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Government of Vladimir Lenin

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Government of Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin in 1920

Under the leadership of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian Republic during a coup known as the October Revolution. Overthrowing the pre-existing Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks established a new administration, the Council of People's Commissars ("Sovnarkom"), with Lenin appointed as its governing chairman. Ruling by decree, Lenin’s Sovnarkom introduced widespread reforms confiscating land for redistribution among the peasantry, permitting non-Russian nations to declare themselves independent, improving labour rights, and increasing access to education.

The party continued with the previously scheduled November 1917 election, but when it produced a Constituent Assembly dominated by the rival Socialist Revolutionary Party the Bolsheviks lambasted it as counter-revolutionary and shut it down. The Bolshevik government banned a number of centrist and right-wing parties, and restricted the activities of rival socialist groups, but entered into a governmental coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party. Lenin had inherited a country in the midst of the First World War, with war-weary Russian troops battling the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the Eastern Front. Deeming the ongoing conflict a threat to his own government, Lenin sought to withdraw Russia from the war, using his Decree for Peace to establish an armistice, after which negotiations took place resulting in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This punitive treaty – highly unpopular within Russia – established a cessation of hostilities but granted considerable territorial concessions to Germany, who took control of large areas of the former Empire.

Consolidating power: 1917–18

Constitutional and governmental organisation

The previous Provisional Government had agreed for a Constituent Assembly to be elected in November 1917; after taking power, Lenin – aware that the Bolsheviks were unlikely to attain a majority – wanted to postpone this election, but other Bolsheviks disagreed, and thus the election took place as scheduled.[1] In the election for the Constituent Assembly, the Socialist Revolutionaries were elected as the largest party, with the Bolsheviks coming second with approximately a quarter of the vote.[2] According to Lenin biographer David Shub, this had been "the freest election in [Russia's] history" up till that time.[3] During the vote, the Bolsheviks had achieved their best result in the cities, industrial areas, and military garrisons in the centre of Russia, while their anti-war message had proved particularly popular with soldiers and sailors.[4] Lenin and other supporters felt that the vote had not been a fair reflection of the Russian people's democratic will, believing that the population had not had the time to acquaint themselves with the Bolsheviks' political program and noting that the candidacy lists had been drawn up before the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries had split from the Socialist-Revolutionaries.[5]

The newly elected Russian Constituent Assembly convened in Petrograd in January 1918.[6] However, the Bolsheviks publicly argued that the Constituent Assembly was counter-revolutionary because it sought to remove power from the soviets, an idea that the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries argued against.[7] When campaigners marched in support of the Constituent Assembly in Petrograd they were fired upon by soldiers, resulting in several deaths.[8] Intent on discrediting the Assembly, the Bolsheviks presented it with a motion that would have stripped the Assembly of much of its legal powers; the Assembly members rejected this. The Bolshevik government claimed this as evidence that the Assembly was counter-revolutionary and disbanded it by force.[9]

Lenin in his office, 1918

There were repeated calls for the Bolsheviks to welcome socialists from other parties to join Sovnarkom, however Lenin resolutely opposed this idea; in November 1917 a number of members resigned from the Bolshevik Central Committee resigned in protest.[10] Moreover, Russia's largest trade union, the Union of Railroad Employees, threatened to go on strike unless a pan-socialist coalition government was formed.[11] However, the Bolsheviks did court the support of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, a group who had splintered from the main Socialist-Revolutionary Party and who were more sympathetic to the Bolshevik administration; on 9 December 1918 the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries became junior partners in a coalition with the Bolsheviks, being given five posts in the Sovnarkon cabinet.[12] This resulted in what Lenin biographer Dmitri Volkogonov termed "a rare moment of socialist pluralism" in Soviet history.[13]

In November 1917 Lenin and his wife took a two-room flat within the Smolny Institute, with Trotsky and his family living in the flat opposite; being based here allowed Lenin to devote himself to the revolutionary government.[14] The stress of this position exacerbated Lenin's health problems, in particular his headaches and insomnia.[15] In December, he and Nadezdha left Petrograd for a holiday at the tuberculosis sanatorium at Halia in Finland – now officially an independent nation-state – although returned to the city after a few days.[16] In January 1918 he survived an assassination attempt made on him in the city; Fritz Platten, who was with Lenin at the time, shielded him but was injured by a bullet.[17] Sources differ regarding who was to blame, with some identifying the culprits as disaffected Social-Revolutionaries,[18] and others as monarchists.[19]

In the spring of 1918, Sovnarkom officially divided Russia into six oblasti, or territorial entities – Moscow, the Urals, North, Northwest, West Siberia, and Central Siberia – each with their own quasi-sovereign status.[20] These oblasti were governed by socialist intelligentsia, and held their own Congresses of Soviets.[21] In part this division served to facilitate the central control of the various regional soviets, many of which had taken over de facto control of their own areas.[22] The oblasti in turn were divided into smaller provinces, the gubernii, a number of which proclaimed themselves to be "republics", and some of the non-Russian peoples living within Russian territory, such as the Bashkirs and Volga Tatars, formed their own "national republics".[23]

At the 7th Congress of the Bolsheviks in March 1918, the group renounced their official name, the "Russian Social Democratic Labor Party", with Lenin believing that the term "Social Democratic" was too closely associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, who had angered him by endorsing Germany in the war.[24] Instead they renamed themselves the Russian Communist Party, emphasizing their ultimate goal: the establishment of a future communist society.[25] During this period, the party itself had witnessed massive growth; while it had 23,600 members in February 1917, this had grown to 250,000 by 1919, and it would again rise to 730,000 in March 1921.[26] Lenin recognised that many of these new members were careerists seeking to advance their own positions rather than those who shared the Bolsheviks' ideological vision.[26] In July 1918, at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, a constitution was approved that reformed the Russian Republic into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.[27]

Social and economic reform

"To All Workers, Soldiers and Peasants. The Soviet authority will at once propose a democratic peace to all nations and an immediate armistice on all fronts. It will safeguard the transfer without compensation of all land – landlord, imperial, and monastery – to the peasants' committees; it will defend the soldiers' rights, introducing a complete democratisation of the army; it will establish workers' control over industry; it will ensure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly on the date set; it will supply the cities with bread and the villages with articles of first necessity; and it will secure to all nationalities inhabiting Russia the right of self-determination... Long live the revolution!"

Lenin's political program, October 1918[28]

Lenin's new regime issued a series of decrees, the first of which was a Decree on Land; drawing heavily upon the Socialist-Revolutionary Party's platform, it declared that the landed estates owned by the aristocracy and the Russian Orthodox Church should be confiscated and redistributed among the peasants.[29] This was accompanied by the Decree on Peace, in which the Bolsheviks called for an end to the First World War.[30] These two decrees exacerbated the problem of desertion from the Russian Army, as increasing numbers of soliders left the Eastern Front and returned to their homes, where they intended to claim land.[31] In November the Bolshevik government issued the Decree on the Press which closed down many opposition media outlets which were deemed counter-revolutionary; the decree was widely criticised, including by many Bolsheviks themselves, for compromising freedom of the press, although Sovnarkom claimed that it would only be a temporary measure.[32] On 1 December, Sovnarkom outlawed the Constitutional Democratic Party.[33]

On 29 October, Lenin released the Decree on the Eight-Hour Day which proclaimed that no worker in Russia should work more than eight hours per day.[34] That same day he proclaimed the Decree on Popular Education which stipulated that the Bolshevik government would guarantee free, secular, universal education for all children in Russia.[34] On 2 November, Lenin issued the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, which stated that non-Russian ethnic groups living inside the Empire had the right to cede from Russian authority and establish their own independent nation-states.[35] Many nations declared independence as a result of this: Finland and Lithuania in December 1917, Latvia and Ukraine in January 1918, Estonia in February 1918, Transcaucasia in April 1918, and Poland in November 1918.[36]

On 14 November, Lenin issued the Decree on Workers' Control, which called on the workers of a particular enterprise to establish an elected committee who would monitor that enterprise's management.[34] On 30 November they issued an order requisitioning the country's gold.[13] That same month witnessed a major overhaul of the Russian armed forces, as Sovnarkom implemented egalitarian measures by abolishing all previous ranks, titles, and medals; to reorganise the system, soldiers were called upon to establish their own committees through which they could elect their own commanders.[37] On 1 December, Sovnarkom established a Supreme Council of the National Economy which had authority over industry, banking, agriculture, and trade.[34] In February 1918 Lenin signed the Basic Law on the Socialisation of the Land, a measure that ratified the transfer of agricultural land to Russia's peasants.[38] In November 1918 he decreed the establishment of state orphanages.[39]

Lenin and Sverdlov looking over Marx and Engels monument, 1918

There was, however, division within the Bolsheviks; those who came to be known as the "anarcho-syndicalist rather than Marxism.[41]

Lenin also took an interest in cultural matters, and in November 1917 he drafted a memorandum declaring that Petrograd's libraries should extend their opening hours.[42] In May 1918 he produced a plan for the establishment of a Socialist Academy of the Social Sciences, which would also have a publishing arm to produce Marxist studies.[42] In August 1918, he instructed Russia's universities to increase the number of students whom they enrolled, instructing them to favour the children of workers and poorer peasants.[42] He further called for the removal of Tsarist-era busts and monuments across the country and their replacement with socialist alternatives.[43] To celebrate a year since the October Revolution, in November 1918 Lenin was present for the unveiling of a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Moscow's Red Square, while was followed by a parade of workers and soldiers.[44]

At the time, many of the cities in western Russia were facing famine as a result of chronic food shortages.[45] Lenin claimed that the blame for this problem lay with the kulaks, or wealthier peasants, who were hoarding their produce for their own uses. In May 1918 he issued a requisitioning order that established armed detachments who would confiscate grain from the kulaks for distribution in the cities, and in June called upon the formation of the Committees of Poor Peasants to aid the requisitioning effort.[46] In April 1918 he issued the declaration of "Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!",[47] and also called on speculators, black marketeers and looters to be shot.[48] To ensure compliance, he issued the decree that "in every grain-growing district, 25-30 rich hostages should be taken who will answer with their lives for the collection and loading of all surpluses."[49] A prominent example of Lenin's views on the matter was provided in the August 1918 telegram that he sent to the Bolsheviks of Penza, in which he called upon them to suppress a peasant insurrection by publicly hanging at least 100 "known kulaks, rich men, [and] bloodsuckers".[50] This policy resulted in vast social disorder and violence, providing much fuel for the developing civil war,[51] with Lenin biographer Louis Fischer describing it as a "civil-war-within-the-civil-war".[52] The policy caused controversy; at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held in Moscow in July 1918, the SRs and Left SRs condemned the use of these armed detachments to procure grain.[53] He also called upon those workers who lacked discipline to be punished accordingly.[54]

"[The bourgeoisie] practised terror against the workers, soldiers and peasants in the interests of a small group of landowners and bankers, whereas the Soviet regime applies decisive measures against landowners, plunderers and their accomplices in the interests of the workers, soldiers and peasants."

Lenin on terror.[55]

Lenin repeatedly emphasised the need for terror and violence to be used in order for the old order to be overthrown and for the revolution to succeed.[56] Speaking to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets in November 1917, he declated that "The state is an institution built up for the sake of exercising violence. Previously, this violence was exercised by a handful of moneybags over the entire people; now we want... to organise violence in the interests of the people."[33] Fearing counter-revolutionary forces that would overthrow the revolutionary administration, Lenin ordered the establishment of the Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or Cheka, a political police force which he placed under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky.[57] As a result, the realities of early Bolshevik Russia conflicted with the ideals of a socialist society without oppression, terror or police rule which had been promulgated by Lenin as late as 1917.[58]

Internationally, many socialist observers decried Lenin's regime and stated that what he was establishing could not be categorised as socialism; in particular, they highlighted the lack of widespread political participation, popular consultation, and industrial democracy, all traits that they believed to be intrinsic to a socialist society.[59] In autumn 1918, the Czech-Austrian Marxist Karl Kautsky authored a pamphlet, "The Dictatorship of the Proletariat", in which he criticised what he saw as the anti-democratic nature of the Bolshevik regime, with Lenin publishing a vociferous reply in which he labeled Kautsky a "sycophant of the bourgeoisie".[60] The German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg echoed Kautsky's views, declaring that Lenin had established "not the dictatorship of the proletariat... but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians".[61] The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin described the Bolshevik seizure of power as "the burial of the Russian Revolution".[62]

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

"[By prolonging the war] we unusually strengthen German imperialism, and the peace will have to be concluded anyway, but then the peace will be worse because it will be concluded by someone other than ourselves. No doubt the peace which we are now being forced to conclude is an indecent peace, but if war commences our government will be swept away and the peace will be concluded by another government."

