Continuity and Change after the Bolshevik Revolution

The eventual shape of the Soviet Union, it could be argued, was vastly different to that which had been envisaged by its founders, and vastly divergent to the predictions of its intellectual forefathers. After the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in the major cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. What they did not possess, however, was the support of the whole country; quite obviously, this was not going to be a harmonious or peaceful transfer of power. This could simply never have happened – and certainly not in the situation which presented itself after revolution, with all of Russia’s political factions arranged in opposition and still in the process, it must be remembered, of fighting a crippling war against Germany.

In the civil war which followed the overthrow of the Provisional Government, which was a particularly bloody one, even by the standards of such conflicts, the Bolshevik dream was thoroughly altered, effectively bent out of shape. After that, with the establishment of Leninist control over the new USSR – and the reconquest of former Russian imperial territories masquerading as a peaceful coming together of nations – the aims of the revolution were certainly changed and altered.

On a regional level the scale of changes can be observed in the post-revolutionary landscape. The sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, a key Czarist maritime institution, were initially enamoured by the promise of revolutionary change. They supported the Bolsheviks when they took the Winter Palace in 1917, firing the guns of the cruiser Aurora to serve as a sort of starting pistol for the revolution. They fought on the Red side in the ensuring civil war, and did so bravely, but their loyalties were not always so fixed.

In 1921, near the end of the civil war and at the beginning of Lenin’s personal rule of the USSR, the sailors mutinied again. They did so in order, so they said, to restore the aims of the original revolution: they wanted workers’ soviets established nationwide, and the political system under the new USSR to differ on a more fundamental basis from that which had come before. They wanted an end to the economic exigencies of ‘war communism’, which had spread hardships and misery to those on whose behalf the Bolsheviks had claimed to be fighting. In effect, their point of contention was the apparent continuity of much of what they had despised about the previous state of affairs. In this the sailors were perhaps naive, but their reaction was a genuine one, one which demonstrated the vast gulf between expectation and reality in the new nation.

The sailors’ rebellion was brutally put down by Trotsky himself and the seamen were killed. This fate was very far from the promise that they had been given initially, and indeed from the assurances they received during the civil war. The fact of the matter is that the aims of the USSR as they had been communicated did not survive that lofty transition from the hypothetical to the real. These principles were modified over time, and drastically so. It was, perhaps ironically (at least when one considers Trotsky’s involvement), an instance of the revolution betrayed.

On a more national level, Lenin instituted the Cheka, a secret police network which was the forerunner to the KGB and the successor to the Czarist secret police forces as satirised by Gogol. Here, it can be seen, this instance of continuity represented something of an unwelcome hangover of the worst excesses of Czarism. The new government instituted a policy, before the civil war was even over, of ‘Red terror’; political opponents were murdered, tortured, or exiled. This manner of operation, and the government infrastructure which created it, lived on into the early years of the new regime – after some time had passed, it was give a succession of changes in name, but it remained in existence until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

For some, this creates another sense of historical irony: the revolutionaries promised to rid the Russian people – and their neighbours – of the oppressive nature of life under the Czar, yet they failed to do away with his methods, and even the government machinery which allowed for and subsidised such things. One of the reasons for this evident volte-face was the vastness of Russia, and the very definite need for the new order to remain in control. There had been a great deal of geographical difference between regions, and the new potentates needed to maintain control and order. It must not be forgotten that Red victory in the civil war was never a certainty, and without the brilliant leadership (or apparent leadership) of men such as Trotsky, the revolution may have been snuffed out by the apparently insurmountable obstacles littering its path.

In addition, foreign interest in Russia was great, and none of it seemed friendly; capitalist Western nations had sent troops to occupy Archangel and Murmansk in 1919, in concert with White forces. The Bolsheviks needed to defend themselves and their regime from harm, so they instituted the measures described above. This was seen as necessary, and to some degree it could be justified thusly, but it represented a dramatic move away from that which the Bolsheviks had promised.

Further changes to the Leninist ideal took place after his death. Under Stalin, Soviet citizens gained a constitution which was the model for many 1930s Communist parties the world over, but they lost a great deal more. Political change, and therefore change away from the initial ideas of the USSR, came – most prominently in the purges of the 1930s. After Trotsky left the USSR to enter exile, many of his political generation were removed from power; a good deal of them were shot, or hanged, or in some other fashion killed on Stalin’s orders. The fate of Bukharin was an example of this political trend. In doing this, Stalin cemented his own position in the Kremlin, but he did so at the expense of many of those who carried ties to the past. In this, he severed, both literally and figuratively, links to the Lenin era. This created political and social change – and end to continuity – and it marked another dramatic departure from the initial aims contained in that much mythologised action at the end of 1917.