Ideals, goals and gripes portrayed in snappy slogans, mass emotions and genuine grievances all sound rather familiar to us in 2017, and one sometimes wishes that politicians were well-versed in history and particularly in the history of the Russian revolution of 100 years ago. How could a movement that desired to overthrow tyranny of the Tsar and bring in the voice of the people so quickly (after a bitter civil war dividing the country and leading to countless deaths) turn into another rule of tyranny? This book tells you in a blow-by-blow description and analysis.
To anyone who has ever sat on a committee, the discussions of the various Soviets, regional, district, city and central committees, factory committees, union committees, provisional government committees, congresses of peasant soviets etc. will be familiar. These discussions include ideals and principles, some overt, some retained as the hidden wealth of covert agendas. Familiar too will be the disagreements, the different points of view and the ideologies, some of which can be ironed out, others which go so deep that no reconciliation is possible, resulting in resignations, walk-outs and sometimes the forming of counter groups and even counter-armies.
Through the fretful passages of resolutions, there were sometimes tinder-dry conflicting ideologies sparking animosity, defections, military skirmishes, coup attempts, imprisonments and assassinations. These assemblies bickered over points of principle or ideology, heated by emotions and convictions and large iron radiators in the stuffy sealed boardrooms in St Petersburg and elsewhere in the depths of a Russian winter.
Geoffrey Swain charts with meticulous accuracy the viewpoints of the important players – Lenin, Trotsky, Kamanev, Lozovsky – and their meetings, resolutions passed, and the results. If there is any detail you want to discover regarding the actions, intentions and meetings of the leaders of the various parties and provisional governments through 1917 you will find it here.
Geoffrey Swain's scholarship is remarkable and he has clearly put his detailed knowledge into this book. It is a 'short history' so the scope cannot include the social effects, how it was perceived by these workers, soldiers, peasants and 'poor peasants' – and this difference is important in Lenin's formulation of 'rulership' – although there are some examples given, such as the laundresses who came out on strike on 1 May (later adopted as a workers' holiday).
But some slogans, effects and disputes have a resounding echo today. One telling example comes when Lenin gets into his 'leadership' stride and orders that grain should be collected from the more affluent peasants at a derisory price and if it was not willingly handed over, they should be branded as 'enemies of the people' and face imprisonment of up to 10 years.
This shows too how easily groups of people can be demonised – such as the 'kulaks', these better-off peasants who Lenin felt displayed 'petit-bourgeois concerns about owning land'. Lenin was determined that the Bolsheviks should not share power with the other strong group, the Socialist Revolutionaries: 'For Lenin, parity of representation was anathema; the Bolsheviks had to lead socialist construction, so the elections to the 5th Congress of Soviets [in July 1918] had to be rigged.'
All this was happening while the country was still embroiled in the first world war. Different factions had opposing ideas about how to remove the country from the field of war, and the terms of a peace treaty. Another example of a contemporary echo is that in November 1917 Ukraine, at the Congress of Soviets in Kiev, showed its desire for independence and formed the 'People's Republic of Ukraine' which negotiated its own peace treaty with the Central Powers.
On 9 January 1918, 'Ukraine had declared itself a fully independent state', but Ukrainian Bolsheviks (backed by Russia) did not recognise this independence and soon a civil war was declared 'which seemed very much like a Russian invasion since Moscow provided the troops and the commander for the forces of the Ukrainian Soviet government'. The Russian-backed forces entered Kiev the following month and although that was not the end of the story as the civil war continued to rage, still Ukraine's independence proved to be brief.
So grain was seized, arrests and imprisonments were made, elections were rigged and then there was the Cheka, the secret police set up by Lenin in December 1917. There's always a reason or rationale given for these organisations being created. Once set up, a body wants to affirm and pursue its existence. We should be careful what we create.
The creation of the Cheka marked the beginning of a regime of terror, and later developed into the KGB in what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Geoffrey Swain brilliantly steers us through the process which turned a real revolution of the people, full of courage, determination, hopes and promises of a more free and egalitarian society into a deeply repressive regime, terrorising, killing and imprisoning untold numbers of its own people.
If you want to read about the effects of the immense confusion that followed in the wake of the October revolution, there are two books I've read recently which give excellent descriptions of individual experiences. Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The White Guard' is a novel, but it draws on his own experience of living in Kiev at the time. Teffi's 'Memories' is an astonishing account of her escape from Moscow to Istanbul. Her crisp, witty prose captures the bizarre atmosphere of rumour and uncertainty against a backdrop of very real danger for the refugees fleeing from the various armies, the White Guards, the Red Army and the Ukrainian Nationalists.