The Russian Revolution

The second book I got was The Russian Revolution by Sean McMeekin. It was a very informative book, covering the brief history of Russia before the revolution until about 1922. McMeekin fills many of the gaps of Russian history of that time. His conclusions are a bit wrong, I think, but he does show how Russian Communism began as a kleptocracy.

I was a little startled at how similar the Russian and French revolutions were. Errors by leadership occurred at every opportunity, compounded by lies churned from printing presses, giving way to mobs assembling in the street. Both revolutions happened in phases, turning on chance mistakes giving way to violence. Lenin was Russia’s Robespierre. A key difference, then, was that Lenin survived, while Robespierre got the machine.

Overall, McMeekin portrays the Russian revolution as something that would have been funny if it hadn’t ended so many lives. Russian troops didn’t know who to swear allegiance to. The initial revolution had to backdate the tsar’s abdication. At one point, a Czech brigade traveling through Russia (taking the longest route to fight the Austrians) had conquered much of the country. Lenin, finally flush with Prussian cash, went on a stupid spending spree when he got back to Russia.

The book clarified why Lenin’s return was so successful in a year when nobody could seize power: cash. Prussia laundered money worth hundreds of millions to Lenin, and despite blowing it on a big house and a snazzy printing press – which he used to print counterfeit currency – also used some of it to propagandize an entire nation. When he ran out of cash after the war, he looted the tsar’s gold stockpile (after having to rescue some of it from the Czechs). When that ran out, he intentionally starved the Russian people and used the ensuing famine to loot the Russian Orthodox Church.

All of this happened in the middle of a world war. Before the tsar abdicated, the Russians were doing well on the Eastern Front. The Russian military was poised to go on a real offensive in 1917. Morale was high. The country even secured an agreement from England and France that it would get Constantinople after the war ended. Russians had wanted that city since, well, forever.

None of those goals were achieved after the early revolution in 1917. Instead, the Prussians were able to sit back and watch the Russian army implode under desertion, ineptitude, and propaganda. Eventually the Prussians did seize a massive amount of land from Russia. This was not just out of greed, but out of a shortage of food. Ukrainian lands were needed to supply bread to starving people.

At the end of the book, McMeekin writes that:

Today’s Western socialists, dreaming of a world where private property and inequality are outlawed, where rational economic development is planned by far-seeing intellectuals, should be careful what they wish for. They may just get it.

The Russian Revolution, at 352.

I can understand the cynicism which underpins this conclusion. Lenin, Trotsky, and every other Bolshevik promised one thing and did another. They held a utopian worker’s paradise in front of a nation weakened by war. None of them delivered on any of those promises. Certainly in today’s times of rampant misinformation and deliberate political falsehoods, one can see some modern leaders aping the duplicity of Bolshevik leadership.

But the conclusion doesn’t really fit the facts presented beforehand. If anything, the Russian Revolution illustrates how revolutionaries make shitty government (yes, even American revolutionaries, though that is still a different rant for a different time). Lenin won his bid for power because he was good at seizing it, he was lucky, and he had tons of money at his disposal.

That last part flies in the face of the Marxist-Leninist version of events. The Russian proletariat didn’t seize power in a glorious struggle with its economic foes. Rather, it transferred the whip from the tsar’s hand to the Bolsheviks’. After the Bolshevik takeover, executions increased, jailing increased, and quality of living took decades to recover. None of this had anything to do with Marxism. It had everything to do with the antics of Lenin and his pals.

I should be careful to note that this doesn’t mean everyone should drop what they’re doing and go get their communist party t-shirts. Instead, people do need to be careful about what people promise them versus what they actually do. Anyone can talk about building a bridge to a better tomorrow. It takes more than that to build one.