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All revolutions are impossible, until they become inevitable.


The second Russian Revolution of 1917. The one that brought in the Commies. Not a submarine, or a hunt for said submarine.

OK, who runs this place?

When the Romanov dynasty was overthrown in March of 1917 (the February Revolution, since the Russians used the Julian Calender it was still late February in Russia), it was replaced by a Provisional Government. This was intended to stay in power until the election of a Constituent Assembly. They actually tried to elect the Assembly, but the Bolsheviks took over before any votes could be cast to avoid the risk of their rivals, the Socialist Revolutionaries (who had the greater popular support), from forming a legitimate majority government. After they proclaimed themselves in control in November 1917, the Bolsheviks permitted the elections to take place in January of 1918 (and sure enough, the Socialist Revolutionaries won the majority of the vote). However, the assembly was forcibly disbanded by the Bolsheviks, who announced that the people would be represented by the city soviets (where they had majorities).

Just a little matter of the First World War

It was a big mistake for Emperor Nicholas II to enter WWI. The administration of the Empire was corrupt, the army badly equipped, the people angry and several revolutionary parties (not only the Dirty Communists) spouting anti-Tsarist rhetoric while organizing against the government. Instead of trying to heal the Empire, the Emperor aggravated the problems by throwing his country into the Great War. The corrupt intendants were making money by stealing from army shipments, the soldiers were freezing in trenches, Dying Like Animals and becoming even angrier at the Emperor and his government while the dissipated nobles and the unscrupulous merchants were still living luxurious lives - this all angered people further. Finally, they had enough and began to actually listen to the revolutionaries.

And the shit hit the fan. Strikes, mutinies, mass fraggings of officers and peasant revolts broke out. Several high-ranking generals and public officials forced the Tsar to abdicate. That is how the Provisional Government came into power. They were going to elect the Constituent Assembly that was intended to decide the fate of post-Imperial Russia. But there were guys that had some other ideas. You guessed right, the Bolsheviks...

A Sealed Train

Meanwhile the First World War was still going on and the provisional government couldn't decide how to end it. On the one hand it was extremely unpopular, on the other Germany was demanding extremely onerous terms since the Russians had no bargaining power.

When Germany saw that the provisional government wasn't pulling Russia out of the war, they made a deal with Lenin, currently in exile in Switzerland. The Germans would let him pass through their territory in a sealed train (so he wouldn't try to foment revolution in Germany), in exchange he would get Russia out of the war. The Germans probably didn't expect him to actually succeed in consolidating power and were just hoping he would cause enough trouble that they could transfer troops to the Western Front.

Not a Korny Love story

Actually, there were several revolutionary parties: the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (a hardline communist Bolshevik one and a social-democratic Menshevik one, RSDLP (b) and RSDLP (m) respectively, thanks to a split in 1905), the Socialist Revolutionaries, and many other smaller parties. The left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left S Rs) were allies of the Bolsheviks, but the other revolutionary parties were satisfied with the February revolution (except for the anarchists, but they were not really a party of course) and well represented in the Provisional Government. They, and the right-wing parties, formed a loose alliance that later became the White movement.

The first White general was Kornilov, who tried to call dibs on power shortly before the Bolsheviks did it. Fearing a military coup, Kerensky, the moderate socialist Prime Minister and head of the Provisional Government, allowed Lenin to arm the Bolshevik Red Guards to help prevent this (previously anyone carrying arms without permission in Petrograd was a capital offense-the brief abolition of the death penalty didn't last long). He should have known better, since the Bolsheviks, and Lenin in the lead, had risen up in earlier that same year (1917) with the July Days, which troops of the Provisional Government put down. This, naturally, made the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary parties more popular while the Provisional Government became much less, particularly with the war still going on, people starving, the promised elections nowhere in sight, etc.

