Readers Write In #98: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 1 – Lenin saves Russia

Posted on September 24, 2019


(by G Waugh)

The story of 20th-century Russia (1914-1991) has immense relevance to today’s political and economic life all over the world. The events, when looked at merely as a story, present a compelling tale with moral and philosophical dimensions. The first few chapters will be dedicated to narration of significant events while the last few chapters will purely be analytical.

The series is my attempt at mimicking what Jawaharlal Nehru did in his glorious ‘Glimpses of World History’ written for his daughter. I had initially planned this work for my now 2-year old son, who might find it interesting to read when he grows up. Another reason for me taking up ‘The Russian Revolution’ specifically is to find out why good people, in history so far, in spite of their immense knowledge and sacrificial instincts, end up becoming terrible rulers, sometimes surpassing the sadism that their supposedly regressive predecessors displayed in the past.


I was 10 years old then.

Me – Dad, why do you go to the Union Office and pay them every month?
Dad – It is a practice in the Communist Party. We workers will have to sacrifice a part of our wages so that the party survives.
Me – So you mean your party is poor ?
Dad – Yes.
Me – Why do you have to belong to a party that is poor ? Why don’t you join a rich party ?
Dad – I am a Unionist. My Union is affiliated to the Communist party. Communist Unions are the only ones which work for the poor and the oppressed. Rich parties do not work for the poor.
Me – Why don’t they work for the poor ?
Dad – Rich parties are rich because they are funded by rich people. Rich people, more often than not want only to become richer. They sponsor political parties and make them rich. Once the party becomes rich and capture power it will start working for them. The sponsors in turn get richer and they fund the rich party more. The cycle continues. All parties in India are rich parties. Only the Communist Party is funded by me, Clerk Varada Uncle, Auto Driver Govindan Uncle, Maran Master, Plumber Udhayakumar Uncle and so on. Poor and middle class people like us are the only ones who fund this party. Even Kerala CM is poor.


Me – Dad, people say the whole world is caught in a recession, all of a sudden one fine morning. Wasn’t there anyone who could predict all this and stop before it got worse ?
Dad – Only one person so far has predicted this and he is no longer alive.
Me – Oh great, Who ?
Dad – Karl Marx, he predicted how capitalism shall behave. Do you know there is a massive demand for Das Capital written by him now in Germany, nearly 150 years after it was published.
Me – So you say Marxism shall cure the world of all its problems ?
Dad – Definitely.
Me – Why did Russia relinquish Communism then ?
Dad – A lot of reasons. People were selfish and wanted to earn quickly.
Me – Oh ok. Why are you coming home early nowadays after office ? All these days you always used to come not before 9 pm.
Dad – I am no longer actively in the Union. I was replaced in the party by Suresh Uncle.
Me – Oh. Why ?
Dad – Lot of infighting. I also raised questions on the Communist Party’s approach towards industrialisation in West Bengal. You heard about firings on locals in Singur and Nandigram ? I told them that we will lose West Bengal if we continue like this. The Unit leadership was not happy that I spoke like this. They decided to replace me. So I stopped being active in the Union and the Party.


Me – Dad did you look at the news that only 1 percent of the population in India owns more than 60 percent of India’s wealth ?
Dad – Yes. Laissez Faire Capitalism works like that.
Me – Wasn’t India unequal like this before ?
Dad – It wasn’t this unequal. We embraced economic reforms in 1991. So our wealth distribution started to skew. We have more than half a million farmers dead due to State Negligence. Our State no longer is a Welfare State.
Me – I read somewhere that the concept of Welfare State arose in the West. So did India copy that ?
Dad – Yes, the USSR seized all means of production from landowners and industrialists. The state controlled everything. Rich people in the West were afraid that if Communism spreads to their country, they may have to lose everything. So they combined elements of Soviet Communism with Capitalism and evolved something called Welfare State. It is also called a Mixed Economy. Nehru wanted to emulate that in India. He did with only moderate success.
Me – So you mean to say that the collapse of USSR went hand in hand with the world going back to Laissez Faire Capitalism ?
Dad – Yes. That was one of the key reasons. Once there was no counterweight to the Free Market West in the form of USSR, the West started spreading free market ideas to the Third World, like India. India wouldn’t have probably embraced the Free Market had the USSR managed to live beyond 1991.


