Laying the Foundation for the Soviet Union: 1917-1921, from Revolution to a New Structure

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin addressing a crowd during the Russian Revolution of 1917. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum / 12.28.2015
Professor of Russian and European History
Michigan State University


February Revolution

Aleksei Radakov: The Autocratic System (1917) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, by Leah Dickerman

More than three centuries of Romanov dynastic rule came to an end in late February 1917 when striking workers and mutinous soldiers in Petrograd forced tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne. The Revolution began on February 23 (March 8 NS) when working-class women, observing the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, took to the streets of the capital to protest against food shortages and high bread prices. This was not the first of such protests during the war, but over the next several days, encouraged by calls from activists in the revolutionary underground (including Bolsheviks), crowds of both men and women swelled and marched to the center of the city. There, units of the regular police as well as Cossacks and soldiers from the Volhynian regiment attempted to disperse them but with limited success. Indeed, by February 27, with Petrograd at a virtual standstill, key military units went over to the side of the crowds, seized arsenals of weapons, and on the following day placed the tsarist ministers under arrest. The tsar, who had taken personal command of the army, sought to return to Petrograd to restore the status quo ante, but was persuaded by his own generals and a delegation of politicians from the State Duma that only his abdication could achieve social peace.

Petrograd Municipal Duma: Revolution in Petrograd! (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database

On March 2 the provisional committee of the State Duma, consisting of leading moderate and liberal politicians, declared itself a Provisional Government. When the crowd outside the Tauride Palace taunted Pavel Miliukov, the leading politician of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) Party and the first Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Provisional Government, with cries of “Who elected you?” his response was “We were elected by the Russian Revolution.” But as suggested by its very name, the new government’s authority was limited, and from the outset it was acknowledged that only a popularly elected Constituent Assembly could decide the political structure of the country. Moreover, simultaneous with the government’s formation, the socialist parties (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries) called upon workers and soldiers to elect deputies to soviets. In Petrograd the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies formed an Executive Committee which met in almost continual session. Initially dominated by Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Executive Committee determined its main purpose to be the defense of “democracy” for which it extended support to the “bourgeois” Provisional Government on a conditional basis. Soviets soon emerged in other cities and eventually in rural areas as well.

Nightmare of the Deserter (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The overthrow of tsarism was greeted with popular acclaim. The loss of effective state authority gave the public unprecedented freedom of assembly and expression and resulted in the establishment of new newspapers, political organizations, trade unions, and other institutions of civil society. These, the halcyon days of the revolution, lasted about a month. During this time, the Provisional Government, guided by the spirit of political liberalism, issued a stream of decrees covering education, labor relations, religious affairs, and other spheres of public life. With respect to food shortages, it felt compelled to establish a state grain monopoly to be administered by elaborate hierarchy of provisioning committees under a Ministry of Food Supply. However, on the main, “burning” questions of Russia’s continued participation in the war, and land reform, the government either confined itself to setting up committees to study the question or deferred any decision until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. In retrospect, it is easy to see this relative inaction as having fatally undermined the Provisional Government.

Formation of the Soviets

Valentin Serov: Lenin Proclaims the Victory of the Revolution (November 8, 1917) to Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets / FUNET Image Archive

When some thirty to forty socialist intellectuals and workers gathered in the Tauride Palace on the afternoon of February 27, 1917 to attempt to provide leadership to the revolution already happening in the streets of the capital, they harked back to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies thrown up by the 1905 Revolution. Declaring themselves a Temporary Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, they appealed to workers and soldiers to send representatives to a meeting called for that evening. By about nine o’clock, approximately 250 workers, soldiers and socialist intellectuals had assembled. They chose Nikolai Chkheidze, a Menshevik Duma deputy, as chairman, and two other socialist Duma deputies, Mikhail Skobelev and Aleksandr Kerenskii, as vice-chairmen. They also elected an Executive Committee comprised mainly of intellectuals. Thus was born the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ (and from March 1, Soldiers’) Deputies.


Left: Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov
Right: Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviets – First Manifesto of the Soviets of Workers Deputies (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

In Moscow, the process was almost identical. The first meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies on March 1 was attended by 52 delegates from factories, cooperative societies and trade unions. After electing an Executive Committee of 44 members (!), the meeting adjourned until the evening by which time over six hundred delegates had assembled. L. M. Khinchuk, a Menshevik, was elected chairman of the Executive Committee and like Chkheidze in Petrograd, served in this position until the Bolsheviks obtained a majority in September.

Who is Against the Soviets? (1917-1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Both in Moscow and Petrograd, as indeed elsewhere in the country, the soviets initially were dominated by moderate socialists who coordinated their activities with the Committees of Public Safety and other bodies constitutive of the Provisional Government. Yet, as organs dedicated to defending the interests of workers and soldiers, they implicitly challenged the claim of the Provisional Government to be above class. This situation of dual power (dvoevlastie) thus proved inherently unstable, despite the intentions of the soviets’ leaders to merely secure the revolution rather than driving it forward.

April Crisis

Arkadii Viktorovich Rusin: Lenin’s Arrival at the Finland-Station in 1917 / 1970 Painting by Werner Horvath, Political Art Gallery

The euphoria of the February Revolution did not last long. Within weeks of the overthrow of the tsar, the continued, indeed intensified, deterioration of economic life was roiling the population. With inflation beginning to spiral out of control, agreements concluded between nascent trade unions and employers rapidly became moot as wage increases were nullified by rising prices. Factory owners as well as the landed nobility tended to look to the Provisional Government to protect them from the rising tide of worker and peasant demands. Workers organized factory committees to press their case for workers’ control of factory administration and sought the support of the soviets; peasants petitioned the Provisional Government for revision of land ownership and when they received no effective reply, began to organize rent strikes and even seizures of landowners’ property.

Lenin speech at the Tauride Palace in Petrograd (April 1917) / Marxists Internet Archive

Over and above these economic issues, though, was the question of Russia’s participation in the war, which was widely blamed for its economic miseries. The Petrograd Soviet brought pressure on the Provisional Government by issuing an “Appeal to All the Peoples of the World” on March 14 that repudiated expansionist war aims in the name of “revolutionary defensism.” The government responded on March 27 with a “Declaration on War Aims” that also rejected annexations and indemnities as war aims but contradictorily asserted the need to observe treaty obligations. In the midst of these tensions between the two central institutions of “dual power,” Vladimir Lenin arrived in Petrograd on April 3 aboard a sealed train that had taken him from Switzerland through Germany. At the Finland Station he issued a speech denouncing both positions and demanding the elimination of dual power by the transfer of “all power to the soviets.” These so-called April Theses clearly set the Bolsheviks apart from the other socialist parties, and it took all of Lenin’s considerable persuasive powers to overcome opposition among those who had been guiding the party in his absence.

Statue of Lenin at Finland-Station / FUNET Image Archive

The dispute over Russia’s war aims exploded into a full-blown political crisis after the publication of a note that the Foreign Minister, Pavel Miliukov, had sent to the allies on April 18 reaffirming the Provisional Government’s commitment to prosecute the war to a victorious end and observe all treaties entered into by its tsarist predecessor. Mass demonstrations and clashes on the streets of Petrograd forced both Miliukov and the War Minister, Aleksandr Guchkov, to resign. The Provisional Government thereupon invited the Petrograd Soviet to help form a coalition government consisting of both socialist and non-socialist leaders, an invitation that the Soviet Executive Committee accepted with reservations. On May 5, five additional socialists including the Socialist-Revolutionary, Victor Chernov, and the Mensheviks Irakli Tseretelli and Mikhail Skobelev, joined Kerenskii in government. This had two critical consequences: the lines of dual power became considerably blurred, and the two main socialist rivals of the Bolsheviks now were inextricably associated with the policies of the Provisional Government and above all, its continued prosecution of the war.

Revolution in the Army


Left: Lieutenant-General M.V. Aleksieev (1914), by I.D. Sytin Lithography / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Lieutenant-General A.A. Brusilov (1914), by I.D. Sytin Lithography / Hoover Political Database

At the time of the February Revolution, the Imperial Russian Army contained some seven and a half million soldiers who were overwhelmingly drawn from the peasantry. The most immediate and tangible effect of the Revolution on the army was Order No. 1 issued by the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on March 1, 1917 and approved under duress by the Provisional Government. Among other things, the Order called for the election of soldiers’ committees under whose disposal all arms were to be placed. Although they were to maintain “the strictest military discipline,” soldiers were to enjoy the rights of all citizens outside the service and the ranks. They also were no longer to be addressed by their officers in the familiar (and condescending) form of “you” (ty). The addressing of officers with titles such as “your Excellency” was abolished and replaced by “Mister General,” “Mister Colonel,” etc.


Left: Aleksandr Kerenskii at the Western Front in World War I (1917)
Right: Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies Order No. 1 (March 1, 1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The first few weeks of the revolution witnessed the desertion of between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers, most of whom were peasants anxious to return to their villages to participate in what they expected would be a division of the land. There was also a substantial tide of arrests of officers, particularly senior commanders, and their replacement by more popular individuals. Instances of violence, including executions of officers, were recorded in the Baltic Fleet and in the Petrograd garrison, but were relatively rare at the front. In his report of April 16, General Alekseev, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, complained that “the army is systematically falling apart,” a situation that he attributed to the spread of “defeatist literature and propaganda.” But what is no less striking about the revolution in the army is the extent to which rank-and-file soldiers justified their actions in the patriotic terms of defending a “free Russia.”


Left: Boris Kustodiev – Freedom Loan (1917) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin
Right: Sketch of Aleksandr Kerenskii, by Iurii Annekov (1917) / Inter-Language Literary Associates

Whatever the case, Aleksandr Kerenskii, who had replaced Aleksandr Guchkov as Minister of the Army and Navy in May, became convinced that Russia either had to accept the virtual demobilization of the army and capitulate to Germany or assume the initiative in military operations. Touring the fronts, he sought to whip up enthusiasm for an offensive that he and the leading core of officers hoped would ignite patriotic fervor and bring victory to revolutionary Russia. The offensive, under General A. A. Brusilov, began on June 18 all along the southwestern front. After some initial successes, the Russian army’s advances were repulsed, and the desperate attempt to stem the tide of the army’s disintegration actually served to accelerate it.

July Days

Petrograd, July 4, 1917 / Photo by K. Bulla, Wikimedia Commons

“You have come here, you, red men of Kronstadt, as soon as you heard about the danger threatening the revolution … Long live red Kronstadt, the glory and pride of the revolution!” Thus did Leon Trotsky harangue and flatter the soldiers and sailors who amassed before the Tauride Palace to attempt to force the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet to seize power from the Provisional Government. The armed demonstration which included soldiers from the Petrograd garrison and factory workers began on the evening of July 3 and lasted until the morning of the fifth.


Left: Petrograd street demonstration (1917) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Rally at Putilov Factory (1917) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

The soldiers and sailors of Kronstadt were among the most militant in the Russian armed forces. In February they had executed some forty officers including the base commander, Admiral R. N. Viren. They had figured prominently in the Petrograd street demonstrations of April and June. In May, the Kronstadt soviet had declared itself the sole authority on the island and endorsed Lenin’s call for “all power to the soviets.” Now in July, they sought to realize that demand, at one point taking captive Victor Chernov, the SR Minister of Agriculture in the Provisional Government, whom they regarded as a traitor to the revolution.

Meeting of the Bolsheviks Military Committee (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The Bolshevik leadership, including Lenin who had just returned to Petrograd from Finland, was fundamentally ambivalent about the demonstration. While the Central Committee advised caution lest the demonstration provoke a counter-revolutionary thrust, the party’s Military Organization and Petersburg Committee publicly endorsed it and summoned reinforcements from the front. But at the same time, the Executive Committee of the Soviet, still dominated by Mensheviks and SRs, also called up troops to disperse the demonstrators. Moreover, the Provisional Government, in a desperate attempt to undermine the Bolsheviks’ credibility, decided to go public with its investigation of their receipt of German money and charges that Lenin was a German spy. These actions combined to quell the rebellion.


Left: Comrade Soldiers and Workers! (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: To the Workers of Petrograd! (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database

There exists no film footage of the July Days. But ten years later, Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatization of the revolution, October, included what was to become one of the most famous scenes of Soviet cinema in which the demonstrators scatter as they are fired upon from the rooftops.

Kornilov Affair


Left: General Lavr Georgievich Kornilov (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: General Lavr Georgievich Kornilov waving to a Moscow crowd from a limousine (1917) / Wikimedia Commons

The July Days did not end the revolution’s summer of discontent. On the one hand, the propertied classes’ fears of chaos and disorder from below seemed to have been realized; on the other, the Provisional Government, now led by Aleksandr Kerenskii and galvanized into action against the Bolsheviks, seemed less likely than ever to alleviate the economic distress and social resentment among the lower classes. While factory management frequently responded to rising costs and loss of control over workers by curtailing or even shutting down operations, workers increasingly resorted to strikes, physical attacks against foremen and other line supervisors, and occupations of factory grounds. The breakdown of food and fuel distribution systems had ripple effects throughout the entire economy and society. Crime and acts of violence rose dramatically as unruly bands of armed deserters roamed through the streets and railroad stations. In the countryside, peasant land seizures went unpunished. Further afield, in some of the national minority areas, separatist movements gathered pace, while in the northwest the German army was advancing. As class polarization became more manifest and conspiracy theories proliferated, the whole country seemed to be falling apart. “Chaos in the army, chaos in foreign policy, chaos in industry and chaos in the nationalist questions” was the way Pavel Miliukov, the Kadet Party leader, summed up the situation in late July.

Don’t Believe the Whispers! (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database

These, then, were the circumstances in which General Lavr Kornilov, appointed Supreme Commander of the Russian armed forces on July 18, appeared as a savior to many who longed for an end to the revolutionary “chaos.” Those who backed his candidacy for the role of military dictator included several key politicians from the conservative and centrist parties, top military personnel, and banking and industrial leaders associated with the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia and the Republican Center. Lauded as a hero after his escape from a Hungarian prisoner-of-war camp and return to Russia in 1916, Kornilov held the Petrograd Soviet responsible for the breakdown of discipline in the army. He also came to regard the Provisional Government as lacking the backbone to dissolve the Soviet and therefore unworthy of survival. On August 27, after several ambiguous exchanges with Kerenskii who desired to bring the Soviet to heel but not to eliminate the institution, Kornilov ordered General Krymov to lead the “Savage Division” and the Third Cavalry Corps on an assault of Petrograd.

Petrograd Soviet: Order to mobilize against the Kornilove Insurrection (1917) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

This attempted putsch was an abysmal failure mainly because of the Soviet’s effective mobilization of workers and soldiers in defense of the revolution. The key defenders were armed workers organized into Red Guards, elements of the Petrograd Garrison, and railroad workers who halted the trains carrying Kornilov’s troops while they were en route to the capital. By August 31, Krymov was dead, having committed suicide, and Kornilov and several associates were under arrest. The main victor in the Kornilov Affair was the radical left, and in particular the Bolsheviks who had long warned of the danger of a counter-revolutionary thrust. Kerenskii’s authority and that of the Provisional Government were severely compromised, and the way now appeared open towards realizing Lenin’s injunction for the soviets to assume “all power.”

Bolsheviks Seize Power


Left: Military-Revolutionary Committee – Arrest of the Provisional Government (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: The October Socialist Revolution / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in October 1917 was celebrated for over seventy years by the Soviet government as a sacred act that laid the foundation for a new political order which would transform “backward” Russia (and after 1923 the Soviet Union) into an advanced socialist society. Officially known as the October Revolution (or simply “October”), it was regarded by the Bolsheviks’ enemies — and continued to be interpreted by many western historians — as a conspiratorial coup that deprived Russia of the opportunity to establish a democratic polity.


Left: Bolshevik regiments marching to Smolnyi (1917) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams
Right: Red Guards at the Winter Palace (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

“The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands … The majority of the people are on our side.” Thus did Lenin, still in Finland as a fugitive from arrest on charges leveled in the aftermath of the July Days, cajole his party’s Central Committee in September. Lenin’s assessment of the shifting balance of forces was acute. So was his sense of urgency. The leftward swing in popular sentiment after the Kornilov Affair was strengthening the Bolsheviks, but also the more radical elements of the SR and Menshevik parties committed to the establishment of an all-socialist coalition government. While most Bolsheviks also favored such an arrangement and looked forward to the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets as the vehicle for delivering it, Lenin was adamant that only an insurrection could deal a decisive blow to the Provisional Government and the threat of counter-revolution. On October 10, having returned to Petrograd, he obtained, by a vote of 10-2, a resolution of the Central Committee in favor of making an armed uprising the order of the day.


Left: The Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov
Center: Fighting in the city (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams
Right: The Armored Cars (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

It was a measure of the Provisional Government’s over-confidence and isolation that even after the two Bolshevik dissenters, Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, went public with their dissent, it did not take any decisive measures. In the meantime, the Bolsheviks managed to fashion the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Petrograd Soviet into a command center for carrying out the insurrection. Kerenskii’s ill-conceived decision to shut down the Bolsheviks’ printing press, an action that evoked the specter of counter-revolution, turned out to be the impetus for the uprising. On October 24, Red Guards and soldiers under the MRC’s command, began to occupy key points in the city. By the following day, the assembled delegates to the soviet congress were informed that the Bolsheviks had taken power in the name of the soviets, and that they should proceed to form a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government. Within minutes, the battleship Aurora was bombarding (with blank shells) the Winter Palace, where most of the Provisional Government’s ministers waited in anxious expectation, and the Palace was stormed by Red Guards. As the Menshevik and SR delegates stormed out of the soviet congress in protest, Trotsky, the congress’ president, told them to join “the rubbish heap of history.”

First Bolshevik Decrees


Left: Fight for Socialism! (1918) / Hoover Political Posters Database
Center: Revenge on the Tsars! (1917) / Hoover Political Posters Database
Right: To Our Deceased Brothers in White Guard Trenches (1917-29) / Hoover Political Posters Database

In the early hours of October 26, 1917 the rump Second Congress of the Soviets adopted a proclamation drafted by Lenin which declared the Provisional Government overthrown and laid out the new soviet government’s program: an immediate armistice “on all fronts,” transfer of land to peasant committees, workers’ control over production, the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, bread to the cities, and the right of self-determination to all nations inhabiting Russia. That very evening the Congress met for a second time and took three actions: decrees on peace and land, and the formation of a new government.

Telephone switchboard (November 8, 1917) / Moscow: Krasnaia Gazeta, 1927

The decree on peace called on the belligerent powers to cease hostilities and commit themselves to no annexations or indemnities. It also appealed to the workers of Britain, France and Germany to support the Soviet’s decision, that is, in effect, to put pressure on their respective governments to enter into negotiations for a just peace. The land decree that Lenin composed took its brief from the SR program and the peasant “mandates” that had been delivered to the All-Russia Congress of Peasant Deputies in May. It proclaimed that “private ownership of land shall be abolished forever” so that land could “become the property of the whole people, and shall pass into the use of those who cultivate it.” By recognizing what already had occurred in many parts of the country, the decree legitimized the new government in the eyes of the peasants.


