The purpose of this writing is twofold. In addition to demonstrating where and when Communism disintegrated in the Soviet Union, I have illustrated how historical occurrences play a significant role in current events; generally, I have made apparent either historical precedents, causation, or general trends. It is always good to think about history in those terms; but this paper in particular focuses on the positive force of the past on the present. Without further ado, then:
In Soviet Russia, Communism Fails You
In all the details of life, Russia has made a great stride towards capitalism. Wages are paid in money instead of rations, industry must support itself without drawing from the government funds, shops of private trade are open everywhere, newspapers are full of advertisements, sables and diamonds of "speculators" appear in theatres and cafes, and the new-rich secure apartments of several rooms, while ordinary folk crowd into small bare quarters...Foreign businessmen came in to negotiate for concessions. They declared cheerfully that there was no communism left, nothing but a few temporary hang-overs in the way of government interference with foreign trade. Foreign correspondents and relief workers agreed; Russia was tired of communism, they said; it had failed; she had made the first step towards capitalism and was going back to "normalcy" as fast as possible. (Strong)
It is generally accepted that Communism officially ended in Russia in 1991. However, Anna Louise Strong, writing in 1925, was not simply a precocious prophet of the downfall of socialism. In fact, she admired the collectivist spirit of the Russian Revolution and of the USSR; she describes this new nation as "the only place in the world where I get a feeling of hope and a plan" (Strong). But this plan, Lenin's New Economic Policy, and its successors the Five-Year Plans, were only superficially Communist. This Russian wavering between free-market and planned economies has persisted through time and regimes; in the final round of Russia's 1996 Presidential election, Boris Yeltsin received 54% of the people's votes while the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, drew a sizable 40% (Belonuchkin). Despite a deviation from the original goal, developments in the Russian Communist movement of the first half of the twentieth century greatly foreshadowed those up to the present day.
A Socialist Explosion in (Western) Europe
The year 1848 saw many short-lived revolutions spread throughout Europe. In this same year, a more subtle intellectual revolution had a quiet birth as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels released their "Communist Manifesto." This promising program gave a stark condemnation of modern capitalism and laid out a bold proposal for a scientific alternative. This scientific socialism, which Marx would later define and defend in terms of Hegelian thesis and antithesis in his monumental Das Kapital, consisted of a workers' utopia, in which the lowest and most numerous class, the proletariat, would overthrow the nobles and the factory owners who comprised the upper class and the bourgeoisie. Socialism met a strong, favorable reception in Europe; egalitarian social movements were attractive to the poor, who comprised the largest stratum of society in most European nations. Although Marx and Engels wrote in England and western Europe, their ideas had a strong impact on European politics. They founded the first significant international workers' movement, creatively named the "First International," in 1864, and the later, more influential "Second International" in 1889. These organizations advocated workers' rights on an unprecedented scale and heralded the beginning of an era of social reform in which they played a role as, if not direct actors, powerful catalysts. European socialism had its roots elsewhere, but its growth was bolstered by the voice of Communism. Marx and Engels' arguments were so incisive that they inspired either vocal adherents or vocal resistance; and resistance ultimately necessitated an acceptance of basic Communist principles. A powerful example is present in German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's 1884 adoption of socialized medicine, which he reluctantly embraced in an attempt to stop the Communist party; under similar pressures, Britain eventually followed suit with increasingly socialist medical reforms (Smoot). Enhancements to voting rights culminated in universal suffrage measures for the state of Wyoming on 1890, all of the United States of America in 1920, and Britain in 1928, all under pressure from socialist groups. Bare Communism itself thus had a powerful effect on the West.
Russia is Revolting
Russia developed its communism in a unique manner. Because it was largely unindustrialized until 1890, Communists did not consider it the prime location for the development of a powerful proletariat. However, it was this backwardness that produced an irritated peasant class, ripe for revolt. In 1861, following the Russian defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II issued an Emancipation Proclamation which aimed to modernize Russia by freeing the serfs. However, while the substitution of capitalism for feudalism was a successful economic move, it did little to improve the financial situation of the ex-serfs as it gave them no land. Consequently, "70% of ex-serfs didn't own enough land to feed their families" (Appignanesi 16) and many former serfs became the "working poor" in factories. Unfortunately, a similar situation has arisen under modern Russian capitalism: 2000 average incomes were 36% of what they were in 1990, and average wages dropped from 281% of the subsistence level in 1992 to 158% of that in 1999 (Gruat et al., 2). The key difference between present-day Russia and the past is that then, revolutionary movements had no outlet for expression; under the autocratic regime, a Communist organization could not be founded openly and so secret societies came into existence. The first of these was the idealistic but unsuccessful Narodnik movement, which encouraged its members to "go to the people" and had thousands of intellectuals go to live with peasants in an effort to stir them to revolution; unfortunately, the conservative and reactionary peasantry was unresponsive and in 1874 many of these intellectuals were arrested. The next movements to develop were less passive; terrorists struck at government officials in a desperate attempt to be heard, and these terrorist attacks culminated in the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Terrorism remains the last recourse of the desperate in society today, but it often backfires; Alexander III had an understandably dim view of the Russian people after his father's assassination, and "by 1884, arrests, exile, and executions destroyed the small number of Narodovolsti terrorists" (Appignaenesi 22).
