Forging Soviet Civilization, 1914–1924

The utter disregard for human life that was a key feature of the ruling style of the Bolshevik leaders was to a significant degree an echo of the massacre of millions of soldiers on the orders of their political leaders and military commanders in the First World War. It is therefore not amiss to start this chapter about the beginnings of the Soviet Union with a discussion of Russia in the “Great War,” even when its primary focus is on the manner in which the Bolsheviks took power and established a political dictatorship that would lead Russia and the world to the radiant future of communism. Early on, however, the survival of the dictatorship at any price replaced the Marxist goal of the creation of a society of equals whose human rights and freedoms were meticulously protected.


Map 6.1. European Russia, 1918–1938 (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)


On the eve of the Sarajevo assassination in June 1914, a number of Russian politicians (including the former ministers Vitte and Durnovo) warned the government against Russia’s entry into any major European war. The fiasco of the Russo-Japanese War indicated that the Russian military performance in such a conflagration might be anything but impressive. By 1914, there was little reason to believe that Russia’s armed forces would fight substantially better against the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, which would probably be supported by those of the Ottoman Empire and one or more Balkan states. But pride and honor trumped common sense in St. Petersburg in 1914. In the expectation of Russian support, in July Serbia defied Austria-Hungary’s government ultimatum that Serbia surrender its sovereignty to allow Habsburg officials to hunt down on Serbian soil the conspirators who had organized Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The tsar and his advisors, backed by most of Russian public opinion, ordered first a partial and then a full mobilization.1


Figure 6.1. Minsk in 1912 (Library of Congress)

Having been recently forced to back down to Austria-Hungary in the Bosnian Crisis (1908) and the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), the Russian government refused to accept another humiliation at the hands of the Austrians. The Serbian “little Slavic brethren” needed to be rescued, even if this would come at the price of a war with Austria and the German Empire, the staunch Habsburg ally. The tsar rejected German demands to rescind the mobilization order. War with the Central Powers thus became inevitable.

During the next three years, the Russian armed forces often fought as well as their foes. Indeed, they won major battles both against the Ottoman Turks and the Austrians. Crucial errors were made by Russian commanders in a number of other battles (most famously at the Masurian Lakes in August–September 1914), however, and luck was not on the Russian side in the fighting. When in the spring of 1915 the Russians were forced into a sustained retreat along the entire front, the tsar, convinced that his presence at general headquarters would turn the tide, decided to take personal control at the front. Nicholas thus decamped to Mogilev (Mohiliau). The enemy advance did indeed grind to a halt at the very moment the tsar appeared at the command post, but this had little to do with the monarch’s physical proximity to the fighting.

Nicholas’s departure meant that the government in Petrograd fell into the hands of querulous and incompetent ministers.2 They primarily sought to curry favor with Tsaritsa Alexandra and Grigorii Rasputin. In military terms, the Brusilov Offensive, which was waged from June to August 1916 on the southwestern front, may have been the last best chance for the tsarist regime. However, the Austrians and Germans ultimately managed to stop the Russian advance.


Figure 6.2. Russian POWs during the First World War (Library of Congress)

After more than two years of warfare that had cost Russia millions of casualties and prisoners of war, the voices of opposition in the Duma were raised again. Prior to the second half of 1916, the Duma membership had observed a patriotic loyalty; criticism of the tsar’s government was muted. In the fall of 1916, however, the Kadet leader Pavel Miliukov delivered a speech in the Duma in which he asked whether the government’s failure to achieve any meaningful victory in the war was due to the ministers’ incompetence or their treasonous activity. He demanded the appointment of a government that would be responsible to the Duma (as he had in 1906, after the Kadet triumph in the first Duma elections). Desperate monarchists decided soon thereafter that the quagmire was all the fault of Rasputin. But the murder of the monk in December 1916 came too late (and he did not enjoy as much influence as was suspected).

In February 1917, people took to the streets in the capital to protest bread shortages. Street fighting and plundering ensued, and the Petrograd garrison as well as Cossack detachments refused orders to suppress the unrest. On 1 March, the general staff and monarchist politicians prevailed on the tsar in Mogilev to abdicate in favor of his brother. But Grand Duke Mikhail refused the throne. The Romanov dynasty had come to an end.


The government that replaced the tsar claimed its authority from being selected by and among the leadership of the moderate Duma factions (Kadets and Octobrists). Thus Kadet leader Miliukov became minister of foreign affairs of this Provisional Government (whose prime minister was a moderate public figure, Prince G. E. L'vov [1861–1925]). It remained moot, however, whether the Provisional Government really enjoyed a mandate from the Russian citizenry. The Duma had been elected by a very small franchise in 1912. At the time of the organization of the Provisional Government, a rival emerged for political power, when the Petrograd soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and sailors’ deputies was resurrected. The soviet claimed greater legitimacy than the Provisional Government, for it was elected by all working in industry or serving in the armed forces. The Petrograd soviet initially merely represented the industrial proletariat and armed forces of the capital, but it acquired ever greater prestige. Within weeks it was recognized as the country’s leading soviet among the hundreds of its counterparts that sprang up in the rest of Russia.


Figure 6.3. The beginnings of the Provisional Government in 1917 (Library of Congress)

After a rapid turnover during the very first days of its existence, the Petrograd soviet’s elected leadership consisted of leaders of the entire spectrum of left-wing political parties. It included, in the beginning, the moderate Laborites (Trudoviki). They were a sort of “SR light,” which rejected the terrorism of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Their main leader was Aleksandr Kerensky (1881–1970). Then there were the SR themselves, led by Viktor Chernov (1873–1952), and the Mensheviks, whose leaders were such men as the Georgians Nikolai Chkheidze (1864–1926) and Irakli Tsereteli (1882–1959), as well as Lenin’s old comrade, Yuli Martov. Finally, the Bolsheviks in the capital were in the first days led by an actual factory worker, Aleksandr Shliapnikov (1885–1937), but he was soon replaced by the more senior Viacheslav Molotov (1890–1986), Yakov Sverdlov (1885–1919), and Iosif Stalin, once they had reached Petrograd from their former places of exile in Siberia. In April, Lenin arrived at the Finland railway station in the capital; he took firm control over the faction that he had founded in 1903.

Immediately after its formation on 1 March, the Petrograd soviet issued decrees that expanded the democratic program that the Provisional Government promised to implement, while the soviet actually issued legislation that bypassed the Provisional Government as well. The Provisional Government itself, meanwhile, promised more than it delivered in the eyes of many of the impatient revolutionary-minded population; thus, free elections by universal suffrage were announced, but only after the war “had been brought to its victorious conclusion.”

