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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

Revolution Belied

Monday 6 November 2017, by Barun Das Gupta


What exactly was unique about the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia? What was it that made this revolution fundamentally different from all other previous revolutions? Why was it that it was something new, something unheard of, something never before imagined, in the entire history of human civilisation.?

Rabindranath Tagore in his inimitable language summed up this uniqueness succinctly in his book Letters from Russia, which he wrote when he visited the Soviet Union in 1930. He wrote:

“There have always been one group of unseen people in society, their number is always greater, they are the carriers; they have no time to evolve as humans; they live off what their country throws away. They eat the least, they have the least to call their own, they learn less than all the others and they look after the rest; their labour is the greatest as is their misfortune. They die of disease at the slightest excuse, or of starvation and their mistreatment at the hands of those who are above them—they are deprived of every kind of comfort one needs in life. They are the stands upon which the lamp of civilization is placed, standing straight with the flame held above them—they ensure that everyone above receives light while they are covered in the drips of oil.

“I have thought of them for a long time as being in hopeless situation. One group cannot rise unless another group is at the bottom, and yet everyone deserves to be on the top. One cannot see beyond what is very close unless one is on top; just being alive is not where true humanity lies. One must surpass mere subsistence in order to achieve civilisation. All the best out-comes of civilisation have been derived during moments of leisure. There is a need to preserve leisure in the midst of civilization. That is why I used to feel that for the people who must of necessity work body and soul in the under-carriage of civilisation and are not adapted to any other work, effort must be made to provide them with adequate education, health and other comforts as far as possible.”

For the first time in history, the October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917 brought the message of deliverance to these people, the historically deprived and the dispossessed, the lowliest and the lost, and promised to be the herald of a new dawn, the beginning of a new social order where they could, in the words of Tagore, “evolve as humans”. For the first time in history the unlettered and the poor, tens of millions of them, took up the stupendous challenge of building from scratch a new society, a new civilisation from which hunger, illiteracy and poverty have been banished for ever. Leading them was a man who commanded the love and respect and implicit trust of tens of millions of people—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The country was in the midst of the First World War which had to be ended to lay the foundation of the new society, to begin reconstruction work. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty made that possible. But that was not the end of the trouble. The country was plunged into a civil war. The supporters of the old order, those who wanted to restore Tsardom, the Russian bourgeoisie and the kulaks or feudal lords who feared that their land would be expropriated by the new State, all joined hands to put the clock of history back, made a determined effort to snatch power back. After three years of civil strife, the workers and peasants under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, crushed the resistance of the supporters of the old order. From 1920 began the phase of reconstruction. But by then Lenin had taken ill. Years of hard work had taken their toll on him. He passed away in 1924.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of Lenin’s illness and due to the specific circumstances prevailing in Russia at the time, another person was fast rising to the top—both of the Bolshevik Party and of the new State—Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, whom the world knows as Stalin. He was not a Russian but a Georgian. Ruthless, remorseless and relentless in his pursuit of personal power, Stalin had already marginalised other senior leaders of the Bolshevik Party and was training his guns on the ailing Lenin himself.

According to one commentator,1

“The end of the Civil War found Stalin still in the shadows politically. The party wheel-horses knew him, of course, but did not regard him as one of the important leaders. To the rank and file of the party he was one of the least known members of the Central Committee, notwith-standing his membership of the all-powerful Politburo. The country at large had scarcely heard of him. The non-Soviet world did not even suspect of his existence. Yet within less than two years his hold on the party machine had become so formidable and his influence so injurious by Lenin that early in March, 1923, Lenin broke all ‘comradely relations’ with him.”

