We’ve all heard about Marxism, about the Russian Revolution, about Saint Petersburg. We also know all too well what the revolution ultimately led to: communism. But what was the basis for the USSR? Where did it actually come from? And when? Was it all because of that moment in 1917- a spring revolution started by a starving people and because of an autumnal coup? When, how, who, where, and especially why?
Riots and instability are an inheritance left to Russia shortly after the Middle Ages. First there were simple peasant revolts, as elsewhere in Europe- the famous actions of Stepan Razin and Pugachev, from the 17th to the 18th centuries. Starting with the rule of the Tsars, the Russians would choose their leader only to take him down from power in one way or another. On the other hand, 1917 was not the first time that a tsar ordered those who revolted to be killed. It’s a paradox that has been repeated, a curse that ended its cycle in 1917, only to be unleashed on the world. A deeply Christian people, but who always seemed to wish for their own ruin.
The revolution started from two places. The biggest and most important, the outbreak, the roots: the revolution was born in the factory. It happened where they, the workers were, the proletarians of which Marx spoke. They started a furious, but patriotic war. The other cradle, where the revolution grew without anyone paying attention to it was among the loose sheets of the intelligentsia. “The intellectuals cram their libraries with Russian folk songs anthologies, epic poems, legends, they are studying Russian mythology, rites of marriage and funeral, they mourn for the people and are looking towards them, filled with great hope, falling into despair, even giving their lives, facing execution or starve to death for the cause of the people.”
They complemented each other, a genius of good and a genius of evil. The proletarians brought tradition to the table, even on the political scene, having behind it the legacy of the “People’s Will” party and the intelligentsia brought modernity to their language, introducing Russia to Marxism.
The Russian people were thirsty for justice, so much that they had lost their lucidity. In the nineteenth century, the voice of the people was represented, more or less, by the “Narodnaya Volya” organization or the “People’s Will”. Some of them terrorized the streets since the 1860s, threatening autocracy, not tsarism. They resembled the kamikaze, having in mind the idea that “everything that stands in the way of the revolution is immoral and criminal”. Their actions were harshly punished: sometimes they were tried, sometimes punished with death. It seems that the anarchists left behind them a desire for justice and a hot bloodedness for revolt, but also for vendetta. In 1887, the “People’s Will” had already plotted against the leadership, and one of the members was caught and hung. This was Aleksandr Ulyanov, the brother of Vladimir Ulyanov, known in history as Lenin.
The Russian Revolution took place on the streets of St. Petersburg, then Petrograd. The Tsarist capital was full of workers, proletarians, revolutionaries. It was still cold, and great restlessness was pressing against the shoulders of the people heading for the Tauride Palace, even though the tsar was on the frontlines at the General Headquarters of the Russian army. The revolution took place in factories, in the streets, in the fields and was fought with all the tools that were at their disposal. Some of the rich but especially the poor were part of it. In short: simple people, but with traditional values, in simple but symbolic places.
Why? A philosophical question to be answered with: Marxism
The beginning of the twentieth century was auspicious to try a new change in Russia. Westernization has always been desired, but could never be adopted. The Russians would not be fooled too easily. At one time the liberal ideas of the French Revolution were supported, but the autocracy demanded its rights. The famous “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was replaced with “Pravoslavie, samodejavie, narodnost”, they gave up on “freedom, equality and brotherhood” for “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nation”. A change for the better was wanted, but no one saw such a fundamental change to come so quickly and to be so largely embraced by (almost) all.
We ask ourselves why Marxism was so well received by the people, and why it was able to start a revolution that changed the destiny of Europe. It’s simple. A large part of the Russian population was culturally backward. So much so that, for example, at the end of the nineteenth century, when an outbreak of cholera haunted Russia, the peasants started attacking the doctors, believing the medicine was poisonous. Thus, the intellectuals immediately accepted and concluded that a society based on industrialization would not let the peasants die, but would turn them into a middle class that would help in developing the country that will in turn automatically lead to an increase of their own living standards.
Why Revolution and why Marxism? Because the Russians needed a common denominator both for preserving traditional values and to establish a modern society, close to Europe. Let us not forget, however, that “for an autocratic regime, the most dangerous moment is the one in which it begins to reform”. That’s what Tocqueville had said about France in 1789. What we learned about Russia in the past 100 years is that her reform was truly criminal.
Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa