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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Red Star Rising: Overthrow, Art, Culture and Betrayal in the Russian Revolution

Regular contributor, writer of the Viridis Lumens Blog, and Green Left activist Adrian Cruden gives a free thinking perspective on the October Revolution of 1917

The Dream of Leon Trotsky...

"Under socialism, solidarity will be the basis of society. Literature and art will be tuned to a different key. All the emotions which we revolutionists, at the present time, feel apprehensive of naming - so much have they been worn thin by hypocrites and vulgarians - such as disinterested friendship, love for one's neighbour, sympathy, will be mighty ringing chords of socialist poetry.... All the arts - literature, drama, painting, music and architecture - will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonised, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above this ridge, new peaks will rise." (from "Literature and Revolution")

The aspirations of this key architect of the October revolution were not only ambitious but, to a modern western reader they likely seem surprising, especially the references to physical changes in a post-revolutionary Homo Sovieticus. Yet their very antithesis to the realities of the early 20th century for the mass of Russian serve to illustrate just how barbaric Czarist society was.

For Russia in early 1917 was uniquely different to all the other major European powers that had been at war over the previous two and a half years. Unlike Imperial Germany, it had only a small industrial base - largely owned by either the Czarist state or by foreign investors - amidst an ocean of great rural estates and tens of millions of peasants. Unlike France, it had only a statistically insignificant bourgeoisie class which was completely incapable of demanding or consolidating even a mildly representative government.

And unlike Britain, although he was Queen Victoria's grandson, there was no constitutional limitation at all on the authority of the Czar. Nicholas Romanov ruled by the Divine Will and was answerable only to God; any claim otherwise was a sin against the Creator - the Orthodox Church said so. Indeed, the title Czar was derived via the medieval Christian Byzantine Empire from the Caesars of the Roman Empire and Moscow was deemed to be the Third Rome (after the New Rome of Constantinople, which had succeeded the eponymous one on the River Tiber).

Western propaganda has often sugar-coated the Russian Empire and its ruling class, epitomised by sickly sentimental cinema outings like Nicholas and Alexandria and the BBC 1970s TV drama Fall of Eagles. How awful, we are told, were the fates of the Imperial family and so many of the nobles and fellow-travellers, dispossessed of their lands and at best forced into exile or shot by firing squads or, even worse, forced to work for a living alongside everyone else in the new Soviet state.

But, in truth, Russia was a dreadfully under-developed society. As well as a political system that subordinated everyone to the Emperor's Will and crushed all dissident political expression, it remained mired in medieval feudalism right up to 1881 when the peasantry was finally released from the bondage of serfdom. This meant that the predominant economic form was agrarian and indeed when Napoleon had invaded in 1812, he found a land with only three cities of any note existing - Kiev in the Ukraine, Moscow in the Slav heartlands and St Petersburg, the sole modern city, deliberately founded by Peter the Great in the extreme west of his domains to occidentalise the Russian elite.

From Peter onwards, the Imperial Government often tried to modernise Russia from the top and so developed state-owned heavy industry from the 1880s onwards, drawing several million peasants off the land and into giant factory complexes and the grinding poverty and disease of 19th century urban life. To link these, railways were built across the Empire, often using prison labour, with the Trans-Siberian line being one of the greatest, and bloodiest, achievements of its time, stretching from Moscow in the centre of European Russia all the way to distant Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.

There was no Empire-wide education system and illiteracy was rife. There were middle class professionals like doctors, lawyers and technical specialists, but they were few in number. There was a larger group of notaries employed around the Empire to run the Imperial bureaucracy, but given their position they were dependent on the state and so posed no challenge. Universities in the cities and larger towns did produce some open-minded students and teachers, but they were met with suspicion and surveillance by the authorities.

