, but by 1921, they rose up under the slogan
“We are for Soviet Power, but against the Bolsheviks!” With little attempt to negotiate
any settlement, the Bolsheviks simply crushed the rebellion. Many Western socialists, in
the early revolutionary period and later in the century, were enamored with the Soviet
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Revolution in Russia
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Union as a noble experiment. The point when socialists would give up these illusions
was often figuratively referred to as “my Kronstadt.”
Soon after Kronstadt, with the political monopoly of the Bolsheviks secured, Lenin called
for disbanding the system of War Communism and reviving the free market, at least on
a limited basis, in what was called the New Economic Policy, or NEP. This was bitterly
opposed by many Bolsheviks, who had seen in War Communism, with its rigid state
control, as a model for how Soviet society should be organized. This struggle between
hard line and “moderate” Bolsheviks would be an underlying factor in the political
struggles that emerged following Lenin’s death in 1924.
I wanted to present this review of the Civil War to give you some background on the
formative period of the Soviet state. Many have justly castigated the Bolsheviks for
dispensing with all Western standards of legality and for their propensity for violence.
But at the same time, it was not as if they simply unleashed the coercive power of the
state on a pliant population. Some historians have argued that at least part of the
oppressive nature of the Soviet state, right up to its demise in 1991, is better explained
by the fact that the early leadership never stopped fighting the Civil War than by their
©Paul Heineman – All Rights Reserved

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