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Friday, November 7, 1997 Published at 17:03 GMT


The road to revolution

The revolution was a defining political moment

The Road to Revolution

The road to the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a long one. Throughout the 19th century, generations of educated and idealistic Russians had dreamt of the revolution which would overthrow the Tsar and bring freedom, justice and equality for all.

The Russian Intelligentsia, as this group of idealists became known, were particularly attracted to the ideas of the socialists, and later by the ideas of the German philosopher Karl Marx.

Socialism originally seemed to offer a way out of the political and economic backwardness of a still largely feudal society. At the same time it seemed to hold out the possibility of avoiding the horrors of early industrialisation witnessed in western Europe.

Many of the early Russian socialists wanted to avoid large-scale industry and envisioned an egalitarian society based around the village commune.

But by the end of the 19th century, Russia was itself experiencing the dislocation of rapid industrial growth and the creation of a new working class.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Among those idealistic young Russians dreaming of Revolution was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to history as Lenin. Lenin saw in Russia's expanding working class - the proletariat - the seeds of revolution.

[ image: Lenin always belieled that the proleteriat would conquer capitalism]
Lenin always belieled that the proleteriat would conquer capitalism
Like Marx, he believed the proletariat, rather than the peasantry, would rise up and conquer the capitalist class - the owners of the factories and businesses.

According to Marx, the working class would establish socialism, a more equal and democratic society. This would, he believed, lead to Communism - an ideal society where things would be shared and no one would exploit anyone else.

By the turn of the century, tensions were rising among the new, marginalised proletariat and increasing in the countryside. Richard Sakwa, lecturer in Russian history at the University of Kent says: "More and more in the countryside you had tensions building up. At the same time there was industrialisation, which led to the emergence of a very large working class, which was not incorporated into the society."

Revolution looms

A wave of strikes and protests centred on the capital, St Petersburg, in 1905 failed to dislodge the Tsar. But by February 1917, largely because Russia was now a major player in the Great War, the process of social breakdown had gone further.

As the war went into its third bloody winter, food supplies to the cities began to run out.
[ image: The revolution portrayed as a glorious uprising]
The revolution portrayed as a glorious uprising
By February 1917, the Tsar had lost the final vestiges of respect. After three years of war and a wave of strikes in early 1917, people took to the streets in St Petersburg, and turned against the soldiers, which forced the Tsar to give up his power.

For a few months Russia was led by a disorganised group of liberals and social democrats known as the Provisional Government. But they soon found that they had to share power with new workers' councils, known as Soviets, which were dominated by Lenin's small but disciplined group of Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks' message of 'Peace, Land and Bread' began to prove increasingly popular. On October 24 and 25, 1917, the highly-organised Bolsheviks seized their chance.

The Bolsheviks seize power

The actual events of the revolution were not especially dramatic. The streets were empty, only a handful of Bolsheviks were involved, and they seized government buildings, telegraph stations and other strategic points. Some historians say it was less like a revolution than a calculating coup by a small group taking advantage of instability.

The Bolsheviks did not have complete control immediately. Western powers still supported the Russian army which was hostile to the revolution and there were three years of civil war. After three long years, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious and set about revolutionising the country.

One of most radical revolutions in history

It was one of the most radical revolutions in history. On the land, peasants were allowed to take over the land of landlords and of the Church. In the factories, the capitalist system was completely demolished. Private property and the market were almost entirely eliminated.

Beryl Williams of the University of Sussex says: "These were also years of intense concentration on propaganda, on education, mass festivals, mass street theatre. Statues of Tsars were taken down, statues of revolutionary figures were put in their place."

The Russian Orthodox Church, a symbol of old Russia, was viewed as a threat. Churches were blown up. Priests were shot. All religions suffered because the new Soviet State was aggressively atheist. The Christian Church was attacked, and instead of Christian baptisms or Christian marriages there were now Red baptisms and Red marriages.

Secret police to impose control

At the very start of the Revolution, Lenin set up the secret police, known as the Cheka, to impose social control. The BBC's senior Russian affairs analyst, Stephen Dalziel says: "He had to have some kind of system for keeping tabs on people, for stopping people from broadcasting their views. And so the development of a secret police service was an essential part of the revolution. It couldn't have happened without it. And indeed, Soviet society could not have existed without it."

From the first days of the revolution Lenin allowed his secret police to shoot, without trial, opponents of the revolution - and not only opponents. People who happened to be intellectuals, capitalists and priests were shot simply for who they were

Rise of Stalin

Lenin did not live to see socialist revolution spread to another country. When he died in 1924 he was succeeded by Joseph Stalin, who gradually acquired absolute power over the party and the country.

[ image: Lenin buried in Red Square did not live to see socialism spred]
Lenin buried in Red Square did not live to see socialism spred
In the 1930s Stalin embarked on the enforced mass collectivisation of the peasantry. The results were catastrophic. Over 125 million peasants were forced off their land into collective farms in a brutal campaign in which millions of peasants died.

The Great Purge

In the 1930s an increasingly paranoid Stalin launched what became known as the Great Purge in which anyone suspected of dissent was either shot or sent to a labour camp. The true numbers may never be known, but some historians estimate that ten million people were sent to the string of labour camps, later called the Gulag Archipelago by the writer Solzhenitsyn. Millions died in the brutal conditions - including one quarter of the communist Party itself.

Some historians argue that the Stalinist purges can be traced back to Lenin's authoritarian style of government. Beryl Williams says: " I think that although Lenin and Stalin are very different people, and the party was much freer under Lenin, Lenin sowed the seeds of Stalinism in the sense that there was no possibility of opposition, of checks and balances, of control on the party." Other historians argue that Stalinism was a perversion of Lenin's legacy and indeed Lenin had warned the Party against Stalin in his last testament.

The monolith collapses

Few people in the 1980s would have predicted that the monolith of the Soviet empire would suddenly implode and break up. But by the 1980s it was clear to new party leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other like-minded reformers that the system could not sustain itself. The Soviet Union could not meet the cost of the arms race with the United States, industry was obsolete and many of the country's ethnic minorities wanted to break away.

In 1991 - after a failed coup by communist party hardliners finally destroyed the credibility of the party - communism collapsed and the Soviet Union simply broke up.

Legacy of a Revolution

[ image: Reminders of Lenin remain]
Reminders of Lenin remain
The BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel says that there are many positive aspects of the Soviet Union's legacy: "Russia in 1917 was a very backward, illiterate society. And what the revolution did give the vast majority of the population was literacy, a basic education. In fact, the Soviet education system was one of the most rounded, well-developed education systems the world has ever seen."

The impact of the Russian revolution on 20th century history has been profound. Many historians see it as probably the defining event of the century.

For many in the former soviet Union and around the world, the Revolution was an attempt to create a better society which went dreadfully and cruelly wrong. But for many, including the last leader of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, the ideals rather than the reality, had a profound and lasting influence.

"In the end, of course, the communist experiment failed worldwide as it failed in Russia. But the fact is it was one of the dominant stories of the 20th century - perhaps the dominant story. And many millions of people fought and died to bring it about," says Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics.

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