Okhrana secret police 1905

Nervous of any challenge at all, the Czarist government created a secret police bureau - the Okhrana - which employed a huge range of methods to neutralise the opposition. This included setting up police-run trade unions to undermine the labour movement, routinely intercepting mail, torturing suspects and deploying agents provocateurs to infiltrate everything from revolutionary cadres to famine relief charities. Sometimes this reached ludicrous depths - one possibly apocryphal account from the town of Kazan claimed that the local Social Revolutionary Party committee disbanded after its 12 members gradually realised that they were all secret policemen.

This repression extended to imprisoning hundreds of thousands of real and imagined opponents in distant penal colonies in Sibera where a huge proportion perished in appalling conditions. Closer to the heart of the Empire, strikes were routinely crushed by the clubs of the police, and Jewish communities, already largely confined to the south of Ukraine, were singled out for bloody pogroms by the Czar's paramilitary organisation of Christian stormtroopers, the chillingly named Black Hundreds. Indeed, it was the Okhrana agent Matvei Golvinstei who is credited with creating the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion, subsequently employed by Adolf Hitler to demonise the Jews and justify the Holocaust.

Jewish pogrom victims in Odessa, 1905

So at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was a repressive, under-developed police state ruled by a despot who reneged on the limited political reforms of his grandfather and whose governance was a mix of arrogance, incompetence and sheer sloth. It was the epitome of imperialism, a Prison of the fifty-odd nations its borders encompassed, and its only impetus to modernise stemmed from its desire to match the military strength of its more developed rivals. It well deserved the name given to it by Daniel Beers' book on the Czarist penal system, The House of the Dead.


The End of St. Petersburg, film 1926

In this House of the Dead, people still dreamed and schemed of better times. Das Kapital was passed by the Czarist censors who clearly failed to grasp its significance, and it became required reading among opponents of the Czarist system. Anarchism and Marxism became the main strands of thinking among revolutionaries – the absence of any parliamentary outlet or a significant bourgeoisie class meant that liberalism was eclipsed from the outset by more radical beliefs.

Unsurprisingly, it was in cultural activities that revolutionary feeling was first expressed – sometimes the censors caught it in time, other times not. And in the 19th century, it was in novels that socialist writers began to bring their hopes of new societies to wider audiences than the small study groups of professional activists.

Russian literature was beset for a long time by turgid novels praising the Slavic nation, wrapping up vaguely mystical concepts of race with Orthodox religion. It was relentlessly conservative in its values - even if some like Tolstoi challenges the corruption of the moneyed classes, he looked backwards to an imagined community than forward. This changed in 1863 when the writer Nikolai Cheneyshevsky published "What Is To Be Done?" – a novel that inspired Lenin to political activism and famously gave him the title for his own polemic in 1903 when he outlined his view of the Bolsheviks' strategy. Chernyshevsky was himself in prison when he wrote it but was given permission to send it to his former newspaper employer to publish it.

Cherneyshevsky's central character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes a traditional family and marriage to make her own way in the world. As she makes her way, he introduces her to co-operative societies based on the traditional peasant commune, gender equality and above all the duty of the wealthy intellectual to work for the revolution. This latter theme of an intellectual vanguard bringing enlightenment and liberation to the poor was to feature from then on all the way up to and through the 1917 revolutions and its influence on Lenin's own thinking was to have a crucial impact on the fate of the revolution.

What Is To Be Done? introduced the concept of the dedicated revolutionary in the form of a character called Rakhmetov. To him, the end justified the means and he was prepared to both inflict and endure great suffering in the cause. He comes from a noble family but lives a life of poverty in order to spread revolutionary thinking to the masses, working as a boatman on the Volga and sleeping on a bed of nails just to prove to himself the extent of his devotion.

Chernyshevsky wrote a number of other political tracts about ideal societies and he even developed thinking on the architecture of self-contained communes that influenced a lot of Soviet planning in the 20th century. But it was the character of Rakhmetov that had the greatest immediate impact – it led to the founding of the Land and Freedom society.