Left: Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (1918) / Hoover Political Database
Right: Bolshevik sailors examining cars (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

Finally, the Congress approved the formation of the new governing body presented by Lenin, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). It consisted of all Bolsheviks, including Lenin as chairman and thus head of the government, Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs, and Stalin as commissar for nationality affairs. The Congress also selected a new Central Executive Committee (TsIK), which was to exercise full authority in between congresses. Sixty-two of the 101 members of the TsIK were Bolsheviks, 29 were Left SRs, and the remaining ten were divided among Menshevik-Internationalists and other minor socialist groups. The exact relationship between Sovnarkom and the TsIK and the extent to which the rest of the country would recognize these decisions remained unclear for some time to come.

Constituent Assembly


Left: Viktor Deni – Constituent Assembly (1921) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: March for the Constituent Assembly! (1917) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

The convocation of a Constituent Assembly was one of the earliest and most popular demands to emerge from the February Revolution. As in the 1848 Revolution in France, when such a body, elected on the basis of universal male suffrage, had replaced the Provisional Government and drawn up a republican constitution, so in Russia it was an article of faith among both liberal and socialist parties that the revolution should take this course. Yet, deferring the resolution of fundamental issues until a Constituent Assembly could meet, the Provisional Government postponed elections until November 12 by which time it had been overthrown.

Kolchak: Supreme Leader of Russia (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Despite his unwillingness to relinquish power, Lenin permitted the elections to proceed. This decision bought the Bolsheviks valuable time, as many who were opposed to their seizure of power considered the Bolshevik government as another in a series of temporary fixtures. In the elections the various factions of the SRs received approximately half of the 42 million votes cast, the Bolsheviks polled about ten million (24 percent) including roughly half of the soldiers’ vote, the Kadets received two million (five percent), and the remaining eight million votes went to other non-socialist parties, the Mensheviks, and parties representing national minorities. In a series of nineteen “theses” published in Pravda on December 13, Lenin made it quite clear that the Bolsheviks had no intention of being bound by the results of the election. First, he argued, the ballot was undemocratic because it had failed to distinguish between the Left SRs who had supported the October Revolution and other factions that had opposed it. Second, the republic of soviets then in the process of formation was a higher form of democracy than the Constituent Assembly because, he insisted, it represented the true interests of the working masses. Indeed, the decrees on peace and land as well as other measures adopted by the Soviet government made the Constituent Assembly less important in the eyes of many workers and soldiers.

All-Russian Jewish Congress (1917) / Hoover Political Poster Database

In the event, the approximately seven hundred delegates to the Constituent Assembly met for a single session on January 5, 1918 in the Tauride Palace. Having chosen the Right SR leader, Victor Chernov, as president of the assembly, the delegates approved the armistice with the Central Powers and issued a land law before being told to adjourn by the soldiers and Red Guards surrounding the building. The assembly planned to reconvene the next day, but was prevented from doing so by Red Guards on orders from the Central Executive Committee of the soviets. The Right SRs under Chernov eventually left the capital to set up a government of the Constituent Assembly on the Volga but, attracting little popular support, it was overthrown in November 1918 by the White general, Kolchak, who declared himself “Supreme Ruler.” Thus ended with a whimper Russia’s first exercise in parliamentary democracy, a casualty – like much else – of the October Revolution and the civil war.

Treaty of Brest Litovsk


Left: Leonid Pastenak – The Price of Blood on the Third Anniversary of the Imperial War (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Ioffe Kamenev at Brest Litovsk (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The ruined fortress town of Brest Litovsk, deep behind German lines in occupied Poland, was selected by the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) as the site to conduct negotiations with the new Soviet government. There, on December 2, 1917 an armistice was signed, but it would not be until March 3 (NS), 1918 that a formal treaty was issued. Even thereafter, military action continued for several months, as the German army pushed further and further into territories nominally under Soviet control.

H.R.E. – The Newest Film: Peace with Ukraine (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Initially, the Soviet government’s strategy, as articulated by Trotsky, its commissar for foreign affairs, was “neither war nor peace.” That is, assuming that the capitalist world was on the brink of exhaustion and that Soviet defiance would rouse the oppressed masses of Europe to revolution, Trotsky argued (against the opposition of Lenin) that the negotiations should be used for propaganda purposes. However, after the Germans resumed military operations on February 18 (NS) and presented stiffer demands that included an end to the Soviet presence in Ukraine and the Baltic provinces, Lenin achieved a majority in the party’s Central Committee in favor of accepting the enemy’s terms. Thus, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk provided the fledgling Soviet government with a “breathing spell,” in effect buying it time by sacrificing space.

Ioffe Pokrovski: Trotsky at Brest Litovsk (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

This bow to expediency did not go down well with many Bolsheviks, not to speak of their sympathizers in Europe or Russia’s war-time allies who had feared just such a separate peace. At the Bolsheviks’ Seventh Congress, the treaty was denounced by Nikolai Bukharin and other so-called Left Communists as a capitulation to imperialism. It also was anathema to the Left SRs who, having supplied several commissars to Sovnarkom in December, withdrew them in protest and voted against the treaty at the Fourth Congress of Soviets. Their assassination of the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, in early July was preliminary to an uprising in Moscow, and the simultaneous but separately organized seizure of Yaroslavl’. In the meantime, the German army rolled across Ukraine, easily defeating the isolated soviet “republics” that had been established in Odessa, Kiev, and the Donets-Krivoi Rog, and installing General P. P. Skoropadskii as “Hetman” (Chieftain) of a thoroughly dependant Ukrainian state. The collapse of the German and Austrian-Hungarian empires in November 1918 left Ukraine once again up for grabs among the Ukrainian nationalist Rada, the Soviet Red Army, various peasant-based anarchist groups, and eventually. Poland. The German army would return in 1941.

Four Kinds of States

Communist Party Building

Comrade Workers! (1917-21) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Communist Party (the Bolsheviks’ proper name after March 1918) styled itself as the “vanguard of the proletariat” and in this vein served as the nerve center of the new Soviet state. During its first years in power, the party metamorphosed into a hierarchically structured bureaucracy that functioned on the basis of discipline as mandated by the principle of “democratic centralism.” From 1917 through 1925, the party held annual congresses (as well as smaller and less formal conferences) at which delegates heard reports from leading figures, debated and voted on resolutions, and elected members to the Central Committee. The Central Committee stood at the apex of a hierarchy of committees that extended downward to the regions, provinces, and so forth, paralleling and shadowing the soviet administrative structure. The key personnel at every level consisted of secretaries whose appointment was based on “recommendations” from the next highest level up to the Secretariat of the Central Committee. This system also applied to other important assignments within the party and state and came to be known as the nomenklatura. As approved by the Eighth Congress in March 1919, the Central Committee created two other bodies: an Organizational Bureau (Orgbiuro) to manage the burgeoning party apparatus, and the Political Bureau (Politbiuro) to deal with “political questions” too urgent to await a full meeting of the Central Committee.

Join the Communist Party! (1920) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

The size of the party fluctuated a good deal during its first years in power. At the time of the October Revolution it numbered between 250- and 300,000. Many factors limited its growth thereafter including the elementary struggle for survival which left little time for active political engagement, political disenchantment especially in the spring of 1918, death at the front, and a purge (that is, removal) of passive members, deserters from the Red Army and other undesirable elements which was carried out in the spring of 1919. By August 1919 the Secretariat estimated total membership as no more than 150,000. As a result of intense recruitment, numbers increased to 430,000 by January 1920 and as many as 600,000 by March. But despite special efforts to recruit members from the working class, their proportion fell steadily throughout these years, from 57 percent at the beginning of 1918, to 48 percent in early 1919 and 44 percent a year later. The proportions of peasants, particularly lads who had served in the Red Army, and what the sources refer to as “employees,” that is, white-collar workers, correspondingly rose.

Stalin, Lenin, and Kalinin at the VIII Party Congress (1919) / Wikimedia Commons

The upper echelons of the party frequently were split over policy matters. Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s opposition to armed insurrection in October 1917 provoked Lenin’s wrath, although they incurred no punishment. Oppositional positions soon emerged over other issues. The Brest Litovsk Treaty was opposed by the Left Communist faction which also voiced protest against Lenin’s willingness to rely on “bourgeois specialists” in industry and administration. Two former Left Communists, V. V. Osinskii and T. V. Sapronov, organized another opposition group, the Democratic Centralists, that lobbied for restoring autonomy to local party organizations and against the trend towards “appointmentism.” A Military Opposition emerged at the Eighth Congress against the professionalization of the army and the use of tsarist officers as “military specialists.” During the summer and autumn of 1920, unrest among industrial workers and the party’s rank and file crystallized in the form of a Workers’ Opposition. Led by Aleksandra Kollontai and Aleksandr Shliapnikov, it campaigned for trade-union control of industry. The party’s Tenth Congress passed a resolution denouncing the Workers’ Opposition as a “syndicalist and anarchist deviation.” Another resolution, “On Party Unity,” condemned both the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists as fractional groups whose members risked expulsion from the party. These resolutions foreshadowed further tightening of restrictions on all forms of oppositional activity.

Economic Apparatus


Left: The Happy Worker in Sovdepia (1918) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters
Right: The Rising Cost of Mens’ Woolen Suits in Sovdepia (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Communism, as described by Karl Marx, resolves the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Private ownership disappears, as does social inequality and the exploitation of labor by capital. Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks thought of communism only in the distant future, and during the long years of underground activity, their thoughts were focused on active resistance to tsarism. Only in the months leading up to the October Revolution did Lenin begin drafting ideas about the shape of a communist state. He distinguished the developed communism of the future, under which the state would wither away, from its earlier stages, in which a worker-run state would control the accumulation of capital. He predicted a long transitional period between capitalism and communism, demanding a strong role from the state.