Lenin on peace with the Central Powers.[63]

Upon taking power in Russia, Lenin believed that a key policy of his government must be to withdraw from the ongoing First World War by establishing an armistice with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.[64] He believed that ongoing war would generate increasing resentment among war-weary Russian troops – to whom he had promised peace – and that both these troops and the advancing German Army posed a threat both to the future of his own government and to the wider cause of international socialism.[65] He therefore was inclined to accept peace with the Central Powers at any cost.[66] Other Bolsheviks – in particular Bukharin and the Left Communists – viewed things differently, believing that peace with the Central Powers would be a betrayal of international socialism and that Russia should instead wage "a war of revolutionary defense" that they believed would provoke an uprising of the German proletariat against their nation's government.[67] Lenin biographer Robert Service would characterise the communist's attempts to win over his fellows on this issue as "the fiercest struggle of his career".[68]

Recognising that he had to proceed with caution, Lenin did not enter into immediate negotiations with the Central Powers, but rather drafted his Decree on Peace, in which he proposed a three-month armistice; it was then approved by the Second Congress of Soviets and presented to the German and Austro-Hungarian governments.[69] The Germans responded positively, viewing this as an opportunity to focus their attentions on the Western Front and stave off looming defeat.[70] In November, armistice talks began at Brest-Litovsk, the headquarters of the German high command on the Eastern Front, with the Russian delegation being led by Adolph Joffe and Leon Trotsky.[71] The two sides agreed on an eleven-day ceasefire, after which they renewed it, agreeing on a ceasefire until January.[72]

The negotiations for a lasting peace produced differences; the German proposal insisted that they be permitted to keep control of their wartime conquests, which included Poland, Lithuania, and Courland, whereas the Russians countered that this was a violation of these nations' rights to self-determination and that a peaceful settlement must be established without any territorial annexations.[73] There had been hopes among the Bolsheviks that the armistice negotiations could be dragged out indefinitely until such a time as proletarian revolution would break out throughout Europe.[74] On 7 January 1918, Trotsky returned from Brest Litovsk to St. Petersburg, informing the government that the Central Powers had presented them with an ultimatum: either they accept Germany's territorial demands or the war would resume.[68]

The signing of the treaty

On 8 January, Lenin spoke to the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets, urging delegates to accept Germany's proposals – he argued that the territorial losses were acceptable if it ensured the survival of the Bolshevik-led government – however the majority of Bolsheviks rejected his position, hoping that they could continue to prolong the armistice.[75] Growing impatient, on 10 February the Central Powers issued a second ultimatum, and while Lenin again urged acceptance, the Bolshevik Central Committee retained its original position, hoping to call Germany's bluff.[76] On 18 February the German Army subsequently relaunched the offensive, advancing further into Russian-controlled territory and within a day conquering Dvinsk; they were now situated 400 miles from the Russian capital of Petrograd.[77]

Lenin again urged the Bolshevik Central Committee to accept the demands of the Central Powers, this time he won a small majority of seven votes to five; Bukharin and the Left Communists continued to express their opposition.[78] On 23 February the Central Powers issued a new ultimatum: the Russian government would recognise German control not only of Poland and the Baltic states but also Ukraine, else they would face a full-scale invasion of Russia itself.[79] On 3 March, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk was signed.[80] Recognising that it would be controversial, Lenin avoided signing the treaty in person, instead sending Grigori Sokolnikov in his place.[81] The Treaty resulted in massive territorial losses for Russia, with 26% of the former Empire's population, 37% of its agricultural harvest area, 28% of its industry, 26% of is railway tracks, and two-thirds of its coal and iron reserves being assigned over to German control.[82] Accordingly, the Treaty was deeply unpopular within Russia, from individuals from across the political spectrum.[83] The Moscow Regional Bureau of the Bolshevik Party officially declared their opposition to the treaty, with Lenin recognising that adopting such a position was "the legal right of members of the party, and this is fully understandable".[84] Several Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries resigned from Sovnarkom in protest, but all subsequently returned to their posts on an unofficial basis.[85]

After the Treaty was signed, Lenin's Sovnarkom focused its attentions on attempting to foment proletarian revolution in Germany, issuing an array of anti-war and anti-government publications in the country, many of which were distributed to German troops fighting at the front. Angered, the German government expelled Russia's representatives from its country.[86] However, that month Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, resigned and the country's new administration signed the Armistice of 11 November 1918. As a result, the Sovnarkom proclaimed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to be devoid of meaning.[87]

