Vladimir IIich Ulanov, known popularly as Lenin, was the leader of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and went to become the architect of the Soviet Union and became its first head. Lenin came out of an exile to lead the revolution in 1917. He mobilised the people, consolidated his power cracked down all those who opposed him through Cheka, the secret police. Red terror was unleashed against monarchists and anti-Bolsheviks. In and through this terror rule and later with his poor health he also tried to shape the future of Soviet Union. He warned party members against their unchecked powers. However his warnings were not heeded and Joseph Stalin emerged as a powerful leader after Lenin.
Young Lenin was a voracious reader and was the brilliant son of educated parents. Two important events changed his life and he started to revolt against power. One his father was threatened with an early retirement by a government that though that there was something wrong with the inspector of school, his father, functioned. The second and the more important one was the execution of his brother, Aleksandr, for being involved in the group that was planning to assassinate Emperor Alexander III. The revolutionary in him was awakened and then there was no stopping him.
Lenin was completely influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, the German philosopher and declared himself to be a Marxist in January 1889. He took a law degree and slowly moved in to revolutionary politics. His revolutionary work was noticed by the authorities and he was arrested. Lenin was exiled to Siberia for three years. After his release he was again exiled to Munich. There he could unify the European and Russian Marxists. He also stepped up his revolutionary activities and this time he had more support. His watch words were “Give us an organization of revolutionaries and we will overturn Russia!”
The situations in Russia were also favourable for Lenin. Russia waged war with Japan in 1904. This had a big impact on the Russian society. There was a call for reform ringing all over the country. On January 9th 1905 a group of unarmed workers went to St. Petersburg to submit a petition to Emperor Nicholas II. However thee security forced handled them very badly and killed and wounded several of the workers. The stage was set for the Russian Revolution of 1905. Though there were moves to placate the citizens, Lenin was not happy. There were a group (Mensheviks) with the Marxist party which felt that power must rest with the bourgeoisie but Lenin wanted the power with the workers and he felt such an ideology alone would Russia to greater heights. So Lenin had to deal with internal issues and with the authority of Russia.
However the Mensheviks felt that Lenin was becoming a dictator over the people he wanted to empower. The two groups disputed on these grounds and in the second congress of the party Bolsheviks won by a slim majority. In 1912 in Prague the party formally split. During WWI Lenin was in exile again and he wrote a lot that kept the revolutionary politics alive. When Lenin returned to Russia in 1917, Russians had enough of the Tsars and of the war. Lenin’s call for a Soviet Union governed by soldiers, workers and peasants were welcomed with gusto and erelong Lenin became the head of the government institution popularly known Sovnarkom or SNK.
The biggest change was brought about in the economic sector of Russia. It was a change that hitherto never heard of in any country of the world. Lenin, influenced by Karl Marx wanted to give the full control to the workers, peasants and soldiers. It was this point that was being highlighted all through the revolution and he wanted it to be implemented as soon as he assumed power.
- The boldest policy that was enforced was the Decree of Land. It declared that all the land owned by the aristocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church as to be taken by the national leadership and redistributed among the peasants.
- A decree of Peace was declared by which they called an end for the war. Both these decrees encouraged soldiers to desert the army and come back home.
- The two reasons for this desertion were they did not want to die in war and the prospects of being owners of land.
- On 14thNovemebr the Decree of Worker’s control was declared wherein the workers of an enterprise could establish an elected committee to look into the management of the enterprise.
- On November 30th an order was issued asking all the gold to be given to the nationalised banks. Lenin saw this as a major step to establish socialism.
- A supreme Council of the National Economy was established which was authorised to look after agriculture, banking, industry and trade.
- Under the Supreme Council of the National were the trade unions and under them were the factory committees. Since the control was centralized, the local interests of the workers were not looked into fully.
- In February 1918 the Basic Law on the Socialisation of the Land was signed. This ratified the transfer of the land from the landed to the peasants.
- Early 1918, Sovnarkom refused to pay interest for the foreign debts and cancelled them.
- In April the same year foreign trade was nationalised and the state had a monopoly over imports and exports.
- Foreign investments were also curtailed with a Decree on Nationalism. This was mainly done to curtail the German shares in heavy industry.
- Full scale Nationalism happened only in 1920 and at that time small scale industries were brought under the state. There were difference in the Bolsheviks, the left communist wanted all industries under the state while Lenin wanted only the large scale industries to be nationalised. He wanted the small scale industries to have enough freedom to operate privately and grow and once they grew they could be nationalized.
