Readers Write In #175: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 14 – A post-mortem before death

Posted on May 12, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

Chapter 6 is here.

Chapter 7 is here.

Chapter 8 is here.

Chapter 9 is here.

Chapter 10 is here.

Chapter 11 is here.

Chapter 12 is here.

Chapter 13 is here.

When the USSR was created in 1922 there could be no ambiguity about how the citizens felt about it. Most of the peasants, workers and artisans were delighted at being part of a historic civilizational advance, something other nations were not capable of doing. A majority of them hoped for better lives and an atmosphere full of promise and optimism about the future pervaded all through the empire. Lenin however was more a practical man than a romantic visionary, who kept emphasizing the enormity of the obstacles in place towards their march to socialism. He kept telling people that they may have to make huge sacrifices at least in the short term to rearrange the existing production relations so as to achieve a reasonable measure of egalitarianism. And people were ready to work for him as millions joined the Red Army to serve their new found Fatherland during the Civil War. Even after Lenin ordered the temporary withdrawal of personal freedoms putting some kind of a martial law in place, there wasn’t much collective resistance initially. Soon after Stalin’s arrival at the scene, the lives of ordinary Russians, it must be admitted, was fast turning from bad to worse.

From the late 1930s to the beginning of the World War ll, Russians lost more than they gained as a whole new autocratic order which ensured national stability and internal peace found expression. The new order had in a few years turned robust and implacable and it cannot be denied that most Russians were found vacillating between feelings of loyalty to their ruthless regime and those of disillusionment at the exacting demands and sacrifices it mandated from the ordinary citizens. As the empire entered the War, Stalin’s appeal to the masses to protect their country from the aggression of the enemy was accompanied by relaxation of restrictions in personal freedoms and rights. Russia’s losses in the War were humongous and almost all revolutionary energy of the masses had been drained at the end of it. However, Russia’s victory in the war was incredible even if it was pyrrhic and Stalin tried to capitalize on this success to revive the nation’s sagging spirit. The country was back to square one not only in terms of economic standards but also in those of personal freedoms and human rights. Another stunning revival of economy was achieved under a dying yet still enormously charismatic Stalin by which time the people had gotten used to the Stalinist order, which was quite similar to their days under the Tsars.

Khrushchev’s time was a period when the average Russian was at last granted the freedom to heave a huge sigh and a similar state of things followed under a harmless Brezhnev. By the middle of Brezhnev’s reign, Russia had changed beyond recognition from a feudal, semi industrial backward country not quite distinguishable from an Asiatic monarchy into a modern, industrial power which could talk in equal terms with the Western superpowers. The standards of living under the Bolsheviks were ordinary compared to the West but much better than those under the Tsars. Millions of peasants and artisans and labourers had access to free and compulsory education, reasonable healthcare and sanitation. The centuries-old bondage to land and primitive identities had been irretrievably broken and most Russians had transformed themselves into clerks, engineers, industrial workers, teachers,etc. Even though Russia was still less free compared to its Western competitors, the loyalty of the citizens to the establishment was by this time quite unquestionable. All this is a way of deflating a huge and baseless lie seeded and nourished by a treacherous and an incurably hostile Western capitalist media that almost all Russian citizens hated the Bolsheviks and were waiting to break into a new, luxurious and advanced life that modern capitalism apparently had the potential to provide.

An incredible story of contradictions:

As many of you would have noted, the purpose of this series is not either to justify what the Communists did for and outside Russia or to debunk the million myths that they dispensed unconscionably about the state of USSR’s internal affairs every now and then. In addition, I have no intention to boast of my ability to give a balanced judgement about the Soviet Empire due to the enormous subjectivity involved in this debate. As mentioned earlier, my attempt to revisit the story of the Bolshevik Empire grew solely out of a deep intrigue on account of its unprecedented singularity of character whose flaws and achievements contest each other vigorously in magnitude in almost every single dimension of it.