In Bolshevik-Time, in Bolshevik-Time, in Bolshevik-Time
Sasha Ulyanov was one of such a band of terrorists, discovered and executed in 1887 for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Alexander III. His younger brother, Vladimir Ulyanov (later Lenin), became an active Marxist and gradually rose to prominence among Russian intellectuals. Socialism flowered in Russia among disenchanted intellectuals who rejected the Narodniks' now more radical leftist stance, and the bourgeoisie and proletariat for a while joined together to pursue their mutual goal of progress. Soon, in 1903, this socialist organization split; Lenin's faction, the majority (in Russian, "Bolshevik") triumphed over the minority ("Menshevik") in its assertion that a core of revolutionaries rather than the people as a whole would be the leaders of the revolution which Marx foretold. Following the 1905 Russian loss in the Russo-Japanese War, starving and oppressed workers staged a strike and, following the "Bloody Sunday" on which Soviet troops fired on protestors, these workers attempted a revolution. After the bourgeoisie withdrew their support, the rebellion was a total failure. Pyotr Stolypin ran Russia from 1906 to 1911; he issued agrarian reforms which replaced communal farming with kulaks, individual peasant farms which were theoretically more conservative, and electoral reforms which reduced the voice of the peasantry in the Russian Parliament ("Duma"). Internal dissent forced the Russian socialist movement into a strategy of Fabian reform which sought to work within the Duma to effect change; Lenin left Russia in 1907 and did not return for a decade. After Stolypin's assassination in 1911, the Bolsheviks regrouped and founded Pravda ("Truth"), a revolutionary newspaper. But their work was interrupted by World War I, on account of which the Second International briefly disintegrated as nationalist interests took hold. Avoiding the war, Lenin spent 1915 and 1916 in Switzerland writing Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which argued that imperialist wars such as the current Great War were an inevitable result of greedy, expansionist capitalism. This argument is still a strong one; today, detractors level it against the United States in the contention that imperialist and capitalist desires for oil and prestige have fueled past wars and fuel the recent war against Iraq. The solution offered by Lenin would be unpalatable today and saw little acceptance from his fellow socialists; he proposed a "revolutionary defeatism," under which "workers of all countries can only gain from the defeat of their ‘own' countries," since "defeat makes it easier to turn the world war into civil war between hostile classes – and make it a world-wide revolution" (Appignanesi 118). This pacifism would emerge again in Stalin's non-aggression pact with Hitler; the typically Communist perception of the class war as the only worthwhile one has gradually fallen out of favor as political representation has increased.
Russian Revolutions, Allegro
While Lenin and other party leaders were developing theories as to the nature of war, the Russian people expressed their distaste more openly. The tsar's crackpot-mystic advisor, Rasputin, was assassinated in December 1916, and February 1917 saw a successful rebellion with minimal opposition. By March a new provisional government, staffed by Mensheviks, had taken power and, acting in bourgeoisie interests, expressed tentative support for the war. Most socialists were satisfied with the provisional government, but its bourgeoisie-friendly composition meant that reforms were slow and halfheartedly implemented. Frustrated and disgusted by the ineffectual government, Lenin contracted with the German government to allow him safe passage from Switzerland through Germany into Russian Finland in a sealed train. There he presented his own plan of revolution, the April Theses, which denounced the provisional government as capitalist-minded and advocated an immediate movement to government by the proletariat; these theses formed the basis of Marxism-Leninism, as for Lenin, the role of the bourgeoisie was now finished and a proletariat revolution could be effected immediately. It was not. In fact, in July, the Bolsheviks rebelled against the government and were brutally suppressed; Lenin hid himself to avoid imprisonment. After attempts to reconcile peacefully, Lenin collaborated with Leon Trotsky to carry out a coup d'état; and this October Revolution was successful. Lenin had promised "Peace, bread, and land," and he accomplished the first of these goals with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ceding to Germany 930,000 square kilometers of land containing 56 million Russian citizens and half of Russian industry (Avalon). The latter two goals were more difficult to meet, for Russia (renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922) faced a civil war from 1918 to 1921. The "Whites," counterrevolutionaries reinforced by armies of the Western, Allied forces who had waged World War I against Germany, waged bitter war against the Communists. Leon Trotsky proved an able military leader and he led the new Russian "Red Army" into a nearly Pyrrhic victory which consumed many good Communists. Meanwhile, 1919 had seen the formation of Third (Communist) International, which fulfilled its name in promoting international cooperation towards Communist goals. Chapters were formed in many Western countries, and Communists there exerted political pressure for social reform. The American Communist Party, formed in 1919, today remains a vociferous agitator for socialist reforms, which include equal rights, environmental protection, the abolition of capital punishment, a living wage, world peace, and international Communist unity (CPUSA). 1920s Russia also sought to achieve Communist unity, but its institution of choice for eliminating anti-Communists was the "Red Terror," run by the newly formed secret police, the Cheka. The head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, chillingly justified his organization's movement in a Soviet newspaper:
