Russian Revolution – 3 things I learned from the Revolutions podcast

December 8, 2023

I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to the Revolutions podcast.

More specifically, season 10 of the Revolutions podcast, which is all about the Russian revolution, and took the author, Mike Duncan, more than three years to make.

I started at the end: the Revolutions podcast goes through several other revolutionary moments in history before getting around to the Russians.

The Mexican Revolution, the American War of Independence, the French in 1789 and 1830, etc. But I was more interested in Russia, so I skipped all that and went straight to the good part.

Let me tell you: I was not disappointed.

The season about the Russian revolution starts with Marx and Engels in the 1840s, ends with Stalin’s absolute power in the 1930s, and has a lot to say about all things Russian (and Soviet) in between.

Finally, after 103 episodes, I’m done.

And (although the whole thing was very good) one bit that made my ears perk up was the final episode, about Stalin’s Great Purge.

The Great Purge took place from 1936 to 1938 and – hey now – weren’t those basically the same years that the Spanish Civil War was going on? Why yes: the Spanish Civil War started in ’36, and ended in ’39 with Franco’s troops marching into Madrid and Barcelona.

Famously, Stalin and the Soviet Union were the only ones willing to support the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. Hitler and Mussolini supported the National side, and the other powers (the UK, France, the US, etc), not wanting to support either side, just stayed out.

So what does the Russian Revolution have to do with Spain?

One of Stalin’s main objectives in the purge was to get rid of Trotskyism – Trotsky himself being in exile in Norway and then Mexico by that point. And I thought, naturally, of George Orwell, who was forced to flee Spain after a brief stint fighting in the war. Forced to flee, in fact, when his party was made illegal by the Stalinists.

Several months ago, of course, I wrote at length about Orwell and Homage to Catalonia. So the Revolutions podcast gave me a bit of valuable context.

One surprising discovery from my re-reading was that the famous “leftist infighting” that most people claim lost the Spanish Civil War sounded – in Orwell’s version – much more like a Stalinist purge.

Turns out it was a small part of the Great Purge. Interesting!

Orwell talks at length about his party, the POUM, being accused of “Trotskyism”, and about the conflict between leftist militias leading to the Barcelona May Days of 1937. But as a modern reader 85 years later, I wasn’t clear on the details. Presumably, all of this Stalin vs Trotsky stuff was big news at the time, and a well-informed person in the 30s would have known about it.

But up until recently, I knew almost nothing about the battle between Stalin and Trotsky for the soul of the worldwide communist revolution.

I learned a lot more from the Revolutions podcast. Most of it has nothing to do with Spain, but since I am interested in the conflict between socialist and capitalist ideologies – and since it is my blog – I’ve decided to write about those crazy Russians today.

Let’s get to it, with a few things I learned from the Revolutions podcast…

The czar was a very incompetent totalitarian

Back in high school, instead of teaching us about the Bolsheviks and the Revolution of 1917, my World History teacher spent a week or so showing us the movie Nicholas and Alexandra.

I don’t remember much: the little hemophiliac czarevitch and his relationship with Rasputin, the huge mansions, and the general tone of the film, which (I believe) suggested that it was sort of a pity that all those nicely-dressed aristocrats were harassed and then shot by a bunch of dirty revolutionaries.

Fair enough for Czar Nicholas II. If you don’t look like a good guy in your own high-budget biopic, where are you going to look good?

On the other hand, I was not the type of teenager who was going to sit around sympathizing with royalty.

Young, rebellious, and suffering from a total lack of information, I watched the movie and decided that the communists were probably the good guys in the whole Russian Revolution story.

I later found out otherwise. (In hindsight, that teacher could have saved us all a lot of time by actually teaching something, rather than just putting on the movie and calling it a day. But who am I to judge?)

In any case, I was surprised through about twenty episodes of Revolutions by how bad the czar was at his job of czaring, as well as how awful the whole regime was for decades (or more) before anyone was able to do anything to change it.

Not that they didn’t try.

People in czarist Russia were put into prison (or forced to go into exile) for owning banned books, or doing anything to speak out about how shitty the situation was. There was no protest, or freedom of speech, or freedom of association – and also no elections.

It wasn’t like, for example, people in the West these days being convinced they live in a fascist dystopia because their party didn’t win this time – but it’s okay, because in four years they can vote again, and “protest” 24/7 all over social media in the meantime.

