Why Were the Bolsheviks Successful in establishing their authority over Russia in the Years after 1917?
The initial triumph of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 did not indicate overwhelming support for the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, as Orlando Figes indicates in A People s Tragedy , few people believed in it s second week, that the Bolshevik regime could survive . The fact that it did survive, and was able not only to establish its authority fully in those areas it controlled in 1917, but to extend that authority over the whole of the former Tsarist empire was largely the result of the ability and ruthlessness of Bolshevik leaders, the division and failure of their opponents and, perhaps, the sheer confusion of the time.
As far as the Bolsheviks were concerned, the revolution was over. As far as Lenin was concerned, he was in power. The Russian State, however, was in a state of decomposition. Numerous Bolsheviks began to speak of elections for a Constituent Assembly. Lenin had no use for a parliament, regardless of whether it was elected democratically or not. He considered it “inferior” to the Soviets of which the Petrograd Soviet under the leadership of Leon Trotsky was the model. But now, immediately after the October Revolution, Lenin was compelled to hold elections. On November 25, 1917, the Russian people held the first free election in the nation’s 900-year history. When the vote was over, the Bolsheviks had only received one quarter of the vote…the other socialist parties; mainly the SRs polled 62% of the vote. Bolshevik support was heaviest in the cities, especially Moscow and Petrograd, while the SR vote was largely rural. Lenin accepted these figures as accurate. However, he also maintained that “the most advanced” elements had voted for him and the Bolsheviks. The Constituent Assembly met only once, in January 1918. Lenin dissolved it by issuing his DRAFT DECREE and sent heavily armed guards to prevent its meeting again. Those who were not Bolsheviks were indignant when they witnessed this unconstitutional act but there was no public outburst. Why the delegates did no more than weakly protest is clear: the Bolsheviks had already taken action on what interested the people most — Bread, Land and Peace.
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Bitter class hatred resulted in the villages and stimulated a civil war in the countryside. Lenin knew he had to act. He knew the Bolsheviks had to keep the revolution secure. So, in December 1917 a decree was passed which set up the “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Fighting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage,” better known by its acronym as the CHEKA. The CHEKA established its headquarters in Lubyanka Street, Moscow. The Lubyanka would be the end of the road for thousands of victims. It was not simply a prison but rather a complex system of offices and departments responsible for administering the vast bureaucratic empire known as “state security.” The CHEKA was ordered to act as the “revolutionary conscience,” that is, it had to protect the revolution. By mid-1918, the CHEKA aimed its attention to whole sectors of society rather than individuals. In this way, Lenin hoped, counter-revolutionaries would be eliminated. Hated and feared by almost everyone, the CHEKA was deplorable because it introduced the concept of killing people not because of what they had done, but because of who they were or who they knew. Although the numbers killed by the CHEKA were relatively small compared to WWI or the Civil War, it is still difficult to accept the fact that hundreds of families simply disappeared.
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The government had to function. The Bolsheviks knew this. They also knew, that without direct experience, their task was indeed difficult. What made matters worse was the war. Lenin knew that peace was necessary in order for the Bolsheviks to govern. The Russians began to negotiate with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, negotiations which dragged on until 1918. Russia hoped a revolution would break out in Germany. And on March 3, 1918, the Russians signed the TREATY OF BREST-LITOVSK. This treaty deprived Russia of the entire Ukraine, the Baltic provinces, Finland and other territory that Russia had spent 300 years trying to acquire. One third of Russia’s population was gone, 80% of its iron, and 90% of its coal. Many communists resigned in protest — they could not accept peace with Germany. Furthermore, during the months which followed Brest-Litovsk, disorder in the countryside and class warfare was made worse by open Civil War.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was judged a betrayal by the Allies and there was a sizeable outcry within Russia itself. There were hundreds of army officers who had sacrificed a great deal for the tsar’s war, and now it seemed the Bolsheviks had just given away everything they had fought for. To these men the Bolsheviks were German agents. Combining forces with the Cossacks, who feared the loss of their land and privileges, army officers formed the White Army to engage in a war against Trotsky’s Red Army. Lacking sufficient organisation, unable to co-ordinate their movements and torn apart by different political goals, the White Armies ultimately failed to challenge the Bolshevik government. Just the same, in the three years of civil war, the Whites posed a serious threat to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Anti-Bolshevik forces were assisted with materials by the Allies who sent more than 100,000 troops as well as supplies for the express purpose of overthrowing the Bolshevik government by supporting its enemies…. in this case, the White Army. Support came primarily from the United States, Britain, France and Japan and continued beyond the signing of the armistice in November 1918.
Although allied support was not crucial to the outcome of the Civil War, it played a significant role in shaping the Soviet perception of the world outside Russia. It’s safe to assume that for the past 75 years generations of Soviet citizens have viewed allied support of anti-Bolshevik forces in 1918 as an example of the hostile and predatory state of mind consistent with western capitalism. As one historian has remarked, “the dictatorship of the proletariat gave way to the dictatorship of repression.” Thanks to the leadership of Trotsky, the Red Armies were victorious over the Whites. The Reds managed to defeat the numerically larger White Army because the White Army could never gain the support of the peasantry. They could have done this by reallocating the land, something which the Bolsheviks had always talked about the Whites restored the property of landlords in areas they temporarily controlled. The peasantry, meanwhile, had enough of the Reds AND the Whites. Furthermore, the White Army lacked a skilled and highly organised command. Finally, the intervention of allied troops was ineffectual and actually amateurish. Frankly, when the allies threw their support behind the Whites, more harm was done than good. The Red Army could speak of themselves as the protectors of the nation while portraying the Whites as the dupes of foreign governments. This charge had already been levelled against the Bolsheviks after Brest-Litovsk.
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The Bolshevik success in the civil war was certainly a considerable acheivment. The Reds produced greater organisation and leadership in their war effort while the white forces never found a means of uniting against them. The whites simply did not produce a war leader of the quality of Trotsky and for a time, the policy of war communism also helped mobilise the entire economy for the war. . By 1920 the state had taken over all enterprises employing more than ten workers. Labour was compulsory and strikes were outlawed. The state organised a barter system which replaced the free market. Internal trade was made illegal — only the government food commissary could buy and sell. Money disappeared as the state took over distribution and production. Church and state were separated by decree and judges were removed and replaced by members of the local soviets. Nine opposition parties were liquidated. Meanwhile, the government subjected the countryside to severe requisitioning. It mobilised the poorer peasants against the kulaks (wealthy peasants).
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Eventually, however, war communism failed. Its effects were so severe and harmful that it produced tremendous hostility towards the Bolsheviks, even from their own supporters. The mutiny of the sailors at Kronstadt near Petrograd in March 1921 triggered a change in general policy. The sailors called for “soviets without communists.” These soviets were to be chosen by universal suffrage and secret ballot. They also agitated for free speech and assembly, the liberation of political prisoners and for the abolition of grain requisitioning. Trotsky finally realised something. The Russian proletariat was opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Trotsky, all that was needed was to educate the proletariat. The Kronstadt Rising was the writing on the wall for Lenin who produced yet another decisive change for his party in the introduction of the NEP. Many Bolsheviks protested against this step back towards capitalism, but Lenin knew and convinced them that without it the revolution would not last. NEP essentially saved the revolution.
There is no doubt that the Bolsheviks produced leaders of genius in particular Lenin and during the civil war Trotsky, and despite everything said then and since, it was not ideology alone that which made Lenin act. He was a great political opportunist who ignored Marxist ideology when it conflicted with his interests. It must also be kept in mind that before and after the revolution the Bolsheviks faced weak and divided opposition in the confusion of the time.