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The significance of the Russian Revolution for the 21st century

The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, one of seminal events of the 20th century. The Russian Revolution “shook the world,” as the radical American journalist John Reed so aptly put it, because it led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, the world’s first socialist and totalitarian society. The Soviet regime’s example and its commitment to a world socialist revolution aroused passionate hope and enthusiasm and equally intense fear and loathing worldwide, depending on the audience, for seven decades, and those passions drove or had an impact on innumerable major global events.

There is, however, a neglected aspect of Russia’s 1917 upheaval that in the 21st century is more important than the Marxist socialist vision it once promoted. It is that the Russian Revolution marked, first, the high tide of Western influence in Russia and, second, the sharp reversal of that tide, a turnabout that began within months and continued unabated, despite a few weak countercurrents, for almost seven decades. Between 1985 and 1999, Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin attempted to lead Russia back toward the West. But neither leader could overcome the Russian Revolution’s unrelenting undertow. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin ultimately were swamped, and in 1999, with Vladimir Putin‘s rise to power, Russia’s anti-Western tide resumed its flow.

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

The Bolshevik" by Boris Kustodiev -- The Russian Avant-garde Gallery is in the public domain.
“The Bolshevik,” a 1920 oil painting by Boris Kustodiev. The Russian Avant-garde Gallery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How is the Russian Revolution connected to the question of Russia and the West? By the start of the 20th century, Western influence had been seeping into Russia for centuries, bringing with it, among other things, economic development and democratic political ideas. This process accelerated dramatically after the emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1861. By 1917 Russia had a developing capitalist economy, a growing middle class with a Western orientation, and an expanding popular culture that often reflected Western values and norms. As a result, Russia also had a rapidly evolving civil society: the institutions independent of the state that are the basic building blocks of Western democratic society. What lagged behind was democratic political change. After 1905 Russia did have a semi-constitutional regime that included a parliament with limited but not insignificant powers, but the tsar still held most of his power and the autocracy remained an impassable barrier to further needed reforms. This changed with astonishing speed in February 1917. The autocracy fell apart, and in its place leaders of Russia’s parliament organized a government committed to Western parliamentary democracy. Historically European but not Western, Russia appeared to have taken the decisive step to joining the Western community of nations. But Russia’s new Provisional Government could not cope with the wartime hardships and social turmoil it faced, and only eight months after its establishment the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew it and set up a one-party dictatorship. In their determination to establish a socialist society based on Marxist principles, the Bolsheviks forcibly restored autocratic rule in Russia. In the process, they took their first major step in preventing Russia from becoming a Western-style democratic-capitalist society.

During the civil war that inevitably followed their coup, the Bolsheviks would take many more such steps, whose impact was ruinously multiplied by the calamities of the civil war itself. Either directly through persecution or indirectly by the methods they used to defeat their opponents, the Bolsheviks destroyed the Russian middle class, the most important agent of Westernization in Russia. Most business people and professionals who didn’t lose their lives or emigrate became “former people” left to survive as best they could on the margins of the new Soviet society. The civil society the middle class had laboriously built was repressed and dismantled. Western influence never recovered. The Soviet regime permitted a partial return to a market economy during the 1920s, but in 1929 Joseph Stalin launched his notorious industrialization drive that, along with the purges of the 1930s, obliterated civil society and Western influences in Russia. Although the worst aspects of Stalin’s tyranny were ended after his death in 1953 and some Western ideas and cultural influences managed to trickle into Russia, the de-Westernization imposed under Lenin and Stalin remained intact under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

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

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

The significance of the Russian Revolution of 1917–1921 in the 21st century therefore will not lie in the socialist society it produced in Russia for most of the 20th century. Instead, it will lie in fact that until now and for the foreseeable future it prevented a Western democratic society from developing there, at great cost not only to Russia but to Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world.

Featured image credit: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin addresses the Red Army in Moscow in 1920, with Leon Trotsky watching from the right by Lev Yakovlevich Leonidov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Bonnie Burt

    Well written and concise exploration of the complex factors which explain Russia’s anti Western position which is especially relevant today.

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