This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, namely the October Revolution, one of the most crucial moments in 20th century history that highly impacted not only the establishment of modern Russia but also international relations. The ideologies that both triggered the October Revolution in 1917 and then led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 are here to be analyzed. Despite their losing popularity within years, they need to be evaluated well to comprehend the current system in Russia that has touched millions of people's lives.
The establishment of modern Russia and bourgeois revolutions
The most significant incident that played a big role in the establishment of modern Russia is undoubtedly Russia being defeated by the British and French navies in the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856, when the Russian Empire's traditional sailboats remained technologically incapable against the steam-powered warships of particularly British and French navies. With this defeat, it was understood that the Russian Empire, being the most powerful actor on the continent at the beginning of the 19th century, started losing power against other European empires, in other words, its traditional economic system could not resist against the European capitalist system any more. After some subsequent defeats, the empire had to enter a modernization process to regain its strong military position.
The process of the modernization of tsarist Russia operated in two directions – top-down reforms and social revolutions. The difference between society's expectations and the tsarist regime's policies would trigger regime change by reaching a radical position at the beginning of the 20th century. The top-down reforms were put into practice during Tsar Alexander II's reign (1855-81) following the fiasco in Crimea against Britain and France. During the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1825-55), the regime's values disappeared immediately. However, the economic transformation required for change included the risk of damaging social and political stability altogether. This dilemma would open major problems for tsarist administrations in the next century.
The most important move that accelerated social mobilization and increased political struggle was the abolition of serfdom. With this move, the dominion over the lower sections of was abolished. Serfs were included in the working class along migrated to the city even though the social undertaking alone was far away. The second wave of reforms was the activation of local governments. The law, which was issued in 1864, gave the Zemstvo assemblies the power of self-governance at the local and provincial levels. These assemblies, while having a certain budget, had authority to make decisions and implement basic policies such as education, health, veterinary care, insurance, road construction and food stocks. The third move was industrialization and trade activities that promoted capitalism. From the second half of the 19th century, there was a big leap in the railway system in Russia. With gridded rails, a large trade network was established from China to the Caspian Sea and from the Ottoman Empire to Iran. The engine of industrialization, built in St. Petersburg, was Putilov's operation, one of Europe's largest factories. This operation produced ships, locomotives and heavy machinery. Russia was struggling to meet the demands of modernization of society, administrative and economy.
The process of modernization divided society into two groups – anti-Westernizationists and revolutionaries who defended Russian politics as a traditional form of politics. Revolutionary groups were also divided into two – the Populists, who believed that Russia would find its own way of socialism, and the Marxists, who thought that Russia would follow the same course as Western Europe. The Russian autocratic regime, when it came to 1881, would see the most radical reaction from the Narodnaya Volya Party, the representative of populist movements, and Tsar Alexander II was going to be assassinated. While the tsarist regime increased its authority after this date, the revolutionary movement moved toward Marxism. The Marxist movement experienced a historical division between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903. While Vladimir Lenin planned to build the Bolsheviks from professional revolutionaries with socialist ideas, the Mensheviks idealized the choice of party members among the mass of workers. The common point of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was that the future revolution would be a bourgeois revolution.
Socialism could only be established in the next stage when Russia joined the socio-economically capitalist-level economy. Therefore, the strategy that dominated Marxist thought before the October 1917 revolution was the deterministic reading of Marx. But this strategy was changed in line with the ideas that Lenin would shape the Bolshevik movement with. For Lenin, it was an active militancy that was demanded from party members. Lenin was able to apply his idealist theory of vanguardsim to party members. The concept of a decentralized and disciplined party as the instrument of the revolution was the foundation stone of Lenin's thought. Despite all these theoretical and practical differences, liberalism in a region where Marxist ideas did not develop at the desired level and the workers' movement did not reach political consciousness was radically accepted against the autocratic regime. After the February Revolution of 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917 were developed in the synthesis of Marxist and liberal thoughts, the system was fully recorded by Lenin.