This was an organisation of younger middle and upper class revolutionaries who in the 1870s went out among the peasantry to educate them in revolutionary thinking. It was very paternalistic and failed fairly quickly to engage the masses, but unlike previous groups, it was the first to use violence to pursue its aims and an offshoot of it, Narodnaya Volya, the Peoples Will, went on to assassinate the mildly liberal Czar Alexander in 1881. It was also bound by a tight comradeship and centralism. Among its members was Alexander Ulyanov, brother of Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, later Lenin, who was executed after a failed plot to assassinate the next Czar. Lenin himself praised both the organisation and Chernyshevsky's book, and he read it many times during his younger days.

Unsurprisingly, just as revolutionary thinking was not monolithic, nor were revolutionary organisations. Very broadly, they divided between the Social Revolutionaries, who advocated a Russian agrarian socialism developed on from Marxism by the exiled noble Alexander Herzen and founded very much on the peasantry. It was like the Peoples Will and Land and Freedom still run by middle class activists – but unlike the Social Democrats, they tended to be people whose work took them among the poorer communities – so doctors, nurses and teachers were often in local SR leaderships, whereas the Marxist Social Democrats founded by the wealthy industrialist Plekhanov and joined by Lenin drew more heavily from lawyers, university lecturers, journalists.

So, very broadly, by the time of the 1905 revolution, the Social Revolutionaries were well established among the rural peasantry, while the Social Democrats were organised among the smaller but economically vital urban working classes. They had ideological differences over the status of peasant smallholders and whether to communalise or collectivize the land; they disagreed as well on tactics – the SDs confined their use of violence to sending Stalin, or Koba as he was known then, out on bank jobs to raise funds; the SRs on the other hand loved nothing more than a good assassination and they even set up the SR Combat Organisation to lead this – and the party's Maximalist wing rejected the idea of two stage revolutions between bourgeois democratic and proletarian socialist phases, calling instead for immediate revolution.

The failure of the 1905 revolution was a blow to all revolutionaries even though nearly all their leaders from the outset were both surprised by its sudden emergence and sceptical about its success. Lenin and many others were in exile in western Europe at the time and the only prominent returnee was Trotsky, who chaired the St Petersburg Soviet and ended up in prison after a show trial staged by the Czarist state but directed by Trotsky – he even arranged for the defendants to have a group photo taken relaxing in the courtroom. Had TV existed then, who knows how it might have then played out. However, it didn't and he was sent to jail and then Siberia, before escaping for a second time.

Trotsky and other Soviet members at their 1906 trial

The Social Democrats had themselves ruptured at their 1903 Congress held in Brussels and London between the Bolshevik faction – which means the majority although they were in fact the minority – led by Lenin and the Mensheviks under Martov, which means the minority although they were at first the majority. The nub of the dispute was over Lenin's proposal for a small, tightly controlled party of full-time revolutionaries and Martov's vision of a mass party engaged in street demonstrations and strikes.

Among the Bolsheviks, Aleksander Bogdanov had been in Russia throughout the 1905 events and was a rival for the leadership until he was expelled in 1909. His background was in psychiatry and science, and he was attracted to the logic of Marxist systems and he is now himself seen as an originator of systems theory. Like Chernyshevsky, he used literature to advance his political ideas to a wider audience and in 1907 he used the new medium of science fiction to produce the book Red Star, now largely forgotten but which became one of the best selling novels of pre-first world war Europe.

In this, Bogdanov's narrator is taken off to Mars in a spaceship by an interplanetary socialist called Menni who introduces him to an egalitarian world where individualism has been largely extinguished, there is no hierarchy, gender is fluid and love is free. The plot centres around an environmental crisis faced by the Martian Soviet and it is a good, if different, read.

Alexander Bogdanov's Red Star

Lenin was not at all impressed but the influence of the novel in exploring how a new world might work and what life could be like for its inhabitants had a deep resonance in contemporary Russia, where the Czar was quickly unravelling the limited concessions given to stem the revolutionary tide of 1905 and 1906.

