Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Bolshevik Party, a radical political party that split from the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1903. The Bolshevik Party favored a closed party consisting of and run by professional revolutionaries and supported the idea of a dictatorship that would accelerate the transition to socialism. It emphasized the working class, from which it drew much of its support. Lenin was as well the organizer of the October Revolution and the first leader of the Soviet Union. Although he spent most of the early twentieth century living in exile, he was a follower of Marxism; he also believed that once a Communist revolution took place in Russia, Communism would spread rapidly worldwide.
Even though he didn’t participate in the February Revolution, he returned to Russia in April 1917 and devised the October Revolution that turned Russia into a Communist state.1 When Lenin and the Bolsheviks got to power, Russia was in terrible shape economically, politically and socially. So to the Bolsheviks and Lenin, they needed to strengthen their own position in economics, the political situation, their foreign and domestic policy, and socially; therefore, this essay will discuss how they did so.
At the time of the Bolshevik Communist seizure of power in October 1917, Russia had been involved in the First World War for more than three years. The turmoils associated with this major war inevitably produced much economic dislocation and many shortages of essential items, including food, fuel and clothing. Agricultural and Industrial production was down from the levels of 1913. Perhaps a third of Russia’s working horses had been diverted towards direct services associated with the war. The railways were suffering from disrepair and parts shortages. Wartime inflation had seriously eroded the purchasing power of the Russian trouble.
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As social and political conditions developed in Russia, however, there was an increasing tendency towards nationalization of many industries, including Sugar, Oil, the control of Foreign Trade, spices, coffee, clothing materials and matches. This tendency, as institutionalized in a decree of General Nationalization of June 1918, had two main roots; the displacement of those independent workers committees that had gone beyond the Bolsheviks decree of Workers Control of November 1917 to closely supervise the operation of privately owned industry and the establishment of state control in the hope that this would facilitate the Bolshevization of Russia at a time of civil war.
War Communism was coined to refer to what ultimately became a most pervasive system of wartime state control over the productive activity and economic resources that soon grew up more so from the seeming necessities of the times than traditional communist theory. After the Kronstadt revolt, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy. The early stages of the development of this policy contemplated how the peasantry could be encouraged to produce more food for the towns and, in the later stages of planning, was extended towards encouraging economic exchange between town and country and to encouraging industrial production.
As far as the encouragement of agricultural production went, the New Economic Policy accepted that peasants should only suffer the requisition of a graduated proportion of any surplus they produced. It was implied that the remainder of the surplus was eligible to be freely marketed to the producer’s benefit. The return of a free market as countenanced by the New Economic Policy gave rise, before long, to the emergence of a class of wholesalers known as the Nepmen, who soon controlled the majority of retail trade in Russia. Recovery of economic activity in both rural and urban areas and between country and town was thus facilitated. 2
Some historians argue that Lenin introduced the NEP because he was trying to achieve the long-term goals of the revolution. Yet, many believe that he only did that to gain support from different population segments to strengthen his position and become more powerful and in control. After taking power, the Bolsheviks promised to deliver ‘Peace, Bread and Land’ to the beleaguered people of Russia. About the first of these, a ‘Decree on Peace’ (26 October 1917) was dashed off by Lenin, calling upon all belligerents to end the slaughter of World War One. Not that Lenin was a pacifist: rather, he hoped to transform the world war into an international civil war when the ‘imperialist’ powers refused to cease fighting and thereby revealed their rapacious ambitions.
However, the Central Powers responded to the Bolsheviks’ appeal by agreeing to an armistice on the Eastern Front, and Lenin’s lieutenant, Trotsky, found himself in the uncomfortable position, during the winter of 1917-18, of negotiating a separate peace treaty with Imperial Germany and her allies at the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk. This punitive treaty effectively handed over Finland, Poland, the Baltic provinces, Ukraine and Transcaucasia to the Central Powers, with one-third of the old empire’s population, one-third of its agricultural land and three-quarters of its industries.