Me – Dad, I am halfway through Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural by Jeyamohan. He has accused Stalin of killing millions of Russians. Why did Stalin do that ? Isn’t the idea of Marxism built on the idea of love, like how Kamal Haasan emphasised in Anbe Sivam ?
Dad – Don’t believe what the bourgeoisie writers say. They know nothing.
Me – Dad, he isn’t a bourgeoisie. He was once a part of the Communist Party himself. You have told me many a time that Communists are honest people. Why does he have to lie ?
Dad – You never know in the Communist Party. There may be bad people as well.
Me – And they may be killed as well by the Party itself ?
Dad – I am going for a walk. We will talk later.
Me – Dad, I want to know what really happened in the USSR. Why was Trotsky killed ? Wasn’t he one of the founders of USSR? How could he be a bad person? Why was Bukharin killed?
Dad- You read too much of George Orwell I guess. This isn’t good for you. Orwell was a traitor.
Me – Orwell joined the Communist Party but was expelled. He lived as a Communist throughout his life.
Dad – People leave the party and pretend they are ideologically committed.
Me – Who was Pol Pot ?
Dad – He was a Cambodian dictator. He killed millions.
Me – He was a Communist. Why don’t you mention that ?
Dad – He misused the name of Communism. But he was originally a dictator.
Me – If he was not a Communist, why did Communist China support him in his fight against Communist Vietnam?
Dad – You have grown up. I don’t have anything to tell you.
Me – You gotta defend your Party. Come on, dad. We’re just having a conversation.
Dad – I am no longer part of the Party. I quit as soon as I retired from service.
Me – Why ?
Dad – The Communist Party cannot be reformed. They are going to doom.
Me – I don’t understand. On one issue, you speak as though the Party is infallible and anyone who talks against the Party is a traitor. On another, you say the Party is incorrigible. Why there is so much contradiction ?
Dad – I will leave it to you to find that.

CHAPTER 1 – Lenin saves Russia

Background :

Contrary to what is generally assumed, Russia on the eve of the October Revolution was not a well developed industrial country. It was not even imperialist, in the Western sense of the word and had no colonies in Africa or Asia or Latin America. Russia’s impending defeat in the First World War towards the end of 1917, had squelched all national spirit, and a growing number of deserters in the army hampered even the slightest chance of a military recovery. The Tsars were bent on prolonging the war for their own survival reasons, but were shocked to witness mutinies, unrest and anarchy everywhere which to a substantial degree was the natural response to the centuries- old harsh and repressive regime that they had imposed upon their people. Russia, primarily an agricultural country had millions of poor peasants and a small, growing industrial proletariat. The despotic Tsar regime subjected the peasants to massive taxation which increased exponentially with the coming of the World War. Peasants desperately waited for a saviour to emancipate them from all insufferable hardships and implicitly pinned their hopes on a lot of anti monarchist movements that were growing here and there in Russia.

Revolution Underway:

One such movement was headed by the Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDLP) which was nothing but a group of left wing radicals united by a broad range of 19th century socialist ideals. The party had two prominent factions which nurtured divergent ideological visions of a future utopian society but had, fortunately decided to resolve their differences at a later point of time – after the overthrow of the implacable Tsarist monarchy.

One of the factions, the Bolsheviks was headed by Vladimir Lenin, a pragmatic Marxist, as he liked to call himself. The other, the Mensheviks, was headed by Alexander Kerensky a socialist radical who didn’t approve of Marxism but was, nevertheless a very progressive revolutionary. The Bolsheviks promised ‘ Land, Peace and Bread’ to the people and hence were able to command a wide and a lasting appeal among the masses. By early 1917 as the World War was drawing to a close, the Tsar, sensing popular unrest, abdicated the throne which gave way to the installation of a provisional Government led by Kerensky. People voted for the RSDLP as a whole but it was Kerensky who seized power as soon as he divined its redolent nearness.

Kerensky, the politically shrewd ruler as he was, expecting a backlash from Lenin in the immediate future, ordered for the elimination of the Bolsheviks through legal as well extra-legal measures. The power struggle ensued for several months but it was only on November 7 the same year that the Bolsheviks seized power under the leadership of the indefatigable Lenin.


