Why Did The Tsar Lose The Support Of The Military – The October Revolution, organized by Vladimir Lenin exactly a century ago, is still relevant today in ways that would have seemed unimaginable when Soviet communism collapsed.
Marxist-Leninism (albeit in the uniquely capitalist-Maoist form) still propels China, the world’s rising hyperpower, even as the same ideology ruins Cuba and Venezuela. Meanwhile, North Korea, a dystopian nuclear-armed Leninist monarchy, terrifies the world. Even more surprisingly, Communism is experiencing a resurgence in democratic Britain: Jeremy Corbyn, that comforting Leninist disguised as a cuddly greybeard, is the most extreme politician ever to lead one of Britain’s two main parties, and he is on his way to power.
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- Could Russia Have Avoided Revolution In 1917?
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- The Death Of The Romanovs: Remembering Them 100 Years On
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Why Did The Tsar Lose The Support Of The Military
But Lenin’s tactics are also making a comeback. He was a sophisticated genius of relentless zero-sum gain, expressed by his phrase “Kto kovo?” – literally: “Who, who?” asking the question of who controls whom and, more importantly, who kills whom. President Trump is in some ways the personification of a new right-wing Bolshevism, where the ends justify the means and acceptable tactics include lies and smears and the exploitation of what Lenin called useful idiots. It’s no coincidence that President Trump’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Bannon, once boasted “I’m a Leninist.”
Could Russia Have Avoided Revolution In 1917?
One hundred years later, as its events continue to resonate and inspire, October 1917 looms as epic, mythic and fascinating. Its effects were so enormous that it seems impossible that it might not have happened as it did.
There was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik revolution. By 1917, the Romanov monarchy was rapidly declining, but its emperors may have saved themselves had they not missed repeated chances to reform. The other absolute monarchies in Europe – the Ottomans, the Habsburgs – fell because they were defeated in the First World War. Would the Romanovs also have fallen if they had survived just one more year to share in the victory of November 1918?
By 1913 the Czar’s secret police had dispersed and defeated the opposition. Just before the fall of the Tsar, Lenin reflected to his wife that revolution “will not happen in our lifetime.” Ultimately, it was a spontaneous, disorganized popular uprising and a crisis of military loyalty that forced Nicholas’ abdication. When that moment came, Lenin was in Zurich, Trotsky in New York and Stalin in Siberia.
Lenin initially thought it was “a hoax”. He was lucky that Germany deployed him as a bacillus (via the so-called sealed train) to take Russia out of the war. Back in Petrograd, Lenin, aided by fellow radicals Trotsky and Stalin, had to overpower wayward Bolshevik comrades who suggested cooperation with the Provisional Government and force them to agree to his plan for a coup. The government should have found and killed him, but failed. He succeeded.
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Even the “storm” of the Winter Palace – reenacted in spectacular 1920 propaganda as a triumph of the people – was no storm at all. Lenin rages as it took days to capture the main government buildings, while the palace itself was taken by climbing through unlocked windows, undefended except for young cadets – followed by a bacchanalia, with drunken Bolsheviks slurping out the Tsar’s Château d’Yquem 1847. of the gutters.
October could have ushered in a short-lived interim, like so many other failed revolutions of that era. Any coordinated attack by White armies, the other side in the Russian Civil War, or any intervention by Western forces would have swept the Bolsheviks away. It all depended on Lenin. He was very nearly overthrown in a coup by rebel coalition partners, but he made his own luck through a combination of ideological passion, ruthless pragmatism, uncontrolled bloodletting and the will to establish a dictatorship. And sometimes he was just lucky: On August 30, 1918, he was shot while addressing a crowd of workers at a Moscow factory. He survived by inches.
If any of these events had prevented Lenin, our own time would be radically different. Without Lenin there would have been no Hitler. Hitler owed much of his rise to the support of conservative elites who feared a Bolshevik revolution on German soil and who believed that he alone could defeat Marxism. And the rest of his radical program was likewise justified by the threat of Leninist revolution. His anti-Semitism, his anti-Slavic plan for Lebensraum and above all the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 were supported by the elite and the people because of the fear of what the Nazis called “Judeo-Bolshevism.”