In early March 1917, the Petrograd soviet issued a decree that was understood as allowing troops to refuse orders of their commanding officers. This was to lead to the collapse of military discipline in subsequent months and sabotaged any chance of a Russian victory over the Central Powers. The political mood among the masses of the Russian Empire, whether in uniform, in the factories, or in the villages, quickly radicalized during the months following the tsar’s abdication. Most of the ministers of the Provisional Government’s various iterations failed to understand this impatient mind-set. The first Provisional Government was forced to stand down when in May it was made public that it pursued the same war aims as its predecessor. These goals included the Russian annexation of Constantinople and the straits linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea.

The second Provisional Government added several socialists to the one left-wing representative, Kerensky, who had been a government minister since March. These socialist ministers represented the strongest parties, that is, the SR and Mensheviks, in the Petrograd soviet and the all-Russian congress of soviets, which met in June. The Bolsheviks stayed out, unwilling to collaborate with the “bourgeoisie” in the Provisional Government and calling for an all-socialist government chosen by the soviets. Kerensky, who had become minister of defense, decided in June to prove Russia’s continued significance as a valuable ally to the French, British, and Americans. He ordered an offensive on the southwestern front (where Austro-Hungarian units, considered to be weaker, outnumbered German troops). This offensive, once it met with determined resistance, collapsed after a few days. Subsequently, Russian troops did not just fall back to their former positions but decided to desert altogether and return to their ancestral villages. There, peasants were busy confiscating land from noble, monastic, and middle-class proprietors and distributing it among their households. As Lenin declared, the soldiers “voted with their feet” for a Russian departure from the war.


The call for peace became much louder in the summer months of 1917, while the growing contingent of socialist ministers in the Provisional Government failed to initiate any peace talks. More and more Bolshevik representatives were being elected to the soviets, indicating increasing frustration with the government’s lack of steps toward ending the war. The Bolsheviks called for an immediate peace and demanded that all political power should be transferred to the soviets. Already in July, they may have toyed with the idea of taking power but decided that the moment was yet too early. After riotous demonstrations in the early days of the month, Bolshevik leaders were accused of treason, and whereas Lenin went into hiding in Finland, several of his comrades were arrested.3 But they enjoyed considerable freedom in their confinement to communicate with the outside world and were subject to a very humane prison regime.

In August 1917, an odd attempt to restore discipline and order in Petrograd with the aid of a section of the army (commanded by General Lavr Kornilov and with the possible connivance of Kerensky) failed. When news spread of Kornilov’s progress toward the capital, most Bolsheviks were released from jail. A renewed effort was made to restore the left’s unity of prerevolutionary days, this time to face the threat of a right-wing or military coup. But Kornilov’s forces never even reached Petrograd, abandoning the campaign without a fight. On Lenin’s instigation, the Bolshevik Party’s leadership decided to capitalize on the opportunity that had arisen in the evident absence of any significant political or military support for the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks began to prepare for an insurrection.4 In September, Bolsheviks acquired a majority in the soviets of both Petrograd and Moscow. The onetime chairman of the St. Petersburg soviet, Lev Trotsky, who had joined the Bolsheviks only in the summer, was elected chairman of the Petrograd soviet. He used its Military-Revolutionary Council, formed to protect the revolution against the Kornilov coup, in planning a takeover.

After weeks of incessant cajoling by Lenin (who traveled incognito to Petrograd, fearing that the arrest warrant for him remained in force), the Bolshevik Central Committee (the party’s leading body) agreed to move during the night of 25–26 October. Strategic points in the city (railway stations, telegraph and telephone exchanges, the post offices, and army barracks) were occupied by so-called Red Guards (worker volunteers) and soldiers or sailors; the Provisional Government’s ministers were arrested (with Kerensky making a narrow escape). The coup succeeded virtually without any bloodshed.

The Bolshevik putsch had been planned to coincide with the opening of the second all-Russian congress of soviets. A triumphant Lenin mounted its stage in the early hours of 26 October 1917. He announced that from then on all power in the former tsarist empire was in the hands of the soviets. In protest to the overthrow of the Provisional Government (in which several of their leaders had been ministers), a majority of Menshevik and SR delegates left the congress. The rump that stayed behind ratified the coup that had ostensibly been executed on the orders of the Petrograd soviet’s Military-Revolutionary Council. In reality, the Bolshevik Central Committee had been its organizer. It established a communist tradition: behind a facade of legitimacy and a genuflection to democratic process, the Communist (Bolshevik) Party ruled in dictatorial fashion.


Undeniable historical continuity exists between the tsarist regime and the new Bolshevik regime that established its rule in the Russian Empire from early November 1917 (New Style5) onward. One pertains to the utter disregard for human life. The massive slaughter of the First World War in Europe, in which millions of men died, led to a political mind-set in which a person’s life could easily be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good. The Russian revolutionary leaders proved to be as merciless in this regard as the tsarist politicians and generals had been from August 1914 onward. Suddenly, the killing of human beings in unprecedented numbers was accepted as a normal part of modern warfare and even of peacetime politics.

Of course, the Russian iteration of this sort of brutality was but one of many. A series of twentieth-century governments showed utter disregard for human life, going to the length of even massacring their own subjects in peacetime, as was to occur not just in the Soviet Union but also in China and Rwanda. Historians now link the First World War’s battles of the Masurian Lakes or Somme with the Armenian genocide (1915), Stalin’s massacres, the Holocaust, China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia (1975–1977), and the extermination of the Tutsis in Rwanda (1994) in a chain of ghastly mass crimes against humanity. In their utter disregard for human life, Lenin and Stalin seem to have adhered to what Stalin allegedly argued, that “one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a mere statistic.” He was, alas, not the only one capable of such cynicism in this, the bloodiest century of human history.

Despite the Communist leadership’s attempt to disown the entire tsarist involvement in the war, it adopted, in another instance of historical continuity, its predecessor’s wartime mass mobilization and conscription of young men. The bulk of the Red Army in the Civil War that broke out in 1918 was created by a massive call-up of young men, while the economy of Bolshevik Russia was placed on a wartime footing. After some tentative probing, Lenin’s successors (among whom Stalin stood out as the unrivaled leader) mobilized all their subjects once again in 1929 for an unprecedented effort to forge a new civilization. This enlistment of all people in the grandiose effort to realize the Soviet project lasted from the first two Five Year Plans (1929–1937) through the Second World War and the postwar reconstruction all the way until Stalin’s death in 1953. Mass-mobilization campaigns disappeared only after Stalin’s death. The last wave constituted the Virgin Lands project of the middle of the 1950s.

