WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The Russian revolution of 1917 was organized by the German government that had sent the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, to Russia in order to form a rebellion and help the Germans win WWI. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The Bolsheviks wanted to conquer the whole world. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The Bolsheviks advocated universal equality. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The Bolsheviks advocated the abolition of the family and the “private possession of women.” Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The two main reasons behind the Bolshevik Revolution were a baby boom and rapid urbanization. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


Soviet Russia was a secular state. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


The Constitution of Soviet Russia guaranteed freedom of speech. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


There was no unemployment in the USSR. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


In Soviet Russia, an illiterate blue collar worker got paid much more than an employee with a higher education. Is this true or false?
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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOVIET RUSSIA?
A HISTORY QUIZ


When the Bolsheviks took power, they had no idea what they should do in order to build socialism. Is this true or false?
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A Big Data Point of View for the Russian Revolution and the Origins of Socialism

The idea of socialism has begun to gain popularity once again. Some people are enthusiastic about it, and some are scared that dreadful socialism is at the door.

My name is Elvira Baryakina. I’m a historian and the author of the Russian Treasures series. I was born in the Soviet Union and spent 20 years researching my country’s past and writing books about it.

Lenin’s Speech at the Red Square in 1919 by Dmitry Nalbandian, 1970

Today, I’d like to share with you an authentic story of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that turned the Russian Empire into the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. It’s a far cry from what they usually teach in school textbooks.

Those who will listen to this lecture to the end will learn how and why Russia gave up everything that made free trade and private ownership possible and chose the way of socialism.

To figure out why the idea of socialism could win the hearts of the common people in Russia, we don’t need to learn the dates and remember the names of the politicians. It’s much more important that we take a look at the demographics, the economic situation, and the social mobility options.

Thus, we’ll learn what bothered the vast majority of people and what kind of solutions they were looking for.

Population Growth in the Russian Empire

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 37.5 million people living in Russia. By 1897, this figure increased to 129 million.

Religious Holiday in Belgorod by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, 1911

In 1913, right before World War I, the population of the Russian Empire was 163 million people. For comparison, there were about 97 million people living in the USA at that time.

The reason behind that incredible baby boom was that on average, a Russian woman gave birth to six or seven children, and during the 19th century, the infant mortality rate decreased significantly due to the improvement of medical care.

The Farmland Issue of Russian Empire

About 86% of the Russian Empire’s population lived in the countryside, so all of those people needed a plot of land to farm. There were many mouths to feed, but there was not enough land available.

One might ask, how was that possible in such a huge country? Couldn’t the peasants just move eastward to the unpopulated Siberia?

No, they couldn’t.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian government tried to make people move to new lands, but it was a complete failure.

First of all, the peasants didn’t want to go. They wanted the land that belonged to their landlords. They never traveled farther than the local fair, and a journey to God knows where didn’t look safe, especially if they had a lot of children to take care of.

Second, there weren’t enough resources to move. At that time, Russian peasants were not just poor but destitute, and the possibility of starvation on the move was real for them.

Third, the Russian Empire didn’t have that much fertile land. Siberia stayed unpopulated because most of its territory was not suitable for farming due to the harsh climate and poor soil, which was only good for conifers.

Besides, there was no infrastructure in these remote provinces: no roads and no markets to sell crops or buy what you need. The peasants didn’t have the means to go through a period of adaptation.

The state couldn’t provide them with all that was needed in a short time, but the problem of overpopulation was already there and demanded immediate action.

Why Were Russian Peasants So Desperately Poor?

There were several reasons behind it:

Crops and Livestock

Most of the Russian population lived in areas where crop production was unreliable. The harsh climate, quality of soil, and short summers did not allow for peasants to grow as many crops as in France, Great Britain, Germany, and other Western European countries.

Cattle could only graze from May to October. This meant that a peasant must make a huge amount of hay for the winter and spend precious summer days providing not for his family but for his cattle.

Making Hay by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, 1909

Take a closer look at the images of the West European and Russian peasants.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

Lunchtime by Sergei Vinogradov, 1890

The Dutch have shoes and belts made of leather, but the Russians have rope belts and birch bark shoes. In Russia, it was expensive to keep livestock, and most of the common people couldn’t afford anything made of leather.