Without the Russian Revolution of 1917, Hitler would probably have ended up painting postcards in one of the same flophouses where he started. No Lenin, no Hitler – and the 20th century becomes unthinkable. In fact, the very geography of our imagination becomes unimaginable.
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The East would look as different as the West. Mao, who received massive amounts of Soviet aid in the 1940s, would not have conquered China, which may still be ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s family. The inspirations that lit the mountains of Cuba and the jungles of Vietnam would never have been. Kim Jong-un, Stalin’s pantomime pastiche, would not exist. There would have been no Cold War. The tournaments of power would probably have been just as vicious – just different vicious.
The Russian Revolution mobilized a worldwide popular passion based on Marxism-Leninism, fueled by messianic zeal. It was perhaps, after the three Abrahamic religions, the greatest millennial rapture in human history.
The virtuous idealism justified any monstrosity. The Bolsheviks admired the cleansing purges of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror: “A revolution without firing squads is meaningless,” said Lenin. The Bolsheviks created the first professional revolutionaries, the first total police state, the first modern mass mobilization in the name of class war against counter-revolution. Bolshevism was a school of thought, an idiosyncratic culture with an intolerant paranoid outlook obsessed with abstruse Marxist ideology. Their zeal justified the mass killings of all enemies, real and potential, not only by Lenin or Stalin, but also by Mao, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. It also gave birth to slave labor camps, economic disaster and untold psychological damage. (These events are now so long ago that the horrors have been obscured and the history forgotten; a glamorous sheen of power and idealism lingers to intoxicate young voters disenchanted with the bland jolts of liberal capitalism.)
And then there is Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin’s power is enforced by his former colleague the K.G.B. officers, the heirs of Lenin and Stalin’s secret police. Mr. Putin and his regime have adopted the Leninist tactics of “konspiratsia” and “dezinformatsiya”.
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Which has proven to be ideal for today’s technologies. Americans may have invented the Internet, but they saw it (decadently) as a means of making money or (naively) as a magical click to freedom. The Russians, bred on Leninist cynicism, exploited it to undermine American democracy.
Sir. Putin mourned the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, yet he views Lenin as an agent of chaos between two eras of national greatness – the Romanovs before Nicholas II (Peter the Great and Alexander III are favourites) and The glory of the Soviet Union’s superpower under Stalin.
Mr. Putin presents himself as a tsar – and like any tsar, he fears revolution above all else. That is why it is the victory against Germany in 1945, not the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, that is the founding myth of Putinist Russia. Hence the irony that while the West has long discussed the revolution, Russia largely pretends it never happened. Lenin’s marble mausoleum in Red Square must resound with his laughter, because this is precisely the kind of snake political calculation he would have appreciated. Nicholas II and his family in Tobolsk in January 1918 during their period of captivity. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Russia always struggles with its memories of 1917. The current leadership is wary of revisiting a world where anyone with money risked an unpleasant death. It’s just as well that Nicholas II was canonized in 2000. In this centenary year, his story, without all the awkward facts, is safer and has plenty of appeal. No one forgets the princesses and the little dog, Tsarevich bolting upright on his father’s lap. Then come the shots – so many – and the black bloodstains against the grainy image of a basement wall.
With romance of this kind in view, Robert Service has written a timely and important book. The Romanovs are a new interest for this prolific historian, whose usual subjects have been Bolsheviks such as Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. A few years ago, however, Service came across some long-forgotten documents in the archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. They related to an early anti-Bolshevik investigation into the death of the Tsar, and they were convincing enough to send him out in search of more. The story he makes of them may be familiar, but he brings rare clarity and common sense to it. His book is a quick account of the last 16 months of the Tsar’s life; short, sharp, but with well-judged feeling for the dramas of the time.
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