Nevertheless, the 1917 Revolution was at the same time a watershed, a radical departure from the historical past, and not just for Russian history. The scale of the Communist dictatorship’s efforts to build a new society of equals and its intense desire to remake humanity into a different species made the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (the official name of the country from 1922 onward, abbreviated as USSR) into something radically different from tsarist Russia. Soviet society (and a world that was destined to be communist as well) was to be modern and urban. In this (as in much else) they followed the ideas of Karl Marx and his close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), who had forecasted that distinctions between city and countryside would disappear in the perfectly harmonious global society of the future. This communist world would be populated by fully conscious and enlightened people, living a life in a society of plenty, in effect a modern utopia.6

Some contours of this “radiant future” had taken shape by 1960, when more than half of the Soviet population lived in cities rather than villages; for any country, this may count as a milestone on the road to modernity (it had been reached first in industrializing Britain around 1850). Urbanization continued apace for the subsequent half century in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet successor states. Today, the countryside of the former USSR is indeed littered with abandoned villages. But it was rather the individual desire for a better life with modern amenities that eventually sustained the migration from the countryside to the cities, after the enforced mobilization waves began to wane. Enthusiasm for the cause (some of which was present in the Five Year Plans and quite pronounced in defending the country during the Second World War) eroded after 1953, when individualism and acquisitiveness of the modern kind became the prime movers for Soviet citizens as much as their counterparts in the capitalist world. Most shockingly, however, in their attempts to build a perfect modern society of happy equals, Marx’s faithful Soviet disciples eliminated, executed outright, exiled to remote and inhospitable regions, or confined to labor camps millions who were thought to stand in the way of its construction.

Scholars are fascinated by the problem of historical continuity. Thus, apart from the debate about the link between tsarist and Soviet Russia, another long-term and unresolved historiographical debate (actually originating with Soviet critics such as Stalin’s rival Trotsky) has been waged about Stalin being Lenin’s “true heir,” especially in executing his Great Turn from 1929 onward.7 In order to make up our mind about this question, we should first investigate what Lenin did (try to) accomplish in the few years that he stood at the helm of his Soviet Russia. It should meanwhile be remembered, too, that the idealistic Lenin of November 1917 was a rather different character from the sober Lenin of 1921–1922. By the end of his active political life, his revolutionary optimism had been chastened by the trials and tribulations of the Civil War (1918–1921), the war with Poland (1920–1921), and a massive famine (1921–1922). Even at the time of his death in January 1924, a rebellion against Russian rule that originated in 1916 was still smoldering in Central Asia. It was a last reminder of the utter chaos and lawlessness into which the Russian Empire sank in 1917–1918, from which it resurfaced only by 1922.


Whereas Vladimir Lenin displayed a brilliant political instinct in taking power in November 1917, neither he nor his Bolshevik comrades had a blueprint for the construction of a socialist or communist, classless society. They had no models after which they could fashion their realm and, of course, no experience in governing a country of some 140 million people. Stumbling along the imagined road to communism, their rhetoric sometimes betrays a rather desperate quest to find historical analogies to guide them. They thus frequently referred to the dictatorship of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety (1793–1794) or the Paris Commune (1870–1871) in France. Neither had been attempts, however, at establishing a communist proletarian dictatorship based on Marxist theory. In addition, whereas 1870s France resembled the tsarist empire in 1917 in terms of its level of industrialization, France was demographically and geographically a far smaller and less diverse country. It showed great historical naivety to think that truly useful lessons could be drawn from the French example.

At first, the Bolsheviks seemed in fact wholly unconcerned with steering the country into any clear direction, instead encouraging (and surrendering to) the utter dissolution of the tsarist state and economy. In this, they were led by their reading of Marx’s historical determinism. Marx had predicted that the socialist revolution would unfold (as anything of true historical importance did) through the workings of impersonal forces, over which individuals had no control. Trotsky, the first People’s Commissar (PC) of Foreign Affairs and subsequent architect of the Red Army’s victory in the Civil War, had worked this out somewhat more concretely. Before the 1917 Revolution, Trotsky suggested that, once the capitalist chain was broken at its weakest link (as it was in Russia in October 1917), the rest of the fully or half-industrialized world would follow suit and be engulfed by a socialist revolution similar to Russia’s. Therefore, all the Bolsheviks had to do after coming to power was to await events elsewhere.

Lenin himself had outlined in his State and Revolution (written mainly while he was in hiding in 1917) how, after a brief transitional period of a proletarian dictatorship, the state would “wither away.” At that point, the enlightened masses would voluntarily live by the principles of “each working according to her abilities” and “each receiving according to his needs.” In this classless society, the conscious proletarian would work as a streetcar driver or haul garbage on some days, while on others she would write poetry or study, when others took their turn performing menial labor. Children would be raised by the community, primarily in day-care centers and schools, and nutritious meals would be shared with other people in large communal halls.

Soon after the Bolshevik takeover, certain signs seemed to herald a global communist juggernaut: In 1918, mutinies spread in the German army, and councils of soldiers’ and sailors’ deputies were set up in several German cities. In 1919, Communists ruled the German state of Bavaria for a short while. In Hungary, a Communist republic was proclaimed not long after the November 1918 armistice. And whereas this latter truce led indeed to the guns being silenced on the Western front, in Eastern Europe a variety of smaller territorial conflicts erupted into local wars, fertile grounds for revolutionary developments. Western colonialism, too, was coming under attack. In China and India, revolutionary stirrings against Western tutelage occurred, while the Vietnamese politician Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) attempted to plead for the independence of his country during the peace negotiations held in Paris in 1919.

Lenin and Trotsky soon gave up on the idea of a spontaneous transition to communism in Russia and took the reins firmly into their hands in the first months of 1918. But they did not discard their expectation of an imminent global wave of revolutions ushering in a communist world. With the example of the French revolutionary armies in mind, Soviet leaders began to believe that their Red Army might help to impose communism on other countries. In the summer of 1920, the Red Army advanced to the gates of Warsaw, the capital of newly independent Poland, after a foolish attempt by the Polish government to lay claim to most of Ukraine during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. Again, hope grew in the new capital of Bolshevik Russia, Moscow, that the revolution would sweep away all capitalist opposition in all of Europe, now with the aid of the triumphant Red Army marching westward. But the Poles stopped the Red Army’s advance in August and September of 1920.

This setback confirmed to the ever more realistic Lenin that it was rather naive to expect a performance from his ragtag military that resembled the astonishing success of the French revolutionary soldiers in Europe during the 1790s. By 1921, the failure of revolutions elsewhere and the utter exhaustion of their country convinced Lenin and his comrades that it was best to await another wave of revolutionary stirring abroad. Building up their strength at home would allow them to come to the aid of future foreign revolutions with as much force as possible.


Lenin and his comrades in the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee believed that they needed only to stay at the helm of their new empire until the global communist revolution engulfed the world. This explains why they promised everything to almost everyone after they took over in November 1917. First, land was “given” to the peasants of Russian Europe and Russian Asia. In truth, it became public property to be used by those who cultivated it, but few in the villages noticed at the time how this differed from full ownership. Second, peace was promised to the soldiers. True to their word in this respect, Trotsky was immediately dispatched to Brest-Litovsk to begin armistice negotiations with the Central Powers. Third, the Bolsheviks promised bread to all, for shortages of this staple food appeared to have triggered the March revolution. This was a promise much harder to keep given the breakdown of the empire’s distribution system in the second half of 1917. Furthermore, in honor of their Marxist-proletarian essence, workers’ control over factories was introduced. This proved to be unpractical and, in fact, detrimental to workers. Finally, the various non-Russian ethnic groups were promised “self-determination.” These groups were called “nations” in the initial proclamation of the new Bolshevik government in November 1917, even if most of the members of these ethnocultural groups had yet to develop a sense of national identity. The Bolshevik leaders had hardly reflected on the practical consequences of granting some two hundred ethnic groups such self-determination. Their proclamation of independence for all non-Russians was at the time to provoke a response especially among the inhabitants of the European colonies and inspire them to rise up and overthrow their Western rulers.