The Bolsheviks, in alliance with the anarchists and Left Socialist Revolutionaries, launched another revolution in October (November according to the West, since Russia still went by the Julian Calendar, before the Bolsheviks changed it). The Provisional Government fell almost without firing a shot, and Kerensky fled. Incidentally, the Bolsheviks took, on Lenin's insistence, popular slogans used by anarchists like "All power to the Soviets (elected workers councils)", which led to Lenin himself being denounced by fellow Bolsheviks as an anarchist. The Bolsheviks had actually opposed the February Revolution, as they did the Revolution and Soviets of 1905, seeking to control both. Lenin had learned after these experiences. He and the Bolsheviks quickly set about seizing total power in Russia and the other parts of the former empire.

They set up the Sovnarkom (Council of People's Commissars) elected by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which they delegated to a secondary role, meeting once a year while they made most decisions, with full legislative powers, their acts simply ratified by the Congress (this was a model for later legislatures such as the Supreme Soviet with no real power, acting merely as rubber-stamp parliaments, also typical of socialist states in general.) The Revolution grew into the Russian Civil War. After Kornilov's rebellion was suppressed, other White generals appeared: Admiral Kolchak, generals Denikin, Yudenich and Wrangel, who were gathering armies to stop Bolshevism.

Among the Sovnarkom's first acts was to create a secret police with the acronym CHEKA and start imprisoning everyone opposing them. Old Imperial prisons were soon filled up with political prisoners once again. The factory committee movement, which began when the striking workers seized their workplaces or forced owners into allowing them a say in management, was sidelined and destroyed slowly by the Bolshevik leadership, who appointed managers with dictatorial powers, often the same ones from before. An All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees, which aimed to federate the entire network into a democratic control of the national economy, was closed down when it tried to meet. The Sovnarkom nationalized all land and industry, along with other sweeping decrees giving the Bolshevik government control over the whole of life.

Elections for The Constituent Assembly occurred that December, with the Socialist Revolutionaries winning most seats, the Bolsheviks only a much smaller second. When it attempted to meet in January 1918, the Red Guards closed down the Constituent Assembly with force. The Bolsheviks rationalized this as the Soviets were more democratic, representative bodies (as the SRs were popular in the peasantry, still the majority of population, and so won the election, while the Bolsheviks as Marxists believed the industrial proletariat in the cities would spearhead revolution, which of course they would lead). Coincidentally, they had a majority with most Soviets. Even this grew into a problem, so Bolshevik force increasingly overthrew results of elections that went against them, shut down presses, closed opposition meeting places, jailed opponents, etc.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers was signed in March 1918, giving up the Baltic States (Lithuania, Lativa, Estonia) along with Ukraine (none of these not-yet-countries were consulted). This outraged not only nationalists there but also other socialists and former Tsarist officers who had sacrificed much in the war fighting Germany. The German ambassador was assassinated by Left SRs in hopes of preventing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk from coming to fruition, but it went ahead despite this. In April CHEKA gunmen raided numerous anarchist centers in Moscow and Petrograd, with dozens killed, hundreds arrested. Increasingly the Bolsheviks squelched all opposition by force. Even dissidents within the Bolsheviks, such as Nikolai Bukharin, denounced such acts. The other factions banded together in the White movement, issuing a manifesto which denounced the Bolsheviks, calling them German agents, in July of 1918 and starting a revolt against them. It is a popular misconception that the White movement was about monarchism: actual monarchists were a minority among the Whites, the majority were of democratic and or socialist persuasion, but on the practical side, they were creating naught more than military dictatorship in the territories they held, because they did not have time to run elections or even to decide on their political course, which would have been difficult given the diverse viewpoints anyway. That's why the Whites never created a common political ideology or a single confederacy of states, and it was their undoing. They DID acknowledge a single provisional head-of-state and a single commander-in-chief (Kolchak, later Denikin, after that, Wrangel), but in practice, every major White leader was his own man.