Outraged by this, the anti-Bolshevik Russians who had remained loyal to the Allies now took up arms in earnest against the Bolsheviks. They were actively assisted by Allied forces in Russia, who hoped to rebuild the Eastern Front. Notable in this regard was the Czechoslovak Legion, a 40,000-strong army made up of former POWs, who in 1918 seized the entire Trans-Siberian Railway, from the Volga to Vladivostok and thus the civil war begun.3 The Bolsheviks (Reds), who controlled Petrograd, Moscow and the central Russian heartland, soon found themselves surrounded by hostile forces (Whites) – made up of the more conservative elements in Russia – who launched a series of campaigns in 1919 that threatened to crush the revolution.
During these campaigns, the whites got to the town of Orel, which is within 250 miles of Moscow and twice reached the outskirts of Petrograd, which meant they presented a real threat to the Reds. The Reds, however, rebuffed these attacks and survived, and by late 1920 had driven the Whites back, causing hundreds of thousands of White soldiers and civilians to emigrate. They were also able to take advantage of internal lines of communication and could utilize the railways, arsenals and the economy of the most populous provinces of the former empire. In this way, they managed to arm, man and maneuver an army that by 1921 had grown to almost five million soldiers.
The Whites, in contrast, never commanded forces totalling more than 250,000 men at one time, were separated from each other by huge distances and were based around the less-developed peripheries of Russia. Also, crucially, the Whites underestimated the Bolsheviks’ capacity to resist, which led to their eventual and terrible loss in the war and resulted in a stronger Bolshevik party. Thus, instead of political freedom increasing after the revolution, the exact opposite happened; in the beginning, the Bolsheviks and Lenin gave people what they wanted, but as time passed and their power increased, they found it easier to oppress people and use their fear to stay in power rather than satisfying their needs and meeting their demands.
They started by attacking their political rivals and intensifying on the socialist ones, especially the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, as they were gaining ground during the strikes and revolts that took place after 1917, which was used as an excuse to arrest many of them in 1921 for “counter-revolution” activities. Later on that year, they became outlawed as political organizations. They then started crushing the peasant revolts, which were staged against the government, and they were dealt with using excessive force; for example, the Tambov region where whole rebel villages were destroyed in the atrocious campaign by the Red Army troops in 1922. 4
The Communists also mounted a fierce attack on the Church, as they viewed it as a rival to their power so; in 1921, the Union of the Militant Godless (UMG) was established to challenge the Church more directly. And in 1922, Churches were stripped out to “help out famine victims,” as the government claimed, and when the people tried to protect their churches violently, clashes took place. Many leaders and priests of Russian Orthodox Churches were imprisoned. Censorship also became a lot more systematic. By 1922, pre-publication censorship was introduced officially on books, articles and poems by creating the Main Administration for Affairs of Literature and Publishing Houses, which had to approve anything written before it was published to the public.
The Cheka (Secret Police) also became official in that year and was renamed the Main Political Administration; they harassed and arrested Nepmen regularly as class enemies to make sure the capitalistic tendencies were kept under control.4 Historiographers on this issue disagree on whether these measures were taken to stop the counter-revolution’s progress or because Lenin and the Bolsheviks felt like they needed to maintain their power and increase it.
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Russian Revolution (1917-1918).” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 04 Feb. 2012.
- “Lenin The New Economic Policy.” Faith vs Reason Debate Spiritual Insights Quotations Quotes Aldous Huxley Perennial Philosophy. Web. 04 Feb. 2012. <http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/history/new_economic_policy.html>.
- Smele, Jonathan. “World Wars: War and Revolution in Russia 1914 – 1921.” BBC.com. Web. 05 Feb. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml>.
- Fiehn, Terry, and Chris Corin. “How Was the Bolsheviks State Consolidated between 1921 and 1924? 7B.” Communist Russia under Lenin and Stalin. London: John Murray, 2002. 113-21. Print.