Moscow and assassination attempts

The Moscow Kremlin, which Lenin moved into in 1918

Concerned that the German Army might nevertheless pose a continuing threat, in March 1918 Sovnarkom reluctantly relocated from Petrograd to Moscow, which at the time they believed would be a temporary measure.[88] On 10 March, the government members travelled to Moscow by night train, with most of them settling in the city's Hotel National on Okhotny Road, 300 yards from the Moscow Kremlin; here, Lenin shared a small two-room apartment with his wife and sister Maria.[89] Soon after, Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders moved into the Cavalry Corpus of the Great Kremlin Palace, a temporary measure until the Kremlin's Senate Building was readied for them to move in. Here, Lenin again lived with his sister and wife, in a first floor apartment that was adjacent to the room in which the Sovnarkom meetings were held.[90] Based here, he adopted a pet cat, who both he and his wife doted on; he was known to carry the cat into Sovnarkom meetings.[91] Although Lenin was impressed by the architecture of the Kremlin,[92] he had always disliked Moscow, a traditional Russian city which differed from the Europeanised style of Petrograd.[93] He nevertheless would rarely leave central Moscow for the rest of his life, the only exceptions being trips back to Petrograd in 1919 and 1920 and his periods of recuperation.[94]

In August 1918, after a speech to workers at the Moscow Corn Exchange, Lenin was shot and badly injured. Two bullets had pierced his body, and he was rushed to the Kremlin, where he was seen by doctors.[95] An SR supporter named Fanny Kaplan was arrested, and after confessing to the shooting – and claiming that Lenin was a threat to socialism – she was executed.[96] The attack received much coverage in the Russian press, with much good wishes expressed toward Lenin himself.[97] The assassination attempt boosted Lenin's popularity.[98] As a respite, in September 1918 Lenin was driven to the luxurious estate near Gorki that the government had recently acquired.[99]

In January 1919, Lenin left Moscow for a brief holiday in the Sokolniki Woods. As he was driving through the suburbs, armed men stopped Lenin's car and ordered its occupants to get out; the thieves then drove off with the car. Lenin insisted that the incident had been a robbery, noting that if it had been politically motivated then the assailants would have killed him.[100] In responding to the incident, Moscow was placed under de facto martial law and several hundred suspected criminals were arrested.[101] In April 1919, at the command of senior Bolshevik Joseph Stalin, the arrangements for Lenin's personal security were increased.[101]

Civil War and Red Terror

Lenin's views on


The corpses of those killed by the Red Terror outside the headquarters of the Kharkov Cheka in Kharkov

In July 1918, a member of the Left SR, Yakov Grigorevich Blumkin, assassinated the German ambassador to Russia, Wilhelm von Mirbach, hoping that the ensuing diplomatic incident would lead to a relaunched revolutionary war against Germany. Seeking to diffuse the situation, Lenin issued his personal condolences to the German Embassy.[109] The Left SR launched a coup in Moscow, shelling the Kremlin and seizing the city's central post office, however their uprising was soon put down by Trotsky and two Latvian battalions.[110] The party's leaders and many of their members were arrested and imprisoned.[111] On 9 July, at the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a ban was declared on the party being involved in any of the country's soviets.[112]

[108] Given that the Red Army contained many officers who had previously been loyal to the Tsar, Trotsky established military councils to monitor the activities of such individuals.[108] Responding to these threats to the Sovnarkom, Lenin tasked the senior Bolshevik

The Whites were bolstered when 35,000 prisoners of war – former members of the Czech Legion – who had been captured by the Russian Imperial Army, turned against the Soviet government while they were being transported from Siberia to North America as part of an agreement with the Allies. They sided with the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Komuch), a counter-revolutionary government established in Samara.[106] Komuch and the Czech legion advanced on Kazan but were defeated by the Red Army at the Battle of Sviyazhk.[107]

[105] in December 1917.Mikhail Alekseyev and Lavr Kornilov was established by the anti-Bolshevik generals Volunteer Army, a South Russia In [104] The country's bourgeoisie, stripped of many of its rights, soon turned to resistance.[103] As such, he failed to anticipate the intensity of the violent opposition to Bolshevik rule in Russia.[103]

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