An Over­flow of Vi­o­lent Bac­cha­na­lia

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Frank Arm­strong

Ac­counts of the storm­ing of the Win­ter Palace in St. Peters­burg on 25 Oc­to­ber 1917 read more like those of a party be­ing vi­o­lently gate-crashed than the sin­gle most shock­ing event of the twentieth cen­tury: the emer­gence of the Bol­she­viks as lead­ers of the first Com­mu­nist regime in his­tory, in the world’s largest coun­try. The old Euro­pean or­der would soon lie in tat­ters, but out­ra­geous in­dul­gence rather than sin­gle-minded aus­ter­ity marked this turn­ing point in his­tory. The ul­ti­mate de­scent of the Rev­o­lu­tion into op­pres­sive to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism may be ex­plained by in­tel­lec­tual hubris among its fol­low­ers, and the vi­o­lent meth­ods of its leader.

Tsar Ni­cholas II had ab­di­cated in March 1917, end­ing a reign marked by in­ep­ti­tude and in­tran­si­gence. The Ro­manov dy­nasty to which he be­longed had ruled Rus­sia since 1613, and in that pe­riod con­quered a vast multi­na­tional em­pire en­com­pass­ing al­most a sixth of the world’s land­mass. Tsar­dom it­self, which claimed a de­scent, and drew its name, from the Ro­man Cae­sars, had ap­par­ently passed into the dust­bin of his­tory. His­toric fail­ure to re­model Rus­sian so­ci­ety along Euro­pean lines – serfs were only eman­ci­pated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Em­pire for the chal­lenge of mod­ern, ‘to­tal’ war­fare. Ni­cholas, his wife and five chil­dren, were shot, bay­o­net­ted and clubbed to death by Bol­she­viks the fol­low­ing year.

By Oc­to­ber 1917 a so­cial­ist lawyer Alexan­der Keren­sky was leader of a pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment. Fa­tally for that regime, how­ever, Rus­sia re­mained em­broiled in a war she could ill-af­ford. In the mean­time the ex­iled Bol­she­vik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smug­gled with Ger­man as­sis­tance into the coun­try aboard a sealed train, in­tent on fo­ment­ing a vi­o­lent up­ris­ing. ‘Rus­sia’, wrote Ilya Ehren­berg, ‘lived as if on a rail­way plat­form, wait­ing for the guard’s whis­tle’. The Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist John Reed at­tests to a ram­bunc­tious at­mos­phere in the then cap­i­tal of St Peters­burg:

Gam­bling clubs func­tioned hec­ti­cally from dusk till dawn with cham­pagne flow­ing and stakes of 20,000 rou­bles. In the cen­tre of the city at night, pros­ti­tutes in jew­els and ex­pen­sive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups in­creased to such an ex­tent that it was dan­ger­ous to walk the streets.

In­side the Win­ter Palace mem­bers of Keren­sky’s cabi­net – though not Keren­sky him­self – held out against the Bol­she­viks who con­trolled most of the city. Red Army gun­ners at the Peter and Paul Fortress man­aged a bar­rage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They suc­ceeded, nonethe­less, in pan­ick­ing the de­fend­ers and many slipped away. At last the dilet­tante be­siegers dis­cov­ered the main doors were un­locked and stormed the build­ing. With­out sig­nif­i­cant blood­shed the cabi­net were ar­rested, al­though some of the women’s mili­tia de­fend­ing the palace were raped. Ac­cord­ing to Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore, more peo­ple were hurt in the mak­ing of Eisen­tein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘bat­tle’ it­self. What en­sued was a wild party.

Ac­cord­ing to the leader of the as­sault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The mat­ter of the wine-cel­lars be­came es­pe­cially crit­i­cal’. Ni­cholas’s cel­lars con­tained Hun­gar­ian Tokay from the age of Cather­ine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the em­peror’s favourite. But:

the Pre­o­brazhen­sky Reg­i­ment… got to­tally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our rev­o­lu­tion­ary but­tress, also couldn’t re­sist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got ut­terly drunk. We post guards from the Reg­i­men­tal Com­mit­tees – they suc­cumbed as well. We despatched ar­moured cars to drive away the crowd, but af­ter a while they also be­gan to weave sus­pi­ciously. When even­ing came, a vi­o­lent bac­cha­na­lia over­flowed.

