History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union (1917–1927)

History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union (1917–1927)

The History of the Soviet Union has roots in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, emerged as the main political force in the capital of the former Russian Empire, though they had to fight a long and bloody civil war against the Whites. The Bolsheviks became known as the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and their Red Army eventually won the Civil War. From the territories of the former Russian Empire emerged the Russian Soviet Republic, along with the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Transcaucasian republics which were eventually to unite to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917

:main|Russian Revolution of 1917During World War I, Tsarist Russia experienced famine and economic collapse. The demoralized Russian Army suffered severe military setbacks, and many soldiers deserted the front lines. Dissatisfaction with the monarchy and its policy of continuing the war grew. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in February of 1917 following widespread rioting in Petrograd.

A provisional government was installed at that time, led first by Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov, then by Aleksandr Kerensky, but it maintained its commitment to the war, despite widespread calls for Russia to seek a peaceful settlement. The provisional government also failed to enact land reforms demanded by the peasantry, who accounted for over eighty percent of the population.

Within the military, mutiny and desertion were pervasive among conscripts; the intelligentsia was disaffected over the slow pace of reforms; poverty was worsening; and income disparities and inequality were growing while the provisional government grew more and more autocratic and appeared on the verge of succumbing to a military junta. Deserting soldiers returned to the cities and gave their weapons to angry socialist factory workers. Conditions in urban areas were fertile ground for revolution.

Between February and October 1917, the power of the provisional government was consistently questioned. A system of 'dual power' emerged, for while the Provisional Government held nominal power, they were increasingly opposed by the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, both democratic socialist parties politically to the right of the Bolsheviks. The Soviet chose not to force further changes in government due to their belief that the February Revolution was Russia's bourgeois democratic revolution which would be tasked with implementing democratic reforms and would lead in turn to a proletarian revolution, however they still remained a hugely powerful body.

Failed military offensives in summer 1917 and protests in the capital lead to troops being called into cities in late August to restore order. Rather than forcing a peace however, they joined the rioters and the government and military were further disgraced. During this time, support for the Bolshevik party was growing and one of its leading figures, Leon Trotsky was elected chair of the Petrograd Soviet, who was also directly responsible for the defence of the city, and therefore, the city's military forces.

On October 24, the Provisional Government moved against the Bolsheviks, arresting activists and destroying propaganda materials. The Bolsheviks were able to portray this as an attack against the People's Soviet and marched on the Provisional Government, taking control on the 25th October. The Mensheviks and the right-wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries, outraged at the acts carried out in the name of the Soviet, left the body, leaving it in the control of the Bolsheviks and remaining Left Socialist Revolutionaries.

The Russian Civil War

:main|Russian Civil War

Prior to the revolution, the Bolshevik doctrine of democratic centralism argued that only a tightly-knit and secretive organization could successfully overthrow the government; after the revolution, they argued that only such an organization could prevail against foreign and domestic enemies. Fighting the civil war would actually force the party to put these principles into practice.

Arguing that the revolution needed not a mere parliamentary organization but a party of action which would function as a scientific body of direction, a vanguard of activists, and a central control organ, the Tenth Party Congress banned factions within the party, initially intending it only to be a termporary measure after the shock of the Kronstadt Rebellion. It was also argued that the party should be an elite body of professional revolutionaries dedicating their lives to the cause and carrying out their decisions with iron discipline, thus moving toward putting loyal party activists in charge of new and old political institutions, army units, factories, hospitals, universities, and food suppliers. Against this backdrop, the "nomenklatura" system would evolve and become standard practice.

In theory, this system was to be democratic since all leading party organs would be elected from below, but also centralized since lower bodies would be accountable to higher organizations. In practice, "democratic centralism" was centralist, with decisions of higher organs binding on lower ones, and the composition of lower bodies largely determined by the members of higher ones. Over time, party cadres would grow increasingly careerist and professional. Party membership required exams, special courses, special camps, schools, and nominations by three existing members.

In December 1917, the Cheka was founded as the Bolshevik's first internal security force. Later it changed names to GPU, OGPU, MVD, NKVD and finally KGB. During the Civil War, on September 5, 1918 the Cheka was given responsibility for targeting remnants of the Tsarist regime, opposing parties of the left such as the Social Revolutionaries and other anti-Bolshevik groups such as the Cossacks, the policy of Red Terror. Said Felix Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, June, 1918 in the newspaper, "New Life": "We represent in ourselves organized terror - this must be said very clearly - such terror is now very necessary in the conditions we are living through in a time of revolution,"

The Polish-Soviet War

:main|Polish-Soviet War

The frontiers between Poland, which had established a shaky independent government following World War I, and the former Tsarist empire, were rendered chaotic by the repercussions of the Russian revolutions and civil war. Poland's Józef Piłsudski envisioned a new federation (Międzymorze), forming a Polish-led East European bloc to form a bulwark against Russia and Germany, while the RSFSR contemplated carrying the revolution westward by force. When Piłsudski carried out a military thrust into Ukraine in 1920, he was met by a Red Army offensive that drove into Polish territory almost to Warsaw. However, Piłsudski halted the Soviet advance at the Battle of Warsaw and resumed the offensive. The "Peace of Riga" signed in early 1921 split the territory of Belarus and Ukraine between Poland and Soviet Russia.