The 1905 revolution took place against the tsarist regime with the unity of the liberal middle class, workers and peasantry. The demands of the liberal middle classes were limited to bourgeois rights such as recognition of civil rights, rule of law, guarantee of individual rights and representation. The most important issue that triggered the revolution was the Russians being defeated by Japan in the war that lasted from 1904 to September 1905. The opponents, who saw the tsarist regime falling from power, carried out mass opposition. In addition, the fact that war conditions forced the economy into hard times increased workers' radicalism once more. In the events now called Deadly Sunday, thousands of opposition and regime soldiers clashed. However, the soldiers' commitment to the regime prevented the attempts from leading to regime change. The optimistic atmosphere of the 1905 revolution continued with the regime granting civil rights on Oct. 17, 1905, and the establishment of the Duma Assembly, which lasted until 1907, but after that, the regime turned authoritarian again.
Just as the Russo-Japanese War was behind the 1905 revolution, the devastating outcomes of World War I were behind the 1917 revolution. For Russia, the war was not only a disgrace, it also caused a great economic disaster. When strikes and demonstrations broke out in the capital in February 1917, the attitude of military troops not obeying orders to open fire on unarmed civilians debilitated the tsarist regime. The tsar then ordered military troops out of the city against troops in St. Petersburg who defied the order to open fire on civilians. Tsar Nicholas left the post after being informed that such a situation would lead the county to a major cataclysm. Of course, the Duma Assembly's request to pass to a constitutional monarchy played a big role in Nicholas's decision. When his brother refused to come to the throne, the 303-year-old tsarist tradition came to an end and the provisional government started dealing with the administration of the country. By the way, workers and peasants also established a parallel political structure with the formation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers' Deputies.
October Revolution and Soviet regime
The establishment of the provisional government after the February Revolution of 1917 was the work of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks as well as the bourgeoisie. Both groups would not participate in the government formed by the Provisional Duma Committee, but would support it from the outside. With the founding of the provisional government, the bourgeoisie seized power directly. Many Bolsheviks, particularly Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky, were optimistic about the provisional government for a long time.
Lenin, who would return from exile with Germany's support in April 1917, would end this optimism. In his famous April Theses, Lenin pointed out that the transition from bourgeois government to the proletarian system was an obligation in terms of the historical progression foreseen by Marx.
Lenin wanted to show his propaganda not only in the theoretical platform but also in practice, and he called for an uprising. Upon the call's response, 500,000 soldiers and workers poured into the streets. Following the government's issuance of an arrest warrant, Lenin escaped abroad. He then demanded the plan of an armed uprising be put in place, and accordingly, the Red Guards were formed. Despite all the military measures of the provisional government, the Kerensky government fell on Oct. 25, 1917. Thus, after the tsarist regime, the bourgeoisie also left the political area to the Bolsheviks. The Soviet regime continued as an authoritarian state under the leadership of first Lenin and then Stalin between 1927 and 1953. In 1985, under Gorbachev's rule, the regime started being transformed under the name of Glasnost and Perestroika, and finally was dissolved in 1991.
The death toll in the October Revolution is said to be much less than that of World War I, but when considering the whole civil war, it is said to be four times more, which is 10 million. Demographer Rudolph Rummel says that the total number of political killings in socialist regimes is around 200 million. About 60 million of this was in the Soviet Union. To keep the regime alive, the established authority did not, unfortunately, give any opposition voices a chance to survive and adopted an attitude of a brutal, fascist regime. The Soviet regime, on behalf of a new system, wiped out all traditions. Religion suffered great destruction. The claim of providing the greatest equality has been recorded as a major failure in history. The political journey that emerged with independence and anti-imperialist considerations turned into internal collapse, and all the suffering that was experienced was somehow presented as good examples to different regions.
At the end of the 20th century, many political regimes, including the Soviet Union in particular, ended and left behind a great destruction that is still hard to describe. That is why today the October Revolution stands as a political experience to be examined in detail, both what led up to it and its consequences.
* Ph.D., Political Scientist