Still, all these cultural initiatives to challenge the status quo remained the preserve of professional revolutionaries. Many were in exile and those that were still inside Russia did not develop extensive links with trade unions nor did they bring large numbers of workers and peasants into the party. Indeed, in January 1917, Bolshevik membership was a mere 24,000 people.

The Vanguard?

Lenin himself saw nothing contradictory in this and he was far from alone in his vanguardism. Yet his language was far from comradely towards the workers. In his own What is to be done? he wrote:

"The history of all countries shows that the working class exclusively of its own efforts is only able to develop trade union consciousness - i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and compel the government to pass necessary legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophical, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the properties classes, by intellectuals."

Like all elitism, this was very out of step with the reality. In late January 1917, Lenin in Zurich exile told some young revolutionaries that he doubted he would live to see revolution in Russia. Yet when it came about just days later, the Russian Revolution was to be a world away in its form from that he had anticipated.

For a start, it was begun not by the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks or SRs who had been banging on about it for years. Nor was it begun by a bourgeois vanguard. Instead, it was women factory workers, ignoring the demands of the local Bolshevik committee that they stay and work, who marched out on International Women's Day from the Vyborg district and proceeded into the city centre calling for bread and peace and for the overthrow of the Czar. When troops blocked their way across the bridges on the river Neva, they bravely clambered down to the riverside and walked across the ice. Within three days, joined by huge crowds of workers and soldiers, they swept away the Czar's regime with barely a shot fired and just a handful of deaths.

The hated professional police literally disappeared, changing out of uniform to run down the street, while peasant conscript troops confined their officers to barracks and released political prisoners from the Fortress of Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Centuries of autocracy just melted away. All the levers of power, the Court, the judiciary, the secret agents and all the humiliating subservience they demanded vanished in just four or five days.

And this moment unleashed a dramatic change in Russian society, one that felt itself across all classes and all walks of life - for a time, almost like the transformation predicted by Trotsky. The author of Dr Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, later recounted his own feelings via his lead character when he ruminated that:
"Revolution erupted forcibly like a breath held too long. Everyone revived, became transformed, transfigured, changed. Everyone seemed to experience two such upheavals - his own personal revolution and second one, common to all."

This liberation was expressed in many ways from February onwards.

Politically, it led to the creation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies within hours of the resignation of the last of the Czars Ministers. This council was a recreation of the Soviets that revolutionaries had spontaneously created during the 1905 revolution and while the revolutionary parties all participated, it was joined by people from far outside their orbit. And this model soon expressed itself across much of the Empire.

Parallel to this, former members of the Duma, which the Czar had suspended in 1915, emerged to create a Provisional Government which was populated by liberal and conservative Ministers under Prince Lvov as Prime Minister. Only one social revolutionary, Alexander Kerensky, took part as Minister of War and without the formal support of his party. This was as much as the old regime could muster in defence of some form of continuity and from the outset it was in competition with the soviets as it attempted to defend private property, continue the war and repeatedly asked the country to wait for a Constituent Assembly to be elected to draft a new constitution.

So the deference of the Empire was gone and this reflected itself in thousands of individual and collective acts against the old ways of things – palaces were requisitioned by crowds of homeless and hungry people. Workers and soldiers began to walk among the bourgeoisie and nobles promenading down Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd, something they would never have previously dared to do. And when the Provisional Government continued with the war, even mounting a new offensive in the spring which collapsed almost before it began, the response was more and more strikes and large demonstrations in the cities demanding peace, land and bread.

The Tide

In July, this rising tide led to a Bolshevik demonstration for a transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviets almost running away with itself, much against the wishes of Lenin and Trotsky, and the party was subsequently outlawed and Lenin fled to Finland shaved by Stalin and disguised in a wig.

