USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Creation of the Soviet State

At the end of the war, Lenin recognized that the move to communist economic principles during the civil war had been a disaster. In the spring of 1921, the Bolsheviks instituted the first of a series of policies that together came to be known as the “New Economic Policy,” or NEP. NEP reintroduced many aspects of capitalistic economics, such as allowing peasants to pay taxes instead of giving over all of their product (as during the war) and permitting trade. With policies such as these in place, the Russian economy, artificially depressed after nearly seven years of war, surged forward. Lenin can be credited with a certain amount of ideological flexibility, motivated by large-scale protests against the dire economic situation. In economic terms, the early 1920s seemed like an opportunity for Russia to develop a balance between the needs of the urban workers (represented by the Bolsheviks) and the needs of the peasants, the vast majority of the Russian people. In terms of politics, however, Lenin remained a committed to the notion of vanguard, top-down rule. From 1921 until he finally was forced by illness to give up power, Lenin orchestrated a brutal campaign against his political rivals and enemies, both those within and those beyond the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks rounded up members of other revolutionary parties, especially the Mensheviks and the SRs, by the thousands. The Bolshevik party itself was systematically cleansed of independent operators. By the end of Lenin’s life in 1924, we find not only a Russia of one-party, Bolshevik rule, but a Bolshevik Party with a fiercely Leninist orientation. 

It is unclear how Soviet Russia would have developed had Lenin lived late into life. Lenin’s living record tells us that it might not have been much different, though perhaps without the bewildering sadism that came with the rise of Joseph Stalin. What is clear is that by 1924 some basic features of Soviet political life were in place. It was a highly militarized state, both in terms of its sizable fighting force and its internal police. It was a one party state; all opponents to the Bolsheviks had been systematically destroyed. The Bolshevik Party was a fairly uniform entity once all opposing ideological directions were purged in the years following the civil war. What was unclear upon the death of Lenin in 1924 were two basic and fundamental questions: first, how would the Russian economy develop under Soviet leadership? And second, what would Soviet Russia’s place be in the world? 

When Lenin died in 1924 no clear successor stood ready to take over, and no process existed to decide who would become the most powerful member of the Bolshevik Party. Real power in the Bolshevik system was in the hands of an elite group called the Politburo, which Lenin had led and which included six other members. In 1924, there was a ground of very powerful Bolshevik leaders sitting in the Politburo. They included, Leon Trotsky (Commissar of War), Joseph Stalin (the General Secretary of the Bolshevik Party), Grigorii Zinoviev (head of the Leningrad party organization and the Comintern), Lev Kamenev (head of the Moscow party organization), Aleksei Rykov (first deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars), and Mikhail Tomsky (head of the Central Council of Trade Unions). The first battle over leadership pitted the party organization against the charismatic War Commissar, Leon Trotsky.

If people were placing bets in the years between 1920 and 1922 on Lenin’s successor, most would have probably cast their lot with the charismatic and militant Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had been a successful steward of the Red Army during the Civil War and was probably, after Lenin, the most renowned Marxist theorist among the Bolshevik top leadership. And yet, Trotsky was rather easily pushed aside by the combined weight of Joseph Stalin, Grigorii Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. The victory of this triumvirate over Trotsky represented an important turning point in the Russian Revolution. It was now clear that the real power lay with the growing party organization and its bureaucracy and not with the dynamic revolutionary leaders or with the armed forces. Slowly, the Russian Revolution was giving way to the formation of a new state dominated by the Bolshevik Party and led by the party’s general secretary. On the actual substance of the issues, little differences existed between Trotsky and the others. For sure, Trotsky was more “internationalist” in focus, hoping to use Bolshevik success in Russia to support revolutionary movements abroad, while Stalin, by contrast, adapted the Marxist platform of worldwide proletarian revolution solely to the Russian context and called for “revolution in one country.”

While the political dimension of Russian life was paramount in the years after 1917 and into the 1920s, it ran in parallel to impulses to create a revolutionary society in other ways. I will discuss the creation of revolutionary society in relation to notions of the family and sexual politics later in the chapter when I turn to the work of Alexandra Kollontai. Another significant dimension of this story was the revolutionary culture that emerged in the 1920s in Russia. This culture was, in part, a continuation of cultural movements that Russian artists and intellectuals had been exposed to in the years before the First World War, often in Western cities in Italy, France, and Germany. On the other hand, the specific fusion of movements like futurism, cubism, and expressionism and revolutionary culture produced some of the most innovative and boundary-pushing work in the European avant-garde. The impulse to link the revolutionary culture with modernist aesthetic principles was, for example, at the forefront of Varvara Stepanova's textile designs, an example of which is shown at the top of this page.  

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