What tran­spired af­ter ths farce was, how­ever, no car­ni­val. Ac­cord­ing to Mon­te­fiore, Lenin was al­ways ‘ea­ger to start the blood­let­ting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ire­land, he be­lieved any suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion de­manded a heavy death toll, favour­ing the ruth­less­ness of Robe­spierre’s Ja­cobins in

1789 over the more pla­ca­tory Paris Com­mu­nards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Com­mune had failed be­cause its lead­ers ‘should have ex­ter­mi­nated its en­e­mies’, rather than at­tempt to ex­ert moral in­flu­ence. In Au­gust 1918 he is­sued the fol­low­ing or­der:

1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the peo­ple can see) not less than 100 known ku­laks, rich men, blood­suck­ers. 2. Pub­lish their names. 3. Take all their grain away from them. 4. Iden­tify hostages as we de­scribed in our tele­gram yes­ter­day. Do this so that for hun­dreds of miles around the peo­ple can see, trem­ble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the blood­suck­ing ku­laks. Ca­ble that you have re­ceived this and car­ried out your in­struc­tions. Yours, Lenin

P.S. Find tougher peo­ple.

Lenin’s ap­proach to vi­o­lence may have been prag­matic in the con­text of the life and death strug­gle of the Rus­sian Civil War, but con­tain­ing the ‘tougher peo­ple’ he un­leashed would prove highly prob­lem­atic.

Up to ten mil­lion peo­ple died in that con­flict, the vast ma­jor­ity civil­ians; far more than the ap­prox­i­mately two mil­lion Rus­sian deaths in the pre­ced­ing war. But wartime mil­i­tari­sa­tion left the coun­try as com­bustible as a pine for­est af­ter a heat­wave. The Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion was the hes­i­tant match that brought the in­ferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bul­gakov’s novel set dur­ing the Civil War in Kiev, re­counts:

there were tens of thou­sands of men who had come back from the war, hav­ing been taught how to shoot by those same Rus­sian of­fi­cers they loathed so much. There were hun­dreds of thou­sands of ri­fles buried un­der­ground, hid­den in hayricks and barns and not handed in, de­spite the sum­mary jus­tice dealt out by the Ger­man field courts-mar­tial, de­spite flail­ing ram­rods and shrap­nel-fire; buried in

that same soil were mil­lions of car­tridges, a three-inch gun hid­den in ever fifth vil­lage, ma­chine guns in every other vil­lage, shells stored in every lit­tle town, se­cret ware­houses full of army great­coats and fur caps.

The events in St Peters­burg re­ver­ber­ated around the enor­mous coun­try, gen­er­at­ing a dizzy­ing ar­ray of fac­tions that never man­aged to dis­lodge the Bol­she­viks from the two largest Rus­sian cities, de­spite the in­ter­ven­tion of for­eign pow­ers.

Karl Marx did not be­lieve that a Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion would pro­duce a So­cial­ist gov­ern­ment as the so­ci­ety was too un­de­vel­oped. Un­der Marx­ist the­ory Com­mu­nism should emerge in the more ad­vanced cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­eties such as the UK and Ger­many. Af­ter vic­tory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed west­wards to­wards Ger­many. The tri­umph, how­ever, of Mar­shall Pil­sud­ski’s Pol­ish army be­fore War­saw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Mir­a­cle of the Vis­tula’ – scup­pered the prospect of world rev­o­lu­tion. Com­mu­nism would be con­fined to one coun­try for two decades. Nev­er­the­less, a gen­er­a­tion of Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tu­als were se­duced by the ide­al­ism of the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the poet Stephen Spen­der, who briefly joined the Com­mu­nist Party of Bri­tain in the 1930s: ‘So­cial­ism was a va­ri­ety of mod­ernist be­hav­iour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely be­lieved that cap­i­tal­ism was both deeply un­fair, and ul­ti­mately doomed. Sym­pa­thies were also based on an as­sump­tion of be­ing on the right side of his­tory. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Com­mu­nism ... is the rid­dle of his­tory solved and knows it­self as this so­lu­tion.’ In this tele­ol­ogy Com­mu­nism was the ul­ti­mate stage, hu­mankind hav­ing passed through Slav­ery, Feu­dal­ism and Cap­i­tal­ism. It was linked to a be­lief in sci­ence and ra­tio­nal­ity, and op­posed to the su­per­sti­tions and in­flex­i­bil­ity of Old Europe.

