The Importance of the Russian Revolution for the 21st Century

The year 2017 marks the 100and anniversary of the russian revolutionone of the key events of the 20and century. The Russian Revolution “shook the world”, as the radical American journalist John Reed so aptly put it, because it led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, the world’s first socialist and totalitarian society. The example of the Soviet regime and its commitment to a world socialist revolution generated passionate hope and enthusiasm, and equally intense fear and loathing around the world, according to the public, for seven decades, and these passions have driven or impacted countless major world events.

There is, however, one overlooked aspect of the Russian upheaval of 1917 which, on the 21st century is more important than the Marxist socialist vision he once promoted. It is that the Russian Revolution marked, first, the high tide of Western influence in Russia and, second, the abrupt reversal of that tide, a reversal that began within months and continued unabated, despite some weak counter-currents, for nearly seven decades. Between 1985 and 1999, Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin attempted to bring Russia back to the West. But neither leader could overcome the relentless backlash of the Russian Revolution. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were finally overwhelmed, and in 1999, with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s anti-Western tide resumed its course.

To understand why Western influence peaked and then rapidly receded in Russia in 1917, it is important to understand that what is known as the Russian Revolution consisted of three separate but intertwined events. The first was the February Revolution of 1917 (according to the Russian Julian calendar, which trailed the modern Gregorian calendar by 13 days) when Russia’s autocratic political system collapsed and was replaced by a democratic republic. The autocracy ended primarily due to Russia’s involvement in World War I, which had produced nearly three years of crushing military defeats and severe suffering for the country’s civilian population. The second event was the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 (again according to the Julian calendar), when the fledgling and fragile republic of Russia was overthrown by a military coup and replaced by a one-party dictatorship. The third was the three-year civil war caused by the Bolshevik coup. In this savage struggle, which was far more destructive for Russia than even World War I, the Bolsheviks retained power by defeating a loose coalition spanning the political spectrum, from monarchists to non-Bolshevik socialists.

“The Bolshevik”, a 1920 oil painting by Boris Kustodiev. The Gallery of the Russian Avant-Garde. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How is the Russian Revolution related to the question of Russia and the West? At the beginning of the 20and century, Western influence had seeped into Russia for centuries, bringing with it, among other things, economic development and democratic political ideas. This process accelerated considerably after the emancipation of the serfs of Russia in 1861. By 1917, Russia had a developing capitalist economy, a growing middle class with a Western orientation, and an expanding popular culture that often reflected Western values ​​and standards. As a result, Russia also had a rapidly evolving civil society: the independent state institutions that are the building blocks of Western democratic society. What was lagging behind was democratic political change. After 1905, Russia had a semi-constitutional regime which included a parliament with limited but not insignificant powers, but the tsar still held most of his power and the autocracy remained an insurmountable barrier to necessary reforms. This changed with astonishing speed in February 1917. The autocracy crumbled, and in its place the leaders of the Russian parliament organized a government committed to Western parliamentary democracy. Historically European but not Western, Russia seems to have taken the decisive step towards joining the Western community of nations. But the new Russian Provisional Government could not cope with the hardships of war and social unrest it faced, and only eight months after its establishment the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin overthrown and established a one-party dictatorship. In their determination to establish a socialist society based on Marxist principles, the Bolsheviks forcibly restored autocratic rule in Russia. In the process, they took their first big step in preventing Russia from becoming a Western-style democratic-capitalist society.

In the civil war which inevitably followed their coup, the Bolsheviks were to take many other such measures, the impact of which was ruinously multiplied by the calamities of the civil war itself. Either directly through persecution or indirectly through the methods they used to defeat their opponents, the Bolsheviks destroyed the Russian middle class, the most important agent of Westernization in Russia. Most of the businessmen and professionals who did not lose their lives or who did not emigrate became “old-timers” left to survive as best they could on the margins of the new Soviet society. The civil society that the middle class had painstakingly built was suppressed and dismantled. Western influence never recovered. The Soviet regime allowed a partial return to a market economy in the 1920s, but in 1929 Joseph Stalin launched its famous industrialization campaign which, along with the purges of the 1930s, wiped out civil society and Western influences in Russia. Although the worst aspects of Stalin’s tyranny ended after his death in 1953 and some Western ideas and cultural influences managed to spread to Russia, the de-Westernization imposed under Lenin and Stalin remained intact under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

In the end, the Marxist socialist system built at such terrible human cost could not deliver on its promises and collapsed, and with it the Soviet Union itself. The great hope at the time was that post-Soviet Russia would finally be free to westernize and become a democratic, free-market society. But the former Marxist Russia of 1991 lacked the westernizing institutions of the former Tsarist Russia of 1917. Above all, there was no civil society. The only effective forces left after seven decades of communism were organized crime and the secret police of the former Soviet Union. With Putin at the helm, this meant that Russia, in its post-communist incarnation, would take an anti-Western path of development. Ironically, the ideology that guides Putin today was developed by reactionary anti-Bolshevik émigrés who fled their country between 1917 and 1921. Known as Eurasianism, she postulates that Russian civilization differs from European civilization because it draws on both Slavic and Asian traditions; equally important, Eurasianism insists that Russia has always been threatened by Western European aggression.

Meanwhile, there is little enthusiasm in Russia for Marxism. This ideology, which guided the Russian Revolution from October 1917 and during the second half of the 20and century was rooted in countries that controlled a third of the world’s population, survives today as an operational system only in petty tyrannies such as Cuba and North Korea. (China, which calls itself communist, now has a capitalist economic system.) Marxism is irrelevant as a serious and viable alternative to existing forms of social organization anywhere else in the world, including Russia.

The importance of the Russian Revolution of 1917-1921 to the 21st century will therefore not reside in the socialist society it produced in Russia for most of the 20and century. Instead, he will actually lie that so far and for the foreseeable future he has prevented a Western democratic society from developing there, at great cost not only to Russia but to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

Featured Image Credit: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin addresses the Red Army in Moscow in 1920, with Leon Trotsky watching from the right by Lev Yakovlevich Leonidov. Public domain through Wikimedia Commons.