We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. (Spartacus)
Soviet Expurgatory Indulgences
Though the word "purge" is most often associated with "Stalin," it was under Lenin's direction that Russia first instituted execution and exile of undesirable citizens. Almost certainly, however, Lenin's precedent gave Stalin inspiration for his untenable acts of genocide, and they chillingly foreshadow the actions of Hitler, Mao, and other oppressive dictators in recent history. However, the present kind of "purge" the Russian administration condones is political, not violent; for instance, in 2001 Vladimir Putin "purged" the Russian navy by demoting three navy commanders and firing eight admirals as punishment for their ineptitude in the Kursk incident (Johnson). In 1921, on the other hand, the Kronstadt mutiny illustrated the new Russian emphasis on national security over the satisfaction of the people emerges. Demanding reform, residents of the island of Kronstadt who had fought in the Great War and were dissatisfied by the continued "total war" economics of the Russian Civil War staged a revolt in March 5. By March 18, the revolt had been quashed by Trotsky and the military leader Tukhachevsky, who marched soldiers over the ice between Kronstadt and the mainland to fight; over 500 sailors were executed and the people put in their proper place.
Oops! There Goes Communism!
It is thus somewhat ironic that Lenin's greatest concession to the people was first introduced to the Congress only a few weeks later, in the middle of March 1921. Lenin's "New Economic Policy" augured his final departure from Marxist principles and a regressive step towards private industry. The NEP "put a stop to grain requisitions," under which the government had been taking grain from the peasants to feed the armies; it "instituted free trade in grain, concessions to foreign capitalists, tolerance towards small traders and even small-scale industries"; it was, indeed, "the economic equivalent of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty" (Appignanesi 163). Through the NEP, Russia achieved economic and political stability at the cost of philosophical integrity as a Communist nation. This state-controlled economy was Communist but not populist, for the Communist Party in Russia was led by the Politburo, a small gathering of the ruling elite. Nonetheless, industrialization continued under the NEP; Russian factories adopted scientific methods of industry. Although always the Russian government had final say on the workings of the economy, these concessions to private industry set an important precedent: "NEP...inspired plans for economic reform in Poland and Hungary in the late 1950s and and early 1960s; in the USSR under Nikita S. Khruschev in the early 1960s, and under Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the late 1980s. It also inspired some of the reforms carried out in Red China by Deng Xsiao Ping in the 1980s and after" (Cienciala).
Anna Louise Strong may have been an early doomsayer of Soviet economic policy; in fact, she strongly believed that the period of capitalism would be fueled by necessity alone. But her testimony to this effect and her observation on the Russian political climate in 1925 perfectly encapsulate the future of Russian Communism:
It is admitted on all sides; there is no communism in Russia. But the Communists go farther. They say there never was any communism. They say they are farther on the road towards it than ever before; that they are going towards it step by step through the decades. They say that the equal sharing and sacrifice that marked the dark days of war and famine was not communism at all, but merely the necessary war tactics of a besieged city. (Strong)
This political mentality meant that the Soviet people would be subjected to "temporary measures", expedients designed to facilitate the growth of a Communist state, which often only emphasized the growth of the state itself. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin instead of Trotsky took control of the government; his "Five-Year Plans" coupled with self-serving acts of genocide meant that, not for the first nor the last time, a supposedly democratic regime contradictorily turned against its own people. It was self-interest rather than Communist ideology which made the USSR occupy surrounding nations during and after World War II, and it was petty-minded nationalism which allowed Stalin's government of personality to continue and to establish the Cold War. Stalin's successor Georgi Malenkov did much to make the Soviet Union a bureaucratic rather than personal regime but in no way clarified the role of Communism in Russia. His successor Nikolai Bukanin further depersonalized the regime from 1955 to 1958, and Nikita Khrushchev continued the process with his anti-Stalinist message, but Khrushchev continued the pseudo-Communism of previous years, supported only state-sponsored science, and attempted to maintain international power instead of recognizing Lenin's defeatist pacifism. The rejection of Lenin's pacifism for the deadly instability of détente demonstrated that Marx's original point had been lost, and the continuance of an elite class within the USSR meant that, by Marxist theory, a proletariat revolution was due. As Marx or Lenin could have predicted, Leonid Brezhnev's regime, in power from 1964 to his death in 1982, temporarily stayed this inevitable