The ap­peal for oth­ers lay in ame­lio­rat­ing the dis­as­trous eco­nomic con­di­tions af­ter the war. The nov­el­ist Arthur Koestler’s fam­ily never re­cov­ered fi­nan­cially from its ef­fects. He joined the Ger­man Com­mu­nist

Party in 1931 af­ter sur­vey­ing the poverty and prof­i­teer­ing that fol­lowed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later re­called: ‘I was ripe for it be­cause I lived in a dis­in­te­grat­ing so­ci­ety thirst­ing for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good in­ten­tions.

Clas­si­cally, revo­lu­tions devour their chil­dren, and Josef Vis­sar­i­on­vich Dju­gashvilli-Stalin emerged as the an­gel of death. Ac­cord­ing to an early bi­og­ra­pher Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ul­ti­mate com­mit­tee man’ who ‘led be­cause he fol­lowed the pre­vail­ing mood and ex­pressed it in a grey patch­work of for­mu­las.’ As to his role in the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion Leon Trot­sky – him­self an early dis­ci­ple of Lenin’s ruth­less dis­re­gard for hu­man life, who would even­tu­ally be mur­dered with an ice pick on Stalin’s or­ders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trot­sky’s tes­ti­mony might be dis­missed,’ ac­cord­ing to Deutscher, ‘were it pos­si­ble to find among the wel­ter of doc­u­ments,’ a few record­ing Stalin’s di­rect con­nec­tion with the first days of the up­heaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Af­ter­wards as first Com­mis­sar for Na­tion­al­i­ties Stalin op­er­ated in the back­ground, build­ing al­liances play­ing one fac­tion off against the other, as he awaited a chance to strike to power which ar­rived af­ter Lenin’s early death in 1924. The wide­spread ac­cep­tance of Lenin’s vi­o­lent method­ol­ogy when placed in the hands of this para­noid, and frankly wicked, per­son­al­ity brought un­told suf­fer­ing to Rus­sia, and be­yond.


Com­mu­nism was a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to ra­tio­nal meth­ods but Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky’s anony­mous anti-hero in Notes from the Un­der­ground (1864) an­tic­i­pates how a wil­ful char­ac­ter, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those prin­ci­ples. He de­scribes a form of gov­ern­ment where:

All hu­man ac­tions will then of course be cal­cu­lated, math­e­mat­i­cally, like log­a­rithm ta­bles up to 108,000, and recorded in a cal­en­dar; or

even bet­ter, well-in­ten­tioned publi­ca­tions will then ap­pear … in which ev­ery­thing will be so pre­cisely cal­cu­lated and recorded that there will no longer be de­lib­er­ate acts or ad­ven­tures in the world.

This he sug­gests would cre­ate a re­ac­tion, in the form of that aveng­ing an­gel:

I, for ex­am­ple, wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if, in the midst of all this rea­son­able­ness that is to come, sud­denly and quite un­ac­count­ably some gen­tle­man with an ig­no­ble, or rather a re­ac­tionary and mock­ing phys­iog­nomy were to ap­pear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: ‘Now, gen­tle­men, what about giv­ing all this rea­son­able­ness a good kick with the sole pur­pose of send­ing all those log­a­rithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in ac­cor­dance with our own stupid will!’

He adds, omi­nously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find peo­ple to fol­low him: peo­ple are made like that.’

Dur­ing the purges Stalin openly re­vealed an ad­mi­ra­tion for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the ter­ri­ble’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few bo­yars. He should have killed them all, to cre­ate a strong state.’ Thus, Mon­te­fiore ar­gues: ‘The mag­nates were not as obliv­i­ous to Stalin’s na­ture as they later claimed.’ He found no dif­fi­cultly en­list­ing loyal ex­e­cu­tion­ers, de­spite de­scend­ing into the despo­tism and pro­found ir­ra­tional­ity of a Red Tsar.

Thus, para­dox­i­cally, Com­mu­nists and their fel­low-trav­ellers were bewitched by a dogma of ex­treme ra­tio­nal­ity, where the Utopian end jus­ti­fied the most ahock­ing means. Koestler writes: ‘Rea­son may de­fend an act of faith – but only af­ter the act has been com­mit­ted, and the man com­mit­ted to the act.’ Koestler even­tu­ally be­come dis­il­lu­sioned with the cause, and his novel Dark­ness at Noon (1940) is a prob­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of an in­no­cent Bol­she­vik who as­sents to his ex­e­cu­tion in a show trial, sac­ri­fic­ing him­self for the sake of the his­tor­i­cal dia­lec­tic trans­form­ing mankind. Ad­her­ence to Com­mu­nism took on many of the fea­tures of a re­li­gion.