USSR was the first state in the world to owe allegiance to the glorious tenets of Marxism and it is reasonable for any student of history to expect a modicum of equality, freedom and opportunity to live a good life in such an avowedly ‘utopian’ environment. But unfortunately, the USSR came nowhere near it. The Empire curtailed all existing freedoms, swelled concentration camps and institutionalized them, confiscated property, obliterated dissent, justified famines and their mishandling. Just when we smell the shades of a theocratic state or one of a Fascist kind in its aforementioned characteristics, all of a sudden, a wholly new progressive dimension is revealed to us. Russia was the first country in the world to establish ‘full employment’ something the capitalist nations simply don’t have the capacity to achieve. The Tsarist Russian society of the 1900s had almost nothing to do with that of the 1960s with almost all of the populace well entrenched into modern institutions of political economy, a transformation which took centuries for Europeans to achieve. The USSR, it cannot be denied, was the first country to achieve another great revolutionary milestone, namely the liberation of women, something which is still a pipedream in many supposedly progressive nations. The Bolsheviks were the first to introduce maternity leave, legalize divorce and provide for equal pay for women with men. Creches abounded in Soviet Russia and female participation in work was quite the norm rather than exception.

As historian Isaac Deutscher notes in his book, the Stalinist administration inherited all the feudal traits of Tsarist Russia but, by providing its citizens with formal and professional education along with compulsory studies in Marxism, it unwittingly sowed the seeds for its own downfall. Modern historians have a tendency to compare and equate 20 th century dictators like Stalin and Hitler so as to denounce the former vehemently with a hidden motive to undermine the appeal of Communism altogether. However, one needs to concede that the magnitude of Stalin’s crimes against humanity cannot be considered to be lesser or insignificant in comparison with that of Hitler. Stalin emerges a better ruler than Hitler only if we consider other facets of his administration. Hitler’s government thrived largely on racist hatred, propagated and amplified it with a view to creating a highly fragmented society to the point of permanent irreversibility. Stalin’s regime on the other hand worked with a single minded efficiency to push the society in the very opposite direction- towards obliterating all primitive identities and divisions and creating a permanently unified whole. Needless to say, Hitler’s dividing mission failed soon after it took off while Stalin’s mission was a grand success which could have been all the more glorious had it been achieved without shedding human blood and devouring the lives of millions of innocents.

It is also often argued by many intellectuals that Hitler succeeded in transforming a weak and demoralized Germany into a powerful, industrial nation within a span of less than a decade thereby providing millions of jobs to its impoverished workforce, something which his predecessors couldn’t achieve. By exaggerating the exploits of Hitler, there is often a spurious attempt to belittle the socialist achievements of the USSR. It is worth reiterating the fact that Germany was the most industrialized nation in Europe even before the beginning of the 20 th century. Even Marx and his followers including Lenin strongly believed that Germany shall be the first nation in the world to go socialist given the massive industrial advancement it had made during the industrial revolution. So when Hitler took the country over in 1933, he was only improving what was already there in Germany in complete contrast to the backward state of Soviet Russia. Also Germany’s industrial development was based largely on the armament industry whose functioning was in turn totally dependent on the prospects of Germany’s war making abilities. A lot of economists agree on the fact that Germany’s remarkable economic progress owed a lot to Hitler’s mission to complete his revenge on its rivals who forced the Versailles’ treaty down its throat. Nazi Germany survived on what was called a War Economy which would have collapsed completely during peacetime.

In contrast, Stalinist Russia within less than a decade was showing signs of competing with advanced industrial nations including the United States. Just when its prospects were looking up, the USSR was thrust into one of the most devastating conflicts in human history. The USSR endured a massive human and economic catastrophe in the course of the war and within a decade after winning it, orchestrated a stirring resurgence under Stalin’s leadership to catch up with its Western rivals. Any open minded historian of the twentieth century would agree to the fact that no other nation in the world could have sustained such massive economic reversals, remain unmoved and exhibit such uncanny resilience to restore itself to normalcy. During Khrushchev’s period in the 1960s, the industrial output of the USSR was catching up with that of the United States.

However, the more we tend to attribute these achievements to Stalin, we simultaneously fail to acknowledge the Russian commoner, on whose spirit and sacrifice the entire socialist edifice stood proudly for more than three decades after the war. And it is also absurd to argue that the Russians fought for their Fatherland, gave their lives willingly and worked tirelessly to build socialism solely due to coercion and state repression. Numerous accounts including the recent book by Svetlana Alexevitch(Second Hand Time) give evidence of how committed the Soviet Russians were to the cause of their nation and towards building socialism. In various places of the book, Svetlana brings out the stark differences in attitude between erstwhile Soviet citizens and those of today. The citizens of today’s capitalist Russia are mocked constantly by their predecessors who lived under socialism for having bonded themselves to careers and commodities for their survival. War veterans and teachers and industrial workers under Soviet Russia proudly boast about living for an ‘ideal’ (socialism) and ridicule the state of affairs under the new capitalist order.

