Argument

Russia Wouldn’t Even Exist Today Without the Bolsheviks

The Communist Revolution was far more geopolitically influential than its contemporary critics — and even its celebrants — acknowledge.

A photograph taken on Sept. 19, shows some birds flying around a monument to the founder of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin in Nizhny Novgorod.(Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)
A photograph taken on Sept. 19, shows some birds flying around a monument to the founder of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin in Nizhny Novgorod.(Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)

The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia 100 years ago last week, as numerous commentators have noted. The fact that Vladimir Lenin and his comrades pulled it off was nothing short of a miracle.

In September 1917, Leon Trotsky was in jail, while Lenin was hiding out in a barn in Finland — after the Bolsheviks’ first attempt at overthrowing the provisional government in July had flopped. The inept provisional government, set up in March following the tsar’s abdication, could have easily used the July fiasco to eliminate the Bolsheviks for good. It squandered the opportunity.

The odds, in short, were stacked heavily against a successful bid for power by the Bolsheviks. That’s why it’s all the more remarkable that this band of utopian revolutionaries managed to take humanity off of one historical trajectory and plop it down on another. It has become something of a cliche to compare Russia’s current strongman regime, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, to its authoritarian tsarist predecessor. But that comparison is false because it fails to acknowledge how the very existence at all today of a powerful and unified Russian state derives from the Bolshevik revolution.

Amid all the memorializing of this revolution, one basic point has gotten lost: the Bolshevik coup was the defining event of the 20th century.

This claim stands at odds with conventional wisdom, which holds that it was World War I that sparked the most important later developments, including the Bolshevik putsch itself. George F. Kennan, the historian and diplomat, famously called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century. According to this argument, the perceived injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war with Germany, led to the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War. World War I likewise brought down the tsarist regime in Russia, paving the way for communism and, in turn, the Cold War.

There is no denying the importance of the First World War. But the Bolshevik coup was at least as pivotal as World War I in shaping the 20th century, and it did so in several ways that get little notice today.

World War I is often credited with laying the groundwork for European fascism. But the Bolshevik takeover did just as much, if not more, to spawn fascist regimes. Fascism’s birth took place amidst the intense ideological polarization that marked European politics during the interwar years. Violent street battles between radical right- and left-wing agitators helped establish fascist movements. Economic elites, fearful of leftist unrest, turned to fascist parties for protection.

Such ideological friction would have proven considerably less intense and alarming had it not been for the existence on Europe’s doorstep of a great power espousing a communist ideology. The very presence of the Soviet state both inspired support among communism’s sympathizers and paranoid fear among its detractors.

One of those detractors was Adolf Hitler. Although Hitler is mostly remembered for his anti-Semitism, the main enemy, as he saw it, was not international Jewry per se but Judeo-Bolshevism: international Jewry backed by a powerful state in the form of the Soviet Union. That, to him, is what made the Jews an existential threat to the Aryan race. Had it not been for the Bolshevik putsch, Hitler would not have been Hitler. There may well have been no Nazi party and, consequently, no Second World War.

Even if there had been another war, Russia would not have defeated Germany. The only reason it was in a position to win was because from 1928 to 1941, Josef Stalin, at horrific human cost, engineered one of the fastest large-scale industrialization drives in world history. Some scholars dispute whether Stalin’s feverish industrialization campaign was necessary, and his policies surely doomed the Soviet economy in the long run. But they were probably needed in order to give Russia the heavy-industrial base required to win World War II and to supply that base with a labor force.

Even after the herculea­n industrial transformation Stalin oversaw, by December 1941 the Soviets were on the brink of losing Moscow to the Germans. Had it not been for Stalin’s dizzying industrialization effort, it is unlikely that Russia, still overwhelmingly agrarian by the late 1920s, could have successfully countered a German invasion. Nor would it have possessed the economic heft to emerge by war’s end as one of two global superpowers.

If there was to be a Second World War, and if that war was to culminate in Russia’s victory over Germany followed by a Cold War, two imperatives had to be met. First, anyone with pretensions of ruling Russia had to win a civil war and establish a strong, centralized state. Second, they had to use that state to supercharge the industrialization process. Only the Bolsheviks were capable of fulfilling both these conditions. This becomes perfectly clear when one examines the other candidates who might have taken power in the Bolsheviks’ place.

By mid-1917, the authority of the tsarist-era state had collapsed. Various warlords had begun to assemble armies with an eye on conquering the Russian empire, in whole or in part. These warlords constituted one set of alternatives to the Bolsheviks. Most were conservative military commanders who had served in the First World War. All would display stunning incompetence during the civil war of 1918 to 1921. Their failings cast serious doubt on the prospect that any one of them could have defeated the others and built an effective state, much less overseen breakneck industrialization.

The other alternative was the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR). The only party besides the Bolsheviks with a legitimate mass following by 1917, the SR was founded in 1901 on a platform of agrarian socialism. It became notorious for carrying out political assassinations against tsarist officials.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were well on their way to establishing a capable, disciplined party organization, the SR, and even separate factions therein, was wracked by internal divisions. It lacked a charismatic leader on the order of Lenin who could have united the party and given it direction. Also missing were elite party members with the military and organizational skills of Trotsky or the political and administrative acumen of Stalin — extraordinary minds who would prove pivotal to the Bolshevik victory in the civil war and the construction of a state.

A staunch commitment to democratic political participation by workers and peasants threw up another obstacle to the SR’s success. While morally commendable, such ideals were at odds with the need to forge an authoritative state out of the anarchic wreckage of tsarist Russia and upend society in pursuit of industrialization.

Had the country fallen under the sway of bumbling warlords and an internally divided, incompetent SR, it would have entered an extended period of civil war. The fighting would have lasted far longer than the three-year conflict the Bolsheviks ultimately won, more likely resembling the decades of bloody strife that decimated China from 1927 to 1949.

Needless to say, a Russia riven by sustained internal violence would have hardly been in a position to fend off a foreign invader, whether Germany, Japan, or some other great power.

One would be hard-pressed to argue that there existed some other political faction besides the Bolsheviks that was capable of winning a civil war, establishing a centralized state, and rapidly industrializing the country. It took not just a willingness to seize power but also extraordinary skill, unrestrained brutality, and a capacity for mobilizing society in support of regime goals. Take away any of these elements, and Russia would have found itself unable to win another world war or emerge by hostilities’ end as one of two global superpowers.

Had there not been a World War II, or had Russia not won that war, our world today would be unrecognizable. There would have been no Cold War. No European Union. No divided Korea. No Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and, consequently, no al Qaeda. Without the Holocaust, would a Jewish state have even emerged in the Middle East? The possibilities are endless.

Social scientists remain divided over whether history makes leaders or leaders make history. If ever there were a case for the latter view, the Bolsheviks provided it. World War I fired the starting gun for the 20th century. But the actions of the Bolsheviks during the interwar years, beginning with their coup one hundred years ago, proved equally if not more instrumental in making that century what it became.

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