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How Russian was the revolution of 1917?


The Russian revolution of 1917, led by Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin to overthrow an ineffective Tsar Nicholas II and establish the fledgling Bolshevik Party, killed millions and changed the world forever. It was later described as ‘the will of the people’ - but how Russian was this revolution really?

To start with, none of the three leaders was Russian. Stalin, who killed tens of millions of the people he ruled for four decades – often by personally signing their death warrants – was a Mingrelian-speaking Georgian bank robber named Djugashvili. He only learned to speak Russian at school. Trotsky – real name Bronstein – was neither Russian nor a worker, but a middle-class Jew from Belarus whom Stalin’s Smersh assassins pursued from country to country before killing him in Mexico. Lenin was a mixture of Tatar and other blood from the East, whose real family name was Ulyanov. He also came from the bourgeoisie and was so disputatious that the tsarist secret service gave him money because he caused so much trouble with his fellow revolutionaries. 

Furthermore the October Revolution, as it is still called, actually happened in November. In many ways, the pre-Revolutionary Russian Empire, which spread from the Baltic to the Pacific, was still feudal. Its calendar is a good example: until the night of his murder, the last tsar was still using the Julian calendar when Europe had long since moved on to the more accurate Gregorian calendar. Hence the revolution that started on 7 November (on the Georgian calendar) was called the ‘October Revolution’.

What’s next? The so-called ‘workers’ and peasants’ revolution’ did not do the peasants much good. Caught in the middle of all of the violence, the peasants suffered. Although the slogan they had marched behind promised ‘the land to those who work it’, Bolshevik central planning starved several million men, women and children to death in what had been a land of plenty, with commissars executing those brave enough to ‘steal’ from state granaries the corn they had grown.

Then, there’s the word ‘Bolshevik’, which still fools many people. Bolshoi means ‘big’, but they were a minority party. So how…? Exactly. It wasn’t a Russian revolution at all, but an uprising financed by German money – lots of it – smuggled into Russia in order to drive the country out of the First World War.

And what else is different about the account presented in Red October? It’s largely told in the words of people who were there. There’s nothing like an eye witness to describe what actually happened. For example, Malcom Muggeridge, Moscow correspondent for the Manchester Guardian wrote in a dispatch from Rostov-on-Don:

“People were holding fragments of food. Inconsiderable fragments that in the ordinary way a housewife would throw away or give to the cat. Others were examining these fragments of food. Every now and then an exchange took place. Often what was bought was at once consumed. There is not 5 per cent of the population [here] whose standard of life is equal to, or nearly equal to, that of the unemployed in England on the lowest scale of relief.”

Unfortunately Muggeridge’s later dispatches were not used and he was sacked by the Manchester Guardian, who was editorially in sympathy with ‘the great Soviet experiment’, as it was called.

By Douglas Boyd

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