Svetlana’s account adds weight to various assumptions that revolve around today’s elderly Russians, a majority of whom feel ‘nostalgic’ about the Soviet Union. Those whom Svetlana interviewed, one can observe, vent their frustration of having been betrayed by those who vouched and campaigned for the dismantling of Soviet Russia in promise of freedom and democracy. Most Soviet Russians strongly believed that with the arrival of perestroika and glasnost, there would be more press freedom, an increased participation of citizens in the administration of the state and gradual easing of norms with respect to their interaction with the ‘outside’. But what happened within less than half a decade was the establishment of a completely alien free market economy controlled by local and foreign vested interests in collusion with new oligarchs bent on looting Russia and its satellites. Russian citizens who were used to having access to free education, healthcare and cheap housing with ‘decent’ employment under socialism were suddenly asked to hurry and join the race for saving their livelihoods. They were asked to adapt immediately to the requirements of the all-new laissez faire order, learn new skills including deceit and subterfuge and familiarize themselves with the new rules of hitherto unknown ‘rat-race’.

Making sense of the Soviet Experiment:

Just before I rest my case, I wish to give an honest and concise account of what I personally feel about the strange story of the Soviet Union. Just when I was introduced to the phenomenon of the Soviet Union in my childhood through the kaleidoscope of Communist propaganda with the help of my father, I was deeply enamored of its achievements and promises. As years passed, I learned through capitalist media and its propagandists about the ghastly crimes that had been committed inside the empire. Honestly I was horrified and the more I learned of them through the lenses of various intellectuals and historians, all I felt was an inner revulsion against the Communists and their shameless instinct for concocting lies and falsehoods. This was the time I was also let into reading Marxist texts and the theoretical foundations of socialism. Needless to say, the theoretical soundness of the Marxist principles and its ability to objectively critique the phenomenon of capitalism fascinated me. By this time, my revulsion for Communists and their machinery had been mildly softened but something about the vast crevice between their theory and practice kept me both intrigued and appalled. My intrigue grew when I started studying Russian history from sources belonging to various schools of political thought and the irreconcilable contradictions I noted from various perspectives only ended up sharpening my obsession with the story of Soviet Russia.

So how do I make sense of it? Let me put my facts up front. Soviet Russia killed millions of its own citizens. The Communist Party ate millions of its own dedicated cadre. For what one might ask? Did the Soviet leaders amass huge fortunes from the toils of ordinary Russians? No. Or at least did they achieve Socialism? Well not exactly. They came close. Oh, does it matter one  might ask. Socialism at the cost of millions of lives? Yes it really does not matter. If Socialism can be achieved only through the slaughter and uprooting of millions of lives, let us say a resounding No to Socialism. But is Socialism only that? Killing millions, socializing poverty, expropriating personal freedom and property? Certainly no. Then what do we conclude about it? Do we accept it or reject it?

A tiny humanist lurking beneath the writer in me shakes and cowers at the horror of what happened at the Soviet Union under Stalin. Were I given a chance to live under such conditions I would surely opt myself out. But when I go through the record of what you call the Free Market which is often touted to be the alternative for socialism, all I get is nothing less than the proverbial chill down my spine. If you don’t believe me, kindly leaf through the histories of Latin America and Africa about how capitalism butchered and enslaved millions of innocent citizens in the name of progress and development in the last few centuries. If you don’t have time, kindly read about books on our own experience under the freedom-loving Brits.

So here is my closing statement. Socialism killed millions of human lives in the USSR mercilessly. During Stalin’s regime, the government was one huge irrepressible killing machine. But once you are done shrinking at the horror of what happened out there, open your closed eyes. Enlighten yourself to the fact that Socialism also saved millions and millions of lives across the globe at the same time from the ravages of imperialist capitalism. It gave hopes to multitudes of toiling masses and helped them fight their righteous fight against predatory capitalism. Even today, things we take for granted such as legally guaranteed working hours, pensions, provident fund, maternity leave, voting rights, the right to organize, the right to education, food and a decent living owe their origins to the idea of Socialism. The USSR regardless of how close it came to achieving Socialism internally, was viewed all over the world by the ruling classes as nothing less than an embodiment of socialism. It was that fear, that terrible fear to protect itself from the hegemony of the working classes that gave all the rights that you have today. Let that sink in.