revolt by decreasing the influence of communist ideas on the state economy; Brezhnev thus bought the USSR a little more time at the expense of the Western world, which was busily reacting to Russian Communism and Soviet imperialism by competing scientifically, politically, militarily, in space, in lesser-developed nations which were considering communist ideas, and in massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But none of this competition was communist; it served to enhance the glory of the Soviet Union, not of the ideology of a worker-controlled state. The economy had improved in the 1960's and 1970's, but it took a noticeable downturn under the comparatively short-term leadership of Andropov (1982-4) and Chernenko (1984-5). In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev inherited this difficult situation, and his policies reflect his understanding of the drastic actions that a sane recovery demanded. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the economic structures required for successful Communism had been expediently sacrificed half a century ago. Glasnost finally gave the people the freedom that democracy demanded, but it also exposed the rotten side of the Soviet state; after the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the world saw the degradation of the Soviet state, and malcontents soon used glasnost to attack Gorbachev's leadership and call for a new government. The fact that this policy of open expression tore apart the government indicates that the government was not at all representative of its people. The policy of perestroika was too loosely defined to be successful at even a capitalist reform, and it in effect put the nail in the coffin of Russian Communism. It received a fitting burial in 1991, after a popular election decreed that the majority of the Russian people no longer favored Communism and a series of coups removed Gorbachev from a position of political authority.
It is in a certain sense reassuring that the will of the people eventually received just consideration in spite of every adversity which once well-meaning leaders provided. Russian Communism dragged the rest of the world through socialist changes and, indeed, its effects on modern history can be seen today in the communist nations of China and Cuba, which have drawn inspiration from the Soviets in state-building and have observed the necessity of reform. Moreover, looking back to Marx and Engels, the Hegelian synthesis of capitalist ideas and communist ones, while certainly not what Marxism-Leninism intended, is what Lenin and his successors have effected throughout Europe and the world. Little can be said to be white and black or right and wrong, but it is contradictory to all history for the introduction of new ideas to only bring about negative consequences. No new idea can be entirely bad. Perhaps in time international socialism may be a viable economic alternative to the current capitalist setting. The United Nations, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, capitalist though they may be, represent the seeds of true economic justice in whatever form it may eventually take, and Russian Communism will undoubtedly prove instructive in this global development.
Appignanesi, Richard. Lenin for Beginners. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Balmforth, Richard. "ANALYSIS-Putin navy purge is shot across military's bows." Johnson's Russia List 4 December 2001. <http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/5579-3.cfm> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Belonuchkin, Gregory. "Russian Presidential Elections-1996: Results." 9 September 1997. <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2568/e_rpe96r.html> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Chrobot, Stefan. "International Challenges for Trade Unionism an Era of Globalisation." 1999. <http://www.gefont.org/proceeding/tuchallenges.html> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Cienciala, Anne. The Rise and Fall of Communist Nations 1917-1994. 1996. <http://www.ku.edu/kansas/cienciala/342/ch3.html> Accessed 30 March 2003.
"CPUSA Online – Struggles." Communist Party USA. 2003. <http://www.cpusa.org/article/archive/9> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Gruat, J.V., Ivanova, E., Misihina, S., Ovcharova, S., Tchetvernina, T.. "Russian Federation: Unemployed, the working poor, and social consequences." 24 September 2001. <http://www.ilo.ru/publications/files/SPb0501E.pdf> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Smoot, Dan. "Socialized Medicine." The Freeman April 1960. <http://www.aapsonline.org/brochures/smoot.htm> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Strong, Anna L. The First Time in History. Boni & Liveright, 1925. Marxists Internet Archive. 2002. <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/strong-anna-louise/1925/first_time/ch01.htm> Accessed 30 March 2003.
The Avalon Project. "Foreign Relations 1918 – The Conclusion of the Peace of Brest Litovsk." 1998. <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/forrel/1918rv1/bl36.htm> Accessed 30 March 2003.
Note on parenthetical citations: I have indicated page numbers only where the source is paginated (that is, no page numbers were given for Internet resources since they vary depending on how the page is printed)
Node your homework!
Section headings added for readibility and minor grammatical alterations (thanks to tdent for help with linguistic foibles and fact-checking!); otherwise as submitted. Scored 40/40.
I wasn't able to work them into hardlinks, but the following nodes may be of additional interest if you're looking into this topic:
Cold War Document and Speech Meta Node
Russian capitalism and the effects
Soviet Union vs. Socialism