Images from the Russian Revolution

One of the great things about being in a place where the memory of communism refuses to die is stumbling across some amazing books. A couple of weeks ago at the Mauerpark Flea Market in East Berlin, we stumbled on the selected works of Marx and Engels, the Collected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg and a fantastic picture book of the Russian Revolution, translated from Russian into German in the 1960s. A selection from the latter:

From a peasant farming with traditional methods to one crying ‘help

May Day Subbotnik:

Communist International (this one may well apply to Greece and the EU):

And the massive literacy programs that followed the revolution:

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Lenin in Russian folktales

Deeply into the veneration of Lenin, so to speak. Much of the secondary material is pretty trite (the ‘cult’ was engineered from above etc.), but what emerges between the lines is how pervasive the spontaneous wave of popular veneration was. The government realised what was going on and thought ‘holy shit, what do we do?’ Publish them at least, and then try to channel them in useful directions. Here’s one, from Orenburg:

The tsar was informed by one of his leading generals that there was someone, ‘of unknown rank, without a passport, who goes by the name of Lenin’. This person was threatening to entice the tsar’s soldiers to his side with one word, and then grind into ashes the commanders, generals, officers, even the tsar himself, and throw them into the wind. The tsar grew afraid and decided to do anything he could to prevent Lenin saying the word. So he made contact with Lenin, offering to divide the country in half. Lenin agreed to the proposal, but with one condition: the tsar must take the ‘white’ half, that is, the generals and officers and wealthy people, while Lenin would take the ‘black’ half, the workers, peasants and soldiers. The tsar couldn’t believe his good fortune in keeping all that mattered to him, so he quickly agreed. But to his dismay, he realised soon enough that Lenin had tricked him. His officers had no soldiers to lead, the rich people had no workers, the tsar had no people to make the country run. So the white part under the tsar went to war with Lenin’s black part, in order to win the latter back. But the white was unable to survive for long. So it was that Lenin took the country away from the tsar.

More Russian Revolutionary names

As Marx said, revolutions are the locomotives of history, but they also unleash all manner of creative juices. The best stuff is found in popular enthusiasm, which sprays off in all sorts of directions until it is channeled in various ways.

Some more great children’s names:

Roblen: born to be a Leninist

Vidlen: the great ideas of Lenin

Dazdraperma: Long live the first of May!

Dalis: long live Lenin and Stalin!

Liszt: Lenin and Stalin

Marlene: Marx and Lenin

Luidzhi (Luigi): Lenin may have died, but his ideas are alive

Yazlenik: I’m with Lenin and Krupskaya

Lorierik: Lenin, October Revolution, industrialisation, electrification, radio and communism

Trikom: the three Com’s – Comsomol, Comintern, Communism

But here’s one I bet most people didn’t realise: Kim means ‘Communist Youth International’. Next time you meet a Kim …

If only I had known all this when my children were born.

Creative children’s names from the Russian Revolution

After the Russian Revolution a spate of new names were coined for children. Apart from the obligatory rush of kids called Marks, Engelina, Stalina, Ninel (Lenin backwards) and Melor (Marx, Engels, Lenin, October Revolution), the more creative include:

Barrikada, Parizhkommuna, Dinamit, Ateist, Avangarda, Tekstil, Industriya, Dinamo, Monblan (Mont Blanc), Singapur (?).

However, my favourites are: Traktorina, Elektrifikatsiya and Giotin. Hate to meet the adult version of the last guy on the wrong side of the tracks … with a name like ‘Guillotine’.

Of lice, peasants and freedom: Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

Some of the best materials on the Russian Revolution remain those works written at the time, especially those that capture the mood in a way that all-knowing historians pretend to do afterwards. Arthur Ransome’s two little books, Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia, are great examples. He lived in Petrograd from 1903, so pretty much saw it all. He had access to the inner circles of Bolshevik leadership, attending meetings of the executive committee, interviewing the likes of Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and so on, and he was part of worker meetings and experienced every day life during the best and worst times.