Left: Iu. K. Korolev – How Was the People’s Money Spent Under the Tsars? (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Rising Cost of Shoes in Sovdepia (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Though lagging behind Europe and North America, the Russian economy was still significantly modern. Its vigorous industries needed a modern infrastructure and legal system. Though untrained as economists, the Bolsheviks took charge quickly. As early as December 1, 1917, they established a Supreme Council of the National Economy (VSNKh) to organize a general economic plan and financial administration for the new state. Initially headed by V. Osinskii and from April 1918 by A. Rykov, VSNKh took its place in Sovnarkom as a kind of super commissariat with an elaborate infrastructure to handle its enormous but none too clearly defined responsibilities. VSNKh essentially presided over the nationalization, or confiscation of assets, of banking and industry and sought to work out a system according to which the most urgent tasks of production and exchange could be effectuated. It advocated seizure of all joint stock companies, annulled all loans made by the state before October 1917, and put labor unions in control of industrial enterprises. Through its branch units, known as main administrations (glavki) and regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy), VSNKh struggled mightily to gain control of and coordinate the economic resources of the country. Forceful though all these measures were, they contained more than a bit of wishful thinking, and betrayed an ambivalence about rapid or revolutionary approaches to economic reform. Along with his socialist utopianism and his revolutionary ruthlessness, Lenin had a practical streak that saw little use in destroying a vast economy. As a transitional measure, he advocated features of a large-scale capitalist economy such as individual managerial control, wage and piecework incentives, even the employment of bourgeois technical experts and managers.

Three Years of the Proletarian Revolution (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The egalitarian (equalizing) impulse can be seen in the very first decrees of the Soviet state, which abolished the system of social estates and ranks that underpinned tsarist society. The decrees were followed eventually by an ambitious program of nationalization, based on the truism that property would be held communally under socialism. The program was not at all as predictable as it seems in retrospect. The first act of nationalization took place in December 1917, when all banks were merged into the State Bank that had been created by the old regime. This act was directed against currency speculation and the flight of capital, in the spirit of the slogan common in those days, to “Loot the looters.” Yet it involved no direct confiscation of funds, and was an amateurish takeover accomplished by revolutionaries with no experience in banking. Lenin and his comrades did not make confiscatory nationalization a state policy until six months into the Revolution. In spring 1918, the Sovnarkhoz issued instructions for the administration of nationalized industries, and begin to undermine the control of capital by private citizens by first nationalizing foreign trade, and then abolishing the principle of inheritance. By late summer and early autumn, the final foundations of socialist nationalization were put in place with decrees abolishing private real estate, private trade of all types, and nationalizing small industrial enterprises.

Building the Soviets

The Petrograd Soviet (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

The Soviet state, as conceived by Lenin and his closest comrades, was to be a state like no other, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would defend the workers’ and peasants’ republic and preside over the elimination of classes and, ultimately, of itself. But if, in Lenin’s words, soviet power was the “organizational form of the dictatorship,” what was the organizational form assumed by the soviets?

Every Cook Must Learn How to Govern the State (1925) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

An early indication of what was envisioned is contained in a Sovnarkom decree of December 24, 1917 which defined them as “organs of government” devoted to “the tasks of administration and service in all departments of local life.” Instructions issued by the Commissariat of Internal Affairs on January 9, 1918 elaborated on the tasks to be undertaken by the soviets. Finally, the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, which was adopted by the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets in July 1918, formally established the hierarchy of soviets beginning at the top with the All-Russian Congress, the Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) and Sovnarkom, and proceeding down to regional, provincial, county and rural soviet levels. This arrangement served as the model for the soviet republics of Ukraine and Belorussia upon their establishment in 1919 and others subsequently incorporated within the Union.

CED Presdium (1919) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

But its tidiness on paper obscures a good deal of chaos, strong-arming, and improvisation on the ground. Even after the expulsion of Mensheviks and SRs from the VTsIK in July 1918, the delineation of functions between that body and Sovnarkom was quite blurred. This also was the case with respect to the commissariats, particularly at the provincial level where several typically claimed priority over the distribution of food and housing, the administration of industry, transport allocation, and educational policy. As far as elections to the soviets were concerned, many at the provincial and lower levels were annulled in 1918 after they had produced Menshevik and SR majorities. One trend that proved inexorable and irreversible was the shift in administration from the general meeting of soviet deputies to smaller executive committees (ispolkomy). This was in keeping with Lenin’s tirade in “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” (April 1918) against “petty-bourgeois disorganization,” if not his injunction to “weed out bureaucracy.”

Red Guard into Army


Left: Workers Defend Petrograd (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Chapaev (1918) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

Lenin and his closest comrades believed that one of the characteristic features of modern “bourgeois” states, a standing army, was undesirable and inappropriate for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic over which they presided. Thus, even as negotiations with the Central Powers were underway at Brest Litovsk, the old Imperial Russian Army was being dismantled. At the same time, however, it became apparent that the rag-tag Red Guard units and elements of the imperial army who had gone over the side of the Bolsheviks were quite inadequate to the task of defending the new government against external foes. Thus, on January 15, 1918 Sovnarkom decreed the formation of the Worker-Peasant Red Army, to consist of volunteers from among “the most class-conscious and organized elements of the toiling masses.”


Left: First Petrograd Red Army Soldiers (1918) / Moscow: Krasnia Gazeta
Right: Kalinin and Buddenyi at the Polish Front (1920) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

The architect of the Red Army’s formation was Trotsky who was appointed People’s Commissar for the Army and Navy in March 1918 and remained in that position until 1925. Assisted by General M.D. Bonch-Bruevich, a former Imperial Guard officer who served as head of the new Soviet Supreme Military Council, Trotsky assiduously recruited and defended the use of former tsarist officers, euphemistically known as “military specialists.” While few officers identified with Soviet power, many were willing to lend their services in the defense of Russia against foreign (initially German and Austro-Hungarian) forces. The introduction of politically reliable military commissars in April 1918 helped both to ensure the loyalty of the military commanders and to overcome resistance from rank-and-file soldiers to their commands. Abandoning the principle of a volunteer army, the Soviet government also introduced in April universal military training (Vsevobuch). Local call-ups and later in the year a general mobilization of conscripts aged 18-25 followed. Despite draft evasions and defections to the emerging White armies, the Red Army contained about 700,000 soldiers by the end of 1918. A year later its strength stood at nearly three million.


Left: First Petrograd Partisan Detachment (1918) / Moscow: Krasnia Gazeta
Right: Long Live the Three-Million Man Red Army! (1919) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

During the civil war, the Red Army saw action on a wide variety of fronts, mostly in the south and east. Relying heavily on the Imperial Army’s arsenals of weapons and drawing on food supplies and horses from the interior, it vastly outnumbered its foes. The Red Army’s soldiers, overwhelmingly peasant in origin, received pay but more importantly, their families were guaranteed rations and assistance with farm work. This, plus literacy and political education classes, served to limit desertions and forge an esprit de corps that carried over into the years after the civil war. The army’s uniform, the long overcoat that overlapped at the front and the pointed cloth cap with red-star badge, were reminiscent of Muscovite-era warriors’ garb and proved to be among the civil war’s most enduring symbols.

State Security

Feliks Dzerzhinskii with Children (1950), by L. Krivitskii / Moscow Museum of Russian Impressionism

“Red terror cannot, in principle, be distinguished from armed insurrection,” wrote Trotsky in 1920 implying that the suppression of “counter-revolutionaries” grew inextricably from the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917. The primary instrument of “Red terror” was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, commonly known as the Cheka after the initial letters of its abbreviated Russian title. It was established by a decree of Sovnarkom on December 7, 1917, effectively assuming the responsibilities that the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet had performed up to that point. The Cheka was the precursor of a succession of formidable Soviet secret police organizations that included the GPU (1922-23), the OGPU (1923-34), the NKVD (1934-43), the MGB (1943-54), and the KGB.

Volodarskii at His Wake (1918) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The Cheka was headed by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, a Polish Bolshevik who devoted himself unstintingly to building the organization. Initially comprised entirely of Bolsheviks, the Collegium of the Cheka was reorganized in early January 1918 to include several Left Socialist Revolutionaries who continued to serve even after the withdrawal of their fellow party members from Sovnarkom in March. Among them was Viacheslav Aleksandrovich, who was intimately involved in the brief Left SR uprising in July 1918 during which Dzerzhinskii was placed under arrest. Thereafter, Dzerzhinskii was loyally and ably assisted by Martyn Latsis and Iakov Peters (Latvians of farmer-laborer backgrounds), Jozef Unshlikht and Moisei Uritskii (both Jews), and the Russified Pole, Viacheslav Menzhinskii. All, with the exception of Uritskii, who fell to an assassin’s bullet in August 1918, and Menzhinskii, who succumbed to heart disease in 1934, were to be arrested and perish in Stalin’s purges of 1937-38.

With broad powers to investigate and nip in the bud counter-revolutionary plots, speculation and other serious crimes, the Cheka developed a justifiable reputation for ruthlessness. In September 1918, following Uritskii’s assassination and an attempt on Lenin’s life, Sovnarkom authorized the Cheka to step up its operations against counter-revolutionaries and class enemies. Reprisals were swift and extensive. In Petrograd alone, over five hundred executions were carried out. Official figures for 1918 of 6300 executions by the Cheka in twenty provinces are probably an understatement. Many thousands of others were incarcerated in political prisons and concentration camps. The “sword of the revolution” continued to be used unsparingly throughout and beyond the civil war. The disproportionate number of Jews and the presence of women in the Cheka fed anti-semitic and misogynist attitudes among the enemies of Bolshevism and the Soviet government.