Natural Resources

The wealth of a nation accumulates over centuries, and in order to prosper, people need easy access to metals, coal, and useful minerals. There were plenty of natural resources in Russia, but a lot of them were unexplored at the time, technology didn’t allow for obtaining them, or they were far away from Central Russia where the majority of the population lived.

The quality of the available mineral resources was important. Thus, impure bog iron was Russia’s principal source of iron up until the 18th century when the superior ores of the Ural Mountains became available. But the Ural Region was far away, and the huge distance increased the prices of everything made of iron.

For comparison, in England, quality natural resources such as silver, iron, tin, and lead played an important part within the English economy in the Middle Ages and even earlier.

Trade Routes

In the early modern age, Russia’s main exports were flax, hemp, and lumber, which were used by the European powers to build their ships and fight with each other for colonies and crowns.

Russia also supplied the European nobility with beautiful furs and beeswax for candles before it was substituted by spermaceti wax, which became available in the late 18th century through extensive whaling.

But the good roads were almost non-existent in Central Russia since seasonal rains destroyed all the unpaved roads, and there were no suitable building materials to fix the problem. Central Russia didn’t have mountains, so there were no cheap stones to pave the roads. That is also why the Russian nobility never had castles, and only the Church and the state could afford to build stone forts.

The only reliable trade routes were rivers, but Russian rivers flowed either into the Arctic Ocean with its storms and icebergs or into the seas controlled by other powers. In the south, it was the Ottoman Empire that guarded the entrance into the Mediterranean Sea, and in the north, the Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden.

Russia waged endless wars with its neighbors to get access to the world markets, but even when it succeeded, there was no chance for private merchants to trade with other countries without protection and support from the state. All of this caused major setbacks in foreign trade.

In such circumstances, the only way to make money and accumulate wealth in Russia was to concentrate the resources in one’s hands and centralize commodity dealing. The bigger the enterprise was, the more money it made. Such enterprises were tsars, nobility, and church estates.

Illiteracy

At the beginning of the 20th century, only half of the urban population in Russia could read and write. In the countryside, the literacy rate was anywhere from 10% to 40%, depending on the region. That meant that the average person could not learn anything and was doomed to live in poverty.

For comparison, in the United States in 1910, the literacy rate was 92%.

Sawers by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1913

Youth Bulge

More than half of the Russian population was under 20 years old, and that meant adults had to spend a huge amount of time and effort providing for their offspring. But if children coming of age were a blessing and a family reliance in previous generations, now their perspectives were gloomy at best. The traditional way of living couldn’t support millions of youngsters, and their future was far from certain.

Let’s see what kind of options the average young man had in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

Farming

The number one choice for a young uneducated peasant was being a farmer, but with no land of his own, he could be only a farmworker.

If he inherited land and was lucky enough to collect good crops, what could he do with it? The only option was to sell it to a middleman who would give him the lowest price possible. There was no competition because middlemen didn’t make much money since logistic expenses were high, and in order to stay in business, he had to bribe officials all of the time.

Could a farmer find a better deal and sell his crops by himself? No, because he had no connections, no business experience, no proper papers, and no money to pay dues. In many cases, he had no horse or carriage to transport his commodities. But the main problem was that the only market he could reach was a small town nearby where prices were no better than the middleman’s.

Naturally, there were some exceptions, but there would have to be an incredible amount of luck to break this cycle of poverty.

Сrafts

Maybe a peasant could do crafts? Yes, but only if he could do without expensive tools and supplies.

But even still, he had a problem selling his products.

At that time, factories already produced better and cheaper goods, and in order to compete, a craftsman had to sell his products at the lowest price.

Education and Moving to the City

Could a peasant get an education? Most likely, the answer was “no.” There were few schools in the countryside and even fewer good teachers.

To gain valuable skills, a boy should go to the city, but who could afford to pay for his schooling and accommodations? Again, there were some exceptions, but for millions and millions of boys and girls, even basic literacy was not an option.

If they were brave or desperate enough, they could go to the city and try to find a job. Some of the girls become housemaids, laundresses, or apprentices at sewing workshops. A young man could be a cab driver if he had a horse or could afford to rent one.

Other options were waiting tables or maintaining yards, but the only way to get such a desirable job was through family connections. Most of the boys ended up doing hard work at construction sites or factories.