No, Nicholas became Czar in 1896 and could plausibly have held onto absolute power for several decades. For the early-20th-century Russians, it was revolution or nothing.

Meanwhile, most of the old revolutionaries had to meet up in secret – writing articles, planning campaigns to overthrow the system, smuggling books, trying to spot police infiltrators in their groups – and often spent years in exile around Europe, where they could work in relative peace.

History is made by the “great idiots”

Meanwhile, the Czar absolutely sucked as a ruler, and eventually, during World War I, gave quite a bit of power to his wife, Alexandra, who (amazingly) sucked even more.

Not only were the two of them embarrassingly bad rulers, they were also strongly religious, and believed that the absolute power of the Czar and the Romanov dynasty was ordained by God Himself. To suggest otherwise meant you were working for Satan. So any sort of liberal reform was out of the question.

The Romanovs lived in a bubble, surrounded by incompetent yes-men, and Nicholas seems to have had the world’s largest sense of entitlement. (Not that you can blame him personally. I’m sure that growing up as 19th-century royalty and being in charge of a massive empire will do that to a guy.)

World War I, of course, is a very long story, and I’m not going to go into it here. Suffice it to say that the war is what finally brought down the Czar and his regime. It brought down a lot of Europe’s monarchies, in fact.

Nicholas held on to his position for as long as he could. But finally, after many disasters and blunders, he stepped down when the generals in his army got together and wrote him letters saying that absolutely nobody wanted him running the country anymore.

All this in the context of a very bloody World War, as I mentioned, and also the February Revolution of 1917 – Lenin was still in exile and the Bolsheviks were an irrelevant fringe party when the Czar resigned.

So Nicholas and his family were put on house arrest – or, more accurately, palace arrest – by the provisional government. Lenin showed up back in Russia a bit later, sponsored by the Germans, and somehow took over the whole government in the October Revolution. 

Soon after that…

Adios, Czar Nicholas!

It’s a bit of a long story.

But eventually, Nicholas, Alexandra and the rest were shot in a basement by those (aforementioned) dirty revolutionaries. Although it bears mentioning that Duncan proposes in one of his appendix podcasts that if Nicholas had been just slightly less of a moron, he would have allowed for some liberal reforms and maybe a parliament, and everything could have gone much differently.

He calls it the “great idiot” theory of history: most of the big revolutions could have been avoided, if only the person in power at the time had been able to listen to reason and make a few changes.

Anyway, speaking of great idiots, let’s go back to 15-year-old me back on the ranch in Arizona. Because my sympathy for the communists back in 1997 or so came from the black and white idea that if the Czarist types were the bad guys, the people fighting them must have been the good guys.

What can I say? I was in high school. I now know that history is often a struggle between bad guys and even worse guys. But in those days I was younger and much more innocent.

(Also, I should mention that there were plenty of parties trying to change things in Russia – many of them were proposing reasonable parliamentary reform. The Bolsheviks in particular were some very bad guys, and unfortunately, they’re the ones who ended up taking over after October 1917. But it didn’t have to go that way.)

All of which brings us to our big point here…

The Bolsheviks ruined everything almost immediately

So about those Bolsheviks, huh?

Back when I was younger, and getting my historical information (mostly) from Hollywood movies and dreadlocked college freshmen, I’d hear things like “well, unfortunately real communism has never been attempted” or “if Lenin had survived a few more years, everything would have been fine”.

lenin giving a speech in 1917

I now know that those are pretty awful excuses – and, incidentally, borderline apology for genocide. Communism killed millions, often targeting ethnic minorities. And (in my humble opinion) anyone making excuses for regimes that kill millions is an asshole at the very least.

So in the spirit of setting the record straight with my uninformed teenage self, here are a few facts.

Fact One: Lenin was a total psycho

A popular misconception among dreadlocked college freshmen back in the day was that Stalin was the bad guy in the whole Soviet thing – but Lenin was actually pretty cool.

Wrong!

Lenin was a psycho who started the Red Terror in order to get people on board with the Bolshevik program.

It’s true. Ol’ Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, also known as Lenin, wanted to terrorize the Russian people into accepting Bolshevik rule. The Bolsheviks started the Cheka – their own secret police force – almost immediately after gaining power, and began terrorizing.

This wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t the fault of the capitalist powers interfering in Russian affairs. It was an intentional policy, and estimates say that 200,000 people were killed – possibly more.

Lenin’s Hanging Order is a telegram in which he famously orders 100 kulaks to be publicly hanged, so that “for hundreds of verst around the people see, tremble, know, shout: the bloodsucking kulaks are being strangled and will be strangled.”

A verst is about a kilometer, and kulaks were the wealthier peasants at the time – although later, the word came to mean anyone who owned a cow or any sort of agricultural machinery.

Anyway, that was a part of the terror. Eventually, there was a lot more. Lenin wasn’t a cool guy. Neither was Trotsky, and neither (obviously) was Stalin. They were all maniacs. Listen to the podcast for details.

(Before we continue, I know I’m dating myself with my reference to dreadlocked college freshmen. These days, that type have blue hair and they believe they can change their genders like I change my underwear – not every day, necessarily, but whenever it feels right. I don’t know what they think about Lenin, but I assume they’re getting their information from other blue-haired kids on TikTok, and are not much better informed than I was in the 90s.)

Moving on, this next part is important…

Fact Two: Communism just doesn’t work.

I guess your average blue-haired college freshman or delusional Bernie Bro probably doesn’t know much about this, but the Soviets tried doing a bunch of things to create a communist utopia, and they all failed miserably.

For one, they tried letting the workers control the factories. Soon, the workers (hungry as they were, because World War I was on, and communism doesn’t work) were just making things they could sell on the black market or exchange for food.

Within a few months, the Bolsheviks had to bring back the old managers (now as state employees) to get the factories to produce what was actually needed for the Russian economy.

Then there’s the situation of the peasants. Russia was a primarily agricultural economy, even in 1917, and so one of the Bolsheviks’ first moves was to expropriate the land owned by big holders and give it to the peasants.

However, as communists, they couldn’t just let the peasants sell their surplus food at a profit.

Instead, they sent out soldiers to requisition the food at gunpoint, so they could supply the workers in the cities. So the peasants “owned” the land, but in the end, they were just being forced to work it by men with guns. The government called it War Communism, and it led to mass starvation when people just stopped growing surplus grain rather than work all year only to have the fruits of their labor taken from them.

The public hangings of kulaks I mentioned before were part of this policy – it’s what happened if people rebelled against the grain requisition system.

Eventually, people started realizing that they were even worse off under the Bolsheviks than they had been under the Czar. Some urban workers rebelled and organized strikes, but the party – now, because they’d surpressed all dissent, the ONLY party – put down the strikes, saying that since they (the Bolseheviks) represented the workers, the workers had no reason to strike. And anyone who disagreed was going to be purged.

This also happened within the ranks of the military – the Krondstadt Rebellion is the most prominent example. That rebellion ended when a few thousand people were executed for striking against Bolshevism.

To quote Orwell, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

Fact Three: A ton of people starved.

A lot of people starved under communism.

Some starved almost immediately. Others starved later.

I had a basic idea about the Holodomor, AKA the Great Ukranian Famine, before listening to the Revolutions podcast. Little did I know that that was just one of the famines that had Russians dying in droves after the Bolshevik revolution.

Turns out the starvation started right away.

Remember those peasants having their grain taken away by the policy of War Communism? Well, as it happens, that whole thing just made Russian agriculture as a whole less productive. Much less productive.

Soon, millions were starving – or being fed by the US government.

Yes, you heard right. Under the Russian Famine Relief Act, a US food program fed millions of Russians every day for a few years after World War I. Duncan suggests that Herbert Hoover, in fact, saved the fledgling Soviet government from a crisis that surely would have ended it otherwise.

(Hoover himself believed, apparently, that the US program would show everyone the superiority of Western capitalism, and thus help stop the spread of communism. And he was wrong.)

Because the US imported grain to feed millions of Russians every day for years, the Soviet regime survived, and today blue-haired college students are still able to think that communism is just a system with a few minor flaws that need some working out.

It’s not: it’s a system that kills many, many people every time it’s seriously attempted.

Communism, I repeat, DOES NOT WORK

Why doesn’t communism work?