Disintegration of the Old Society

Depopulation of the Cities

Peasant! You don’t have salt Peasant! / Hoover Political Poster Database

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels characterized the development of society under capitalism in terms of the subjection of the countryside to the rule of the towns. “The bourgeoisie,” they wrote, “has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” On the eve of the First World War, approximately 20 percent of the Tsarist Empire’s population, or 28.4 million people, lived in what were officially designated as cities.

The largest cities were the two “capitals,” St. Petersburg and Moscow. The former contained two million people and the latter some 1.7 million. A second group of cities consisted of major commercial and industrial centers with large and multi-ethnic populations of between 500,000 and one million, e.g., Warsaw, Riga, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, Nizhnii-Novgorod, and Tiflis. A third category were provincial capitals such as Orel, Riazan’, and Tambov in the central agricultural region, Saratov and Simbirsk on the Volga, Tomsk in Siberia, Arkhangelsk in the Far North, Tashkent in Russian Turkestan, and Vladivostok on the Pacific. A fourth consisted of industrial cities that had sprung up or grew rapidly in population in the late nineteenth century such as Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile center; Yuzovka, a company town built in the Donets Basin around coal mines and a large steelworks; and Baku, the oil-producing city on the Caspian Sea. Finally, there were numerous smaller cities of heterogeneous character — county (uyezd) seats, river ports and railroad junctions, administrative outposts, etc.

Annihilate the Typhus-Bearing Louse! (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

The First World War profoundly affected urban life by uprooting civilians near the front and dispersing them among cities in the rear, diverting human and material resources to the army, and thereby creating shortages that fundamentally delegitimized the tsarist regime. Far from improving living conditions in the cities, the overthrow of the tsar in February 1917 further disrupted everyday life by intensifying inflation and shortages, complicating the imposition and maintenance of law and order, and encouraging citizens to seek even more drastic remedies for their woes. By October, food shortages (“tsar hunger”) had reached calamitous proportions. The persistence of workers’ ties to the village would save many of them when, during the desperate years of civil war, they fled from the starving cities. Others with no place to go were vulnerable to such epidemic diseases as typhus and cholera that swept through the cities thanks to the deterioration of urban infrastructure and their own physiological weakening.

Statistics on the industrial work force tell a story of diminution. From a high point of 3.5 million, the number of workers in ‘census’ industry (i.e., industrial enterprises employing more than sixteen workers) dropped to slightly over two million in 1918, and remained at between 1.3 and 1.5 for the remainder of the civil war. Losses were greatest in the most populous industrial centers, that is, Petrograd, Moscow, the Donbass, and the Urals. Petrograd’s population was halved within two years of the October Revolution, and the number of industrial workers in the city dropped from 406,000 in January 1917 to 123,000 by mid-1920. Between 1918 and 1920 Moscow experienced a net loss of about 690,000 people of whom 100,000 were classified as workers. Not until the mid-1920s did the urban population rebound to pre-war levels.

Food Supply


Left: Food Squad leaves for the countryside, Moscow (1918) / Russian State Archive of Film & Photo Documents at Krasnogorsk
Right: Bagmen at a railway station (1920) / Russian State Archive of Film & Photo Documents at Krasnogorsk

At the outset of the First World War, Russia’s officials judged its capacity to sustain the war effort in favorable terms, largely because of the country’s abundance of grain-growing regions. They could not have been more wrong in terms of their calculations. Within a year, shortages of articles of primary necessity — kerosene, footwear, textiles, and food — were registered in cities and towns throughout the empire. The foremost cause of these shortages was the diversion of resources, production and transport to war needs, which left inadequate supplies for the civilian economy. The creation of a Special Council for Food in 1915, the imposition of rationing, and other measures did little to alleviate the problem. Food riots, in which working-class women and soldiers’ wives figured prominently, were a frequent occurrence. The February Revolution was initiated in Petrograd by women workers’ protests over bread shortages. Food supply would continue to be a source of popular discontent throughout 1917 and beyond.


Left: Food Squad Commisar Stsemanovich (1918) / Russian State Archive of Film & Photo Documents at Krasnogorsk
Right: A Cry for Bread (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

The Provisional Government, having inherited the problem of food shortages, moved quickly to set up a State Committee on Food Supply (March 9) and establish a state grain monopoly with fixed prices (March 25). The monopoly was overseen by a hierarchy of provincial and district supply committees which, dominated by state officials, merchants, and landowners, attempted to impose requisition levels on the grain-producing peasantry. The entire process hinged on the assumptions that the currency in which peasants would be paid would remain stable, and that consumer goods would be available for purchase at equivalent prices. Neither of these assumptions was realized, and the result was frequent clashes between goods supply agents and peasants in the grain-surplus provinces and the exacerbation of food shortages in the cities. By late summer, Petrograd had only two days’ worth of bread reserves, a situation that jammed railroads, river ports, and roads with a new urban type, the “bagmen” – individuals acting on their own or as agents of various organizations who skirted restrictions on private sales of goods by traveling to surplus areas and carrying what they had purchased back to the towns and the grain-poor northern provinces.


Left: Line at a tobacco store (1918) / Russian State Archive of Film & Photo Documents at Krasnogorsk
Right: Members of the Food and Trade Control Commission (1918) / Russian State Archive of Film & Photo Documents at Krasnogorsk

By October, normally a month of food abundance, supplies had dwindled further, prices continued to rise rapidly, and lengthy food lines had become ubiquitous in the cities. The situation in Petrograd, far removed from the main food producing areas, was particularly grim. Only one-tenth of the prewar milk supply was reaching the city whose population had swollen owing to the influx of refugees and soldiers. Many desperate citizens resorted to shoplifting and ransacking of storehouses while others, outraged at being deprived of goods, set upon with fury those who were caught stealing or merely suspected of it. The problem of food supply thus delegitimized the Provisional Government, much as it had the tsarist government. The Soviet government continued many of the same food supply policies (e.g., rationing, state monopoly, requisitioning), albeit with a different ideological justification and greater ruthlessness, during the succeeding years of civil war.

Conflict with the Church


Left: Retribution (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Comrade Lenin Sweeps the World of the Unclean (1920) / Victoria Bonnell Russian Posters

Subject essay: James von Geldern The Russian Orthodox Church had a long history of collaboration with the tsars and hostility to the political left. The Bolsheviks, as atheist materialists, judged religion to be the ‘opium of the people’ of Marx’s famous formulation. Although they were relentless in their enmity toward religion, it is important to remember that the conflict between church and state began with the February Revolution, and arose when the church defended the unfair privileges it had enjoyed under the Romanovs. The conservative Orthodox hierarchy misread the tenor of the times. In June 1917, they demanded reinstatement of the primacy of Orthodoxy in the Russian state, ignoring the fact that Russia was a multinational secular state. Soon the church suffered two more serious blows. The first was the forced transfer of parochial schools to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. The second was the Law on Freedom of Conscience. Together the legislation ended the official monopoly of the Orthodox church, and undermined its ability to force its faith upon the population.


Left: God Will Rise Again, and So Will Rus! (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Bolshevik Atrocities (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database

One of the great ironies of history is the election of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a dignity rescinded by Peter the Great, in the week leading up to the October Revolution. Though church liberals objected to the institution as non-democratic, the new Patriarch Tikhon was inaugurated on November 21, 1917. He immediately rallied resistance to the Bolsheviks when they continued the policies of the Provisional Government. Early acts passed by the Bolsheviks transferred church schools to the Commissariat of Education, and reaffirmed the freedom of conscience. Relations quickly grew bitter. On January 29, 1918, the People’s Commissariat of War declared all property of military church units subject to confiscation by non-church units, should the soldiers of the unit so desire. This minor act was perceived as an attack on all church property. Faced with legal state expropriations, impromptu seizures carried out in the name of the state, and seizures by peasants in the midst of rural turmoil, the church instructed parish clergy to resist expropriation by non-violent means. Measures included excommunication (hardly a threat to the Bolsheviks) and the use of the pulpit to condemn revolutionary laws. The Bolsheviks saw such sermons as ‘hostile propaganda,’ preached to an already wary peasantry.


Left: Anti-Bolshevik poster (1918) / From Glennys Young, University of Washington
Right: Archbishop Antonii Volynskii (1917) / Olga’s Gallery

The conflict escalated in February with the law separating church and state. Though similar to legislation debated under the Provisional Government, the Bolshevik law went much further. Education was fully secularized, and the church monopoly on civil ceremonies was abolished. Among the gravest measures was the nationalization of church property, and the denial of church rights to act as a juridical person. The assault was directed at the legal authority of the church, but it was directed also at the church monopoly on ceremonial life. The Bolsheviks adopted of the Gregorian calendar used by the western nations, replacing the outdated Julian calendar favored by the church. Church holidays no longer had state sanction, and the Bolsheviks began introducing a long list of their own revolutionary holidays, including May Day, Paris Commune Day (later revoked), and the anniversary of the Revolution (November 7, new style). Like the French revolutionaries they so admired, the Bolsheviks invented a new set of rituals for their holidays and ceremonies. It was clear that church-state relations were permanently abysmal by February, when the new Patriarch Tikhon pronounced an anathema on the Bolsheviks, not only condemning their souls to damnation, but forbidding the faithful from any concourse with them.