Three Generations: A.P. Kalganov with His Son and Granddaughter by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky,1910

At the time, the Russian industry grew 5.72% a year. For comparison, the USA grew 5.26%, Germany grew 4.49%, and Great Britain grew 2.11%.

But the working hours were long, conditions were appalling, and the motivation system suggested only fines and beatings. Dust, constant noise, permanent risk of injury, chronic fatigue and fear of being fired wore people out quickly. And the only remedy available was vodka.

At the Old Ural Factory by Boris Ioganson, 1937

Many workers couldn’t afford to bring their families to the city. They lived in barracks with dozens of men per room. Their wives and children stayed in the countryside, and workers rarely had a chance to visit them.

Social Insecurity

Social insecurity was a part of life for workers. It was almost unheard of to beat an employer in court since judges always took the side of the rich.

Fighting for labor rights was not an option either. Taking part in a strike or a political meeting could put one in jail. Sometimes, the police opened fire, leaving dozens dead.

The enterprise owners didn’t even consider making concessions since they believed that compromise was a sign of weakness and would only provoke future strikes.

As a result, the only option young uneducated men saw was violence against their oppressors.

The peasants wanted to take land from the landowners and distribute it amongst themselves.

Workers in the cities wanted fair treatment. They didn’t see that the current management of their factories—let alone the government—was interested in their well-being. So, their solution was to change the leadership and put in charge someone who would be the true defender of workers’ rights.

The Rulers of the Country

Could the working people find common ground with the ruling class? Unfortunately, it was not the case since their interests were utterly different.

Political power in Russia was in the Tsar’s and old aristocracy’s hands. The upper class was incredibly rich and retained an archaic way of life and thinking. Many aristocrats were die-hard Orthodox Christians or mystics. And even if they were concerned with problems of common people, usually they took discrete measures, which didn’t lead anywhere.

Balls, arrangements of family and career matters, and fruitless “spiritual searches”—that was the world the Tsar and the aristocracy lived in.

Ball in the St. Petersburg Nobility Assembly by Dmitry Kardovsky, 1913

But we can’t understand the ruling class’s mindset if we don’t pay attention to the most valuable asset of the epoch—greatness.

The cornerstones of the Russian aristocracy’s ideology were colonialism, nationalism, territorial expansion, and the arms race.

The Russian Empire was a typical colonial power for its time. But if Great Britain, France, and other Great Powers seized territories in America, Africa, and South-East Asia, Russia took over the neighboring states in Central Asia and the Far East. That was how it became so big.

Attack by Surprise by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1871

The Russian aristocrats believed that the more land they grabbed, the more respect they got from those whose opinions mattered—their fellow aristocrats from Western Europe. Greatness was the ultimate prize, and people wanted to kill and die for it. Ridiculously, the greatness of a country was not about the prosperity of its citizens; it was about the military exploits of its leaders.

Welcoming Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra to the Camp at Betheny, 21 September 1901 by Albert Pierre Dawant, 1905

Social Tension

Even though huge masses of young uneducated people did not see any opportunity to improve their lives, the ruling class had nothing to be afraid of. Villagers lived at a great distance from each other, they didn’t have weapons, and they had no sources of reliable information to organize a successful riot that could bring about a regime change. As for workers, there were not enough factories in Russia to provide the rebellion with enough manpower.

However, it was clear that something was in the air. Statesmen, the clergy, educators, and public figures tried to come up with a recipe for overcoming the potential crisis.

The aristocracy, officials, and most of the capitalists preferred to act by force. It seemed to them that the best solution was to intimidate the population and put the instigators in jail. The idea of fixing the things that made people unhappy didn’t enter their minds.

The Church suggested humility and prayer, aka ignoring the problem altogether.

Public figures offered all kinds of programs: “We must relocate the peasants,” “We must provide them with enough financial support so that they can escape from poverty,” “First of all, they need at least an elementary education.”

But all of these proposals did not find support or were bogged down by corruption, red tape, and a lack of reliable information about what was going on in the countryside. Alas, the people who tried to solve the peasants’ problems were completely foreign to them.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a great number of political movements sprang up. People were eager to participate in the governance of their country, but there was simply no mechanism allowing them to take part in the decision making process.

