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Lenin 1917-24

In brief...

In early April 1917 Lenin predicted the failure of the Provisional Government.

  • He disentangled the Bolsheviks from their associations with the Provisional Government
  • He provided them with a programme: ‘Bread, Peace and Land’.
  • He provided them with a strategy.
  • Before Lenin was forced back into hiding and exile in June, support for Bolshevism was already growing among the population at large, in the army and in the navy, stationed at nearby Kronstadt. Subjecting the army and the population to propaganda to create a second, proletarian revolution.
  • Lenin remained the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviks, though he was ‘on the run’ and rarely in Petrograd.
  • He finally decided on the necessity of revolution in October, overcoming the opposition from Kamenev and Zinoviev.

In communist terms, the proletariat is the industrial working class. It does not include the free peasantry or the bourgeoisie (the middle class).

In depth...

  • Bolshevik theory – October Revolution had marked victory of proletariat over bourgeoisie
  • Change to proletarian from bourgeoisie economy could not happen over night
  • Would need ‘state capitalism’ period – retaining main economic structure of tsars
  • World War I had brought near collapse of backward Russian economy
  • Industrial production fallen
  • Inflation high, transport crippled, famine and riots

Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not gain real power immediately after the revolution. The new government was a coalition between the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries.

Declarations on taking power

Lenin immediately issued two decrees. They gave his supporters much of what they expected from the Revolution:

1. The Decree on Peace

  • This called for a just peace with Germany without losing power or land, or paying reparations. Even after a violent take-over in Moscow the new government had no control over the rest of the country
  • Trotsky was unable to stop the war without Germany’s agreement. As Commissar for Foreign Affairs he relied on a policy of ‘no peace, no war’ for the next few weeks
  • Then the Germans began to advance again and the Russian Government had to call for peace negotiations. This meant surrender

2. The Decree on Land

  • This nationalised all land but allowed it to be redistributed to the peasants
  • Lenin had taken over the whole Social Revolutionary land programme in a bid to gain popularity with the majority of the population
  • Acceptance of actions happened before Bolsheviks’ seizure of power over new policy
  • Recognised land seizures by Peasants
  • Lenin had offered in ‘Land to Peasants’ slogan

Decree on Workers’ Council

  • 1917 large number of factories taken over by workers
  • Workers’ committees rarely ran factories efficiently - serious fall in industrial output
  • Decree accepted takeover – but instructed maintenance of strict order and discipline in work


  • Government organisation formed to take charge of existing institutions for regulation of economic life
  • Introduced nationalisation of banks and railways
  • Declared foreign debts would not be honoured – nationalised foreign companies and froze foreign assets in Russia
  • Transport system brought under order


  • In December 1917 Lenin established the Cheka, under Felix Dzerzhinsky. This was a forerunner of the KGB. It had rights to investigate, try and execute enemies of the state outside normal courts
  • It was used to terrorise and remove opponents, and marks the beginning of the Bolshevik move towards violence
  • Lenin determined to impose absolute Bolshevik rule through suppression of political opposition
  • Better organised and more efficient form of tsarist Okhrana – secret police
  • Purpose to destroy counter revolution and sabotage
  • Terms could be used for any form of dissent which Bolsheviks disapproved

Dissolution of Constituent Assembly November 1917

Lenin could not refuse to allow elections to the Constituent Assembly. However, the Socialist Revolutionaries won the election. The Bolsheviks came second, with majorities in Petrograd and Moscow. Unless the Bolsheviks took action, the Constituent Assembly would meet in January 1918 and deprive the Bolsheviks of their claim to represent the people.

Deputies were threatened with violence. Bolshevik deputies jeered and disrupted their speeches. When the Socialist Revolutionary majority refused to adopt the entire Bolshevik programme, Lenin walked out with the rest of the Bolshevik deputies. The assembly hall was shut and guarded. The deputies decided they would be safer at home in the provinces. 

  • Forced to accept democratic elections as already agreed before power seized
  • Lenin determined not to allow elections to undermine Bolsheviks power
  • Results showed Bolsheviks lacking in major support
  • Social Revolutionaries own twice as many seats and votes with 370 seats to Bolsheviks 175
  • Lenin had no need for an assembly as his party was in power
  • After one day’s session assembly dissolved at gunpoint of Red Guard
  • Lenin justified by arguing reason for assembly was no longer relevant as representational government of Soviets had already been achieved in October revolution
  • ‘The People’s Will had been expressed’
  • Later outlawed all other political parties to maintain power
  • The dispersal of the Constituent Assembly was a major reason for civil war

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk March 1918

  • The Soviet Government was forced into agreeing to a peace that gave Germany all her demands:
    • the Russian army was demobilised
    • Finland, Estonia, Latvia and the Ukraine became independent (the Ukraine under German domination)
  • This angered many patriotic Russians and increased the anti-Soviet forces gathering throughout Russia
  • Russia’s military strength had vanished and could not effectively continue World War I
  • Had nothing to lose by removing Russia from war
  • If Germany won Russia would retain territory already held
  • If Germany lost would regain its occupied lands
  • Also – German foreign office had funded Lenin and Bolsheviks from 1914-17 in hope of seizing power and removing Russia from war
  • Agreed to German Diktat as Trotsky declared it
  • Lost land including Ukraine – highest grain producer in Russian Empire
  • Lenin believed that a great international political victory of communism was imminent and treaty would be pointless very soon
  • A more serious type of civil war replaced the feeble opposition of former Tsarist generals

Russian Civil War 1918-20

  • Bolsheviks had only limited amount of control over Russia in early stages
  • Controlled major industrial areas of Moscow and Petrograd, but little else
  • Believed Lenin wanted civil war as quick way of defeating all opposition in one movement
  • Better to have short brutal struggle than face years of harassing and challenges to rule
  • Lenin believed his army would be victorious in war
  • But would have been unable to dominate government as lacking wide support

