Russia is often in the news these days – corrupt and repressive at home, aggressive and malevolent in relation to neighbors and rivals. Yet this Russia is heir to a country that shaped the twentieth century and had a formative impact on the cultural and political history of the modern world. It cannot be dismissed as a plaything of Vladimir Putin’s arrogant ambitions. Over the past hundred years, Russia has been a bellwether, not an exception. We should take heed.
Russia has more than once demonstrated the ease with which complex societies can fall apart. It has shown how difficult it is to uphold the legitimacy of nations and to install and sustain democratic regimes. The country we know as the Russian Federation changed names, borders, and political systems twice in the course of the twentieth century. We remember the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A megapower suddenly vanished–the ideology that sustained it deflated like a punctured balloon. The periphery defected – fourteen former Soviet republics emerged as independent nations. Nevertheless, Moscow remains the center of a multiethnic territory that continues to span the Eurasian continent. Democratic in form, authoritarian in practice, Russia is still a major player on the international stage.
In 1991 the center not only held, but other structures also persisted. Positions of power within the Soviet hierarchy translated into opportunities to amass personal fortunes. Alumni, like Putin, of the Soviet political police, the former KGB, used their insider status and institutional leverage to shape a new form of authoritarian rule. A pseudo-capitalist oligarchy arose on the ashes of Soviet Communism, while the welfare of the majority of the population eroded. What we now deplore as the increasing disparity between rich and poor in the developed industrial nations in Russia was an instant product of Communism’s collapse. Much has improved in the post-Soviet sphere; open borders, an uncensored press, freedom of speech and assembly (though increasingly imperiled), prosperity for the better off, not just the elite. But the rule of law is a mere fig leaf and the hope that free markets would result in a free society has not been fulfilled.
This recent transition – by now thirty years old – was not the first time the center held, against all odds, and the promise of liberation was disappointed. Seven decades earlier, between 1917 and 1921, an entire civilization collapsed and a new one was founded. In 1913 Tsar Nicholas II celebrated the three-hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty; in August 1914 he took Russia into World War I on the side of the Allied powers. In March 1917 mutinies in the imperial armed forces, bread riots by working-class women, industrial strikes in the key cities, and peasant revolts in the countryside led to the defection of the military and civilian elites. For years, a burgeoning civil society and a disaffected radical fringe had been dreaming of change – the one of the rule of law, the other of socialist revolution. When Nicholas renounced the throne, a seven-month experiment in democratic politics ensued – at the grass roots in the form of elected soviets (councils), on the scale of empire in the form of elections to a Constituent Assembly. Millions voted at every level; democracy was in the air. Yet, the Provisional Government, which honored Russia’s commitment to the Allied cause, could not cope with the same war that had proved the monarchy’s undoing. In October 1917, the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, arrested the liberal ministers, took control of the soviets, and heralded the installation of the world’s first socialist government.
Few thought this handful of radical firebrands would stay in the saddle. The old elites launched a fierce opposition. As committed internationalists, anticipating the outbreak of world revolution, the Bolsheviks immediately sued for peace. In March 1918 they signed a separate treaty with the Central Powers but the fighting nevertheless continued. Though relatively bloodless, the October coup unleashed a plethora of brutal civil conflicts lasting another three years. The old regime, desperate to bolster its popularity in wartime, had mobilized the population against itself, demonizing the inner enemy, only to weaken itself from within. The fissures held together by autocratic rule and the imperial bureaucracy now broke open – class against class, region against region, community against community.
Armies were not the only combatants in the struggle for independence and domination that followed 1917. All sides used the energy of popular anger to strengthen their own cause. As early as December 1917 the Bolsheviks had established a political police, ancestor of the KGB, to direct the furies of class conflict at officially stigmatized social categories and political rivals. Defenders of monarchy vilified the Jews; Polish, and Ukrainian nationalists took aim at each other. In the context of fluid and endemic violence, vulnerable communities took the brunt. Across the former Pale of Settlement (abolished after March 1917) tens of thousands of Jewish inhabitants were murdered; Muslims and Christians in the Caucasus settled old scores. Enemies and traitors, real and imagined, were everywhere targets of spontaneous and organized rage.
The Civil War was a consequence of state collapse, but it generated the birth of nations. Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States, with outside backing and by force of arms, established their own borders. World revolution had not materialized; the movement for national self-determination, a Leninist slogan, took its place. In the end, the Bolsheviks maintained control of the heartland – moving the capital from Petrograd to Moscow in March 1918, conquering the breakaway Ukrainian provinces, defeating a range of military and ideological opponents on both the Right and the Left, and reconstituting a massive, multiethnic state on the footprint of the former empire. They created a new, “people’s army,” using the endemic violence of social breakdown to form a new type of regime, energized by continuous internal struggle. The self-proclaimed dictatorship of the proletariat promised a new and higher form of democracy and the inauguration of a new and brighter era for humankind. Instead, it resulted in a system that inflicted untold damage on its own population: forced collectivization, murderous famines, purges, and the Gulag.
What eventually became the Soviet Union in 1924 nevertheless survived the Stalinist Terror and the onslaught of World War II, playing a decisive role in Allied victory. With Stalin’s death, the system began slowly to soften, but until the last moment the basic principles of class warfare and ideological dictatorship endured. Soviet Communism is now dead; people are beginning to forget why it invoked passions on both sides – either fiery commitment or moral outrage. The Western democracies cannot boast, however, of the triumph of capitalist markets and liberal constitutions. Civil societies are generating antidemocratic populist movements and corrupt and self-serving politicians are brazenly flouting the law. Racial and cultural antagonism and nationalist fervor, encouraged from on high, bolster the power of corrupt elites. Trump and Putin more and more mirror each other. The democratic impulse that flourished in the Revolution and was defeated in the Civil War emerged again in Russia after 1991 but has once again been foiled. We can’t afford to look down our noses at Russia. Its history over the last century should give us pause. Great Powers die and democracy easily withers.
Laura Engelstein is the Henry S. McNeil Professor Emerita of Russian History at Yale University. Her newest book, Russia in Flames, is available now.