Moreover, the government made everything possible to disfranchise social activists and drive them underground. Naturally, it didn’t bring along any civil peace and just made the opposition bitter and more aggressive.

Denial of Confession by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885

Who Were the Bolsheviks?

The Bolsheviks were one of the numerous underground political parties fighting for workers’ rights. They based their claim to power on the works of a German philosopher, Karl Marx, who foretold that the capitalist system would eventually give way to socialism.

Unlike their counterparts in other socialist parties, the Bolsheviks wanted much more than just introducing fair labor laws or the erasure of social inequality. They dreamed about a world revolution, the abolition of private property, and the transfer of factories and workshops to workers. As we see, that was very much in line with the core desires of the working people.

But for the time being, the Bolsheviks had almost no influence on Russian society. They didn’t have enough resources—both financial and human—and the repressive activities of the state made their progress slow.

But everything changed in 1914 when World War I started.

World War I

The main reasons for Russia entering World War I were the following:

  1. It was a part of the defense alliances that demanded its participation in the war if any of Russia’s allies were under attack. Tsar Nicholas II could not refuse to perform those treaties because Russia borrowed huge amounts of money from France and Great Britain. In August 1914, no one would guess that he would end up waging an endless bloody war he couldn’t afford. Everybody believed that the political crisis would be resolved by a gun and pony show.
  2. The Tsar and his generals remembered too vividly the shame of defeat by the Japanese in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. In the age of racism, it was unbearably humiliating to be beaten by Asians, and the desire to renew the fame and reputation of the Russian Army muted the voices of reason and common sense.
  3. The Russian elite dreamed of conquering Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Turkish Straits that connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea. Religious fanatics saw it as a chance to return the former eastern capital of the Roman Empire to Christians, while state officials hoped to boost Russian trade and, therefore, the income of the state.

Initially, the idea of the war was highly appreciated by the Russian population. Young men believed that it would be like a fun military adventure that would give them the chance to distinguish themselves.

Going to War by Victor Mazurovsky, 1914

To fight for Russia’s greatness sounded like a good idea until individual losses turned into an avalanche of “killed in action” notices. During World War I, 12 million Russian men were under arms. The government drafted them from remote villages, put them on trains, and gave them rifles. That combined with the terrible supply situation and constant military defeats created the ideal conditions for Bolshevik propaganda.

Before, it required tremendous effort to bring their message to a single village. A devoted Bolshevik had to travel many miles on a dirt road to find out that no one actually cared about the world revolution. Or people thought that the Bolshevik program was just wishful thinking and not worth talking about.

Now, socialists of all kinds got audience access in railroad stations where hundreds and thousands of soldiers—anxious and news-hungry—were waiting for their trains. Rumors and new ideas spread like wildfire in the trenches. People wanted to know who was to blame and what they needed to do to fix their situation.

The Bolshevik agitators gave them a simple and easy-to-understand picture of the world that perfectly matched their own views: “The war should be stopped since only aristocrats and capitalists are interested in fighting. Land should be distributed to the peasants who work it, and factories should belong to the workers. All power to the Soviets, aka workers and soldiers councils.”

The more losses the Russian Army suffered, the more popular the Bolshevik ideas got. Up to 1.3 million were killed or missing in action, almost 4 million men were wounded, and more than 2.4 million were prisoners of war.

The high command made one mistake after another, and the situation with army supplies had reached disastrous proportions. Many suppliers believed that the war was a great opportunity to get rich. They delivered boots that fell apart and overcoats made of defective fabrics.

Officers told their soldiers that they should fight for the faith, the Tsar, and the Fatherland, but it looked like the Tsar and the Fatherland didn’t care much about their defendants.

The soldiers began to get sick and often starved.

What are we doing here? many thought. Why should we fight for those bloodsuckers?

The Collapse of the Economy

The Russian economy fell apart. There was a shortage of labor. Since many production processes depended on the physical strength of a healthy man, women couldn’t substitute for drafted workers.

А woman could be a salesperson, a school teacher, or factory worker, but she couldn’t plow a field. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian peasants used almost the same type of plow as in the 15th century, and it was extremely hard physical work. Besides, many horses were mobilized for the needs of the army.

Peasant women still had to take care of their children and keep up with the housework, and with no help from their men, they couldn’t produce enough food even for their own families.

