In the 1720s Peter the Great sought to modernise Russia, but the aristocracy and his successors were traditionalists who believed God appointed them to rule. Due to its vast size, poor infrastructure and virtually subsistence agricultural economy, Russia essentially remained a medieval Byzantine kingdom under an absolutist Tsar and mortgaged nobility.
By the early 20th century Russia had been in a state of political unrest for almost a hundred years. The rising middle and industrial working classes of the rapidly industrialising cities of Moscow and Petersburg had no political voice, while the vast majority of the population, the peasants, remained little more than slaves.
In 1905 there was a revolution in Petersburg. It was caused by Russia’s war with Japan dragging the country to famine and bringing the poorly equipped and criminally mismanaged army to its knees. Although the Tsar promised liberal reform he did not deliver. His failure led to a rise of terrorism with correspondingly savage reprisals: increased imprisonment in Siberian gulags and state executions.
Twelve years later Russia was involved, equally disastrously, in the First World War against Germany. By January 1917 six million Russian soldiers were wounded or dead. Desertion stood at 34,000 a month. There were food and fuel shortages in the cities; in part caused by the 1905 land reforms which brought peasants to the point of starvation.
In Petersburg the civil unrest began with women queueing for bread and swiftly spread to general strikes and mass demonstrations. When the Tsar ordered the army to fire on the demonstrators they refused. The Tsar fled but was captured and forced to abdicate.
The news was greeted with euphoria in Petersburg. Russia was entering a new socialist age with guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly, life, liberty and property as taken from the American Bill of Rights. In truth Russia’s problems were so overwhelming, little could really change and much like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution would soon descend into a Reign of Terror.
Power was shared by two groups with often conflicting interests: the Duma – a parliament drawn from the minor nobility, senior army and wealthy bourgeoisie and the Petersburg Workers Soviet (the word means committee) that had the real political clout due to support by the workers.
Set against this backdrop is the story of three ambitious ruthless men who stole the revolution and changed the world: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. When the revolution happened in February 1917 they were not even in Russia. In fact, only weeks before Lenin, had lamented: ‘The revolution may never happen in our lifetime.’
Lenin was in Switzerland after having been exiled from Russia for some 17 years. Trotsky was in America after being deported from Spain. Stalin was imprisoned in Siberia for using robbery, kidnapping and protection rackets to fund Lenin’s Bolshevik (Majority) Party. All three believed power was everything and the ends justified the means. Of the three, Lenin was the least known to everyday Russians and the least charismatic.
When Lenin learned of the Tsar’s abdication to the moderate provisional government, he was desperate to seize power before anyone else did. As a known politico Germany would not allow him to cross their territory. But Germany knew Lenin would pull Russia out of the First World War. If he did Germany could focus on Western Europe and destroying its rival the British Empire. It controversially offered Lenin and 33 political exiles safe passage: on a single sealed train carriage with 1 toilet.
The journey was hell, mainly due to Lenin. As he did not like smoking, smoking was confined to the bog. But 1 toilet and 34 Russians made Lenin issue tickets giving high priority to natural functions and a lower one to the smokers.
In her book ‘Lenin on the Train’ Catherine Merridale tells the following story. Visiting the hotel in Malmo where Lenin stayed, she asked the desk officer, a young Russian woman from Moscow to see the plaque commemorating Lenin’s visit.
‘Wow’, replied the Russian girl. ‘John Lennon really stayed here!’
Lenin arrived in Petersburg on Easter Monday. Photographs show a huge crowd of workers waiting to see him. They had been attracted by the offer of free beer as outside political circles Lenin was unknown. The true romantic revolutionary was Joseph Stalin. He was a published poet who fervently promoted equality and justice and was a loveable rogue (if you were not one of his victims): handsome, dashing, and a bit of a womaniser.
Snubbing his fellow politicians Lenin gave the workers a rousing speech calling for the overthrow of the provisional government, in favour of one run by Soviets. Committees of workers, soldiers and peasants who would provide peace for the soldiers, bread for the workers and land for the peasants. His fellow politicians dismissed Lenin as a naive armchair theorist, yet within a few short months he would be the most powerful man in Russia.
The Provisional Government was run by an ex-War Minister Alexander Kerensky who was so popular he was a cult figure. It is likely Kerensky was the model for Stalin’s own cult of semi-divine leadership, which became the pattern for all communist leaders from Mao Zedong to Castro, Pol Pot and North Korea’s Kim Jong dynasty. The idea was so prevalent Orwell exploited it with his mythical god-like Big Brother in 1984.
Over the coming months Kerensky made the fatal error of continuing to support the war, even starting a disastrous new offensive that lost 100,000 men in a week. When he ordered more soldiers to the front they deserted to Petersburg; swelling the ranks of angry workers.
The Bolshevik Party paper ‘Pravda’ (Truth – pardon the irony) led with an article inciting the government’s overthrow by force. For some reason it was pulled by Lenin before publication. The paper went out with a blank front page. Lenin then faced down the mob, telling them the revolution wasn’t today. It left the Bolsheviks looking like cowards and fools.
No one knows why Lenin did this. Theories range from him losing his bottle to being a wily strategist. The revolt collapsed when Government snipers opened fire on the crowds. Arrest warrants were issued for the Bolshevik leaders and Lenin fled to Finland. His escape was organised by Joseph Stalin who was rapidly making himself useful in the background as Lenin’s Mr Fix-it.