Briefly, it seemed like a fatal reversal, but at this point the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks made on their part a huge error – rather than join the Bolshevik demands for a transfer of power, they backed and joined the Provisional Govt and supported its policies on the basis of waiting for the Constituent Assembly, even though elections for it had been repeatedly delayed. Kerensky now took office as Prime Minister and heartily embraced his personal delusion by installing a bust of Napoleon in his office in the Winter Palace in Petrograd.

But Lenin caught the mood of the masses far far more effectively with his pamphlet The State and Revolution, which outlined a programme for change involving peasant control of the land and workers control of the factories, and peace. Especially after an abortive coup against the Provisional Government by its own military appointee General Kornilov during August, the Bolsheviks, who had rallied the workers against the militarists, saw their representation on local Soviets rise dramatically, gaining outright majorities over the SRs and Mensheviks in Petrograd and Moscow and in many other cities.

So by the time we reach October, or early November under the new calendar, while the storming of the Winter Palace by Bolsheviks under the direction of the party's Military Revolutionary Committee can be exaggerated in terms of its drama, there can be little doubt that the mood of the majority of the population was firmly in favour of ending the Provisional Government and transferring all power to the Soviets.

Freeing the mind

In less than eight full months, we see the politics of the Empire transformed into the nascent Soviet Union. But it is far, far more than a change in form of government – it is a change in how society works and how people think about themselves and others. And this is a question for socialists down the ages – how to challenge successfully the deeply embedded mindsets in anyone who has been born and raised in a culture of deference and repression towards the self-autonomy and collectivism of a socialist or communist form of society. It goes far beyond constitutions or even forms of ownership – the Russian State already owned a far larger proportion of industry than most capitalist states – but about how people express themselves, work with each other and think.

This question brought into sharp relief two different strands within the Bolsheviks: those around Lenin who saw the revolution first and foremost as focussing on politics and economics; and those around Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, who believed it needed to challenge much more deeply held social and cultural norms and values.

Lenin's view of literature and culture were originally expressed in "Party Organisation and Party Literature" in 1903 and although at that time it was referring to party literature, once a one-party state was established, it was in effect extended to wider society:

"It is not simply that, for the socialist proletariat, literature cannot be a means of enriching individuals or groups; it cannot, in fact, be an individual undertaking, independent of the common cause of the proletariat. Down with non-partisan writers! Down with literary supermen! Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, a cog and a screw of one single, great Social-Democratic mechanism set in motion by the politically conscious vanguard of the entire working class."

In contrast, Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who became the Commissar for the education and culture ministry Nakompros from 1917 to 1929, held to a much more libertarian approach and one focussed on enabling the self-expression of the working class. They had collaborated on this in exile and Bogdanov now returned to public life to organise the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisations – Proletkult, which was an independent federation of leftwing communists which Lunacharsky granted one third of the national adult education budget – over 9 million roubles to begin with. It grew by 1920 to 85,000 members with 300 multi-media studios operating across the state.

Proletkult conference 1918

Lunacharsky emphasised this independence:

"The people themselves, consciously or unconsciously, must evolve their own culture...The independent action of workers', soldiers' and peasants' cultural-educational organisations must achieve full autonomy, both in relation to the central government and the municipal centres."

Proletkult had its own internal tendencies and contradictions. Many bourgeois artists tried to climb onto easy funding to push their own patronising agenda on the working classes, and taking ballet and orchestras to factories and farms had a mixed reception from the workers, who Trotsky openly declared "usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture in regards to tidiness, instruction, punctuality, etc."

But many in Proletkult took a different view – the absence of a working class culture of music, books and art was because it had been repressed and downtrodden. Proletkult to them offered a means to liberate the inherent potential of the workers. Some took this to the extreme of wanting to burn down libraries and smash up the artifacts in museums to represent a complete break with the past, but Lunacharsky intervened to preserve these.

Proletkult itself and the whole atmosphere that surrounded it unleashed a huge range of creativity.

