By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was a land of peasants, and yet it was industrializing with astonishing speed. It was ruled by an ancient, autocratic royal family, and yet there were remarkable stirrings of demands for democracy. It was a thousand miles from the main theaters of World War I, and yet there were 15 million men at arms. It was a rural kingdom, and yet its most far-reaching events were occurring in the cities.
And as this nation of controversy and contradictions was convulsed in revolution a century ago this week, the rebels themselves were astonished at the power of the insurrection -- so forceful that bread riots in Petrograd and a local metalworkers' strike set in train events that swept across 11 time zones, toppling an empire of more than 125 million people whose ruling family had governed it for four centuries.
Few years were as consequential as 1917, when the United States abandoned a century and a quarter of relative isolationism by entering World War I, and when the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration set in motion the tensions that still roil the Middle East. But perhaps the most significant event of the year was the Russian Revolution that began 100 years ago, and shook an imperium that stretched across two continents from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotsk, sending tremors that shook the globe in World War II and the Cold War -- and that extend into the early days of the Donald J. Trump administration.
The revolution never reached its centenary, its utopian goals never reached implementation, its heroic ideals never reached fulfillment. The crowded months beginning with the winter revolution, the abdication of Czar Nicholas a century ago next week, the lengthy struggle between a provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet and, in November, the ascendancy of V.I. Lenin led to the creation of a rogue nation that the United States did not recognize until 1933, that became an awkward but supremely powerful American and British ally in World War II, and that was a persistent and bitter rival thereafter.
The Russian Revolution was a significant event, but not in the way its founders expected or wanted.
"They thought they were creating a new world, but in many ways, they were re-creating the old world of authoritarian Russia that they eventually elevated to totalitarianism," said William S. Taubman, the author of the authoritative English biography of Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union during the Cold War. "Many of the old ways continued to exist in a new and heightened form, and while one can debate whether Stalin perfected what Lenin started or corrupted and perverted it, there is no debating that the revolution led to Stalin's brand of terror."
The Soviet Union that grew out of the agitation a century ago bore the tragic brunt of the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany, but extended the Nazi techniques and technology of death camps. It helped bring justice to a Europe drowning in tyranny, but perfected a perverted sense of justice, marked by show trials and firing squads, within its own borders. It helped purge the world of the Axis dictators, but engaged in purges of its own. It cleansed the globe of mechanized anti-Semitism, but practiced a fresh, deadly form of anti-Semitism.
In truth, and in fairness, the communist ethos was spread by romantic anthems of idealism, sung not only in Soviet Russia but also in the West. Communism had a special allure in the early days of the Russian Revolution -- glittery dreamers like the American journalist John Reed, buried in the Kremlin wall, flocked to Russia to help build a new society and a new world -- and attracted hundreds of thousands during the Great Depression, when the vicissitudes and vulnerabilities of capitalism and democracy were in full view.
Over the years such black luminaries as the writer W.E.B. Du Bois and the actor Paul Robeson were drawn to communism. Two great balladeers of American culture, the folk artist Woody Guthrie, who wrote of the "wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling" in "This Land Is Your Land," and the writer Howard Fast, whose American Revolution novel "April Morning" has been a patriot favorite for generations, were communists.
But Lenin's vision of a rural revolution fueled by the grievances of urban laborers -- "the union of the workers' revolution with the peasant war," in the characterization of Bolshevik revolutionary Grigory Zinoviev -- never brought about the workers' paradise he promised. Nor did communism spread to European industrial nations, which Marxist orthodoxy held were far more fertile ground than rusticated Russia.
"Lenin died before he was compelled to face the immense and daunting task of changing backward Russia in isolation from the advanced West European countries, on whose support he had doubtless counted," the Russian-born economic historian Alec Nove wrote.
In the end, communism was "The God That Failed," the title of an influential 1949 book with essays by Andre Gide, Richard Wright and Arthur Koestler.
That may be because, as the historian John Lawrence argued, the communists "had no clear idea of how they were going to govern or how the new society would work."
Or it may be because a creed identifying multiple contradictions in capitalism ended up being the victim of its own contradictions. In a powerful book published in 1962, British historian Lionel Kochan argued that fear of war was a principal motivation of the drive toward Soviet industrialization, buttressed by the Marxist conviction that capitalism was a form of war.
"The fear of war, with its socio-industrial consequences, superimposed on the collective values inherent in Bolshevism," he wrote, "combined to create a society that was more and more totalitarian."
Many polls taken during last year's election showed that younger Americans, with no memory of Soviet communism, were congenial to socialism. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll showed that a third of Americans 18 to 29, none of whom have any memory of the Cold War, support socialism, a figure that rises to 41 percent for those born only a half-dozen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That speaks to the allure of the ideology behind the Russian Revolution -- and to the historical memory lapses that Soviet communism cultivated. No one who lived in those years, apart perhaps from Vladimir Putin, regrets their passing. The dustbin of history, indeed.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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