Slightly less ignorant of Russian history

With Russia in the news these days, I realized I knew close to nothing about Russia or Russian history. Didn’t a lot of people die of starvation or something? It was time for me to do some reading. I choose “the Russian revolution” by Sheila Fitzpatrick to get me started.

One of the characters that stands out from the book is Vladimir Lenin. He was a revolutionary who dreamed of a better world. After studying Marxism, he became convinced that capitalism was inherently exploitative and needed to be replaced. Lenin became involved in revolutionary groups. Agree or disagree with his ideology, it is inherently exciting to think of him giving his whole soul to a cause that he believed would make the world better, being surrounded by like minded, passionate individuals. I would love to be at a tavern where his group met, just once, to observe the passion and excitement.

Some might call it propaganda, but I was under the impression that communists were united and evil, but it was fascinating to learn of all the different branches of communists and socialists that existed at the time. They disagreed on economic policy, revolutionary strategy and timing. Some thought that there should be no revolution until a country had been fully industrialized, with workers becoming completely disenfranchised and embracing socialist ideology. Lenin didn’t want to wait, he wanted a revolution ASAP.

Lenin was involved in a revolutionary struggle in 1905, but after that was unsuccessful, he fled the country, fearing for his life. He wrote in communist newspapers and helped organize communists back in Russia.

Wen WWI was in full bore and Russia was loosing badly, he sensed that the time for revolution was ripe. A secret negotiation with German leaders concluded with Lenin and other revolutionaries being rushed through combat zones in a sealed train so that they could participate in the revolution.

Then a bunch of other details that I forgot occurred.

Workers councils (called soviets) began to form across the country where workers would vote on how to run their factories and they began to run city affairs. Initially, the communist government was fairly democratic, at least most workers could vote. Lenin banned political parties besides his own, the Bolshevik party, and Stalin eliminated all factions within the party, but I could not help but wonder about other outcomes. What if the soviet union has stayed democratic? What if Stalin had not become an autocrat? Would the county have been more successful? Would there actually be a socialist model for the rest of the world? Unlikely but intriguing.

Today we have some struggles in modern capitalism. There is oppression, poverty, exploitation. There are companies that make us feel bad about how we look to sell us beauty products. There are food companies that make unhealthy food addictive, and market those foods to us in moments of weakness, leaving us unsatisfied and unhealthy. Lead companies lied to the public that lead in gasoline was safe, tobacco companies lied to us about the safety of tobacco, oil companies lied to us about the dangers of climate change, and sugar companies lied to us about the dangers of sugar consumption. All of these companies were (or are) successful despite selling things to us that makes our lives worse, we keep buying these products even if they make us unhealthy and unhappy. Would similar issues exist in an alternate universe where the soviet union had been successful? Would there have been mass executions, political killings and starvation in a democratic soviet republic? I am not a communist but the book made me think in a different way.

Another thing that was interesting was that the soviet union made some early moves to support women’s liberation. Divorce was made easy, abortion was easily accessible, equal pay for women was mandated. These changes were instituted in the 1920s but rolled back in the 1930s. I wonder if the association between women’s rights and communism is one reason why conservatives in the US are opposed to these very same measures.

The Russian revolution was a time when dreamers tried to implement their quasi Utopian ideas. Some of those ideas were bad, but it was an exciting time. The book made me want to be involved in less revolutionary steps to make the world a better place. I still know very little about Russia and the revolution but this is the start of my book challenge. I decided to read a book a week for 6 months and see what happens.