By Markar Melkonian
November 7 is the centennial of the October Revolution, an event that shifted the global balance of power like an earthquake, spurring workers’ rebellions, national liberation movements, and demands for equal opportunity and economic democracy across the globe.
The Revolution, which was almost bloodless, put an end to Russian participation in a war that had claimed many millions of lives. The heirs of the Revolution hastened the end of colonial regimes on four continents, liberated women, defeated fascism, and brought self-determination to colonized peoples. They secured the borders, fed the hungry, built the roads, cities, factories, and schools, extended lifespans, decriminalized homosexual and transgender activity in Russia (until Stalin recriminalized them in 1933), pioneered scientific and technological research, put humans into orbit around Earth, and made it possible to harness the atom and put it to peaceful uses.
And yet, as an unsympathetic writer put it recently, “the Soviet system that the revolution ushered in lasted long enough to leave its profound imprint on several generations, but not long enough to reach its hundredth year.” (Mary Djevsky, The Independent, 26 Oct. 2017) How was it, then, that the reverberations of the October Revolution did not reach its hundredth year?
Yerevan, 13 April 1991: the statue of Lenin by the sculptor Sergei Merkurov is taken down. Within ten years, 25% of the assembled crowd would leave Armenia permanently, and most of the remainder would live their lives voiceless and in poverty.
V.I. Lenin understood that his goal, the replacement of the state power of big capitalists by the state power of workers, could not take place in a dirt-poor, largely non-industrial country like Russia. This was a vast agrarian country, in which tens of millions of peasants lived on the brink of starvation--a country whose fledgling industries had been reduced to ruins, and whose working class had been decimated by “the War to End All Wars.” The October Revolution put an abrupt stop to this. But Soviet Russia paid a heavy price, including huge concessions of territory that had been part of the Czarist Empire; the invasion of Soviet Russia by twenty-six foreign armies (including the Turkish army), and decades of economic embargo.
Lenin understood that socialism, workers’ power, could only be built on the basis of highly productive labor, advanced industry, international economic cooperation, and a democratic culture—none of which existed in Russia at the time. He knew that the very conditions that made Russia the “weak link of imperialism” also ensured that socialism, workers’ power, could not survive without revolution in the West. The revolutions in Europe did indeed break out: the Spartacist Uprising in Germany in 1919; the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic the same year; a soviet uprising in Hungary (1919); Communist uprisings in Turin and Milan (1921), and in Bulgaria (1923), and two more Communist rebellions in Germany, in 1921 and 1923.
In these rebellions, too, the revolutionaries conducted themselves with remarkable tolerance and restraint, and as the revolutionary tide rose, surprisingly little blood was shed. But the enemies of the revolutions--including the Freikorps in Germany, a precursor of Hitler’s Brown Shirts--regrouped and attacked, executing thousands of communists and workers. Even as Soviet Russia won the civil war and defeated the foreign invaders, the revolutionary uprisings in the West were extinguished with the blood of thousands of martyred communists. Eventually, the same forces that had strangled the revolutions in the West would plunge Europe and East Asia into yet another generalized slaughter.
Russian prisoners of war inspect a statue of Lenin somewhere in German-occupied Russia during Operation Barbarossa. Advancing Nazis, some of the 4.5 million invading troops from Germany, toppled the statue during Hitler’s August 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
After the defeat of the Revolutions in the West and the encirclement of Soviet Russia, Lenin retrenched, pushing for policies (notably the NEP) that reflected his view that survival of workers’ power and of Soviet Russia were very much up in the air.
With the foundation of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, a tattered, starving corner of Armenia became a nominally independent state. As we know, the first Republic of Armenia lasted from May 1918 until late 1920. These were two and one-half terrible years of starvation, epidemics, and three wars, including a turf war with Georgia, of all countries.
They were years of prolonged agony and repeated betrayal of Armenia by British generals, Winston Churchill, the U.S. Congress, and colonialist Great Powers that had already entered into secret agreements with each other, agreements that betrayed their public pronouncements after the war. In the face of an advance by Turkish nationalists, Armenian defenders, including Armenian Bolsheviks, put an end to the nightmare, stopping the Turkish aggressors in their tracks, when no one else had raised a finger to oppose the onslaught.
The city of Yerevan is itself a monument to Soviet construction. And yet voices in that city denigrate the achievements of the Soviet order in Armenia, achievements that a quarter century of capitalism has largely destroyed and replaced with poverty, exhaustion, and national diminishment.
Lenin’s worst enemies have blamed him for the atrocities than they themselves committed. They blame Lenin for every death that the invading armies imposed upon the soviet peoples, and they blame Lenin for Stalin’s brutality, too. But then lies and hypocrisy are standard operating procedure in history.
A German Spartacist rebel, 1919, defiant in the face of death.
Few people in Yerevan will commemorate the Centennial of the October Revolution. But one hundred years after that revolution, and a quarter century after Armenia’s return to capitalist rule, a new generation is coming of age in Armenia, a generation that has known little more than unemployment, deprivation, and betrayed promises. There is some evidence, though, that this coming generation has begun to slough off their parent’s passivity and delusions. Perhaps the best and the brightest of a rising generation will claim the vibrant spirit of the October Revolution.
Here is a link to an informative nine-minute film by the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee in the U.K.:
Markar Melkonian is a teacher and an author. His books include Richard Rorty’s Politics: Liberalism at the End of the American Century (1999), Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Westview Press, 1996), and My Brother’s Road (2005).