Trying to fix the situation with the food shortage, the government introduced new restrictions on trade that only made things worse. Refugees brought along typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases and created chaos, and transportation collapsed in big cities.

All the imported goods disappeared, from locomotives to tiny screws for eyeglasses. Before the war, no one thought how much stuff was imported to Russia, but now, as almost all of the western border turned into a front line, trade with Europe dried up. This dealt a severe blow to the Russian industry since almost all machines were produced abroad. If something broke down, there were no spare parts.

It took decades to build a modern economy in Russia, and it only took three years of war to destroy it.

Passive Resistance

The revolution started with passive resistance. The soldiers did not want to fight.

If an officer gave them an order to attack the Germans, they just told him to go to hell. What could he do about it? Court-martial the whole company? And if he tried to insist, they just shot him dead: “It’s all the German sniper’s fault.”

The wounded soldiers who got better refused to leave hospitals: “We haven’t recovered yet.” In short, people began to sabotage the war.

Many blamed the Tsar and Tsarina for the military disaster. It seemed that the royal family lost touch with reality, especially after the Tsarina became friends with a half-crazed Siberian mystic, Rasputin.

In February 1917, there were huge demonstrations all over the big cities, and those close to the Tsar politely insisted that he should give up his throne.

The Time Has Stopped by Andrey Romasyukov, 2017

Provisional Government

The Tsar was replaced by a Provisional Government, which should have ruled the country up until the convening of the Constituent Assembly.

The Provisional Government, March 1917

Mass Desertion

Trying to do something to calm the people, the Provisional Government decided to make a grand gesture and announced the abolition of all class privileges. But people heard what they wanted to hear: now it was time to distribute the landlords’ land—even though no one promised it. As soon as the “news” reached the frontline, soldiers left their trenches and headed home.

Defending the Home Village by Mitrofan Grekov

They hijacked trains and made the engine drivers go east, but few soldiers were able to reach their home villages: the locomotives had neither coal nor spare parts.

As a result, by the summer of 1917, huge crowds of armed deserters found themselves in the cities that served as a key gateway for trains arriving from the west. People were hungry, aggressive, and scared and had no clue what to do next. All they wanted was a miracle—something that would help them here and now, or at least promise them relief.

For the Bolsheviks, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. They encouraged the deserters and local workers to organize a militia, the Red Guards, and the councils, the Soviets, that had to take power in the cities. The Soviets declared that power should belong to them since they were the “representatives of the people.” Never mind that there were no legal elections, and the members of the Soviets were those who showed up at the right time and in the right place.

The Soviets were supported by people with rifles who spent three years in the trenches and learned how to kill. But they had neither administrative resources nor a plan of emergency response.

The Bolsheviks and other socialists were the ringleaders in the Soviets. As soon as they started to provide career opportunities for those who were always marginalized during the Tsar’s rule, a lot of people joined them just to get access to the precious resources—food, fuel, information, and weapons. The Bolshevik Party began to overpower other socialist organizations because it was the most radical and all out to win.

A Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev, 1920

The Coup

Both the Provisional Government and the Soviets mutually accused each other of impeding the Constituent Assembly, but neither of them wanted to share political power with it.

Politicians and agitators gave speeches, the headlines were calling all to stand together, but the situation continued to worsen every day. Factories didn’t work because there was no fuel or supplies, the cities were full of soldiers turning into robbers and hooligans, and the countryside turned into a war zone as the peasants attacked the landlords and burned their houses.

The Bolshevik coup, which later became the Great October Socialist Revolution, occurred under the stress of emotions. In Petrograd (which later became Leningrad and then St. Petersburg), a huge number of idle soldiers paralyzed life in the capital city. The Provisional Government couldn’t think of anything better to do than send them back to the front.

Naturally, the Bolsheviks didn’t want to lose their main supporters and did everything possible to prevent this from happening. The Provisional Government decided to arrest the most prominent Bolsheviks, and the leaders of the party faced a simple choice: either they arrested the Provisional Government, or they went to jail.

What happened next was easy to predict. On October 25, 1917, the Red Guards seized the telegraph, telephone, and train stations and stormed the Winter Palace and arrested all of the members of the Provisional Government who didn’t manage to flee.