Death of the Old Culture


Left: Sten’ka Razin (1907) / From Vladimir Padunov, New Russian Media
Right: Moonlit Beauty (1916) / From Vladimir Padunov, New Russian Media

Marxism predicted that the culture of the old era would die with the dawning of a new era, but oh what a glorious death it was. The European war had cut Russia off from popular culture of the world, which allowed native production to boom, exploiting new technologies such as the cinema, gramophone recording, and mass printing techniques. Older forms such as music hall, variety stage (estrada in Russian), and popular literature experienced tremendous innovation. Popular culture became a big business, making millionaires of its entrepreneurs and celebrities of its stars. Although there was tremendous diversity of expression, mass culture avoided politics and the big ideas favored by the intelligentsia, which had dominated Russian culture in the nineteenth century. Mass culture found its great appeal while earning the contempt of intellectuals, a sentiment shared by Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin. Labeling mass culture entrepreneurs pornographers, either outright or because they eschewed big ideas, the new regime confiscated tools of production such as movie cameras and printing presses. Stars, who could get no jobs from the Bolsheviks, quickly ended up in emigration.


Left: Poison of the Big City (1917) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams
Right: Obliterating the Past (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams

There was some injustice in the Bolshevik hatred of pre-revolutionary mass culture, which made a business of transgressing the social boundaries of class, gender and ethnicity, often by violating sexual taboos. Although Bolsheviks often seemed to regard sex, like religion, as an opiate for the masses, it was an effective vehicle for making social disparity visible. Popular literary genres included detective stories and robber tales, in which robbers and police alike could be heroes or villains. Pinkerton stories, featuring the American detective in a wholly Russian format, cast lower-class criminals in an evil light, and featured contempt for other nationalities; but the same readers could thrill to the exploits of “Light-fingered Sonka,” an Odessa Jew, who used her beauty and charm to penetrate the upper-class circles whose diamonds she pilfered. Sexual titillation could often reveal unspoken profiles of class, as when the Countess Actress of the famed Count Amori’s [Ippolit Rapgof] tale slept her way into the upper classes, encountering abusive husbands, ambiguous sexualities and aristocratic orgies along the way. Most famously the heroine of Anastasiia Verbitskaia’s Keys to Happiness went through a string of unhappy love affairs, discovering along the way something new to her non-fictional peers, that a woman can choose her own fate.


Left and Right: Portrait of Vera Kholodnaia, by Aleksandr Grinberg (1919) / Soiuz fotokhudozhnikov Rossii

These authors, as well as famous singers and actors, constituted an entirely new class of Russians, celebrities. Their faces featured in posters, magazines and newspapers, their love lives recounted breathlessly in the same, these stars emblazoned themselves in the consciousness of their compatriots. The fragile beauty of film star Vera Kholodnaia (Vera the Cold), the deep and storied eyes of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin, the dusky voice and beauty of Vera Panina, singer of the “gypsy” repertoire of melancholy love songs, and the cocaine-tinged piquancies of performer Aleksandr Vertinskii were often the first public mention of trends that would shape twentieth-century life. They coexisted with pious loyalty to the tsar, heartfelt patriotism, deep religiosity, and traditional domesticity in the complex Russian cultural environment; it was only the October Revolution that could not live with them.

Destruction of the Left

The Village “Blessed Virgin” (1919) / Brown University Digital Repository

When the Bolsheviks, having gained control of the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee, overthrew the Provisional Government, they did so in the name of soviet power. But quite a few of the 650-some-odd delegates to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets that had convened in Petrograd opposed the seizure of power. They included Mensheviks, Right Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), and the Jewish Bund who, in protest, walked out of the opening session of the Soviet Congress on October 25. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries remained in the Congress and some 29 were elected to the new Central Executive Committee (of a total of 101 members). However, the party decided not to participate in the Council of People’s Commissars and thus at its creation the new government consisted exclusively of Bolsheviks.

Anarchist bands in the woods (1918) / Wikimedia Commons

Almost immediately, efforts were undertaken by the Menshevik-Internationalists, Left SRs, and several members of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee to reconstitute the new Soviet government as a broad coalition of Socialist Unity. This was explicitly rejected by the majority of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee including Lenin. As a result, five members — Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin, and Miliutin — resigned, claiming that they did not want “to bear responsibility for this fatal policy … which is carried out against the will of a large part of the proletariat and soldiers.” At the same time, five People’s Commissars, including Rykov, Nogin, and Miliutin resigned from their posts in protest. Lenin excoriated his erstwhile comrades as “deserters,” but soon agreed to accommodate the Left SRs. On December 12, three Left SRs took up positions in the Soviet government as People’s Commissars of Agriculture, Justice, and Post and Telegraph, only to resign as a protest against the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Left SRs continued to serve in the Cheka and other Soviet institutions until July when they organized the assassination of the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, and an abortive uprising against the Bolsheviks.

Elect the Socialist-Revolutionaries (1917) / Electronic Museum of Russian Posters

The Mensheviks and Right SRs splintered over the appropriate form of opposition to Bolshevik rule. Some joined forces with already-banned parties further to the right, such as the Kadets, in attempting to revive the Constituent Assembly after its dissolution in January 1918. Others continued working within the soviets, in fact achieving a number of victories in provincial elections during the spring, only to have the results annulled by higher soviet bodies. Attempts by members of these parties to organize strikes among workers usually were met with repression by the Cheka which also shut down the parties’ newspapers. The Cheka also dealt harshly with various anarchist groups in the capital. On June 14, 1918 the All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee resolved to expel all Right SRs and Mensheviks and to instruct local soviets to do likewise. Nevertheless, both parties continued to participate in the soviets, had a tenacious following in the trade unions, and sent delegates to all-Russian soviet congresses as late as 1920. Their end came in early 1921 when, without any formal decree, the Soviet government rounded up their leading figures and imprisoned or exiled them. Henceforward, the parties led a ghostly existence as convenient excuses for workers’ unrest and wavering within the ranks of the Bolsheviks themselves.

The Empire Falls


Left: To the Peoples of the Caucasus (1918) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Ester Ginzburg (1918) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

Nationalism, the identification of an “imagined community” based on nationality and the belief that it should be congruent with statehood, was largely confined in imperial Russia to small groups of urban-based intellectuals. The non-Russian peoples of the empire, consisting overwhelmingly of peasants, did not identify themselves so much in national terms but rather by religion, locality, or their peasant status. Nevertheless, the weakening of central authority after the overthrow of the tsar and the rapid deterioration of economic conditions created an opportunity for nationalist movements to assert claims for political leadership and the independence of “their” people. In the long run, which is to say beyond the years of revolution and civil war in Russia, those claims would be realized only in Finland, Poland, and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Elsewhere, political independence, achieved as a result of the implosion of Russian-based authority and in several instances with the sponsorship or support of another external power, was more short-lived.

Jewish Pogrom victims (1918) / Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk

Among the earliest claims to national self-rule were those of the Ukrainian Central Council or Rada which was formed in early March 1917 and by April was led by the ardent nationalist and historian Mihail Hrushevsky. Demanding the right to form Ukrainian national regiments and tax the population, the Rada remained dissatisfied with the Provisional Government’s offer of compromise. Parties represented in the Rada received strong support in the Constituent Assembly elections of November, but the Soviet government’s refusal to concede independence on the Rada’s terms soon led to war. When the Rada proved incapable of stopping the Red Army’s advance in January 1918, it turned to the Germans whose price of support included requisitioning of grain from the peasantry. Peasant support for the Rada sharply declined, although the Bolsheviks, who also imposed requisitions, were no more to their liking. In the aftermath of the Brest Litovsk Treaty, the Germans dissolved the Rada and installed General Pavlo Skoropadskii as Hetman. His rule barely survived the Germans’ withdrawal in November 1918. Thereafter, Ukrainian territory was contested among the Red Army — aided by Russian or Russianized workers in Kharkov and the Donbass — various White armies, anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists under Semen Petliura, and roving bands of peasant anarchists under Nestor Makhno.

The Jew (1918) / Wikimedia Commons

The situation in other parts of the country where the population was predominantly non-Russian was no less volatile and confused after the overthrow of the tsar. In the absence of central authority, these borderland territories fell into the hands of local elites who in some cases spoke the language of socialism and in others legitimized themselves with reference to national or religious affinities. In Transcaucasia, soviets were established in the major cities of Tbilisi and Baku and enjoyed considerable popular legitimacy and local self-rule. With the October Revolution, the Transcaucasian socialist parties (excepting the Bolsheviks), declared independence for the whole region and eventually the three separate independent republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These republics survived only so long as the Red Army was preoccupied with combating the counter-revolutionary Whites. In Turkestan (Central Asia), indigenous pan-Turkic and Muslim renovationist movements battled Russian settlers (who themselves were divided between pro- and anti-Bolsheviks) for control of railroad lines, food supplies and other strategic resources. Elsewhere, in Tataria, Bashkiria, and Crimea, Turkic-Tatar movements vied with Reds and Whites for control. These and other parts of the vast Eurasian land mass remained essentially stateless until absorbed within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

Creation of a New Society

New Letters and Dates


Left: Lenin Calendar (1922) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Summer 1923 Calendar (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database

On the morning of February 1, 1918, Soviet citizens awoke to discover that it was February 14. This was the result of a decision by Sovnarkom on January 24 that as of February 1 the Julian calendar which had been used in Russia to calculate days and months since the adoption of Christianity in the tenth century (but only since 1700 to calculate years), would be replaced by the Gregorian calendar. Because by the twentieth century dates according to the Julian calendar were thirteen days behind the Gregorian, February 1 became the fourteenth. Bringing the calendar of Soviet Russia into conformity with most countries of the world was a far less radical step than revolutionary France’s adoption of an entirely new republican calendar according to which 1792 was declared Year One and weeks lasted ten days.

Trostky Calendar / Hoover Political Poster Database

The use of the Julian calendar in Russia throughout the revolutionary year of 1917 explains why what was known as the February Revolution occurred, by the Gregorian calendar’s reckoning, in early March. Similarly, the April Days took place in early May, and, of course, the October Revolution happened in early November. As Trotsky noted in the preface to his History of the Russian Revolution, “The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events … Before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.” The new government sought to instill the calendar change in the popular mind by creating a new calendar of holidays, including the Anniversary of the Revolution, May Day, Paris Commune Day, and others, on which the heroes and milestones of the revolutionary past were honored.