Translator, folklorist, journalist, Ransome is listed in a Who’s Who at the time as a lover of ‘walking, smoking, fairy tales’. Even more: ‘It is, perhaps, his intimacy with the last named that enables him to distinguish between myth and fact and that makes his activity as an observer and recorder so valuable in a day of bewilderment and betrayal’.

A few snippets:

There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war (Russia in 1919, p. vi-vii, in the midst of the ‘civil’ war, which included 160,000 troops from a dozen countries invading the USSR).

On the train to Moscow:

At last I tried to sleep, but the atmosphere of the carriage, of smoke, babies, stale clothes, and the peculiar smell of the Russian peasantry which no one who has known it can forget, made sleep impossible. But I travelled fairly comfortably, resolutely shutting my ears to the talk … and shifting from one bone to the another as each ached in turn from contact with the plank on which I lay (Russia in 1919, p. 10).

A discussion with Lenin:

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready at any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks is inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin it all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be for ever linked with his name (Russia in 1919, p. 56).

Precautions against typhus:

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and ankles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as ‘Semashki’ from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs. I rubbed the turpentine so energetically in to my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep (The Crisis in Russia, p. 26).

Trade unions:

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirable illustrated the impossibility of separating judgement of the present position of the Unions from judgements of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions ‘in their struggle’ and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked ‘What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?’ (The Crisis in Russia, p. 36).

Was the Russian Revolution a success?

While I am in the mood for taking on a few unpopular topics (such as whether the Chinese government is communist), I would like to tackle another one: the success of the Russian Revolution.

After seven decades of unrelenting polemic against the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe – they were dictatorships, autocratic, undemocratic, brain-washed their people, callously allowed famines to decimate the people, consigned people to grinding poverty, imprisoned all and sundry and threatened the world with nuclear war – a new phase in the narrative emerged after 1989: communism in Eastern Europe and Russia has failed. The most astounding feature of this narrative is how vast numbers on the Left swallowed this story. All communism did was enable the rapid industrialisation of Russia and the Eastern Europe, they said. Or, that was not ‘true’ communism; or, if only Trotsky had outsmarted Stalin; or, Lenin and Stalin et al were merely new incarnations of the tsar; or, Lenin et al were no different from Hitler and the fascists (that one from Hannah Arendt, to her eternal shame, as well as Fred Nile); or, how can you expect communism to succeed in backward countries? (that one from an increasingly wayward and haughty Terry Eagleton); or, simply because communism came to an end, it was obviously a failure in those parts of the world.

Difficult it might be to push back against such an ingrained narrative (especially by bourgeois cynics and the fashionable left for whom the revolution is yet to come), but let’s see if we can do so.

To begin with, the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. With a mixture of extraordinary planning, unbridled optimism, sheer guts and deal of good luck, the communists succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government set up after the February Revolution of 1917. As Alain Badiou (to his rare credit) points out, that act inspired a century of revolutions. Lenin became the most read author of the first half of the 20th century, and revolutions won through in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and so on. They were the defining feature of the 20th century.

Further, the fact the communists were able to weather attacks from all sides in the so-called ‘civil’ war – USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan et al supported Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich, Wrangel and others as they attacked in wave upon wave from all directions. At times the new RSFSR was a rump of its final extent, losing the Ukraine, the whole east, Byelorussia and much more. Any other army would have given in, but the new Red Army (built almost from scratch after the mass and undisciplined demobilisation of the Russian Army in the later years of the First World War). How did they manage? We can gain an insight by looking at Stalin during World War II. Stalin? Yes, Stalin has emerged in research as the key figure who won the war. How did he do so? Under immense threat from Hitler’s attack, he drew together the most creative and independent strategists and let them get to work. Meanwhile, he inspired people to draw on the deep social, culture and economic resources of communist restructuring, moved whole industries east and out of harm’s way and dug deep to repel the bulk of Hitler’s armies. Let me put it this way: Stalin saved the world for Jews, gypsies, gays and communists – all subject to Hitler’s exterminations.

