Russia and the Soviet Union Under Lenin
Russia and the Soviet Union Under Lenin
The Communist regime that emerged from the civil war was characterized by chaos. Lenin and his associates had no experience of governing and had to create a system by trial and error. Lenin knew that he wanted an autocratic regime in which he would be sole dictator. He never considered establishing a parliamentary system; he believed this to be simply a rubber stamp for the capitalist forces of society.
A major goal of the Russian revolutionaries was to incite similar revolutions throughout all of Europe; to destroy not just a type of government but an entire existing social and political order. To help bring this about, Lenin and his associates formed the International Communist Party, known as the Comintern, in 1919. The Comintern was characterized by rigid, uncompromising rules. Although the Socialist movement was strong throughout Europe, European Socialists were more moderate than Communists; they were on the whole satisfied with the greater degree of representation that ordinary citizens acquired during the nineteenth century. For example, by 1914 universal or near-universal adult male suffrage was the law in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. Additionally, women acquired unprecedented freedom and political power during and immediately after World War I. In this accep- tance of the system, Lenin saw the defeat of everything he wanted to accom- plish; the Socialists of Europe simply were not prepared to go to the same extremes as the Communists. Through the Comintern, Lenin hoped to change this. Moscow controlled the Comintern from the early 1920s.
In 1919, after World War I was over, the Great Powers met at Versailles to negotiate the peace. Russia took no part in the negotiations, but the country was nonetheless affected. The Russian territory that Germany had taken at Brest-Litovsk was made into independent nations; had Russia sent a delegation to Versailles, this might have been arranged differently. As matters stood, the Communist government refused to acknowledge the loss of the western territory until some time after Versailles. In the end, of course, Russia lost the fight to keep its land.
War between Russia and Poland broke out in 1920. It did not last long. In March 1921 the peace treaty established the Russian-Polish border that would remain in place until 1939. Poland had become an enemy for Lenin to reckon with, for several reasons. First, it had a long-standing history of resentment toward Russian oppression. Second, it was a large nation with a large population, capable of holding its own in a struggle with Russia. Third, the Poles were fiercely anti-Bolshevik, in part because Poland was largely a Catholic nation and the Bolsheviks were atheists.
The early 1920s in Russia can accurately be called “a Second Time of Troubles.” As a true Marxist, Lenin believed above all in policies that favored the workers. He also believed that industrialization was the key to Russia’s economic recovery. Therefore he instituted the New Economic Policy in 1921. It called for peasants to sell their surplus grain to the state at a fixed price in either money or kind (such as clothing or tools); the grain would be used to feed the urban industrial workers.
The peasants reacted to the government orders in a way the Communists had not foreseen. Industry was crippled from the war and was not producing anything for the peasants to buy, so money was not useful to them; and the state rarely remembered to pay them in kind. Therefore, instead of working hard to provide the necessary surplus, they hoarded their grain, fearful of not having enough to feed their families. With no grain coming in from the country, the urban workers were going hungry; soon many of them were fleeing to the country in search of food. Severe droughts at this time led to widespread famine. Historians estimate that perhaps 6 million Russians died of starvation and disease during this period.
In 1922, Russia was renamed to reflect the new government’s philosophy: it became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, called the Soviet Union or USSR for short. The twelve individual republics—including Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Russia—were equals, each with its own soviet, and all firmly under control of the dictator.
The Communists made it clear to the old guard that there was no place for them in the new workers’ state. In the Soviet Union, the concept of private property disappeared. The wealthy were stripped of their homes, which were turned into apartment houses for workers, with the original owners perhaps being allowed to rent one room as their own family apartment. At least 2 million aristocrats packed what they could carry and fled to Western Europe. Those who stayed had to learn hard manual labor like all other Soviets.
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