Left: May Day (1918) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Autumn 1923 Calendar (1923) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Alphabet reform proceeded from a decree of the Commissariat of Enlightenment of December 23, 1917. This eliminated four letters from the Russian alphabet, reducing their number to 33. It was the first such reform since 1711. In the late 1930s, the Russian alphabet replaced the Latin (which had replaced Arabic during the 1920s) in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. It also served as the basis for alphabets used in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and the Mongolian People’s Republic.

Culture and Revolution


Left: Red Wedge (1920) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Monument to the Third International (1920) / From Bolshevik Visions: First Place of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia, by William G. Rosenberg
Right: Our Train (1920) / From Building the Collective: Soviet Graphic Design, 1917-1937, by Leah Dickerman

What would culture be like under socialism? What was revolutionary culture? What was proletarian culture? The October Revolution made these once theoretical questions vitally important to a new order, faced with creating socialist consciousness in its citizens. Bolsheviks led by Lenin had long ago resolved to seize power before they changed minds, and they had devoted relatively little attention to cultural issues. They left such questions to thinkers who were increasingly marginalized in the party, foremost Aleksandr Bogdanov, whose utopian novel Red Star described a “red” Mars where socialism had long ago triumphed. His longtime friend Anatolii Lunacharskii was Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment, head of a sprawling commissariat that controlled education from kindergarten to the university, nationalized cinemas, the old tsarist theaters, as well as agitation, propaganda, and anything else that seemed to fit. He initiated a staggering array of projects that gave Russia a new cultural face. Revolutionary traditions were honored, as when the Internationale replaced the old tsarist hymn as national anthem. Imperial Petrograd and medieval Moscow were given a revolutionary spin when monuments to revolutionaries were placed on their squares. For simple folk whose support the revolution needed there were stark agitation messages, delivered on posters or, for outlying districts, by agitation trains. But Lunacharskii could only wonder how to exploit such complex media as the cinema, which required an investment unlikely during a time of civil war.


Left: The Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev (1917) / Wikimedia Commons
Center: Petrograd Madonna, by Ku’zma Petrov (1918) / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Monument to Aleksandr III (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The notion so dear to later Soviet governments, that cultural production should be subordinate to the state, was unthinkable to the revolutionaries of October, and the most compelling claims to a cultural revolution were staked by independent artists. Two mutually exclusive camps gave expression to the revolution and battled over limited state funding. The proletarian culture movement, centered around Proletkult, an unofficial organization founded in September 1917, was dedicated to developing a culture that reflected the worldview of the working class, was grounded in production relationships, and was egalitarian. It sponsored clubs throughout Russia that, at their zenith, enlisted tens of thousands of young people. Adamantly autonomous, the obstreperous radicalism of Proletkult eventually brought the wrath of Lenin, whose own tastes were rather conservative. No less distasteful to Lenin was the artistic avant-garde. Pre-revolutionary Russia was home to a vital artistic culture, whose painters, composers, poets, actors and directors led a revolution of their own, away from passive realism into dynamic abstraction. Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists; many artists of these and other schools saw the revolution as their own, and offered it their creative vision. They made posters and movies, wrote agitation verses, changed everyday life with their clothing and ceramic designs. On new holidays such as May Day and November 7, they decorated the streets with their art; and even, for the third anniversary of the revolution, reenacted the storming of the Winter Palace with ten thousand actors!


Left: International Ceramic Dish, by Mariia Lebedeva (1920) / Serdstem slushaia revoliusiiu, Leningrad
Center: Sevpechat’ Agit-train (1920) / Moscow Krasnia Gazeta
Right: Lenin Unveils Liebknecht Luxemburg (1920), Photo by Victor Bulla / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

Most worrisome for the new regime was the old intelligentsia, the scientists, writers and journalists, scholars and philosophers whose accomplishments had made Russia a world intellectual leader before 1917. Much of the intelligentsia eyed the revolution with suspicion, despite the obvious erudition of leading Bolsheviks. It would be many years before a new generation of “red” intellectuals could be educated; meanwhile, it was Lunacharskii’s job to woo the old ones back to universities, writing tables and labs. His liberal policy was to tolerate all forms of thought, excepting open hostility (allowing that too on occasion), leaving the great talents of Russia to find their own place in the new order. For some, this ended in emigration; others fell into the full embrace of the revolution; most were left with an uneasy ambivalence.

The New Woman


Left: Women! Liberate Yourselves! / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Liberation Day for Enslaved Women (1923) / Wikimedia Commons

Immediately upon assuming power the Bolsheviks passed legislation that made Soviet Russia the most progressive nation in the world on issues of gender. The great socialist tradition based on such fundamental texts as Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), had prepared them for this achievement. Though conscious of gender and issues of social power, revolutionaries considered issues of gender secondary to class issues, and in practice often ignored them. As an unfortunate consequence, revolutionary circles were often hostile to women, whom they considered culturally backward; even though many women-revolutionaries were deeply respected, including the westerners Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin. The Bolsheviks deemed the Russian populist Ekaterina Breshkovskaia the “grandmother of the Revolution.”


Left: Vote for List No. 7 (1917) / Victorian Bonnell Russian Posters
Right: Rabotnitsa Editorial Board (1917) / Marxists Internet Archive

Aleksandra Kollontai, a long-time revolutionary and early Bolshevik who became Commissar of Social Welfare in the new government, was one of the few Bolsheviks who understood the deeper connections between revolution and gender. She was a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, and an activist in the newly-formed Women’s Section of the Communist Party (the zhenskii otdel, or “Zhenotdel” for short), which she, Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaia played major roles in founding. Her great contribution was to argue for special forms of party work for women before the revolution, and for Zhenotdel after. Her Woman and the Family in the Communist State (1918) outlined how changing family relations under communism would transform the place of women in the home and workplace.

Institute for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy (1920) / Moscow Kraznia Gazeta

Women’s activists enjoyed significant legislative victories in the first years of the revolution. Laws were passed to enact the radical vision of women unencumbered by the familial chains that made them unequal citizens. The December 29, 1917 decree on divorce gave women the right to divorce their husbands without obtaining his or any other permission, and ensured a proper alimony (though not that it was paid). Church control of marriage was abolished in December 18, 1917 by the Decree on Marriage, Children, and Registration of Civil Status, which made give sole legal status to civil ceremonies conducted by the so-called ZAGS (Zapiska aktov grazhdanskogo sostoianiia, or Civil Registration Bureau). Scorned for their bare surroundings and ceremonies stripped of beauty, ZAGS would eventually become home to new rituals in conformance with the socialist family, such as the “Octobrina,” which replaced the Christian baptism.

Women to the Rudder, by Dmitri Moor (1923) / Moscow Pravda

The centrality of women and their agendas to the socialist state was symbolized by a new official holiday, International Women’s Day. It was celebrated on March 8 for the day (February 23 in the old calendar) in 1917 that Petrograd women had marched against tsarist authorities, leading to the collapse of the old regime. The holiday had a spotty history, evolving eventually into a celebration of gender difference. A analogous fate awaiting the Zhenotdel. Established in 1919 with the active participation of Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaia, and headed by Inessa Armand, zhenotdel had branches through Soviet Russia and the Union responsible for issues of women’s welfare. Never assigned the power or resources appropriate to its mission, women’s sections were closed down throughout the USSR in 1930, ostensibly because the consolidation of the revolution had already solved the women’s question.

Workers Organization

One Year of the Proletarian Dictatorship, by Aleksandr Apsit (1918) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

The overthrow of the tsar in February (old style) 1917 immediately created the possibility for workers to organize without fear of repression. Workers seized this opportunity to form factory committees, soviets, trade unions, political parties, neighborhood associations, and other institutions claiming to represent their interests. Whereas Soviet historians long represented working-class organizations as increasingly coming under Bolshevik influence thanks to the growth of workers’ class consciousness, more recent historiography has stressed a broader-based desire for freedom, democracy, and socialism — often expressed in religious metaphors — as well as vengeance against enemies who were defined in class, but also in national and ethnic terms.

Scientific Organization of Labor (1920) / Moscow Kraznia Gazeta

Throughout 1917 the most direct and vibrant form of working-class democracy were the factory committees (fabrichno-zavodskie komitety or in their abbreviated form, fabzavkomy). The factory committee movement sprang up during the February Days in Petrograd and soon spread to every industrial center throughout the country. The movement was abetted by the Petrograd Soviet which counseled workers to establish factory committees as organs of workers’ control over factory administrations, and on March 10 signed an agreement with the Petrograd Society of Factory and Mill Owners recognizing the committees as legitimate bargaining agents for their constituents. From the end of May 1917 to January 1918, six city-wide conferences, each attended by several-hundred delegates, were held. These conferences rang with debates over the advantages of state as opposed to workers’ control, whether the factory committees should be subordinated to the rapidly expanding network of trade unions, how supplies could be obtained to keep enterprises from shutting down, the relationship of factory committees to the socialist parties, and a host of other issues both quotidian and momentous. Though many committees maintained the strong support of their constituents, their inability to arrest the deterioration of working conditions and prevent “sabotage” by owners led to calls for more resolute actions, which coincided with the Bolsheviks’ agenda for insurrection. Soon after the October Revolution, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree on workers’ control that put the factory committees in charge of the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of the enterprise – making them the de facto administration.