Reds, Whites and Greens

  • Reds – Bolsheviks and supporters
  • Whites – Monarchists seeking Tsar return, outlawed parties and all suppressed by Bolsheviks
  • Greens – mainly national minorities looking for independence from central Russian control
  • Bolshevik rule was seen by many as another attempt by Russians to attain authority over other nations as under tsars
  • Famine was rife during civil war – many battles began over lack of food
  • Social Revolutionaries organised uprisings in central Russia
  • Tsarists Royalists led by Army General Denikin formed in Southern Russia
  • Bolsheviks held power in war as controlled major transport – kept supplied and moved troops easier

White Weakness

  • Fought as separate detachments
  • Unable to unite under common cause as different ideologies
  • Reds able to fight smaller battles against units instead of large scale opponent
  • Difficult for whites to unite as did not control transport
  • Whites lacked leaders like Trotsky capable of uniting troops

Red Strength

  • Controlled central area of Western Russia – kept supplies as industrial area
  • Kept Moscow, Petrograd and railways throughout war
  • Reds seen as champions of Russian nation and Proletarians as fighting Bourgeois enemy
  • Well organised by Trotsky
  • Prevented Whites supply, stopped Whites concentrating in one area and divided force
  • Gained troops by offering captured enemies enlistment or execution
  • Reds argued Whites would take land from Peasants and return to Bourgeoisie

Effect of Civil War on Bolsheviks

  • Many members joined the party during the civil war and worked through the army ranks before becoming part of the party
  • Created a military obedience and loyalty to central figure of command
  • Centralisation – aspects of war created need for fast decisions made by central leaders
  • Led to movement of power away from central committee and into Politburo
  • Lenin’s methods of government
  • Accepted terror as necessary instrument of political control
  • Marxist revolution would not survive unless capable of smashing opponents
  • Cheka – remained outstanding expression of Bolshevik ruthlessness
  • Above the law – unlimited powers of arrest, imprisonment, torture and brutality
  • Murdered Romanovs – tsar Nicholas and family
  • Class and education determined guilt of individuals
  • Ended trade unions and banned political parties to stop future opposition occurring

War Communism

  • 1918 - Introduction of harsh restrictive economic measures
  • Not some grand plan of communism but a reaction to crisis situation
  • However, can still be fitted together with ideology
  • Every aspect of life needed to be subordinate to the task of winning civil war
  • Decree on Nationalisation June 1918 – helped by Bolshevik political commissars infiltrating factories and workers committees – all businesses with 10 workers or more nationalised
  • Within 2 years all major industry was nationalised under central control
  • Had little effect on industrial production as in severe depression after World War I and Civil War
  • Military needs given priority and manpower cut due to conscription to Red Guard during Civil War
  • Many urban workers return to countryside in search of work and food during famine
  • Hyper-inflation left investment minimal
  • War communism tightened Bolshevik control over industry but did little to improve economic growth
  • Showed Communist ideology could not prevail without Capitalist ventures

Effects on Agriculture

  • Lenin’s main purpose of War Communism was to gain control of agriculture and force peasants to produce more food
  • Peasants naturally conservative were resistant to central control
  • Peasants saw no reason for producing more grain if government were not going to pay fair price
  • Grain requisitioning began as Cheka sent to countryside to seize grain by force
  • Terrorised countryside – Kulaks received particularly brutal treatment
  • Had negative effect on production
  • As surplus grain would be seized peasants began producing bare minimum to feed own family

Famine 1921

  • Requisitioning, drought and war disruption created national famine
  • Bolsheviks accepted famine – but blamed Whites and Kulaks
  • Accepted foreign assistance – USA providing food for 10 million Russians
  • However, foreign help too late as 10 million died through starvation

End of War Communism

  • Lenin saw famine as opportunity to attack orthodox church
  • Exploited famine by shooting priests
  • War communism had failed to meet demands
  • Industrial and agricultural production had fallen dramatically
  • However, relatively well liked by Bolsheviks as saw nationalisation of industry, end of Capitalism and the control of peasants through repression

Kronstadt Uprising 1921

  • Failure of economic recovery, famine and brutality of requisitioning led to uprisings
  • As long as uprisings confined to political opponents and peasants was containable
  • However, Petrograd workers and Kronstadt sailors joined forces to protest for greater freedom
  • They created a manifesto and presented it to the government demanding:
    • Secret ballots for new Soviet election
    • Freedom of speech, press and assembly
    • Trade unions reinstated
    • Reformation of rival political parties
    • Withdrawal of political commissars from factories
  • This frightened Bolsheviks as the Kronstadt sailors had been loyal supporters and helped in the seizure of power for the Bolsheviks
  • Bolsheviks labelled them as White agents – when they had been true socialists seeking better conditions and rights for the working class
  • Trotsky ordered the Red Guard to crush the uprising
  • Sailors and workers resisted fiercely before being overrun by superior numbers
  • Leaders were condemned as white reactionaries and executed

New Economic Policy (NEP) 1921

  • Intended to meet the urgent demands for food
  • State terror had failed to force peasants into producing adequate grain
  • Lenin decided the ‘stick had failed it was time to offer the carrot’
  • Bolsheviks would still retain control of ‘commanding heights of the economy’
  • Other features of NEP
  • Central economic control would be relaxed
  • Requisitioning of grain abandoned
  • Peasants able to keep surplus and sell for profit
  • Created NEPmen and wealthy peasant Kulaks – re-emergence of middle class
  • NEP marked retreat from state control and temporary concession to capitalism
  • Bolshevik government had failed to produce a successful economy along purely ideological lines


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