Creation of the USSR

On December 29, 1922 a conference of plenipotentiary delegations from the Russian SFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR and the Byelorussian SSR approved the Treaty of Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. These two documents were confirmed by the 1st Congress of Soviets of the USSR and signed by heads of delegations [ru icon [http://region.adm.nov.ru/pressa.nsf/0c7534916fcf6028c3256b3700243eac/4302e4941fb6a6bfc3256c99004faea5!OpenDocument Voted Unanimously for the Union] ] - Mikhail Kalinin, Mikha Tskhakaya, Mikhail Frunze and Grigory Petrovsky, Aleksandr Chervyakov [ru icon [http://www.hronos.km.ru/sobyt/cccp.html Creation of the USSR] at Khronos.ru] respectively on December 30, 1922.

The New Economic Policy

:main|New Economic Policy

During the Civil War (1917-1921), the Bolsheviks adopted War Communism, which entailed the breakup of the landed estates and the forcible seizure of agricultural surpluses. The Kronstadt rebellion signaled the growing unpopularity of War Communism in the countryside: in March 1921, at the end of the civil war, disillusioned sailors, primarily peasants who initially had been stalwart supporters of the Bolsheviks under the provisional government, revolted against the new regime. Although the Red Army, commanded by Leon Trotsky, and crossed the ice over the frozen Baltic Sea and quickly crushed the rebellion, this sign of growing discontent forced the party to foster a broad alliance of the working class and peasantry (eighty percent of the population), although left factions of the party favored a regime solely representative of the interests of the revolutionary proletariat. At the Tenth Party Congress it was decided to end War Communism and institute the New Economic Policy (NEP), in which the state allowed a limited market to exist. Small private businesses were allowed and restrictions on political activity were somewhat eased.

However, the key shift involved the status of agricultural surpluses. Rather than simply requisitioning agricultural surpluses in order to feed the urban population (the hallmark of War Communism), the NEP allowed peasants to sell their surplus yields on the open market. Meanwhile, the state still maintained state ownership of what Lenin deemed the "commanding heights" of the economy: heavy industry such as the coal, iron, and metallurgical sectors along with the banking and financial components of the economy. The "commanding heights" employed the majority of the workers in the urban areas. Under the NEP, such state industries would be largely free to make their own economic decisions.

The Soviet NEP (1921-29) was essentially a period of "market socialism" similar to the Dengist reforms in Communist China after 1978 in that both foresaw a role for private entrepreneurs and limited markets based on trade and pricing rather than fully centralized planning. As an interesting aside, during the first meeting in the early 1980s between Deng Xiaoping and Armand Hammer, a U.S. industrialist and prominent investor in Lenin's Soviet Union, Deng pressed Hammer for as much information on the NEP as possible.

During the NEP period, agricultural yields not only recovered to the levels attained before the Bolshevik Revolution, but greatly improved. The break-up of the quasi-feudal landed estates of the Tsarist-era countryside gave peasants their greatest incentives ever to maximize production. Now able to sell their surpluses on the open market, peasant spending gave a boost to the manufacturing sectors in the urban areas. As a result of the NEP, and the breakup of the landed estates while the Communist Party was consolidating power between 1917-1921, the Soviet Union became the world's greatest producer of grain.

Agriculture, however, would recover from civil war more rapidly than heavy industry. Factories, badly damaged by civil war and capital depreciation, were far less productive. In addition, the organization of enterprises into trusts or syndicates representing one particular sector of the economy would contribute to imbalances between supply and demand associated with monopolies. Due to the lack of incentives brought by market competition, and with little or no state controls on their internal policies, trusts were likely to sell their products at higher prices.

The slower recovery of industry would pose some problems for the peasantry, who accounted for eighty percent of the population. Since agriculture was relatively more productive, relative price indexes for industrial goods were higher than those of agricultural products. The outcome of this was what Trotsky deemed the "scissors crisis" because of the scissors-like shape of the graph representing shifts in relative price indexes. Simply put, peasants would have to produce more grain to purchase consumer goods from the urban areas. As a result, some peasants withheld agricultural surpluses in anticipation of higher prices, thus contributing to mild shortages in the cities. This, of course, is speculative market behavior, which was frowned upon by many Communist Party cadres, who considered it to be exploitative of urban consumers.

