Watch this after reading our Short history of the Russian Revolution here
By 1917, World War One was crippling Russia. Stricken by famine, the people had lost faith in their Romanov ruler, Tsar Nicholas II – as early as 1905 his soldiers had massacred hundreds of unarmed workers demonstrating in St Petersburg. It had always been whispered that the Tsar was weak and that he depended too heavily on his secret police, the Okhrana. Now those whispers were shouted up and down the bread queues on the Nevsky Prospekt and a new spirit of revolution was sweeping the country. As Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was passed around the fashionable Moscow salons, and soldiers were slaughtered in their millions on the Eastern Front, Russia’s workers and peasants rose up. The Tsar was forced to abdicate his throne, and 300 years of Romanov rule came to an end.
The Duma, Russia’s parliament, now abolished the Okhrana and put an end to press censorship. But they made a fatal mistake in committing to continue World War One. The decision enraged the staunchly Communist Bolshevik Party, whose leader Vladimir Lenin fired up the people with his slogan “Peace, bread and land”. In November 1917, the prominent Bolshevik Leon Trotsky led his Red Guard through St Petersburg, stormed the Winter Palace and took control of the city.
The Bolsheviks kept their promise and withdrew from the war. Their takeover angered many Russians and worried the USA, Britain and France, who feared that Communism and revolution might spread across their own borders. Backed by these foreign powers, a ‘White Army’ waged civil war against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks. But by 1922 the Whites had been defeated, and the Russian Empire was reformed as the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
That same year, Lenin – fatigued by the revolution, the war, and assassination attempts on his life – suffered the first of three strokes that would leave him bedridden and lead to his death in 1924. Most assumed that Leon Trotsky would succeed him as leader of the Bolsheviks (now the Communist Party). But a power struggle quickly developed between Trotsky and the party secretary, Joseph Stalin. Devious and manipulative, Stalin used every trick he could to discredit his rival, even telling Trotsky the wrong date for Lenin’s funeral in order to embarrass him. With Stalin’s star on the rise, Trotsky was ejected from the Party, exiled from Russia and eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940.
Eliminating Trotsky was only Stalin’s first step. When the high-ranking Communist Kirov was murdered in 1934 (on Stalin’s orders, as rumour had it), Stalin used his death as a pretext for mass purges to stamp out disloyalty. The Communist party was purged from the top down: Stalin staged a series of sham trials, forcing his political rivals to confess to incredible crimes before sentencing them to execution. By the end of the 1930s, the country was in the grip of the ‘Great Terror’, with more than twenty million Russians shipped out to gulags – forced labour camps in Siberia – where almost half of them died. Russia’s agricultural and industrial productivity increased, but the boom was founded on slavery and the seizure of land.
The Communist Party in Russia had always sought to supress religion – which Marx had called the ‘opium of the people’ – and to replace it with atheism. Stalin continued the Bolsheviks’ mission to eliminate Christianity, Islam and other faiths, while at the same time fostering a cult of personality around himself that approached almost religious dimensions. He accepted magnificent titles, from ‘Father of Nations’ to ‘Brilliant Genius of Humanity’ and ‘Gardener of Human Happiness’. By strictly censoring press and culture and closely monitoring potential dissidents – including Mikhail Bulgakov – Stalin’s totalitarian regime attempted to take control of a new territory: the human brain. Its sometime success can be measured in the writings of A. O. Avdienko and his extravagant praise of Stalin, the dictator ‘who makes the spring bloom’: ‘when the woman I love presents me with a child the first word it shall utter will be…Stalin.’
- Chloe Courtney
A secretary is standing outside the Kremlin when Marshal Zhukov leaves a meeting with Stalin and she hears him mutter under his breath, ‘murderous moustache!’.
She runs in to see Stalin and breathlessly reports, ‘I just heard Zhukov say “murderous moustache”!’
Stalin dismisses the secretary and sends for Zhukov, who comes back in.
‘Whom did you have in mind with “murderous moustache”?’ asks Stalin.
‘Why, Hitler, of course, Iosef Vissarionovich.’
Stalin thanks him and dismisses him, and calls the secretary back. ‘And whom did you think he was talking about?’
Comrade Stalin goes to a football game. It gets cancelled at half-time. This is because he killed everyone.
In 1938, Roy Howard, President of Scripps-Howard Newspapers, was granted a rare interview with Stalin. Click here to read the interview.
An interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore on his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar Click here to watch the film