Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime is the follow-up to his The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 and brings the story up to the death of Lenin in 1924. These two books provide an immensely detailed but thoroughly readable and fascinating history of one of the great cataclysms of history.
In an earlier post I talked about Niall Ferguson’s ideas on the contingency of history. Ferguson has no patience with the idea that historical events happened because they were inevitable. There are times when a single bad decision, a single piece of luck or the peculiarities of a single personality can change the course of history. Pipes also has no truck with deterministic theories of history. The Bolshevik Revolution was far from inevitable. In fact the odds were stacked against it. No-one but a tiny clique of intellectuals wanted it and without Lenin it would never have occurred.
That’s not to say that the Tsarist regime would have survived, at least in the autocratic form that it had taken for centuries. The revolution in February 1917 was a real revolution. Some change was highly likely but the end result could quite easily have been a constitutional monarchy and perhaps even a liberal democratic regime. The October 1917 revolution was a coup d’état by the tiny and very unpopular Bolshevik party that was unlikely to succeed. That it did succeed was due to monumental bungling and cowardice on the part of the Kerensky government, exquisite timing, superb and inspired leadership by Lenin and quite a bit of luck.
The way the October Revolution came about had a good deal of influence on the subsequent history of the Soviet regime. Lenin was a superb revolutionary leader. He was focused to the point of obsessiveness, possessed sublime self-confidence, was utterly ruthless and had no moral scruples whatsoever. He tried to apply to the task of government the same approach he had employed as a revolutionary, with catastrophic consequences. As a leader of a government he was inflexible, brutal and colossally inept. Lenin had never allowed reality to get in the way of theory. If facts did not conform to his theories he ignored the facts. As a revolutionary leader he could get away with that. As a national leader it led to one disaster after another. Lenin had zero understanding of economics and zero understanding of human psychology. He considered organised terror to be the answer to every problem.
Within just a few years Lenin turned the world’s fifth largest economy into a shambles. Industrial production came almost to a standstill. Agricultural production plummeted. In the early 1920s millions died of starvation. The famine was not deliberately engineered; it was the result of incompetence, inflexibility and policies so wrong-headed that they almost defy belief. The famine may not have been deliberately engineered but Lenin took no steps to alleviate the suffering and in fact welcomed the deaths of millions of peasants since the peasants hated the Bolsheviks (with very good cause). Without American aid efforts (organised by Herbert Hoover) millions more would have starved.
Pipes makes it very clear that the beliefs held by so many western intellectuals that the brutality of the Soviet regime was solely the work of Stalin are entirely false. It was Lenin who created the apparatus of state terror. It was Lenin who presided over the creation of the network of concentration camps (the Gulags) that would eventually claim millions of victims. It was Lenin who created Soviet totalitarianism. It was Lenin who created a state that suppressed freedom of speech to an absolute degree. It was Lenin who created the one-party state. It was Lenin who allowed mass starvation to be used as a political weapon. Stalin refined these evils and expanded their scale but the evil started with Lenin.
Another notable point made in the book is that during the 20s the Bolsheviks were able to survive in power to a large extent due to the support of western liberals, some of them motivated by starry-eyed idealism, some by extraordinary gullibility and some by cash payments from Moscow. The short-sightedness and stupidity of European governments (and even more especially the US Government) also helped a good deal, as did the greed and cynicism of big business in interests. It’s another reminder that big business will cheerfully the most extreme evil if there’s a profit to be made.
Both The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime are essential reading, not just for an understanding of events in Russia itself but for its insights into the extraordinarily foolish and cynical conduct of the liberal democracies and their utter failure to comprehend the danger that the Bolsheviks represented. Highly recommended.