Storming of the Winter Palace by Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, 1947

After the Bolshevik Coup

The next morning, the Bolsheviks declared they had taken power to ensure that the meeting of the Constituent Assembly would be held as it was promised. They issued a manifesto declaring the following:

  • The war is over.
  • The land goes to the peasants who work it.
  • Factories go to the workers.
  • All power in the country is given to the Soviets.

The crowds in the streets met the manifesto with wild enthusiasm, but in practice, it meant the following: the German troops approached Petrograd, the economy went downhill, and the political power belonged to the most unqualified individuals who had zero experience of running anything but an underground organization.

Building Socialism

But the question of professionalism never bothered the Bolshevik leaders. They believed that after the revolution, everything would work itself out because Karl Marx predicted that socialism would replace capitalism, and that was as sure as the turning of the Earth. The problem was that no one knew what socialism was and how to build it.

But for ordinary people, it sounded familiar. Socialism should be something like heaven on earth. Unfortunately, they didn’t know about the previous attempts to achieve the same goal, and there was no one around to tell them what had happened to the ill-fortuned religious communes in Europe during the Reformation or the Taiping Rebellion in China that ranked as one of the bloodiest wars in human history.

Fantasy by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1925

Fighting the Opposition

But not everyone was happy with the Bolsheviks. Protesting against their actions, the city dwellers declared a general strike, and for several months, nothing worked except for the markets and entertainment venues.

The Bolsheviks treated it as sabotage and fought back the same way the Tsarist government had responded to the Bolsheviks’ protests. Mass arrests and then executions became an everyday reality.

Bolsheviks didn’t differentiate between the former nobility, capitalists, or the members of other socialist parties. According to their beliefs, there could be only two views on developments in Russia: their own and the wrong one.

In order to get funds to run the government and the Red Guards, the Bolsheviks took money from bank safes and robbed the houses of rich people.

The press criticizing the Bolsheviks were destroyed in several steps. First, the new rulers announced a state monopoly on advertising and thereby deprived the opposition press of their money. Then it was announced that printing ink and paper should be delivered only to those print houses that published the newspapers for the workers. The Bolsheviks decided themselves which was which. Soon, the opposition press was completely banned.

The Civil War Begins

The new rulers of Russia believed that the workers in other countries would follow their example, and in a couple of months, there would be a world revolution. However, this did not happen. The Germans continued their advance to the east and had almost reached the outskirts of Petrograd.

The Soviet government was evacuated to Moscow (and from then on it became the Russian capital). The Bolsheviks to negotiate peace, but the Germans agreed to stop their advance only after the Russians promised them vast territories in the western part of the empire.

Many patriots had had enough. The generals of the Tsarist army began negotiations with Allies about loans and supplies for volunteers ready to fight Bolshevism. They called their volunteer corps the White Army and created centers of resistance in the south, Ukraine, Siberia, and the Far East. The former officers and young people came to those centers from all over Russia along with refugees who couldn’t think of living in the “socialist paradise.”

Ice March by Andrey Romasyukov, 2017

Famine and Epidemics

The civil war in Russia was fought against the background of famine and terrible epidemics, which played a significant role in the victory of the Bolsheviks.

In order to defeat capitalism, the new government fought with private entrepreneurs who supplied cities with food. They were labeled as “parasites who suck the blood out of people.” If a man tried to bring a bag of flour from the countryside, he could be arrested or even killed as a profiteer.

Since free markets were closed and prices in the state stores were set, peasants didn’t want to bring food to the cities. Thus, armed militiamen went to villages to take away “surpluses” from peasants. That resulted in bloody fights and only worsened the catastrophic situation. Cities were rapidly losing population—those who didn’t die just scattered in all directions.

In addition, epidemics came one after another. Spanish flu killed about 3 million people, and at least 7.5 million suffered from typhoid, which resulted in 700,000 deaths and long-time complications for survivors, such as ragged nerves, short tempers, and inadequate decision-making skills. This explains a lot when we start to analyze the cruelty of Stalin’s purges later on.

Why Did the Red Army Defeat the White Army?

By 1918, the Russian state was completely destroyed, and then the Reds and the Whites went on a race—who could create new authorities, provide supplies, and eliminate their enemies faster.

The Reds won simply because they had more people living on their territory, more factories, more railways, and more resources.