Finland had already broken away, as had Poland. While the Bolsheviks supported national autonomy in theory, they had set up puppet Bolshevik governments in the countries controlled by the former Russian Empire, regardless of what people desired. In August Lenin was nearly assassinated by a young Left SR woman, Fanny Kaplan, while touring Moscow factories. His health never completely recovered. She was later shot by the CHEKA in the autumn of that year. The Bolsheviks became even more despotic, openly saying a party dictatorship was good and increasing dictatorial measures they already began before the war, that now had this as a greater excuse (Leon Trotsky, for instance, while People's Commissar for Army and Navy Affairs in early 1918 had abolished election of officers in the Army, something that occurred after soldiers mutinied (often shooting their commanders), reinstituting old privileges of rank, such as separate quarters, special forms of address, saluting, along with the death penalty for desertion under fire). The Bolsheviks banned all other parties, the free press, freedom of speech, assembly, etc. sometimes "temporarily" for the war. Freedom of speech, press, assembly and street processions were reinstated eventually (Article 125 of the 1936 Union constitution), but they were dead letters, with dissent prohibited in practice. (In 1921 the last free assembly was allowed-a march at the funeral of the anarchist thinker Pyotr Kropotkin. The next one would come in 1987, with Glasnost).

Enter the Allies! At the same time, between 1917 and 1922, the Entente nations--France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Romania, Serbia, the United Kingdom, the United States and new nations like Finland and Poland, which had both just gained independence from Russia--intervened in the civil war, resulting in a fairly unpopular invasion of what came to be known as the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), on behalf of the White Army, ostensibly to secure lost matériel at Russian ports, the Russian ports themselves, rescue separated Entente forces, and re-open the Eastern Front against Germany. It ended very poorly for everyone involved, and predictably raised suspicions of the Western and Eastern capitalist states (such as Japan) among the Reds and the increasingly-invaded Russian people as a whole. This only made the Bolsheviks popular as they fought the foreigners. However it has been obscured to an extent by the next western invasion, Operation Barbarossa.

That's why the unified, fanatical Reds smashed the loose White military states, at first with the help of the Left SRs and the Revolutionary Insurrection Army from Ukraine (or the Maknovist movement, after its leader Nestor Makhno). It was also known as the Black Army since they were anarchist, in contrast to the Red and White Armies. Local groups attempted to fight off all sides, dubbed the "Green" Army, although they were never unified. Additionally was the Blue Army, peasants who fought the Reds in the Tambov Rebellion. Some historians have determined that the Black Army saved the entire war from the Whites at several points, such as stopping Deniken from taking Petrograd. However, they were betrayed three separate times by the Bolsheviks and defeated finally when they could turn their full force onto them. Makhno fled to exile in France.

After the Whites were defeated in fall of 1921, one last revolt occurred at Kronstadt, with mutinous sailors (the same ones who rose up in February 1917, not, as the Bolsheviks claimed, reactionary replacements) calling for free soviets, civil liberties and worker self-management again, as with the factory committees the Bolsheviks smashed. They were massacred by the Red Army under Trotsky. At the same time strikes were occurring in Moscow and Petrograd, also brutally put down. By 1924, all Russia along with most shards of the Empire (with the exception of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, who managed to stay independent) were under Bolshevik control.

The Ostern

The Civil War-era Russia was a popular setting for later Soviet action movies. These movies were very similar to American Westerns: just take a Western, replace the Injuns or Mexicans with Basmaches (Muslim anti-Bolshevik fighters in Central Asia), the Blue with the Red and the Gray with the White, the prairies with the deserts of Turkestan or steppes of Ukraine, the Peacemakers with Nagant Gas-Seals and Mauser Broomhandles, the Winchesters with Mosin-Nagant rifles, the Gatlings with Maxims, the horses... well, let the horses be horses, and you'll get an Ostern (or "Eastern", as they are known in Russia proper).

The most popular Osterns were White Sun of the Desert, about a former Red Army Soldier turned gunslinger who travelled homewards through Basmach-infested Turkestan deserts, At Home Amongst The Strangers, A Stranger Amongst Friends in which a framed CHEKA agent must infiltrate a band of marauders and retrieve several millions in gold, and The Elusive Avengers, about four young guns opposing the anarchist bandit ataman Burnash and his gang. The concept itself became popular enough to be recognized in a parody where Winchester and Colt as they are coexists with a kolkhoz [1].