These measures were faithful to Marxist ideals with their breathtakingly optimistic view of human, and especially working-class, nature, but they completely ignored the less-than-exemplary nature of human beings as recorded in history; as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) had once written, “Out of the crooked wood of humanity no straight timber can be made.” Despite arguing earlier (beginning with his What Is to Be Done? of 1903) that a “proletarian vanguard” (meaning his party) needed to lead the blue-collar workers to the light they would not be able to see on their own, Lenin and his circle preserved a strong belief in the innate transformative character and wisdom of factory workers. As long as they were given strategic posts in the economy, society, and the government, the rest of the population would follow their lead and recognize how the “radiant future” of communism was awaiting them. According to the Bolsheviks, open-minded proletarians, who had lost nothing but their chains in 1917, would be able to build this ideal society from scratch. Such had been the predictions of the prophet Marx.

In practice, Lenin was soon forced to conclude that his prerevolutionary doubts regarding the exceptional nature of the factory workers had not been groundless. For the radical policies announced in 1917, which aimed to discard the entire past of the tsarist regime, led to chaos and lawlessness. The necessary cohort of class-conscious and emancipated proletarians unerringly leading Russia to the promised land failed to materialize. Even in running their factories, workers turned out to be flawed human beings: once they had been given control over management, they often worked as little as possible, while giving themselves exorbitant pay raises. They also pilfered away the equipment, fuel, raw materials, and manufactured output. And they could not stop the gradual collapse of much of the communication-and-transport system, which deprived factories of supplies and the ability to distribute their goods.

But there were also too few proletarians to lead the former tsarist empire to a life of equality and justice for all. Only a few regions of tsarist Russia had industrialized, some of which were lost in the war (such as Poland). Factory work or mining was the occupation of a considerable amount of people in these pockets of industrial development,8 but most of the empire’s population was rurally based and engaged in agriculture. Many non-Slavic population groups had remained wholly untouched by the modernization that had spread in the empire for a mere few decades.

It all forced Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other leaders to make a choice: repeat the heroic example of the Paris Commune and refuse to compromise any ideals and be inevitably vanquished by foreign and domestic foes, or hold on to power by compromising many of the ideals held dearly by them throughout their entire adult lives. Lenin and Trotsky believed that Marx had discovered the laws of historical development. It seemed a shame to give up power to those who did not know those laws. That would allow, too, the reestablishment of a regime that was exploitative of the masses. In March 1918, after another heated debate in the party’s Central Committee, the decision was therefore made to buy time by signing the Peace of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. The Bolsheviks decided to regroup in the much-reduced territory that the Germans, Austrians, and Turks left them under the terms of this agreement. While awaiting the revolution elsewhere, Communist Russia was to try to survive, surrounded by hostile capitalist states. But until a series of strokes in 1922–1923 put him out of commission, Lenin seems to have believed that the wait would be short.

Although peace was concluded at Brest-Litovsk, chaos reigned in the former tsarist empire in the spring and summer of 1918. The economy slowly ground to a halt, and the shortages of foodstuffs in the cities that had plagued the country during the war further intensified: most peasants turned away from the market and limited themselves to cultivating only as much as was necessary to feed their own households. The Bolshevik Central Committee saw capitalist conspiracies behind the faltering industrial production and decided to nationalize every larger business in the course of 1918. But public ownership did not jump-start the economy, for the Bolsheviks could not find the managerial talent to keep the factories running after the owners had been ousted. Workers’ management proved an inadequate substitute. The growing unrest across the country wreaked havoc with transport routes and communication lines. This further diminished supplies reaching their destinations and products reaching their markets. Productivity collapsed.


By the summer of 1918, Ukraine was under German occupation; it was to be torn apart by its own civil war and by foreign invaders long after the November 1918 armistice made the Central Powers lay down their arms. Other parts of Imperial Russia besides Ukraine broke away. National governments in the Transcaucasus region declared independence. First they continued to fight the Ottoman Turks and then defied the Soviets for several years. Poland and Finland gained a more durable independence, initially under the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and subsequently when they were recognized by the Allies and Soviet Russia (and Poland was to rule a good part of formerly tsarist Ukraine and Belarus until 1939). Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia seceded from the empire at the same time. After the German surrender in November 1918, German free corps and tsarist officers helped to maintain the independence of these Baltic states.

After the rebellion of the Fergana Valley in 1916 had received a tremendous boost from the events of 1917, it was for several years wholly unclear who ruled across large stretches of Central Asia. The Bolsheviks were in charge of the Ural region and Siberia for about half a year after their coup, but by the end of the summer of 1918 most of those areas broke away from Communist rule. A variety of rebels, collectively known as the Whites, replaced the Communists. The Whites ran the gamut from left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries to sadistic sympathizers with the Black Hundreds. As a result, from August 1918 to the summer of 1919, Communist-controlled Russia was about the size of pre-Petrine Muscovy. Nevertheless, after the Red Army beat back a final offensive by the White armies to capture Moscow in the fall of 1919, the Bolshevik troops managed to secure most of the territory that had been ruled by the tsars in Asia, the Caucasus, and Ukraine before 1914.

In most non-Russian territories that Soviet Russia annexed, the pattern of the Communist takeover was similar. A coup was staged by the local Communist Party (often led by Russian speakers) in the capital of the region, which set up a military-revolutionary council. The new government would ask Soviet Russia for aid, which was furnished by way of the Red Army’s entry into the region. After this, the Communist leaders in Moscow welcomed the newly “liberated people” into their state. Belarus and Ukraine were the first to be “sovietized” in this manner at the end of 1918. Nevertheless, in Ukraine civil war (which eventually became entangled with a Polish invasion) continued to rage for almost two years after the first attempt to establish Bolshevik power. From early 1920, the mountainous regions of the Caucasus, such as Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, were annexed following the same recipe, and in 1922 Central Asia was also thus “sovietized.”

Usually, sustained resistance to the reimposition of Russian rule was slight: the great majority of the population from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan had not developed any meaningful sense of national identity. Illiteracy levels remained extremely high, and mass nationalism was therefore at best in its infancy. Nationalism was not even fully articulated among the small group of intellectuals who tried to articulate it and spread its message. Suppression of nationalist governments was thus relatively easy. This was all the more so because the champions of national independence lacked any military muscle. Most officers from the former tsarist army who staffed the White armies championed a “Russia One and Undivided.” They had no tolerance for movements trying to establish independence from the Russian Empire.

