We are not carrying out war vs. individuals. We are exterminating the Bourgeoisie as a class. We are not looking for evidence or witnesses to reveal deeds or words vs. the Soviet power. The first question we ask is to what class does he belong, what are his origins, upbringing, education or profession? These questions define the fate of the accused. This is the essence of the Red Terror.— M. Y. Latsis
Not only was Russia bleeding from war, it was also starving. This situation sparked bread riots in Petrograd (renamed that from the German St. Petersburg) in March 1917. Day after day the riots escalated as the government failed to respond decisively to the crisis. Many soldiers joined the demonstrators, Nicholas abdicated his throne, and the Duma set up a moderate republic under Alexander Kerensky.
The Russian Revolution followed a course very similar to that followed by the French Revolution. For one thing, its first government, like France’s National Assembly, was a moderate government that tried to maintain respectability by following many of the old monarchy’s policies. The most ruinous of these policies was its commitment to stay in the war against Germany. This merely intensified the turmoil and anarchy that the war had already generated, which led to more defeats, and so on. The more radical elements agitated for more sweeping changes to undermine the government’s power while exploiting its tolerance and weakness.
The most important of these groups was the radical Marxist party known as the Bolsheviks. (meaning “majority” although they only represented a minority of Russian socialists, let alone the population). Their leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, was a hardened revolutionary and prolific writer, whose career had involved avoiding the Czar’s secret police, spending time in a prison camp, and publicizing Marxism through his writing while in exile. Ironically, when revolution broke out, the Germans sneaked him into Russia, hoping he would destabilize Russia and knock it out of the war. He did that and much more.
When Lenin arrived in Petrograd, he immediately set to work to organize a revolution that would overthrow Kerensky. The steady deterioration of Russia from the prolonged war effort played into his hands, and the Bolshevik program, summarized in the slogans “Bread, peace, and freedom” and “All power to the Soviets” won many followers, especially among the soviets (workers’ councils organized in the factories). Finally, on November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks made their move. Having already seized key strongpoints such as bridges, railroad stations, and telegraph offices, they easily overthrew Kerensky’s government.
Lenin acted quickly in both domestic and foreign policies. In foreign affairs, as he had promised, Lenin pulled Russia out of World War I by signing away large territories in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918. Russia’s allies were furious since this freed one million German solders for the Western Front. They also feared and hated the Bolsheviks for their claim that they would overthrow Capitalist society. Therefore, the allies, especially Britain and the United States, landed troops in Russia to try to overthrow the Bolshevik government.
Facing strong opposition at home and abroad, much like the Jacobins had in 1793, Lenin followed strict domestic policies. Private property was abolished, industries and banks were nationalized, and the press, briefly free under Kerensky, was once again strictly censored. This combination of internal resistance and foreign intervention led to civil war.
At first the Bolsheviks (also known as the Reds), like the Jacobins in the French Revolution, were heavily outnumbered by their enemies (the Whites) and controlled only about 10% of Russia. That was mainly around Moscow, which they had switched to their capital since it was inland and harder for invaders to reach. The fighting was very confused and brutal, with massacres on both sides. However, the Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, starting with a few units of militia known as the Red Guard (similar to the National Guard in the French Revolution) built the Red Army into a strong and effective force of 5,000,000 men.
Desperate for experienced leaders, he forced old royalist officers into service. To ensure their efficiency and loyalty Trotsky held their families hostage and used a system of political advisors, Commisars, similar to the French Revolution’s representatives on mission. Trotsky’s methods were successful, and by 1921, he had cleared Russia of the foreign invaders and crushed the Whites.