Tachanka (the horse-drawn machine gun) by Mitrofan Grekov, 1925

The Whites had to deal with the outskirts of the empire where the infrastructure was in poor condition and the population consisted of many different nations, often hostile to Russians.

The Reds created a system where a person’s survival depended on whether he supported the new regime. The civil or military service was the only way to obtain housing and food, so people had to side with the Bolsheviks and help them rebuild the Russian state.

Refugees and strikers were replaced by migrants from the countryside or other regions. They did not know much about their jobs, but they were driven by the feeling that they had a one-of-a-kind chance and should make the most of their opportunity.

White Russia. The Exodus by Dmitry Belyukin, 1992–1994

The number of White Army volunteers was not enough to defeat the Reds, and forceful mobilization resulted in soldiers surrendering to their enemies at the first opportunity.

The Whites couldn’t pay their officers and soldiers, and their supply service went from bad to worse. The Allies, who promised to help the Whites, were exhausted fighting Germany and couldn’t care less about Russia’s civil war. As a result, the Whites received the leftovers from the Mediterranean military bases: the cartridges did not fit Russian rifles, horseshoes were too big for Cossack horses, etc.

Besides that, the Whites couldn’t explain what they were fighting for. It was clear that they fought against the Bolsheviks, but what did they offer instead? Some of the White generals dreamed of restoring the monarchy, others wanted a republic, and some shrugged off any kind of political question: “We are the military, and politics are not our business.”

Sadly, the only idea that united the broad coalition of the Whites was anti-Semitism. Since a lot of the Bolshevik leaders were Jewish, the Whites believed that it was all about their nationality.

As a result, the leaders of the White movement never came to an agreement, and the Reds destroyed their armies one by one.

The Casualties

Russia lost about 10 million people in the civil war, and that far exceeds the casualties in the Great War, which was about 1.8 million. Two million refugees left Russia for good.

The General Pavlov’s Cossacks Frozen to Death by Mitrofan Grekov, 1927

Both sides believed that their enemies—their own countrymen—were no less than the devil’s spawn and deliberately tried to “cleanse the earth of evil.”

What Did the Bolsheviks Build?

The first generation of the Bolsheviks believed that they were liberating the working people. In fact, they just transferred all of the resources of the country to a new aristocracy—the party figures.

As before, the workers and peasants owned nothing since private property was banned. They were just employees working for the new capitalist—the State ruled by the Communist Party.

The Bolsheviks thought that a world revolution was inevitable because their sacred books said so. But it turned out that the “imminent” proletarian uprising could be avoided if a government adopted fair labor laws and made an effort to protect the rights of the working people.

The Bolshevik experiment failed mainly because of the fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. They believed that they would make people happy if they forced them to live in the collectives and share everything.

But even though the people pretended that they were happy to be little cogs in the mighty Soviet machine, they still dreamed of their own houses, and they hated when big bosses told them what to do.

There is a myth that the Soviet government favored the common people. But if we look at other countries from the club of Great Powers of the early 20th century, we will see that many of them achieved labor protection, separate housing, affordable health care, women’s equality, and social guarantees without camps and mass purges.

It turned out that for the sake of progress, it was not necessary to destroy your people on an industrial scale. Moreover, we clearly see that those countries that have not experienced the charms of socialism developed more effectively and lived richer than their neighbors in the same “weight category.”

Promising equality and fraternity to the people, the Bolsheviks did everything to make the public pie small and not enough for everyone. In other words, cooperation and assistance to the neighbors were proclaimed, but in reality, there was a total separation and destruction of horizontal ties.

Therefore, socialism lost out to systems that relied on personal freedom, profitable cooperation for all, and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

The Russian Treasures Series

If you want to learn more about the experiences of people whose lives were affected by the Russian revolution, you can read my Russian Treasures series. It is the story of journalist Klim Rogov, who arrived in Russia just before the beginning of the revolution.

Smart and resourceful, he did everything to survive and save the woman he loved. His view of the world is the true story of the Russian revolution told by an eyewitness who did not belong to any side and tried to look at things as objectively as possible.

RUSSIAN TREASURES

a novel

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★★★★★ "It is the Russian Gone with the Wind, a sweeping novel of love, loss, and survival." —BOOK REVIEW

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