The bloodshed that was the Russian Revolution

We know that communism has led to some of the worst crimes against humanity. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were monsters, killing millions of their own countrymen. But these were not aberrations. Not many people know that the world’s first communist revolution in Russia, which began exactly 101 years ago, was not just a few memorable days that shook the world, but a bloodbath of several years. Millions of people would die – from mass murder, civil war, repression and famine, before the Communist Party established full control in all its brutal glory.

Communism reached its hideous depths in Russia under Stalin, but it was rotten from day one. On November 6 and 7, 1917, an armed band of Bolshevik workers, soldiers and sailors stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the seat of a faltering Russian government. On November 8, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stood up in front of the new All-Russian Congress of Soviets to take the reins.

The Bolsheviks first promised to respect the will of a constituent assembly, elected by universal suffrage. But when they lost the election, they closed the legislature after it only operated for one day and seized power. One party after another was banned, non-Bolshevik newspapers closed, and open opposition suppressed by a new secret police, the Cheka, which had unlimited power to arrest and shoot “counter-revolutionaries.” Everything was nationalized. The State (which is to say the Party) has become the sole owner of the productive and income-generating assets of the country.

Money was effectively destroyed by the rampant printing of currency, which led to extraordinary inflation: by January 1923, prices, compared to 1913, had increased 100 million times. A whole population was impoverished.

How to feed the cities and the army, when the peasants refused to sell their products for a rapidly depreciated currency for which there was nothing to buy? Lenin sent the army to expropriate the food. Thousands of peasants have been killed.

The “Red Terror” began in September 1918. Lenin ordered the Cheka to carry out mass executions of suspected opponents. He also instituted the practice of taking hostages among old regime officials and well-to-do citizens: they were to be executed whenever the interests of the state so demanded. About 140,000 people died.

Meanwhile, Russia was waging a war on its borders against the British-backed White Russian Army. The Red Army won the war, but the victory hides horrible facts. The rate of desertions from the Red Army was exceptionally high. Machine gun detachments were often placed behind troops to fire at retreating units. Estimates of civil war casualties, mostly civilian casualties from epidemics and hunger, range from 10 million to three times as much.

In 1920 industrial production was about a quarter of what it had been in 1913, and the number of employed workers had fallen by about half. Productivity per worker was a quarter of the 1913 level. Forced to return any grain that officials decided they did not need, the peasants continued to reduce their area sown. This has resulted in a steady decline in grain production. In 1920, the grain harvest yielded only two-thirds of the 1913 harvest. At the beginning of 1921 there was a massive famine. The hungry began to eat grass and, at times, cannibalism. Human losses are estimated at 5.1 million. At that time, the whole countryside was in rebellion: hundreds of thousands of peasants fought the Red Army and were killed.

In 1922, Lenin replaced the Cheka with the GPU, with even greater powers. In addition to a wide discretion to deal with political opponents and manage concentration camps, he was responsible for penetrating all economic institutions to prevent “sabotage”. Hundreds of thousands of people have “disappeared”.

Meanwhile, Stalin had climbed the Party ranks, buying out members with the promise of increased rations in times of great scarcity. Aware of the quarrels within the party, Lenin tried to intervene, but failed. From December 1922, he lived under quasi house arrest. Upon his death in January 1924, Lenin was embalmed and permanently exhibited in a mausoleum in Red Square, to provide superstitious peasants with a visible symbol of holiness. The revolution was over, but the horrors had only just begun.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor-in-chief of The Financial Express and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

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