Tropes of the Great October Socialist Revolution (its official name in the USSR) and Russian Civil War

  • Apocalypse How: a Regional Societal Collapse
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: You better believe it. Very common in Soviet films about the subject.
  • Angry Mob Song: The "Worker's Marseillaise".
  • Ax Crazy: Ungern-Sternberg
  • Badass Bookworm / Badass Jew: For a guy with no previous military training, Lev Bronstein, AKA Leon Trotsky, proved to be a remarkably skilled military commander, leading the ragtag Red Army to victory at a time when everybody wanted the Bolsheviks dead.
    • The reason the seat of government was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow was because the Bolshevik leadership feared it would fall into Tsarist hands. In fact, when an approaching White army besieged it, they considered the city as good as lost and planned a general evacuation. Trotsky, however, personally took charge of organizing the defence - and managed to break the siege.
  • Badass Longcoat: that was pretty much the dress code for the era, with all those greatcoats.
  • Ballistic Discount: the Red "military communism" was essentially an entire economy using Ballistic Discount instead of money. Redistribution of wealth at gunpoint.
  • Better the Devil You Know: Because the Whites relied on foreign assistance many people in Russia saw them as foreign stooges. This was one of the factors which led to their defeat.
  • Crazy Awesome: Nestor Makhno and his anarchist Black Army.
    • Though if you read a bit more about them, it's entirely possible to have doubts about their awesomeness. They were still Crazy Awesome, but with very heavy emphasis upon the crazy.
      • You have to remember that most of that stuff was written about them by people who had a good reason to make them look bad, however. It all comes down to whether you trust the anarchists or their enemies. For example, the Bolsheviks spread the rumour that the anarchists had their own secret police, which they did not.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The October Revolution against the Provisional Government might well be the modern Trope Codifier.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The Imperial army and Russia as a whole went through this in February 1917, leading to the revolution.
  • Dying Like Animals:
    • Bats: the Imperial government during the years preceding the revolution.
    • Butterflies: the nobility during the years preceding the revolution.
    • Boars: early Kornilovtsy and Kerensky during the march to Petrograd.
    • Wolves: many Green gangs during the Civil War.
    • Weasels: Greek smugglers on the Black Sea during the Civil War.
    • Snakes: the Latvian Riflemen.
  • Former Regime Personnel: Some former regime officers joined the Red side (reason could be My Country, Right or Wrong, political conviction or simple luck). Most were forced into service, often with their families taken hostage as incentive. They often had to prove their devotion to the Revolution, their unity with their underlings and generally whatever the unit council (soviet) wanted them to prove. A commissar who could override the commander's orders and had to execute his commander in case of (suspected) treason didn't make things easier. This trope is more specific to stories concerning the Red Navy than to stories concerning Red Army. A Determinator old-school Captain who endures this treatment by his crew and later leads them to the victory FOR THE GREATER GLORY OF THE REVOLUTION is almost a must in such stories.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: most of the intelligentsiya during the era. Also, Gentleman and a Scholar turned Officer and a Gentleman was the "hat" of the Alexeiev's elite regiment of the White army.
  • Glorious Mother Russia: In non-Soviet media
  • Grey and Gray Morality
  • Guile Hero/Magnificent Bastard: Whether you think he was a hero or not, you must admit that Lenin was one hell of a smartass.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: the Bolsheviks. They LOVED the leather jackets originally made for WWI pilots and drivers.
    • Trotsky's bodyguards even had red leather longcoats.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Usually depends on the political orientation of the author: Lenin or Nicholas II.
    • Also, Stalin later re-wrote history and gave himself this treatment.
      • Also, Trotsky. Just Trotsky.
        • And Nestor Makhno. And just about any of the white generals. And...
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, et cetera from 1894 to 1917. His portrayal in media may be as a tyrant with blood stained hands, or as an ineffective ruler out of touch with the situation of his empire. To be fair, his regime wasn't blameless in many ways, but like often happens, the reality was more complex than simplified extremes.
    • Officers who joined with the Whites. Some were heroes of World War I and the Russo Japanese War, but became vilified because of the side they took in the Civil War.