During the Civil War, efforts were made to expand westward to recover some of the territory lost at Brest-Litovsk; for example, in 1918 a brief civil war ended with the defeat of the Communists in newly independent Finland.9 Likewise, the Soviet Communists contemplated expansion into Turkey (which seemed on the verge of disappearing from the map around 1920), Iran, and Afghanistan. In September 1920, a “Congress of the Peoples of the East” met in Soviet Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, which declared a “Holy War against British Imperialism.” But the efforts to export Communism across Asia were abandoned once it appeared that nowhere on the continent (except in Outer Mongolia) did there emerge a Communist movement that was sufficiently viable to establish a Communist republic propped up by Soviet military, financial, and political aid.

Instead, Soviet aid was transferred to generic anti-Western resistance groups such as that organized by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk; 1881–1938) in Turkey. The only successful foray was into (Outer) Mongolia, where the first Soviet satellite state arose in 1921 in the chaos that ensued following the collapse of Imperial China in 1911 and the Russian Empire in 1917. Its first leader was Suhe Bator (1893–1923), who was succeeded upon his death in 1923 by Khorloogiin Choibalsan (1895–1952). Both had spent their formative years in Imperial Russia. By early 1921, then, internationally recognized borders had been determined for the Soviet republic in Europe. By 1924, most of the rebellious Fergana Valley had been brought back under Bolshevik military control, and the Soviet Union obtained clearly defined international borders in Asia as well.

In the midst of the Civil War in March 1919, the Bolsheviks founded an international organization of Communist Parties, the Third or Communist International (Comintern). It was modeled after the international organization of socialist parties known as the Second International but rejected its policies as too conciliatory toward capitalism. The Second International had deemphasized Marx’s premise that the proletariat could gain power only through revolutionary violence. It believed that socialists could gain power through parliamentary means and democratic elections. The Comintern seemed no more than a marginal organization of revolutionary fanatics at the time of its founding. At its second meeting in July 1920, however, it had become a rather more dynamic organization. By then a much more stable Russian-Soviet government backed it. At the second Comintern congress, strict regulations (the “Twenty-One Conditions”) were laid down for Marxist parties who wanted to join. These rules subordinated foreign Communist Parties to Moscow’s firm hand.

Whatever semblance of independence thereafter remained to foreign Communist Parties was gradually pared down during the 1920s through the exclusion of all those who were critical of the policies of the Communist leaders in Moscow. By 1929 the Comintern did Stalin’s bidding as much as the Soviet Communist Party itself. Gradually Stalin was to prefer to work directly with the leaders of foreign Communist Parties without the Comintern operating as an intermediary. The organization was eviscerated in purges of alleged opponents during the 1930s, and in 1943 Stalin had no qualms about dissolving it altogether, as a conciliatory gesture toward his Western allies in the Second World War.


Even before the hostilities had begun in earnest in the Civil War, the Bolshevik regime had increasingly turned to violent enforcement of its authority. This use of force fell primarily to the “Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution, Speculation, and Sabotage,” known by its Russian abbreviation as Cheka. It was founded on 7 December 1917, when it replaced the early enforcers of Communist rule, which had been irregular paramilitary forces such as the Red Guards. While the Red Guards had been made up of workers, soldiers, and sailors who volunteered, the Cheka was instead a professional political police. From the beginning, it took hostages from allegedly class-hostile people, such as tsarist officers, members of the aristocracy, middle-class intellectuals or businessmen, and leaders of other political parties. Those apprehended were often guarded in jails in appalling conditions, although outside of the jails poverty and destitution, malnourishment, and famine were just as much the norm between late 1917 and the summer of 1922. From the outset, the Cheka engaged in executing hostages, too, even if the scale of these operations became massive only when the so-called Red Terror was introduced. The Bolsheviks unleashed this merciless offensive against internal enemies in response to attempts on the lives of Bolshevik leaders, including one on Lenin in August 1918.


Figure 6.4. The first chief of the Cheka, Feliks Dzerzhinskii, ca. 1920 (Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) points out in his Gulag Archipelago, almost from the beginning, too, concentration camps were organized for the confinement of those opposing the Bolsheviks. One of the most notorious early camps was the former monastery complex on the Solovetskii Islands in the White Sea. Conditions there during the 1920s proved nonetheless rather benign in comparison with the brutality of the massive camp complex that arose across the Soviet Union from 1929 onward.

Not just the Cheka terrorized Communist opponents in the Civil War: Bolshevik army commissars ordered Red soldiers to deal mercilessly with opponents. At one point, Stalin, the highest-ranking Bolshevik in 1919 on the southern front, had several dozen captives drowned in the hold of a boat that was sunk in the Volga. And on another occasion, to set an example that would inspire fear in the Communists’ enemies, Lenin ordered the shooting of “rich peasants and other counterrevolutionaries” by the hundred. Any admiration for the (often praised) military commander Mikhail Tukhachevskii (1893–1937) should be tempered by the knowledge that he ordered his troops to bomb peasant rebels with mustard-gas grenades in 1921. In the Civil War, however, equally brutal repressions were committed by the Whites. Thus, historians have sometimes excused the Red Terror as a response to extremely trying circumstances. Participants in such civil conflicts tend to fight without much regard for human life.


Figure 6.5. Aleksei Nikolaevich and Tat'iana Nikolaevna interned after the tsar’s abdication, ca. 1917 (Library of Congress)

But some of the brutality seems utterly excessive and gratuitous. For example, Lenin and Trotsky were at a minimum aware of the order to execute the former tsar and his family in the cellar of the house in Ekaterinburg in which they were held in July 1918. A convincing case may be argued that Nicholas and perhaps his meddling wife deserved the death penalty. The argument is rather more difficult to uphold that their children deserved death by firing squad because they might fall into the hands of the Whites and thus become a rallying point around which the Bolshevik opposition could unify. It suggests excessive Bolshevik bloodlust.


Figure 6.6. Yakov Sverdlov in 1919

The order to liquidate the tsarist family was probably signed by the then official head of state in Soviet Russia, Yakov Sverdlov. Sverdlov was instrumental in organizing the Soviet state after the first months of chaos. He stood at the apex of the network of soviets that formally governed Russia. He died of Spanish influenza in 1919, when he was succeeded by Mikhail Kalinin (1875–1946). Kalinin, a much more peripheral figure than Sverdlov, remained Soviet “president” until his death.


The outbreak of civil war in 1918 put paid to experiments toward the immediate realization of a stateless society. War led instead to a hypertrophied bureaucracy that was geared to wage war. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, this administration consisted of two parts. A formal government, organized on paper in a genuinely democratic way, existed along a centralized and autocratic Communist Party organization. The party made all the decisions in reality. They were then rubber-stamped by the various (elected) soviets that made up the official government.

