In May 1917 when Trotsky arrived in Petersburg from New York, after spending a month interned by the British, he did not immediately join Lenin’s Bolsheviks. As a Marxist, Trotsky was suspicious of Lenin, who he rightly viewed as an ambitious radical intent on exploiting a popular mass movement to seize power.
When he repeated similar accusations against Stalin during World War II, ‘The Red Tsar’ accused him of being a fascist sympathiser. Not to be outdone, Trotsky retorted he only agreed with the Nazis on this particular point because it happened to be true.
Trotsky never trusted Lenin and Stalin. The feeling was reciprocated. The only reason they worked together was overweening personal ambition. And ambition divided them.
Trotsky was brilliant and an inspiring popular orator. His fellow Bolsheviks thought him arrogant as he ostentatiously read novels (in French) during committee meetings. Yet at the crucial time it was Trotsky’s organisational genius and oratory skills that won them the putsch. For that is what it was: the overthrow of a legitimate government by a radical minority. Although that point of view could not be openly expressed in Russia for another century.
The July demonstration failed in Petersburg after Lenin talked down the workers and the Prime Minister Kerensky had snipers open fire on them. When the leading Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, were arrested Lenin fled to Finland, leaving Stalin in control.
By this time the people were sick of famine and war. Some even suggested things would be better under the Germans. Kerensky remained popular. Yet as he tried to juggle the conflicting demands of competing factions, a series of poor decisions started to weigh against him. Although he genuinely wanted to roll out democracy, he had no idea how. Russia had been a pressure cooker for too long. Lifting the lid, even a little, would bring disaster.
In a desperate attempt to restore order he ordered General Kornilov to Petersburg. When Kornilov tried to seize power, Kerensky turned to the Bolsheviks, freeing Trotsky and arming his Red Guard. Bolshevik infiltrators persuaded Kornilov’s army to desert rather than fight fellow workers. The coup was averted. Kornilov was arrested. The Bolsheviks emerged as the city’s saviours.
With Lenin in exile Trotsky became interim leader. Sensing opportunity was slipping through his fingers Lenin tried to force an uprising: raging through Stalin they needed to seize power. The Bolshevik Politburo was terrified of Lenin and Stalin’s zealotry.
In early October, Lenin, still a wanted man, returned in disguise to confront the Politburo over their hesitation. Trotsky advised waiting until the Soviet Congress on 25 October. He believed Soviet approval would make the uprising look legal. But Lenin and Stalin bullied the committee into staging the coup on the eve of the Congress.
Two days before the Congress, Kerensky, expecting trouble, closed down two radical Bolshevik newspapers. Trotsky accused him of censorship and demanded workers seize the city to save themselves from government oppression. This was a lie, but it riled up the workers.
On the morning of 25 October Lenin crept into Bolshevik HQ to find Trotsky organising the ‘liberation’ of the city. He was both gratified and deeply resentful. Lenin was not happy to discover the Winter Palace, the Provisional Government’s seat, was not taken as there was still a legitimate government in power.
With great audacity Trotsky announced to the Soviet Congress the Winter Palace was due to fall within minutes. It was another lie. Many delegates were so incensed they walked out leaving a Bolshevik majority and handing them power.
As they left, Trotsky mocked the delegates, consigning them to the dustbin of history. He claimed it was not a putsch but an uprising of the masses of the people, which required no justification. The people and the Bolsheviks had worked together and the people would not renounce their victory. Through such rhetoric he made a minority coup sound like genuine revolution.
Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film October (1928) portrayed the 26 October 1917 storming of the Winter Palace as violent struggle by the people. Soviet films were Bolshevik propaganda to prove the revolution was as genuine as the French and American. In truth there were not thousands. The Winter Palace was not even locked, and lightly guarded by troops of terrified cadets and women soldiers. Not a shot was fired. A dozen Bolshevik Red Guards walked into the committee room and told the elected government ministers they were under arrest.
The Bolsheviks had won.
Lenin immediately issued hundreds of decrees to liberalise Russia, many of which did not survive the first wave of euphoria. A month after the Bolsheviks seized power a 5 year long Civil War swept through Russia. This resulted in the Bolsheviks executing the Tsar and his family rather than have them liberated by the White Russians: a coalition of monarchists, capitalists and anti-Bolshevik Socialists.
Russia became a right-wing, one-party, totalitarian state under Lenin. The horror stories are plenty. Lenin proposed all who opposed his regime should be shot and created the Cheka Secret Police, which later became the KGB.
Under the Tsar there averaged 17 political executions per year. Under Lenin there was a 1,000 a month. It is estimated Lenin was responsible for the murder of 10 million Russians. It is safe to say he was not a people person, viewing people as no more than instruments to be moulded to his will.
Peasants were stripped of all property, including grain and livestock. Those who protested were shot. Five million people died in the resultant famine, which Lenin claimed was good for the country as it completed the revolution by destroying the peasants’ belief in the Tsar and God, and made it easier to dismantle the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to Marx, the Communism was about workers taking control of production. Communism was designed for advanced industrial countries like Germany and England. Being mainly agricultural, Russia did not produce enough wealth to support her people.
As a Marxist, Lenin knew the Russian revolution was doomed without a Communist world uprising. He hoped Germany would follow; which it almost did, leading to the rise of the Nazis. International Communism embraced Russia as a leading light. Russia used International Communism to further World Revolution.
Shortly before Lenin’s death in 1924, Russia was in such an economic mess he proposed reintroducing capitalism to get the country back in its feet. He also said Stalin was not the right man to succeed him. Maybe he guessed what Stalin would do.
Under Stalin, Communist Russia continued as an absolutist police state. Stalin doubled Lenin’s head count; murdering at least 20 million people in his quarter of a century reign of terror.
Like Nazi Germany he used forced labour for construction projects with workers on starvation rations. He engineered genocides and ethnic cleansing. Blockading the Ukraine to stop people leaving, he removed all food and let the population starve. While Russia was in the grip of famine, Stalin sold grain to the West.
He purged political dissidents including many original party members and instigated show trials where the tortured and broken confessed their errors, real and imagined. Stalin would often work late into the night signing death warrants. One particularly productive night he signed 3,000.
Trotsky avoided the purges by fleeing to Mexico. In 1940 Stalin sent an assassin. The 60 year old Trotsky was attacked in his study with an ice pick. Trotsky’s bodyguards captured the assassin, but he was not executed as Trotsky wanted to question him. Trotsky was taken to hospital to have his head wound treated and later died of blood loss and shock.
Stalin died miserably too, but obviously not miserably enough. After a night of heavy drinking he suffered a stroke and lingered for three days. There was a shortage of senior doctors after Stalin had them arrested as ‘murderers in white gowns’ for ‘killing babies and poisoning Party Officials’. However it is possible his own subordinates denied him medical treatment because they wished him dead.
After his death in 1953 the Central Committee imposed a system of collective leadership and took steps to prevent any single individual dominating them ever again.