What about democracy and freedom and all that crap? Wasn’t the USSR a one-party state that allowed no opposition? In that respect, it was no different from any western states, which had variations on one pro-capitalist party. There was one huge difference, however: the Russian Revolution went past the arrested development of the bourgeois revolution, pushing through to a full communist revolution. What about dissidents and the Gulag? In any other country the act of plotting to overthrow the state is called high treason. But for some reason the capitalist world called them ‘dissidents’ in the USSR. I probably wouldn’t have executed so many of those, but I can understand why.

Still, what about democracy? I have little time for bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with its formal freedom in which you can choose variations on the same pro-capitalist party. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enacted an absolute freedom, the freedom to choose what type of state you want. And in the new Soviets, a far more radical form of democracy developed. The old bourgeoisie and aristocracy did not get a look in (as they shouldn’t), for this was a democracy characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even some fellow socialists were horrified. Karl Kautsky, of the German Social-Democratic Party, who had once been immeasurably influential on Lenin, was eventually seduced by bourgeois democracy into thinking socialist aims could be achieved in the formal freedom of the ballot box. Lenin saw through it and denounced Kautsky as a renegade.

Economics? Wasn’t the USSR a basket case by 1989? Didn’t people have to line up in queues for the odd loaf of bread, as the standard propaganda image would have us believe? I have little add here from my earlier post, which shows that, by and large, more than two decades of capitalism since 1989 has been disastrous for these places.

But didn’t the USSR finally fail in 1989, since it came to an end? Given the immense pressures from the capitalist world, the construction of the Cold War by the USA, the continued economic sanctions and drain on vital resources, it is a surprise that the USSR lasted as long as it did. Lenin and all those following dreamed of peace that would allow the building of communism. In the absence of that peace, their achievement was stupendous.

But probably the biggest success of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe is that they gave us a sustained example of how difficult it is to construct communism after the revolution, how devilishly complex such a process is. To be sure, they made plenty of mistakes, only to learn from them and try something else. Until then, revolutionaries had dreamed, romanticised, formulated ideal blueprints, as they tend still to do today (especially in the West). Here was a moment when a revolution succeeded and communist construction began. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle put it, the USSR gave the capitalist world the biggest fright it ever had. I would add: at least until China.

Plus, the Russian Revolution gave us some of the sexiest communists, ever.

Was the Russian Revolution a miracle?

In assessing miracles, I suggest we turn to V.I. Lenin. With news that the tsar had abdicated and a provisional (bourgeois) government installed in early 1917, he writes:

There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous. (Collected Works, vol 23, p. 297).

Once he warms to the idea, he puts aside his scepticism and says:

Workers, you have performed miracles of proletarian heroism, the heroism of the people, in the civil war against tsarism. You must perform miracles of organisation, organisation of the proletariat and of the whole people, to prepare the way for your victory in the second stage of the revolution. (Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 306-7).

Note carefully: one miracle down (overthrowing the tsar); one to go (turfing out the bourgies and bringing about the second stage of the revolution). So now we have two miracles.

Comrade workers! You performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. In the more or less near future (perhaps even now, as these lines are being written) you will again have to perform the same miracles of heroism to overthrow the rule of the land lords and capitalists, who are waging the imperialist war. You will not achieve durable victory in this next “real” revolution if you do not perform miracles of proletarian organisation. (Collected Works, vol 23, p. 323).

When you have two, you have a multiple: one, two, many miracles are now possible. Ever keen for a motivating slogan, Lenin identifies two. ‘Miracles of proletarian heroism’ might be back-dated to the overthrow of tsarism, but what is the slogan for the forthcoming October revolution?

Miracles of proletarian organisation! That is the slogan of the moment! (Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 360).