Other Com­mu­nists – usu­ally at a re­move from the hor­rors of Lenin­ism and Stal­in­ism – such as the his­to­rian Eric Hob­s­bawm, were re­pelled by those who had aban­doned their faith. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy he ad­mits: ‘I was strongly re­pelled by the idea of be­ing in the com­pany of those exCom­mu­nists who turned into fa­nat­i­cal anti-Com­mu­nists, be­cause they could free them­selves from the service of “The God that failed” only by turn­ing him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev ad­mit­ted to the de­prav­ity of Stalin’s rule, and af­ter the Hun­gar­ian Rev­o­lu­tion had been bru­tally sup­pressed, that he ad­mits: ‘for more than a year, Bri­tish Com­mu­nists lived on the edge of the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a col­lec­tive ner­vous breakdown.’

The ex­pe­ri­ence can be likened to that of a de­vout Catholics com­ing to terms with rev­e­la­tions of a pae­dophilic clergy. How­ever, like many Catholics, dis­gusted by par­tic­u­lar priests but con­vinced by a Re­vealed truth, Hob­s­bawm re­mained true to his ‘church’: ‘emo­tion­ally, as one con­verted as a teenager in the Ber­lin of 1932, I be­longed to the gen­er­a­tion tied by an um­bil­i­cal cord to hope of the world rev­o­lu­tion, and of its orig­i­nal home, the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, how­ever scep­ti­cal or crit­i­cal of the USSR.’

The in­tel­lec­tual hubris of the Marx­ist idea of an end to his­tory per­haps doomed the move­ment to a vi­o­lent to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism that brooked no dis­sent. Un­der Com­mu­nism, ac­cord­ing to the Pol­ish writer Ryzsard Ka­pus­cin­ski: ‘the art of for­mu­lat­ing ques­tions (for it is an art!) van­ished, as did even the need to ask them. In­creas­ingly ev­ery­thing pre­sented it­self as be­ing what it was sup­posed to be.’ He con­cludes ‘A civil­i­sa­tion that does not ask ques­tions … is a civil­i­sa­tion stand­ing in place, par­a­lyzed, im­mo­bile.’ Com­mu­nism did not per­mit com­pet­ing opin­ions. This led to in­tel­lec­tual stul­ti­fi­ca­tion, for­mu­laic art, and even­tu­ally de­clin­ing sci­en­tific in­ge­nu­ity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tu­als saw the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion as a spark of in­spi­ra­tion an­tic­i­pat­ing a bet­ter world, and in a pe­riod when pol­i­tics was closely con­nected to mil­i­tary strug­gle, vi­o­lent ex­cess was tol­er­ated. In re­sponse, aban­don­ing ide­ol­ogy may seem salu­tary; as Solzhen­it­syn put it:

‘Shake­speare’s vil­lains stopped short at ten or so ca­dav­ers. Be­cause they had no ide­ol­ogy.’ How­ever, with­out con­vic­tion hu­man progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that sur­vives is the kind of cyn­i­cism of today that sees no al­ter­na­tive to an as­cen­dant Ne­olib­er­al­ism. The no­ble ob­jec­tive of Com­mu­nism was to bring homo sapi­ens to a higher plain of ex­is­tence. De­spite the hor­ren­dous han­gover that fol­lowed the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, per­haps we should not aban­don that hope lightly.

His­tory in­di­cates that any im­prov­ing idea is un­likely to suc­ceed over the long-term if bru­tal meth­ods are used to carry it out. Lenin crit­i­cised the rel­a­tive pas­siv­ity of the Paris Com­mu­nards, but mod­ern France is more so­cial­ist than present-day Rus­sia. Sig­nif­i­cant shifts in con­scious­ness – such as those brought by the Chris­tian New Tes­ta­ment to Europe – tend to oc­cur at an in­di­vid­ual level rather than when im­posed from above. In fact, as was the case af­ter the Ro­man Em­peror Con­stan­tine’s adop­tion of Chris­tian­ity, im­po­si­tion may of­ten lead to tyranny. An ab­stract idea, no mat­ter how seem­ingly benev­o­lent, in the hands of a ruth­less politi­cian, such as Stalin, may be­come a tool of op­pres­sion. Today few around the world still be­lieve that the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion was the cat­a­lyst for a bet­ter world.

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