According to one of Stalin’s many bio-graphers, “No political leader was so pro-grammed for this perpetual fight against enemies as Stalin, who regarded himself as history’s lone knight riding out, with weary resignation, on another noble mission, the Bolshevik version of the mysterious cowboy arriving in a corrupt frontier town.”2

According to the same source, Stalin’s animus against Lenin was so vitriolic that once he made an outrageous remark that if Krupskaya did not obey, “the Central Committee would appoint someone else as Lenin’s wife.” Stalin went to the extent of saying that “To sleep with Lenin does not mean you understand Marxism-Leninism.”3

In his last Testament, communicated to the Central Committee of the Party, Lenin charged Stalin not only with suppression of dissent in Georgia (Stalin’s homeland) but also accused him of being rude and abusive to his wife, Krupskaya. Lenin went to the extent of telling the Central Committee that it should consider removing Stalin from the post of Secretary-General of the party. Before his death, Lenin was thoroughly disillusioned with Stalin and discovered for himself what Stalin really was —a monster.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin quickly consolidated his dictatorship over the party and the government. The Soviet Union was launched on a reverse journey. Forced collectivi-sation of agriculture began in the 1930s. Thousands of peasant families were uprooted from their land and transported to distant and unfamiliar areas in open railway wagons. Many perished on the way. Least resistance on the part of the peasants invited shooting by troops and death.

The 1930s also saw the notorious ‘Moscow Trials’ in which top Bolshevik leaders, all Lenin’s comrades-in-arm in the Revolution, were shot after they were forced to ‘confess’ to treachery and treason. The Great Purge started with the assassination of Sergei Kirov, one of those who were supposed to be very close to Stalin. Indeed, close he was but his popularity and eminence in the party was something Stalin could not stomach. Later it transpired that the assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, did it on orders of one of Stalin’s henchmen, Voroshilov. When caught after the assassination of Kirov, Nikolaev pointed at Voroshilov and said: “But you yourself told me . . .” Obviously Voroshilov could not dare order Kirov’s murder except under instructions from Stalin.

Kirov’s murder was contrived by Stalin as an excuse to justify his theory that the “enemies of the Soviet state” had hatched a big conspiracy. That triggered the mass arrests and sham trials of the old guard of the Party and their execution to remove all possible threats to Stalin’s dictatorship. Stalin would eliminate anyone who, he suspected, was against him or might turn against him. The Soviet state made a rapid transition under Stalin from proletarian demo-cracy (which Lenin, in his polemic against Kautsky, said was ‘a thousand times more democratic’ than bourgeois democracy) to a dictatorship—the personal dictatorship of Stalin. He ruled ruthlessly with his secret police and a servile bureaucracy that would execute his orders without question and with machine precision.

On the eve of WW II, Stalin entered into a non-aggression pact with Hitler, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. A Secret Protocol to it (which is no longer secret now and is freely available on the Internet) outlined how occupied Europe was to be ‘divided up’ between Germany and the Soviet Union. Three Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, were militarily occupied by Stalin by virtue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Stalin died in 1953. The Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, held in 1956, saw de-Stalinisation. But the irony is that de-Stalinisation was carried out in the typically Stalinist way. Stalin was accused of having promoted his own cult of personality, of having wantonly violated ‘socialist legality’, of having ordered mass executions. But the CPSU did not, either at that time or anytime later,explain how it was possible for an individual in a socialist state to promote his personality cult, violate socialist legality and impose his personal dictatorship. Without finding out the causes, it remained always possible for the emergence of another dictatorship of an ambitious and ruthless leader in future.

In fact, despite glasnost and perestroika introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the nineteen eighties, the Soviet Union could never free itself from its Stalinist legacies and methods. In 1956 itself, the year in which the Twentieth Congress was held, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and executed Imre Nagy. Twelve years later, in 1968, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and dethroned Alexander Dubcek, though he was not executed. None of these acts can be justified by Leninist principles.

The hope that the October Revolution raised, of the full inflorescence of the creative genius of the people, of democratic freedom, of a free people voluntarily engaging in the work of rebuilding and reconstruction, of creating a new society, disappeared like a midday mirage. The promise of a new dawn that the October Revolution created, not only to the Russian people but to the entire world, was belied.

What began as a great triumph has ended in a great tragedy.


1. Charles Malamuth’s prefatory remarks to Chapter 11 of Trotsky’s Stalin, Vol. II, Panther, 1968, p. 136. Malamuth translated and edited Stalin into English.

2. Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nicholas and Widenfield, London, 2003, p. 114.

3. Montefiore, ibid., p. 30fn

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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