In November 1917, Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks left the second All-Union congress of soviets in protest to the Bolshevik coup that had abolished the Provisional Government. The soviet congress, now a rump parliament, officially confirmed Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) as the new government. The Sovnarkom included, in fact, even non-Bolsheviks: intermittently, left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries participated in it until July 1918. And the Sovnarkom remained officially the executive branch of the government, formally held accountable by the official legislature, the All-Union congress of soviets. The central executive committee of soviets (from 1936 called the Supreme Soviet), which the congress elected, represented the congress between full sessions. This parliament was quickly turned into a rubber-stamp body, as were the soviets at lower levels.

The Communist Party was pulling the strings and vetted every member of every soviet at every level; indeed, the vast majority of soviet delegates, with the exception of certain rural regions, were trustworthy members of the All-Union Communist Party (which adopted this name in the spring of 1918). The chairman of the central executive committee of soviets (first Sverdlov and then Kalinin) was a merely symbolic head of state. Power was concentrated in the hands of the leader of the party, at first Lenin (who had no official party post except his memberships of its Central Committee and, after its foundation in April 1919, of its Political Bureau, or Politburo) and then, after an uncertain interregnum, by the first or general secretary of the party: Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev (1893–1971), Leonid Brezhnev (1907–1982), Yuri Andropov (1914–1984), Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985), and Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), respectively.

Since Lenin’s establishment of a Bolshevik faction in 1903, the party had been highly centralized and hierarchically organized. Before the 1917 coup, Lenin’s authority was hardly challenged, or, if it was, his opponents usually left the Bolshevik faction. But Lenin led the party through the Central Committee (rather than imposing his will on it in dictatorial fashion) and did not always immediately get his wishes granted. This was evident in the lead-up to the October 1917 coup, when Grigorii Zinov'ev (1883–1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883–1936) publicly denounced the Bolshevik plans to take power. Once again, the Central Committee proved divided in March 1918 when it voted on the peace treaty with the Central Powers. And Lenin continued to have to persuade or cajole his fellow leaders on a variety of issues during the Civil War.

Because the Central Committee was faced with a prohibitive workload, the leaders created an official Secretariat to deal with the Central Committee’s paperwork, as well as political and organizational bureaus (Politburo and Orgburo) after a party congress in 1919. The division of tasks between the Orgburo and Secretariat was not always clearly defined, but ultimately almost all paperwork that was sent to the Central Committee was handled in the Secretariat’s departments. The Secretariat also dealt with personnel matters, propaganda, and with executing, and checking on, decrees emanating from the Politburo. The Politburo meanwhile became the ultimate political authority in Soviet Russia after 1919 (it remained so until 1989). The men (only once did a woman briefly serve on it) who served on it—initially a handful and never more than a dozen—became almost all powerful in the Soviet Union (and, after 1945, in the Soviet Bloc).

In an age that predated the modern use of computers, the tentacles of the Politburo did not reach everywhere across a country that covered one-sixth of the earth’s landmass and had never many fewer than two hundred million inhabitants. Nevertheless, the Politburo decided on a remarkable number of issues affecting the USSR. To give a fairly typical idea of its workload and widespread responsibilities, in less than three weeks in the spring of 1937, the Politburo rendered well-nigh two hundred decisions. These involved issues such as the completion of the Volga–Moskva canal (built by political prisoners); the development of the Far Eastern Construction Project in eastern Siberia (Dalstroi, an industrial-and-mining complex using camp labor); the extension of a research visit by a Soviet engineer to the United States; and the bust that was to be placed on the grave of the agronomist I. V. Michurin (1875–1935).

By the 1930s, many of the Politburo’s decisions were in fact no longer handled in official meetings but in written fashion. Usually, decisions were formally rendered after Stalin together with his four or five closest friends had predecided them in his office, Kremlin apartment, or increasingly, at his nearby country house (dacha). Only after Stalin’s death was a rule instituted that the Politburo was to meet in the Kremlin every Thursday.

The rulers of the Soviet Union, therefore, can more often than not be identified as the members of the Politburo. Among them, however, some individuals stood out as more powerful than others. For long periods, one person lorded it over all the others, as did Lenin from 1919 to 1922, Stalin from 1929 to 1953, Khrushchev from 1957 to 1964, and Brezhnev from about 1970 to 1982. No one, however, enjoyed anything close to the unbridled power of Stalin in his heyday. He repeatedly had fellow Politburo members (or their wives!) arrested and executed in the 1930s and 1940s, without anyone raising objections. This was a feat only once achieved otherwise, when Lavrentii Beria (1899–1953) was arrested in 1953.


The outcome of the Civil War was uncertain until deep into the fall of 1919. Prior to that, various offensives by the White armies nearly vanquished the Communist regime. The Reds barely held on to their control over Central European Russia. Thanks to a great extent to the organizational genius and brutal methods of the People’s Commissar of War, Lev Trotsky (who had moved there from foreign affairs in the spring of 1918), the Red Army ultimately emerged victorious. Trotsky masterfully used the railroads to shift troops at the crucial moment, while former tsarist officers commanded his army in a reasonably competent fashion. These officers were accompanied by Communist watchdogs (called “political commissars”) and were threatened by reprisals against their family members, whom Trotsky ordered to be held hostage.


Figure 6.7. Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev, ca. 1920 (Slavic and Baltic Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

In addition, the Reds had something tangible to offer to the inhabitants of the territories they ruled or conquered. It may be doubted that many quite believed or understood Communist promises of equality, freedom, or workers’ rule. The Reds did, however, concretely offer land to the peasantry (although not quite in full ownership, but few bothered to explain or understand the difference), who still formed the great majority of the population of the former tsarist empire. The White generals did not match that offer, merely suggesting that they stood for a “Russia One and Undivided.” Their slogan seemed to suggest a return to pre-1917 large landownership. The Whites rejected as well any calls for greater local autonomy for non-Russians, to which the Bolsheviks at least paid lip service.

By the late fall of 1919, the Whites were on the retreat almost everywhere, but the war was prolonged because of the conflict with Poland that raged from April to October 1920. This allowed the Whites to regroup for one final stand. It ended on the Crimea in November 1920, when thousands of Whites escaped overseas to Istanbul in Turkey.

