•It might not have produced the Paradise envisaged, but it was not a failure either
I have seen the future, and it works.”
So began an account Lincoln Steffens, the pre-eminent American journalist of his era and pioneer investigative reporter, filed on his return from a visit to Russia shortly after the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Steffens’s report reflected the heady optimism that greeted the world’s first socialist revolution, the idealism that animated it, and its vast promise of a more equal society that would privilege sufficiency for the multitude over superfluity for a few, create a new society and indeed a New Man.
Parodying Steffens 74 years later, in 1991, as the Soviet Union went into dissolution, the literary scholar, TIME magazine essayist who later became editor of the US News And World Report, Roger Rosenblatt wrote of Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms known as Perestroika and Glasnost, “He saw the past and it did not work.”
On the centennial of the revolution, where does the balance lie?
A Revolution is born
The blueprint for the society Steffens rhapsodised had been enunciated by the philosopher and historian Karl Marx in his enduring treatise, The Communist Manifesto. Marx expected the revolution to find fertile soil in industrial Europe, as an answer to the Dickensian misery, the stark inequity, the alienation, and other discontents spawned by industrial capitalism.
In the event, it was in feudal Russia that it first found practical expression, spurred by Russia’s catastrophic defeat in WW1 and a workers’ revolt led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who grafted his own ideas of a socialist revolution to Marx’s formulation to bequeath to the world the creed that came to be known as Marxism-Leninism.
Lenin’s death barely seven years later thrust Josef Stalin into the leadership. Lacking Lenin’s intellect and charisma, Stalin governed by terror, executed tens of thousands of his opponents, real or imagined, pursued a disastrous agricultural collectivisation programme that resulted in the death from starvation of millions. He turned Soviet Russia into a police state.
Setting aside its non-aggression treaty with Russia – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — Nazi Germany launched its trademark blitzkrieg (or lightning war) against Russia in 1941, in what has gone down as the biggest military operation in World War 11. At staggering cost, the Soviet armies halted Germany’s swift advance at Stalingrad (now Volgograd).
The Revolution consolidates
The victory turned the tide of the war dramatically against Hitler. The Russian army pursued the retreating German forces all the way to Berlin and brought the European phase of the war to an end. It also brought a swathe of Europe under Russian suzerainty.
World War II catapulted Russia into a military power, and soon into a technological power, the first to masterfully explore Space, the final frontier. Russia became a show case, a triumph of socialism, a model. Prominent intellectuals across the world embraced it as the key to a better future for humankind.
The embrace grew somewhat cold with the 1949 publication of The God that Failed, a volume of essays by six influential Western intellectuals who embraced or flirted with communism but finally became disenchanted and disavowed it because they could not reconcile the practice with the theory.
But communism’s rejection of racism made it especially attractive to some intellectuals of colour and the working class in America where, after gaining influence in major cities with large immigrant populations, it was systematically suppressed, if not criminalised. Its rejection of colonialism made it a bulwark of support and solidarity for peoples struggling for self-determination.
Not even the tight leash on which the Soviet Union kept satellite states in the former Eastern Europe, now called central Europe, detracted from the admiration, it commanded in the Third World, where its rapid transformation to a global military and technological power was seen as the sure path to economic development
A Revolution imperilled
But the transformation had been achieved at a staggering human cost, Stalin turned Russia into a vast network of penal colonies and labour camps that great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn depicted hauntingly in his monumental work, The Gulag Archipelago.
In its rapid transformation, Russia made a pivotal error. It was so busy producing guns and the weapons of war that it neglected to produce butter and life’s comforts. Nowhere was this neglect starker than in Berlin, where the Western half basked in prosperity and the Eastern half had to be walled off to stem an exodus to the West in search of freedom and a better life. It was also reflected in the long lines of Russian housewives waiting in long lines for groceries and basic goods that were always in short supply.
Life in the Soviet Union was highly regimented. Many seeking freedom and fulfillment fled into exile. The political space was closed. The Soviet system seemed to have reached the end of its possibilities. Under the reign of one gerontocrat after another, the Soviet Union seemed to have reached the end of its possibilities.
Then emerged, in the face of this stasis and growing restiveness in communist East Europe a young, energetic reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev who set the Soviet Union on the path of change through two concepts that instantly entered the global political lexicon –glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or re-structuring. The terms proved contagious.
Events moved at a dizzying space. The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. Gorbachev was overthrown in a coup. Then, in 1991, what had seemed inconceivable just several months earlier became inevitable. The Soviet Union, the greatest empire of the 20th century, collapsed.
A balance sheet
What is the legacy of that era?
The Soviet Union was not the workers’ paradise it was conceived to be. In practice, communism was no dictatorship of the proletariat. The system tolerated vast inequities between the privileged officials and ordinary citizens. In this regard, George Orwell’s Animal Farm remains a subtle but damning satire on the discontinuities of Soviet practice.
By and large, it guaranteed basic sufficiency for all. It provided free, qualitative education, a free health care delivery system, and functional housing. Crime was not a serious issue. There were no street crimes, no drug lords, no criminal syndicates, no oligarchs. Moscow was one of the world’s safest capitals.
Today, however, even diplomats living in Moscow say they often have to keep hand guns under their pillows at night, just in case. Crime stalks the streets of Russian cities. A mafia, said to rank among the most vicious of the genre, seized state assets like public housing, rendering its teeming occupants homeless and creating an underclass of paupers and an army of beggars. The situation has bred an oligarchy whose unearned lifestyle has few parallels.
The Soviet-era comprehensive health care delivery system has collapsed at the very time that HIV-AIDS and a drugs epidemic are burgeoning. Today, Russia enjoys the dubious distinction of being a country in which the population is shrinking from causes traceable to the collapse of the health care delivery system.
Among large sections of the population, there is a yearning for a return to an era that guaranteed life’s basic necessities, safety and stability. President Vladimir Putin’s growing stature is in some ways a measure of that yearning. At the global level, the collapse of the Soviet Union has gravely undermined the bi-polarity that had kept the international system in reasonable balance.
The foregoing, then, is a narrative from which the legacy of the Soviet era can be distilled on the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution. As with all revolutions, the legacy is mixed —not quite the great and glorious success that Steffens proclaimed, nor the failure Rosenblatt made it out to be.
On balance, the Revolution was without question one of the major events of world history, and arguably the greatest experiment in socio-political engineering. It fell short of its promise but was nevertheless marked by some glittering achievements.
In the end, the Soviet Union, without question the greatest empire of the 20th Century, at its height comprising 15 countries and encompassing 11 time zones, succumbed to what might be called the iron law of history: Empires rise, rise, and empires fall; empires come, empires go.
No empire, no polity, is forever, not even one undergirded by an all-embracing communist ideology, the might of the Red Army, and the most advanced means of technological control.
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