In the meantime the party took constructive steps to offset the crisis, attempting to bring down prices for manufactured goods and stabilize inflation, by imposing price controls on key industrial goods and breaking-up the trusts in order to increase economic efficiency.

The death of Lenin and the fate of the NEP

As a result of Lenin's illness, the position of general secretary became more important than had originally been envisioned and Stalin's power grew. Following Lenin's third stroke a troika made up of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev emerged to take day to day leadership of the party and the country and try to block Trotsky from taking power. Lenin, however, had became increasingly uneasy about Stalin and, following his December 1922 stroke dictated a letter to the party criticising him and urging his removal as general secretary. Stalin was aware of Lenin's Testament and acted to keep Lenin in isolation for health reasons and increase his control over the party apparatus.

Zinoviev and Bukharin became concerned about Stalin's increasing power and proposed that the Orgburo which Stalin headed be abolished and that Zinoviev and Trotsky be added to the party secretariat thus diminishing Stalin's role as general secretary. Stalin reacted furiously and the Orgburo was retained but Bukharin, Trotsky and Zinoviev were added to the body.

Due to growing political differences with Trotsky and his Left Opposition in the fall of 1923, the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev reunited. At the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923, Trotsky failed to use Lenin's Testament as a tool against Stalin for fear of endangering the stability of the party.

Lenin died in January 1924 and in May his Testament was read aloud at the Central Committee but Zinoviev and Kamenev argued that Lenin's objections had proven groundless and that Stalin should remain General Secretary. The Central Committee decided not to publish the testament.

Meanwhile the campaign against Trotsky intensified and he was removed from the position of People's Commissar of War before the end of the year. In 1925, Trotsky was denounced for his essay Lessons of October which criticised Zinoviev and Kamenev for initially opposing Lenin's plans for an insurrection in 1917. Trotsky was also denounced for his theory of permanent revolution which contradicted Stalin's position that socialism could be built in one country, Russia, without a worldwide revolution. As the prospects for a revolution in Europe, particularly Germany, became increasingly dim through the 1920s, Trotsky's theoretical position began to look increasingly pessimistic as far as the success of Russian socialism was concerned.

With the resignation of Trotsky as War Commissar the unity of the troika began to unravel. Zinoviev and Kamenev again began to fear Stalin's power and felt that their positions were threatened. Stalin moved to form an alliance with Bukharin and his allies on the right of the party who supported the New Economic Policy and encouraged a slowdown in industrialisation efforts and a move towards encouraging the peasants to increase production via market incentives. Zinoviev and Kamenev denounced this policy as a return to capitalism. The conflict erupted at the Fourteenth Party Congress held in December 1925 with Zinoviev and Kamenev now protesting against the dictatorial policies of Stalin and trying to revive the issue of Lenin's Testament which they had previously buried. Stalin now used Trotsky's previous criticisms of Zinoviev and Kamenev to defeat and demote them and bring in allies like Molotov, Voroshilov and Mikhail Kalinin. Trotsky was dropped from the politburo entirely in 1926. The Fourteenth Congress also saw the first developments of the Stalin personality cult with Stalin being referred to as "leader" for the first time and becoming the subject of effusive praise from delegates.

Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev formed a United Opposition against the policies of Stalin and Bukharin but they had lost influence as a result of the inner party disputes and in October 1927 Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev were expelled from the Central Committee. In November, prior to the Fifteenth Party Congress Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the Communist Party itself as Stalin sought to deny the Opposition any opportunity to make their struggle public. By the time the Congress finally convened in December 1927 Zinoviev had capitulated to Stalin and denounced his previous adherence to the opposition as "anti-Leninist" and the few remaining members still loyal to the opposition were subjected to insults and humiliations. By early 1928 Trotsky and other leading members of the Left Opposition had been sentenced to internal exile.

Stalin now moved against Bukharin by appropriating Trotsky's criticisms of his right wing policies and he promoted a new general line favouring collectivization of the peasantry and rapid industrialization of industry forcing Bukharin and his supporters into a Right Opposition.

At the Central Committee meeting held in July 1928, Bukharin and his supporters argued that Stalin's new policies would cause a breach with the peasantry. Bukharin also alluded to Lenin's Testament. While Bukharin had support from the party organization in Moscow and the leadership of several commisariats Stalin's control of the secretariat was decisive in that it allowed Stalin to manipulate elections to party posts throughout the country giving him control over a large section of the Central Committee. The Right Opposition was defeated and Bukharin attempted to form an alliance with Kamenev and Zinoviev but it was too late.


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