On this day in 1917 – at least if you follow the Julian calendar – the first incident took place in Petrograd (which had been, and is now, St Petersburg, and which for 70 or so years afterwards was Leningrad) that was to result in the Soviet Revolution. Just to make it as confusing as possible, it is either referred to as the October Revolution, or Red October, or else the November Revolution (because according to the Gregorian calendar it took place in November). But of course, whatever you call it and whichever calendar you use, it unleashed events which profoundly altered history. The system of Soviet Communism that followed it, and which at least for a while governed much of Eastern Europe, had a huge impact not just on those countries, but on western concepts such as the welfare state. But it also produced enormous hardships, including starvation and totalitarian dictatorship, and eventually it collapsed economically, some time around 1989, also around this time of year (if you take the fall of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment of collapse).

And so, in the early years of the new millennium, how should we now assess the Soviet revolution and the political system that followed it? I still find that very hard to say. One particular communist leader, Zhou Enlai of China, is famously said to have remarked when asked about the impact of the French Revolution that it was ‘too early to tell’. And in some respects that is true of 1917. It is difficult to see it objectively in the light of the many victims of Stalin’s brutal rule and in the light of the oppression that was inflicted on Eastern Europe. And yet, communism in government in the East led to significant social reforms in the West that have defined modern concepts of democracy. The East-West debates that defined political discourse during my youth sharpened ideological perspectives that allowed governments to pursue a much more distinct vision than is sometimes the case today.

I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union just before its demise, and on the one hand mostly found it to be bureaucratic and drab; but I also on occasion found it to be unexpectedly cultured and philosophical, in a way that we were not in the West.

I am sure I would have hated to live in the Soviet Union, and I wholly deplore the oppression and brutality that characterised some of its political actions. But I cannot quite bring myself to regret that the October Revolution happened. Not quite.

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2 Comments on “Revolutions”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I suspect one of the main problems was that while it held up the man at the bottom as being the ideal human being in direct social and legal contrast with what went before, the reality was somewhat different.
    Then what in the system was that much different to what was set up by Peter of whom Petrograd was named. The reality was very little indeed. The big change was to the relatively small middle class who were reduced from the position they thought they should hold. For the rest, the nobility was replaced by the party officials and the little guy was where he had always been.
    For those on the land, it took 40 years for production to get back to where it was in 1900. Where one of the reasons was that officials were stupid enough to remove all production including that which was selected for seed.
    As to what it did in the west, I feel Bismark had had a greater impact all in all. For things which were good were dismissed as being communist.

  2. John H Says:

    I lived in Novosibirsk, Russia for 2 years in the late 90’s. What struck me most in that time was the human cost that is the legacy of the USSR.

    It was (and still is) common to see pensioners collecting used glass bottles from rubbish bins so that they could claim the kopecks for bringing the bottles for recycling. Think. 100 kopecks = 1 rouble. Last time I checked, about 35 roubles = 1 euro.

    Not only that. At the time teachers wages were massively underfunded, with teachers often going without wages for a few months at a time. Even when a teacher was paid, the wages were such as to require the teachers to have a frugal lifestyle, even if they did live with their parents. A teacher could expect maybe 200 roubles. 6 or 7 euro for a weeks work?

    One of the more shocking things I saw was the number of amputees begging. Some were war veterans, others were possibly the famous few who fell asleep outside in winter and woke up with severe frostbite. In either case, they had to beg to make ends meet. The workers paradise doesn’t provide for them.

    On top of this is a system where corruption is the norm. I regularly had to put my hand in my pocket to get the correct exit visa. One friend had a store of roubles in his car -so that if he was stopped while driving, his first question to the traffic police was “how much?”.

    Twelve years ago my objections to communism were based on a very hazy ideology. Now, I look at the fruits of communism and I see a country that has a long, long way to go before the majority of citizens will see anything like the lifestyle we consider basic.

    For me the revolution is, in a way, an easy subject. I look at the human cost now, and at the millions who died under Stalin’s purges (he did manage to kill more Russians than Hitler)

    Just looked back over that and it reads like a rant. Sorry ’bout that!

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