Art was developed that was the forerunner of agit-prop, with artists such as Alexander Apsit developing revolutionary poster art – this was particularly effective in a society where illiteracy meant that pictures were the most powerful means of bringing ideas to many people.

So you find developed new art styles expressing political slogans like this:



The state developed a series of Agit-trains which trundled around the Soviet rail network with these on their side as mobile posters, stopping to show films and plays to workers and peasants who had never seen the like before. There was also the brilliantly named Agitational Ship Red Star, which sailed up and down the Volga. During summer 1919, these methods took the revolutionary message to nearly 3 million people and were crucial in winning over the volunteers who later that year began to turn the tide in the civil war with the White, Black and Green armies.

Much of the cultural activities of both Proletkult and Nakompros were on mass participation: on the anniversary of the revolution from 1919 onwards, huge tableaus involving thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers drew on traditions from the French revolution to bring genuinely popular participation into the events.

In music, instruments like the thermin were deliberately adopted to break with the past and the Soviet Union can rightly lay claim to be the birthplace of electronic music. One of the more avant garde efforts was Arsenij Avraamov's Symphony of Sirens, which involved thousands of people in the Caspian port of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for the Fifth Anniversary of the Soviet Republic on 7 November 1922. This used a huge cast of choirs, the foghorns of the entire Soviet Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. Conductors were posted on specially built towers with coloured flags and pistol shots. A central "steam-whistle machine" pounded out "The Internationale" and "La Marseillaise" as noisy vehicles raced across Baku for a gigantic sound finale in the festival square. It was later repeated in Moscow and can be heard in full on Youtube.

Schematic for Symphony of Sirens

Writers also responded to the revolution with new styles of writing. Maxim Gorky had been a massively popular dissident writer under the Empire with his works like Mother and his reputation enabled him to establish the House of Arts as an independent force in literature. This was also sponsored by the Bolshevik Government through Nakompros and for three years it gave lodgings and food to writers to protect them from the privations of the civil war while they developed new revolutionary ways of writing.

Translations of socialist writers such as H G Wells and Jack London were published by it, while Russian authors like Yvgenny Zemyatin, returned from exile in Newcastle, wrote plays that were intended to shed the verbose sentimentality of traditional Russian literature. By developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as Zemyatin put it.

Similarly, in theatre, although Nakrompos protected traditional performances of Shakespeare, Proletkult Theatre brought avant-garde plays to the stage as well as adaptations of plays and prose by progressive western writers. Platon Kerzhentsev, a playwrite and ally of Bogdanov, headed this section of the movement and encouraged among others the later film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to direct and stage satirical pieces.


First Workers' theatre

But the fostering of independent thinking and experimentation didn't last.

Late 1920 into early 1921 saw the end of the civil war as the last of the Whites were expelled from Crimea and Vladivistock fell to the Red Army. The Soviet Union was exhausted and, although the fighting was largely over, the challenges it faced were potentially overwhelming.

Trotsky, initially opposed by Lenin, argued that rather than demobilising the Red Army, the state itself should be militarised to repair the economy and infrastructure: the "war communism" adopted in 1918 primarily to ensure the Red Army was supplied would continue – so the ban on all parties but the Bolsheviks remained in place, strikes were prohibited, workers strictly disciplined, rationing continued, and any food surplus would be requisitioned from peasants by the central govt. Taylorism, the man-machine management philosophy of Henry Ford, was experimented with at Lenin's instruction and Alexei Gastev, Head of the Institute of Soviet Labour proposed re-imagining workers as "proletarian units" with designation codes replacing their names.

It was in this environment that within the party, groups like the Left Communists and the Workers Opposition agitated for a return to grassroots democracy, while in the military fortress of Kronstadt soldiers and sailors mutinied and demanded that the Bolsheviks restore free elections to the soviets.
The response within the party was to ban all factions, while infamously Red Army units crossed the ice to retake Kronstadt and suppress the mutiny with over 3,000 mutineers killed in the fighting or executed afterwards.