    • Leon Davidovich Trotsky. One of the leaders of the Great October Revolution, President of the Petrograd Soviet in October-November 1917, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs from November 1917 to March 1918. He was a major figure in the Civil War being People's Commissar for Army and Navy Affairs. But he became part of an opposition faction against Joseph Stalin in the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which was renamed the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in 1925. He was expelled from the party in October 1927, and then exiled in February 1929. Many crimes and conspiracies against the Soviet government were linked to him in the 1930s, true or not, and in histories of the 1917 Revolution/Civil War, his role became downplayed or erased.
      • Historical Hero Upgrade: As a result of his opposition to Stalin (combined with the fact that he, Trotsky, was a brilliant journalist and a one-man propaganda machine) Trotsky became the poster-boy for the anti-Stalinist Left who condemed the dictators atrocities and totalitarian regime. Even many non-Socialists thought that Trotsky represented the "democratic", "non-violent" Communist movement. But his behaviour in the Civil War was pretty appaling (even given how bad the other side could be) and he actually agreed with a lot more of what Stalin did than many seemed to realize, opposing him less out of any moral differences and more due to the belief that he was a front-man for an oligarchy of Bolshevik "Rightists" (and the whole "trying to kill me and my family" thing). He always favoured violent revolution and downplayed the atrocities he commited during the war, and remained unrepetant about his behaviour until the day he died. He was also not as competent a politician as he is remembered and he made a lot of foolish mistakes and tended to make enemies easily.
  • I Have Your Wife: the Bolsheviks made most former Imperial officers (that's the ones who weren't in the White army) work for them by taking their families hostage.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Red Army had "commanders", not officers. "Officer" was a loaded word implying nobility and conviction to the Tsarist patriotic cause.
  • Loads And Loads Of Factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, other revolutionary leftists, anarchists, democrats, monarchists, ethnic nationalists, foreign inteventionists from the Allied and Central Powers, those just trying to fight their way out... Did I omit someone?
    • The Greens, local militias attempting to protect their villages from the marauding forces of both sides, along with bandits.
  • Memetic Mutation: one predating the Internet! Vasili Chapayev, a Red division commander who ended up as a popular Russian folk joke character.
  • Montages: Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a pioneer of the development and use of the montage editing and montage was used prominently in some Soviet films of the 1920s.
  • The Mutiny: It happens in revolutions.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: a stereotypical White Guard. Except in earlier Soviet fiction, where they were portrayed as either Complete Monsters or ineffectual, alcoholic and decadent.
  • The Political Officer: Trope Codifier.
  • The Remnant: Baron Wrangel's Crimean White remnant. Merkulov's Far Eastern White remnant. General Pepelyaev's last campaign is this IN SPADES.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilised
  • State Sec: the CHEKA.
  • Typecasting: 1920s Soviet films on the subject have characters whose appearance often identifies an archetype. Only capitalists wear top hats.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Bolsheviks went out of their way to convince both ordinary Russians and the rest of the world that they were the good guys, taking advantages of new media like cinema and others to revolutionize propaganda and managing to maintain a pretty good image, despite most other leftist groups who were not their allies in Russia both hating them and being on their hit list, to say nothing of all the numerous atrocities they wilfuly commited. This was deliberate deception, while in the Politburo demanding the most brutal and callous tactics.
    • Subverted with the Whites; most of their foreign backers didn't have a particularly high moral opinion of them, partly due to generations-old stereotypes about Russians as brutal savages, partly due to how the Whites actually behaved. They just thought that the Reds were much worse, though that was partly because of their anti-capitalist policies.
  • We ARE Struggling Together!: The various revolutionary factions who formed the White Movement; the only thing that they agreed on was that they weren't Reds. The Reds were capable of allying with the most effective non-Red factions (such as the Black Army) to annihilate the Whites, then turned on the Blacks when the Whites were gone.

Depictions in Fiction

Notes

  1. ...and safe full of Ham and Cheese, in "The Mail Train Robbery" song.
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