When the fighting was finally over, the former tsarist empire was on its knees. A famine in 1920–1921 (accompanied by epidemics) that followed in the wake of the Civil War may have cost ten million people their lives. It added to the millions of deaths from the First World War, Civil War, and the concomitant Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918–1919. Realizing that in the midst of such human suffering, devastation, and scarcity no socialist society of plenty could be erected, Lenin and his closest comrades postponed some of their goals until a more propitious moment arose. For the time being, they were content with creating a federalized state that had a mixed or quasi-capitalist economy. Nonetheless, politics were to be the exclusive preserve of the Communist Party. Its Tenth Congress in March 1921 decided on Lenin’s urging to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed peasants to sell their products for market prices, and small businesses (shops, restaurants, etc.) to reopen. But this retreat from socialism was always meant to be temporary. Whereas it was already obvious that no other parties (left wing or not) would be tolerated, the Tenth Congress even prohibited the formation of dissenting factions within the party. Policy suggestions, criticism, grievances, and so on had to be directly submitted to the Politburo via the Secretariat. Any organization of oppositional groups by people at lower levels in the party would be considered sedition and might lead to suspension of party membership or even exclusion from its ranks.


Meanwhile, as we already saw, the non-Russian areas that had proved determined enough to resist a return of Russian rule had been grudgingly allowed their independence (Poland, Finland, and the Baltic countries). But several others were brought back to the fold, as happened with Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Nevertheless, in honor of the promise of national self-determination made in November 1917, the territory of the new state was organized to accommodate the expression of national identity among the non-Russian ethnic groups. This underscored that Soviet Russia resembled neither the tsarist “prisonhouse of nations” nor the Western imperialist powers’ colonial empires. Granting non-Russian “nations” some of the trimmings of independence, the Soviet Union could posture as a postcolonial power.

In the view of Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky, nationalism was a transient phenomenon in history. Nationalism emerged during the historical phase of capitalism in which a national bourgeoisie (middle class) controlled the means of production in the economy and was hegemonic in other areas of life (politics and culture). It would disappear once the internationalist proletariat overthrew their capitalist exploiters. Nevertheless, every society needed to pass through this bourgeois stage. Even during the next, socialist, phase, the Communists recognized that some of the “remnants of the past” would linger in people’s view of the world, such as religious or nationalist sentiment. But neither was going to survive against the all-powerful truth of internationalist and atheist communism.

Among the senior Communist leaders, one specialist had in November 1917 been designated as People’s Commissar to oversee the country’s interethnic relations. This man seemed well equipped to deal with the delicate matter of the relationship between the “nationalities.” In 1913, he had been the author of one of the few papers that outlined the Bolshevik position on the relationship between Marxism and nationalism in the Russian imperial context. He was a Georgian native by the name of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili and had spent years in the Bolshevik underground and in tsarist jails. He was better known as Stalin, his revolutionary alias. Apart from his treatise Marxism and the National Question, Stalin seemed eminently suited to deal with the hoary issue of nationalism because he had spent his formative years as a revolutionary traveling around the multicultural mosaic that was the Caucasus region. He was familiar with the delicate and combustible coexistence of languages and cultures in this mountain range. It, perhaps, could be seen as a microcosm of multinational character of the Soviet Union in its entirety.

During the first years of Bolshevik rule, Stalin did not have much time to focus on the question of the Communist state’s territorial organization. He was involved in a myriad of other tasks, as political commissar on the various fronts in the Civil War (including the war with Poland and the reconquest of the Caucasus) and as party official (he sat on the Politburo from its inception in 1919). But by 1921 the People’s Commissar of Nationalities could dedicate far more time to the development of a federal organization for the new Soviet state. In developing an organizational structure for this state, Stalin and the other Bolsheviks were guided by the principle that no nation was to be privileged over the others. All Communist leaders, however, agreed that, no matter how much the formal government was going to be decentralized, the Central Committee and Politburo of the all-Soviet Communist Party were to decide any matter of importance for the constituent republics that were to make up the Soviet federal state.

Despite this consensus, toward the end of Lenin’s life in 1922, a quarrel erupted between Stalin and Lenin on the issue of the precise definition of the relationship between the federal and republican governments within the Soviet Union. Lenin was far more worried than Stalin about preserving the appearance of a state of which the units had voluntarily united in a federation. And Lenin, in this as in other matters on the eve of his death, was suddenly plagued by worries that his proletarian dictatorship was developing into a dictatorship of a few men in Moscow. These half dozen men laid down the law for hundreds of millions of subjects without being accountable to anyone. This was not what Marx, or Lenin himself for that matter, had had in mind.

To their closest comrades, Lenin’s carping about Stalin’s overemphasis on centralization in his plans for the federal Soviet state appeared somewhat overanxious hairsplitting. To appease the now deathly ill Lenin, some of Stalin’s proposals for a more centralized state were amended to allow a greater measure of local decision-making power, but the difference was more a question of degree than of substance. Education, health care, and culture would be primarily the affair of local government, but the organization of the economy and economic planning, defense, foreign policy, and so on remained the domain of the Sovnarkom. And this body was of course guided by the directions emanating from the Central Committee and Politburo of the Communist Party.

But even in matters of education, health care, or culture, the hypercentralized Communist Party—rather than the official government of the various Soviet republics or autonomous regions—had the last word. Encouragement of national self-expression by the Bolsheviks was thus selective and restrained and, in practice, privileged Russian culture and the Russian language, the language of communication within the Communist Party. But Bolshevik support for a sort of “affirmative action” program in non-Russian territories did nonetheless have some significant long-term consequences. In Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere, the introduction of education in the local language and the permission to allow cultural production in the local tongue (from the staging of theater plays to the printing of texts) nurtured a much more defined national identity. Here can be found the roots of the nationalism that has sustained the independent states that succeeded the USSR in 1991.

Certain tragic developments of the (subsequent) Soviet period, however, also galvanized rudimentary nationalist sentiments among the non-Russians, such as the Holomodor (the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933), or the deportation of Chechens, Ingushetians, and others to Siberia and Kazakhstan at the end of the Second World War. Undeniably crucial, too, was the role played by an exiled diaspora, made up of a first wave of emigrants fleeing the revolution and Civil War and a second wave that escaped during the chaos of the Second World War. These émigrés kept the nationalist flame alive for many of the subject peoples. It was, however, especially Communist cultural and repressive policy that galvanized rudimentary sentiments into a growing sense of nationhood among the non-Russians.

In December 1922, the first congress of the soviets of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics gathered in Moscow. It ratified the establishment of the USSR, a country with almost 140 million inhabitants.10 At first it consisted of four republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Transcaucasia), a number that was to grow to fifteen after the Second World War. Within these republics, smaller autonomous units were created in areas in which an ethnic group other than the “titular nation” of the republic was in the majority. Slightly more than half of the USSR population considered themselves Russian, with 20 percent Ukrainian; 42 million people belonged to the well-nigh two hundred other nationalities that were identified. The largest ethnic groups among the latter were the 4 million Belarusyn, 3.5 million Uzbeks, 2.5 million Tatars, 2.4 million Jews, and 1.5 million Armenians, Georgians, and Azeris each.