On November 2nd the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia was issued. This was in the interest of the non-Russian ethnic groups that lived in Russia. He gave them the right to cede and form independent nations. As a result of this Finland and Lithuania declared itself independent in December 1917, Ukraine and Latvia in January 1918, Estonia in February 1918, Transcaucasia in April 1918 and Poland in November 1918. Communist rule was established in these countries with the help of Sovnarkom. The government also changed to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar in 1918.
Within the country there was dissent. The aristocracy who were stripped of their power and wealth were not willing to let go. They pitted the supporters of Bolsheviks against the non-supporters of Bolsheviks within the government; the Reds were pitted against the Whites. The Bolsheviks had formed an army called the Red Army soon after the October Revolution in 1917. Though Lenin was not well versed in military campaigns, he had many experienced army personnel on his side. So the clash or a civil war ensued between these two groups. The Bolsheviks had most of Great Russia while the white opposition were prominent in the peripheries. The enemies of Lenin increased but after the first attempt of assassination Lenin became more popular.
The international political implication makes an interesting study. The new approach to governance where the people had a great role to play caught on in different countries of the world. The communist theory put all the powers of the world under stress during the 20th century. European countries did not want the spread of communism at home. Afghanistan had the support of Russia but all the radical Islam groups did not allow Russia to get a stronghold in Russia. Cold War between the US and USSR were also a part of this. It was only after the disintegration of the Union in 1991 that the world powers relaxed.
The working class was given a lot of importance in Sovnarkom. Lenin was truly concerned about the people especially the suppressed.
- On October 29th, the Decree on the Eight-Hour Day issued that no worker should work for more than 8 hours in a day.
- On the same day Decree of Popular Education was given where the government guaranteed free, secular and universal education for all children.
- Women emancipation measures were introduced. Husbands were given economic autonomy and by taking off the restrictions on divorce.
- In November 1918 the decree to start state orphanages was passed.
While some good measures were being taken to help the citizens of Russia, there were many atrocities that were committed during Lenin’s period especially against the bourgeoisie. Lenin blamed the kulaks the rich landed farmers for the famine in the country and asked Committees of Poor Peasants to hang at least 100 kulaks. At this order many people were killed and unfortunately most were not kulaks but smaller farmers who had contributed to the growth of the economy. It was noted "[The bourgeoisie] practised terror against the workers, soldiers and peasants in the interests of a small group of landowners and bankers, whereas the Soviet regime applies decisive measures against landowners, plunderers and their accomplices in the interests of the workers, soldiers and peasants”
The role of the Orthodox Church was reduced to nothing. Only communism existed and no religious practices were allowed. However Lenin was interested in the matters of culture and in November 1918 a memorandum was signed where the libraries of Petrograd had to extend the opening hours. In May 1918 a plan for A Socialist Academy of Social Sciences was put forth. This society was to publish more articles and research on Marxism. The Russian universities were instructed to enrol more children of workers and peasants. Lenin wanted to close down Bolshoi Theatre arguing that that money could be used to improve the literacy rate in the country. In April 1918 , he ordered the busts of the Tsars to be removed and it was replaced by the ones of the socialists. The monuments from the Tsar era were also removed. For the anniversary of October revolution a statue of Karl Marx was unveiled by Lenin and this was followed by a parade of soldiers and workers.
The existing legal system and its courts were abolished in November 1917 and in its place came the ‘revolutionary conscience’. Crime and punishment was decided by this council. To handle the revolutionary crimes a Revolutionary Tribunal was formed in November and in March People’s Courts were established. This was to deal with criminal and civil offences. These courts had to forego the legal system form the Tsar era and had to follow the Sovnarkom decrees and the ‘socialist sense of justice’.
An Overall View of Russia under Lenin
Lenin was born into a wealthy family but took to the cause of the poor and the destitute. He played the role of Robinhood, robbed the rich and fed the poor. The ideology in principle was very good but the implementation became faulty. The bourgeoisie were stripped of all their power and wealth and were reduced to nothing. To bring about a change in the social order overnight is never a great idea. Social changes are always good when it is society driven, slow and well accepted. Communism was none of the three. Lenin and his supporters believed in the change and it was implemented in a dictatorial manner. Next it happened too quickly. After the October Revolution of 1917, the decrees were issued, some as early as November. There was hardly any time for the people to know what was happening to them. It was a blow for the rich and for the poor they suddenly came into money. For both the classes this was not a healthy change to happen. Naturally there were enemies for Lenin and after a point there was difference of opinion amongst his supporters too. There were assassination attempts and this brought about health problems. After many strokes at the age of 53 Lenin died on January 21st, 1924. History views the period of Lenin and Bolsheviks governance as a period of dictatorship. Lenin fell into a trap that he wanted to abolish.