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

The Long Revolution

Some historians, most notably Sheila Fitzpatrick, have argued, correctly in my opinion, that the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 should be described not as the end of the Russian Revolution but as its beginning. Revolutions, the idea goes, are long processes of transformation from one system of rule to another. The American Revolution, for example, while usually described as the years of war between 1775 and 1783, could also include the Constitutional Conventions, which led to the formation of the nation under the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788. If one takes an even longer view of history, one could argue that the U.S. Civil War was an outgrowth of unsettled problems of the revolutionary period and, thus, marked the ultimate culmination of the revolutionary era. Indeed, it was only after the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 that the United States would gain a national self-understanding.

After the historic events in October 1917, it would take the Bolsheviks another decade to fully consolidate their rule. When they finally did, it was under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. The following sections of the chapter chart the history of revolutionary Russia from its triumphant days in October 1917 through Stalin’s rise and centralization of power in the late 1920s. This is one of the key stories in our period between 1914 and 1945. Its aftershocks are still felt in Russia and throughout the world today.

The first and most pressing problem facing Lenin and the Bolsheviks was the same one that faced the Provisional Government: what was to be done about the war? Lenin’s position was clear from the beginning, the war needed to come to an end as soon as possible. This was a fairly academic question, for the Russian forces were in complete disarray by late 1917, and Lenin could not count on the support of the officer corps. Any attempt to use his power to strengthen the army would have meant strengthening his traditional enemies at the same time. Under these conditions, and to ensure his regime’s immediate survival, Lenin sued for peace. The Germans agreed and sent Lenin terms. They were harsh ones. Leading members of the military, Russia’s other major political parties, and even many leading Bolsheviks threatened to mutiny against Lenin if he signed the treaty. Some counseled Lenin to continue fighting. Others urged him to turn to guerrilla tactics. Lenin, however, remained steadfast in his determination to end the war and managed to push through the treaty later in the year, though at great cost to the unity of his coalition. Almost immediately following Lenin's signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans, Russia erupted in civil war. 

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