The banner of a Moscow factory (1917) / From An Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, by Valentin Astrov

The subordination of the factory committees to trade union authority after the October Revolution paralleled the inexorable trend towards the centralization of authority among the soviets. Within the unions, the Mensheviks, having gained a strong foothold in the years before the Revolution, fiercely and for several years successfully resisted their ouster from positions of leadership, especially in the printers’ and baker’s unions. Supreme authority within the trade union movement rested with the All-Russian Central Council (VTsSPS). Its instructions and resolutions were binding upon all territorial councils and the committees of individual branch-based unions of which there were twenty-five by 1919. The first All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, which met in January 1918, stipulated that unions should become “instruments of state authority.” Indeed, during the civil war when the difference between labor and military service was blurred, the unions performed disciplinary, administrative, and mobilization functions along with and sometimes instead of official state institutions. Only in 1920-21 was the issue of the unions’ status fully — and hotly — debated within the Communist Party. At the party’s Tenth Congress, delegates approved Lenin’s formulation which called for union autonomy, albeit on the understanding that unions would be under party leadership and guidance.

Peasant Revolution

What the October Revolution Gave Women (1920) / Intenational Institute of Social History

The February Revolution and the collapse of authority that followed it created an opportunity for peasants to fulfill their long-standing aspirations for obtaining land and achieving greater control over their own affairs. Even as they petitioned the Provisional Government and the Soviets’ Central Executive Committee to realize their agenda, peasants elected village and district (volost) committees (also known as soviets) to take over local government functions, seized crop land, implements, and draft animals belonging to landlords, and resisted the government’s attempts to requisition grain. Politically, peasants tended to identify with the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The entry of several SRs into the coalition cabinet on May 4 and especially the appointment of the party’s leader, Viktor Chernov, as Minister of Agriculture therefore raised peasants’ hopes of a speedy resolution in their favor to the land distribution question. In this, though, they would be disappointed, as Chernov met with stiff opposition from other ministers and even members of his own party.


Left: Bolsheviks Take Charge in Cossack Villages (1918-1920) / Hoover Political Poster Database
Right: Village Children (1919) / From The Russian Century: A Photographic History of Russia’s 100 Years, by Brian Moynahan

The inefficiency of peasant-based agriculture was one of the chief indications of “backwardness” in pre-revolutionary Russia and a problem that the Bolsheviks, upon coming to power, were dedicated to overcoming. They had little following in the countryside, although many soldiers who self-demobilized and returned to their villages were sympathetic to Bolshevik anti-war propaganda. Moreover, while the Bolsheviks did not call for peasant land seizures (preferring the transfer of property to the state), they did not actively oppose them either. Thus seeing an opportunity to gain support among the peasantry, Lenin composed the Decree on Land, which was passed by the Congress of Soviets on November 8 (October 26), 1917. The decree stipulated that all landed estates would become the property of local land committees pending the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Based on the 242 peasant “mandates” that had been submitted by delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies in May, it also proclaimed that “private ownership of land shall be abolished forever; land shall not be purchased, sold, leased, mortgaged or otherwise alienated” but rather “pass into the use of those who cultivate it.” This, in fact, had been the SR land program. Its adoption by the Bolsheviks was sure to win the support of Left SRs, paving the way for their entry into the Soviet government, and helping to legitimize the government in the eyes of peasants.

This is How Russians Live Under Soviet Power (1919) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Peasants by and large interpreted the Soviet government’s land decree in their own terms, relying on their own institution, the village commune, to negotiate land transfers and other major decisions, rather than participating in a socialist experiment exported from the towns. The peasant revolution soon ran up against the desperate need for food in the cities and the Bolsheviks’ determination not to give into extortion by middlemen. Even before the outbreak of civil war, the attempt by the Bolsheviks to foment class war in the countryside by sponsoring poor peasant committees (kombedy) and the Soviet government’s dispatch of food supply committees to requisition grain and other foodstuffs provoked widespread antagonism. These struggles were but a prelude to the stormy and often violent relationship that peasants had with Soviet power in the decades to come.

Organs of the Press

Soviet Propaganda Day / Hoover Political Poster Database

The Bolsheviks were journalists long before they were state leaders, and they never forgot the impact of a well-aimed message. Newspapers were the life-line of the underground party. Formative ideological and political debates were conducted in them; reporters and deliverers evolved into party cadres; and readers became rank-and-file supporters. At times, newspapers smuggled from abroad kept the Party alive; and Lenin’s editorials often forestalled factional division. Revolutionary struggle taught Bolsheviks the value of mass media, and confirmed their belief that culture is inherently partisan. In times of political turmoil, they exploited it skillfully. Illegal front-line newspapers helped turn soldiers against the Great War; effective propaganda helped win the Civil War.

Avantgarde of the Red East / Hoover Political Poster Database

Yet the revolutionaries knew that the same weapons could be used against them. When they took power, they protected themselves by denying the opposition access to public opinion; printing presses, theaters, movie houses were all eventually confiscated and placed under state monopoly. The Bolsheviks considered these measures necessary and just. Soviet authorities were never ashamed of their monopoly on culture. Culture was a weapon of class struggle. Allowing the enemy access to mass media would have seemed criminally stupid. To debate the ethics of censorship was a waste of time; the Bolsheviks’ concern was how to mold popular values, how to reach the masses, reflect the wishes of the state and censure alien ideals.

October on the Front, by V. Khoten’ko (1930) / Hoover Political Poster Database

The early twentieth-century media suited Bolshevik purposes. Under Bolshevik sponsorship, they spoke with one powerful voice, unweakened by dissent or excessive subtlety, unencumbered by complexity. Red propaganda depicted a world of stark contrasts: Bolsheviks were valorous and self-sacrificing; the Whites were cruel and debauched. It was no time for half-tones or self-conscious irony. Bolshevik propaganda might seem heavy-handed, yet judging by its success, much of the public did not resent the overbearing tone. Opponents on both the left and right were no match for the Bolshevik blitz, and some, like the Whites, were particularly ineffective in shaping public opinion.

Union of Workers and Peasants, by N.I. Kravchenko (1925) / Hoover Political Poster Database

Discussions of Soviet mass culture have usually dwelt on its administration and rhetoric more than content and reception. This is unfortunate, because mass culture was a rare example of equilateral negotiation in Soviet society. The culture gap could not be forced like a river crossing at war. The economy could be socialized by fiat; industry could be whipped into higher production; and citizens could be made, at tremendous cost, to behave as they should. But socialist society demanded not that people just say the necessary things, but also think them in private. Socialism had to be internalized. Many Bolsheviks saw the mass media as the path from ideology to internal thought. It converted abstract phrases into concrete images. Propaganda demanded the cooperation of three groups: the Party and state, which provided the content; the skills of writers and artists, who made ideas into image; and the audience, which received and digested the images. Leaders, artists, and citizens all acknowledged the wishes of the other. The audience craved interesting material; the state needed its values represented by symbols; artists desired an arena for their creative energies (and a respectable living). One side-the audience-stayed mute about its thoughts, yet even at the height of tyranny, no mass audience could be forced to watch a movie or read a book.

Raising Socialist Youth


Left: Rabfak reading (1927) / From The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in Soviet Russia, by René Fülöp-Miller
Right: Help the school! (1923) / From Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives, by Peter Paret and Beth Irwin

How to raise a new generation of Soviet children? Children born after the revolution would be innocent of the vices of their parents, the products of a capitalist society that had exploited children mercilessly in its quest for cheap labor. Freed from the demands of labor, children under socialism would develop their personalities in an environment of nurturing and love. The state would devote its resources to their well-being, stepping in as a surrogate of the biological parents, and helping to socialize and educate all children. The Soviet leadership, to its credit, recognized that the success of their ambitious agenda rested on the shoulders of the younger generation, and invested heavily in their education, producing enviable results. Schools and after-school organizations such as the Pioneers (for young children) and the Komsomol (Young Communist League, for older children and young adults) provided them with opportunities for exemplary care and relaxation. Children were protected by a safety net of institutions that ensured that most, even the poor and orphans, were assured of a base level of education, health care, housing and nutrition.


Left: To Produce More, You Need to Know More (1918) / From Through the Russian Revolution, by Albert Rhys Williams
Right: The VUZ Students Come to the Rabfak, by Boris Ioganson / Moscow Sovetskii khudozhnik

The remarkable efforts of the Soviet state to educate children could not overcome the turmoil that surrounded many of their lives. Civil War, mass dislocation, urban degradation and finally famine had removed many from Soviet institutions, orphaning some, sending others into homeless wandering. Utopian ideals were distant from children who were forced by homelessness to beg, steal, or to sell their bodies. For authorities, the most worrisome was the turmoil taking place in youth morals. Young people accepted the Revolution, but they understood it very differently from their elders. Lenin thought that the revolutionary rejection of morals would lead to a higher form of morality, characterized by the discipline of people who control their own lives. Many young people, judging by reports, saw revolution as the overthrow of all morality whatsoever. Sensational accounts of life in youth dormitories and communes spoke of widespread drunkenness and sexual license. Party leaders saw this not the result of revolution, but a distraction from it, and turned their attention to providing models of communist conduct, and environments where it could take place.

The First Village Creche, by Arkadii Shaikhet (1928) / From Pioneers of Soviet Photography, by Grigori Chudakov and Olga Suslova

Early Soviet educators, influenced by American thinkers such as Hall and Dewey, believed that individual development or defects were the product of social and economic conditions. Their mission was to create proper learning environments, and they achieved tremendous success. Yet the persistence of profound problems, some traceable to environmental, some to personality, made a mockery of Marxist beliefs in the perfectibility of human nature. If youth debauchery caused the deepest dismay, it was because it attested to a very hard truth, that some of human nature is irredeemable. The educational reforms that would come within a decade were founded in that grim reality, and they demanded from children work, discipline and obedience.