In the midst of this crackdown, Lenin condemned Proletkult as dominated by petty-bourgeois intellectuals imposing decadent artistic schemes on the working class and in a notice in the party paper Pravda announced that from December 1920 it was to be subsumed into Nakompros. His wife, Nedezda Krupskaya, who was Lunacharsky's deputy in charge of adult education had always opposed the Proletkult and she was heavily involved in developing cultural and education policy after its effective dissolution.

The change could be seen soon after.

Zemyatin tried to publish his science fiction novel WE in 1921. It is a satire on totalitarianism and Aldous Huxley admitted that it inspired him to write Brave New World. George Orwell denied ever reading it, but if you read We, it is quite obvious that he did.

In any case, WE became the first novel to be officially banned in the Soviet Union by Glavlit, the government body for literary policy. It was not published in the USSR until 1989 and Zemyatin had to get a single copy smuggled to Prague to get it published in his own lifetime. He was subsequently arrested several times but was allowed to go into exile in France after Gorky interceded on his behalf with Stalin.

The Commission for Newspaper Supervision was set up in 1922 as was the Commission to Monitor the Private Book Market. The head of AgitProp, Bubnov, every article and book published by non-party publishers was checked for subversion and authors were categories as revolutionary, Menshevist or Kadetist. Their fate was typified by the arrest of 61 non-party authors in September 1921. Although Gorky secured Lenin's agreement for their release, the Cheka, the new state security organisation, shot all of them without trial.

And so, as time went by, the authoritarian nucleus at the heart of Bolshevism gradually suppressed much of the freedom of expression that was unleashed in 1917. Lenin's own cultural tastes were very conservative – he admired Pushkin and classical music, and was baffled by much of the new forms in art and literature. Stalin was to continue this theme of falling back from the mass democracy of February 1917 through the leadership of the vanguard of October to the Red Tsar of the 1930s.

In cultural form, this was parallelled by the progression from the mass collective cast of the film The End of St Petersburg through the mix of leaders and people in Eisenstein's 1927 celebration of the Bolshevik takeover October to the single prince-hero of his 1937 Alexander Nevsky. It was a trend that culminated under Stalin, but the gradual closing down of all but a single strand of party orthodoxy in politics and in culture began earlier, and to return to Lenin's original quote on the powerlessness of the working class in the absence of bourgeois leadership, it is a trend that it is fair to say was inherent in bolshevism from its inception.

Eisenstein's heroic noble Alexander Nevsky

But while we might lament the failure of true socialism in the Soviet Union, it would be wrong to suggest as some do that it was a complete failure or that there was some viable alternative in October 1917. Russian society was as a whole under-educated and under-developed at the time. The other socialist revolutionary parties were hopelessly compromised by their collaboration with the war parties and it was they, not the Bolsheviks, who excluded themselves from the revolutionary government in November 1917. There were real threats from foreign powers and internal rightwing forces who would have shown no mercy at all if they had triumphed. Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky and the other commissars of Sovnarkom faced existential crises for more years than they did not.

So in the end, that they created a society that dragged what had been the backward Empire up to superpower status in barely 20 years, eradicated illiteracy, developed the sciences to the point it was Soviets who were first in space, and hugely improved the living conditions of the average Soviet citizen at work, in health and in housing, was an achievement unparallelled in history. It is one which, albeit with many qualifications, we should have some cause to celebrate - and to remember the spirit that rose in 1917 and which we can only hope will soon rise again.

"Proletarian creation guarantees the world commune!"


"No Less Than Mystic" - John Medhurst, Repeater Books, 2017
"Trotsky", Edited by Irving H Smith, Spectrum Books, 1973
"Russian Writers and Soviet Society" - Ronald Hingley, Methuen, 1981

N.b. - the core of this piece was orginally one of several contributions to a Wakefield Socialist History Group meeting on the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.

External links:

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Scottish Left Review

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