In January 1924 (coinciding with Lenin’s death), the USSR adopted a constitution that declared in its preamble how “the States of the world have divided into two camps. . . . Capitalism and . . . Socialism.” It also maintained that in the USSR reigned “mutual confidence and peace, national freedom and equality, . . . and the brotherly collaboration of peoples.” Equality, fraternity, and liberty, the keywords of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French revolutionaries in 1789, were thus presented as the fundamental principles guiding the Soviet Union. In reality, however, the Politburo hardly practiced what it preached. Despite its antagonistic view of a world divided between capitalists and socialists, the Soviet Union was recognized by the United Kingdom, China, France, and Italy in 1924 (Germany and Turkey had done so even earlier).


Already in the first provisional constitution of Soviet Russia of 1918, women were proclaimed legally equal to men. This principle was upheld in subsequent USSR constitutions (1924, 1936, and 1977). Women therefore enjoyed in theory equal rights and opportunity. In practice, however, in the course of the history of the Soviet Union, only a few token women reached the highest echelons of the Communist Party, the Soviet government, academe, the economy, or the fields of art and literature. A glass ceiling existed. In professions in which women formed a majority, such as in teaching or among general practitioners of medicine, pay was often remarkably low (factory workers earned considerably more than those professionals). Women, too, were expected to perform heavy physical labor on the farms and in the factories. They were spared military conscription and were usually allowed to retire somewhat earlier (unless they were collective farmers, as we will see). In addition to their full-time employment, women were expected to do most of the child rearing (sometimes taking care of their grandchildren) and the household tasks. Some scholars, therefore, speak of women carrying a triple burden in the USSR.

One unsettling element of Soviet women’s life was the manner of birth control practiced throughout most of the Soviet era. Although condoms were not unknown, very few were available in the Soviet Union, as were contraceptive diaphragms and the like (they belonged to the sort of consumer goods given low priority by economic planners). The birthrate in the initial years of Soviet power was still quite high, especially because the Soviet Union was a predominantly rural country. But with urbanization, the birthrate dropped drastically because housing was cramped, and most parents could barely raise two children in the communal apartments (let alone factory barracks) that were their homes. This led to abortion becoming the common method for practicing birth control. Adult women in the Soviet Union thus underwent numerous abortions, often in extremely poorly equipped and staffed hospitals.

In one sense, perhaps, being a woman in the Soviet Union had an advantage: as women seldom occupied positions of leadership in politics, the economy, or society, and served in the armed forces only by exception (even if many women served in the Soviet army in the Second World War), women escaped most of the waves of persecution of alleged political opponents unleashed under Stalin. In the labor camps of the Gulag in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps only 5 percent of inmates were female, while a similar, comparatively small, proportion of women were executed.

As a final point regarding the status of women in the Soviet Union, it may be telling that the Soviet authorities outlawed male homosexuality in the middle of the 1930s but refrained from doing so in the case of lesbianism. Female homosexuality was apparently not seen as something that might hinder the emergence of the new Soviet woman. This appears reflective of the subordinate role women played in Soviet society. Gay men were far more dangerous, as their presence threatened the exemplary heterosexual masculinity of the Stakhanov worker and Red Army soldier alike.


1. The tsar’s military advisors soon prevailed on him in suggesting that a partial mobilization (for which no clear plan existed) would lead to chaos.

2. Petrograd had been rebaptized with the more Russian-sounding name in 1914.

3. Communists preferred to address each other with the word “comrade” (tovarishch), which sounded more egalitarian than “Mr.” or “Mrs.” (and was gender neutral).

4. When indicating the Bolshevik or Communist Party from here onward, I will use the uppercase; so, “Communists” with a capital denotes members of the Communist Party rather than adherents in general to the idea of communism.

5. In February 1918, the Soviet government introduced the Gregorian Calendar (New Style) in the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), replacing the Julian Calendar (Old Style), which had been thirteen days behind the Gregorian Calendar used in the Western world.

6. Despite Karl Marx’s contempt for “utopian socialists,” he did believe that the endpoint of history would be a sort of paradise on earth. The “utopian socialists” just did not understand how this would come about, in his view.

7. We will return to this in the next chapter.

8. These areas were Petrograd, Moscow and some of the cities that surrounded it, eastern Ukraine, part of the Urals, and some part of western Siberia.

9. Many of the border changes made in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty were adopted by the Allied victors during the Paris peace negotiations in 1919.

10. The United States had a population of approximately 115 million at the time.


Translated Primary Sources

Babel, Isaac. Red Cavalry and Other Stories. Edited by Efraim Sicher. Translated by David McDuff. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Got'e, Iu. V. Time of Troubles: The Diary of Iurii Vladimirovich Got'e; Moscow, July 8, 1917 to July 23, 1922. Translated and edited by Terence Emmons. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Steinberg, Mark D., and Vladimir M. Khrustalev. The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution. Russian documents translated by Elizabeth Tucker. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Sukhanov, N. N. The Russian Revolution, 1917: Eyewitness Account. Edited, abridged, and translated by Joel Carmichael. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1962.

Trotsky, L. History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. New York: Pathfinder, 1980.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Harper, 2001.

Scholarly Literature

Abraham, Richard. Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Barnes, Steven A. Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Dowling, Timothy. The Brusilov Offensive. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Edgar, Adrienne. Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Getzler, Israel. Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social-Democrat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Healey, Dan. Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Hirsch, Francine. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Hosking, Geoffrey. Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Kenez, Peter. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917–1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Lieven, D. C. B. Russia and the Origins of the First World War. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1983.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1918–1921. New York: Da Capo, 1999.

Lohr, Eric. Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War One. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Martin, Terry. An Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. New York: Pegasus, 2009.

Menning, Bruce. Bayonets before Bullets: The Russian Imperial Army, 1861–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Pereira, Norman. White Siberia: The Politics of Civil War. Montreal-Kingston: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1991.

———. Russia under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Rabinowitch, Alexander. The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009.

———. The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Bolshevik Rule in Petrograd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Radkey, Oliver. Russia Goes to the Polls: The Election to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, 1917. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Robinson, Paul. The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920–1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Sanborn, Joshua. Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Smith, Douglas. Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Smith, Scott B. Captives of the Revolution: The Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik Revolution. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. August 1914. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

———. November 1916. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stockdale, Melissa K. Paul Miliukov and the Quest for a Liberal Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. Lenin: A New Biography. New York: Free Press, 1994.

White, Elizabeth. The Socialist Alternative to Bolshevik Russia: The Socialist-Revolutionary Party, 1921–1939. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Wildman, Alan. The End of the Russian Imperial Army. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979, 1987.

Wood, Elizabeth. The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.


Seventeen Moments in Soviet History (much more than that!): http://www.soviethistory.org/


Agony: The Life and Death of Rasputin. DVD. Directed by Elem Klimov. New York: Kino, 2005.

Mother. DVD. Directed by Gleb Panfilov. Netherlands: Homescreen, 2009.

October. DVD. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 1998.

Strike. DVD. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Berlin: Kino International, 2011.

Tsar to Lenin. DVD documentary. Directed by Herman Axelbank. Oak Park, MI: Mehring Books, 2012.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!