Because people make decisions based on incentives, and if you make it illegal or socially unacceptable to produce goods that people want and need, you’re just de-incentivizing production and creating poverty and starvation.

On the other hand, capitalism (for all its flaws) at least encourages people to be useful. Communists tend to make “being useful” illegal, and instead create more bureaucracy.

Communist regimes usually end up killing or imprisoning a lot of people just for being smart or successful, and guess what? If you get rid of the smart and successful people, all you end up with is more laziness and mediocrity.

Everybody just working for the common good sounds like a nice solution, but in practice, if somebody is holding you at gunpoint and taking all your stuff, you might not find it comforting to know that it’s “all for the common good”.

(Don’t take my word for it – just look into the history of the Soviet Union, or Communist China, or Cuba, or Cambodia, or Venezuela, etc.)

Of course, it’s more complicated than just that. But that’s the short version. Will Storr has more in the final chapter of his book The Status Game, which is very interesting throughout.

Anyway, all this stuff about the failure of the Russian Revolution fits neatly with my personal History Sucked Hypothesis, in which doing a thing with good intentions can end up leading you to a very, very bad place, because, well, history sucked.

The “History Sucked” Hypothesis

I’ve mentioned this before, in other articles, but it bears repeating here: a lot history totally sucked. And things that seem like good ideas at the time can get way out of hand.

All those revolutionaries trying to take down the Czar?

Not a bad idea! He was a total incompetent, his system was corrupt, and there was no other way of getting him out of office. Revolution was the only plausible outcome – and in a more perfect world, Russia could have ended up with a UK-style parliamentary system instead of 70+ years of communist hell.

What about Herbert Hoover, the arch-capitalist, just trying to save starving babies as part of the American Relief Administration? Well, he ended up preserving the very regime he was so against, and that would lead to even more starvation in the following decades. That’s just how it goes.

The Russian famine of 1920 to 1923, in which millions died, was followed by the 1932 – 1933 famine in Ukraine, in which millions more died. Plenty of people ended up practicing cannibalism in both instances.

Another million people died of starvation in the Siege of Leningrad during World War II – if anything, WWII was even deadlier than the revolution, as far as the Russians were concerned.

All in all, history sucked.

Let’s hope we never live to see “interesting times” like that

There was a period in my life when I would have loved to see some truly interesting historical times.

That me lived in the Arizona desert and was bored out of his mind by algebra and world history class – he certainly had no idea what was actually involved in those times.

I was left by the Revolutions podcast feeling grateful not to have been around for any of it. Duncan mentions on several occasions that even the best revolution is just work of just a handful of committed souls. Most people in most places hate politics, and don’t want to have anything to do with it.

I myself sort of wish politics would go away and leave us all alone, but I guess great purges and massive famines can happen to the politically apathetic just as they do to the actively partisan. These things can spiral out of control, and suddenly, nobody’s safe.

I’ll leave you with that, today, and with the big corollary to my History Sucked Hypothesis, which is that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that things can’t start sucking again on a very high level.

If you’d run into Lenin in a café in Zurich in 1916, you’d probably have thought “what an insufferable twat”. You certainly wouldn’t have predicted he was going to someday take over the entire Russian government.

Even when he got back to Russia in 1917 with all his German money, people thought he was just another lunatic from an irrelevant fringe party. His wife and his friends thought he had lost it when he got off the train and started planning a coup against the provisional government.

All of this could have gone much differently, but it didn’t.

As Morgan Housel says, “people are very good at forecasting the future, except for the surprises, which tend to be all that matter.” And it’s true. If you wrote a novel with a plot anything like the Russian Revolution, it would all seem insanely implausible.

But it happened, and not that long ago.

History sucked. And we’re very lucky, most of us, to be here where we are, right now.

Anyway, until next time…

Happy December, from beautiful Barcelona.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you like this you might enjoy a bit about the history of Catalonia, or my article on the Swedish utopia. Or, since it’s the Christmas season, here are some things that might surprise you about the holidays in Spain. Have fun!

P.P.S. The Revolutions podcast is now over, but it’s available on all the major platforms. Here’s a link to Apple Podcasts and here’s one to Spotify. Presumably you know how podcasts work at this point, and can find it. While you’re at it, check out my podcast too. It’s called Spain to Go and it’s about lots of stuff, but mostly about life as an expat in Spain. Cheers!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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