This takeover of power by Lenin, also called the Russian Revolution of 1917 marked a watershed moment in the global history of the 19th century. This was the first time ever that a government openly espousing Marxist ideals was formed in any country and the shudders it sent through the rest of the world cannot be underestimated. The Imperialist Western Europe was alarmed at the ascent of the Communists in the largest country of the world and for the first time in history the ruling classes increasingly felt that they had to confront something ‘sceptral’ in order to survive the near future. On the other hand, the victory of the Russian Revolution gave hope to millions of oppressed, poor and enslaved people in countries world over including colonies such as those of India. In every colony in Asia and Africa, local communists began to play the leading role in the national liberation struggle against the West European Imperialists. A lot of European countries along with the US failed to recognise the Government of the Soviet Union led by Lenin which began to grow in size as other adjoining countries such as Kazakhstan, Armenia, Ukraine, etc also started acceding to the Communist Union. Most importantly the victory of the Bolsheviks inspired liberation struggle in the neighbouring China as well, which was also to become Communist in the next 30 years.

Intellectuals all over the world especially in Great Britain and even in the US felt that Russia had turned a new leaf over and expected their own countries to follow suit in order to attain a society devoid of exploitation, racism and religious fanaticism. The British Raj in India passed the Rowlatt Act of 1919 outlawing any form of protest against the Government so as to clampdown on the Indian Communists and its sympathisers. In various colonies, their respective governments banned their local Communist parties and a massive witch-hunting of communist radicals followed.

The massive land reform that the Bolshevik government had undertaken in Russia soon after its formation stripped the nobles and princes and landlords of their possessions and left them ‘cold and hostile’ to the proletarian establishment. They were waiting for an opportunity to pay back Lenin and his coterie, all the while despairing strongly for a restoration of the monarchy. For the dislodged Russian ruling classes, soon help was to arrive in the form of Western aid.

The Russian Civil War and its impact:

It was 1921 when Lenin’s plans to revive a war ravaged country were slowly bearing fruit, though shortages and occasional famines occurred in the rural areas. In many ways, the effort was humongous and Lenin’s leadership used both coercive as well as democratic means to involve people in this historic endeavour. People did find enormous reserves of patriotism and revolutionary spirit within themselves that they were ready to serve the Bolshevik government in any capacity as was required.

However, the dethroned ruling classes on the other hand, with substantial help from the Western powers were meticulously plotting for a counter revolution hell-bent on restoring Russia to its Tsarist days. Civil war broke out in 1918 which took Lenin by surprise and the bloody conflict between the Red Army and the counter revolutionaries began to hamper the rebuilding effort. The Bolsheviks managed to defeat the counter-revolutionaries after a prolonged battle which unwittingly ended up altering Lenin’s attitude towards his people remarkably.

Lenin on no account, was willing to allow Russia tailspin into its pre-1917 era of darkness, as a result of which his revolutionary optimism started giving way to an over-cautiousness that was soon to transmogrify into a terrible paranoia. Lenin evolved something that was to be called ‘War Communism’ which meant a lot of things including elimination of inner party democracy and ruthless suppression of dissent. Freedom of speech and other basic freedoms were to be suspended ‘for a while’, during which the revolutionary government will succeed in obliterating any surviving relic of ‘counter- revolution and reaction’ that might potentially harm the country’s ‘historic march into socialism’. Trade unions were effectively weakened and the State decided to intrude into every aspect of its citizen’s life so as to purge any reactionary tendencies or urges that were left inside him. Workers and peasants were mandated to stretch beyond their healthy limits and any attempt to stray out of the line was repulsed ruthlessly. Concentration camps which were initially set up to punish the erstwhile royalists and landlords for their past excesses, began to swell in size feeding upon innocent citizens and Communist dissidents as well. The party branched out into all the departments of governmental administration and the Soviet Union was slowly beginning to resemble a ‘Police State,’ perennially vigilant and incurably paranoid about its security and existence.

The Soviet Union after surviving its first threat to life with a fair amount of success was to wake up to another one very shortly. Vladimir Lenin, the peerless revolutionary who united the whole of backward Russia under one banner, died prematurely in 1922 at the age of 54.