The Revolution and its impact

Print edition : February 02, 2018

February 15, 1955: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin at the Palam airport in Delhi before the Soviet delegation’s departure. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Lenin, at Gorki in 1922. Photo: AFP

September 2, 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev (right) and Boris Yeltsin at the Congress of People’s Deputies session in Moscow. Photo: AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Photo: REUTERS

An important contribution to an understanding of the Russian Revolution’s long-term implications for democratic politics and its relevance for struggles for social justice across the world.

ACHALA MOULIK’S book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its impact on global political developments in the 20th century and after. The author seeks to emphasise that the revolution, far from being a one-off event, is of a permanent character with long-term implications and has contributed to the continued relevance of the concept of welfare state in an era of free-market capitalism. Achala Moulik’s narration of the events is indeed fascinating and comprehensive not only in the national context of Russia but in the international context as well. Her courage, commitment and candour in explicating the complexities of the politics of the Soviet Union that emerged from the revolution become relevant for the struggles for social justice across the world.

The author is a former civil servant and writer on European cultural history, physical heritage and of biography and novels. A Pushkin Medal awardee, her play, Pushkin’s Last Poem, was performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the Moscow session. Educated in Washington, New York, Rome and London, Achala Moulik took an honours degree in economics, history and international law from the University of London.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Alexander Mikhailovich Kadakin, an eminent diplomat and friend of India. The author was admittedly never posted in the Indian Embassy in Moscow. The book is based entirely on her independent study supplemented by discussions with informants and experts. Her interest in Russia began early when as a schoolgirl she read Rabindranath Tagore’s Letters from Russia (in Bengali), which prepared the ground for her later pursuit of Russian literature and history as a student in London.

In her brilliant conclusion (pages 456-458), the author notes that while the Western world could adjust to the emerging social justice concerns of the times, the conflagration of the First World War and the ideology of communism were required to shake up Russia’s tsarist regime and trigger the Bolshevik Revolution, leaving behind an enduring legacy. The universality of the ideology of Marxism, according to the author, made its impact felt not just in the Western world but also in the non-Western world under colonial rule. Marx, Engels and Lenin had indeed critically evaluated European colonialism. Although many changes had taken place in the Soviet Union since 1917, including the dissolution of the Soviet state and the emergence of the Russian Federation, the ideas generated by the Russian Revolution have remained relevant, says the author, who does not fall into the trap of fashionable denunciation of Marxist-Leninist ideas.

An interesting feature of the book is the detached manner in which the author is able to explicate the collapse of the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev and the emergence of leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

The 461-page book is divided into six parts.

Part 1 titled “A Stormy Prelude” has four chapters, which briefly explain the history of Russia and the context of the revolution.

Part 2, “The Revolution and its Aftermath”, with 10 chapters, explores the post-revolutionary situation touching on Lenin’s new economic policy; has pen portraits of Lenin and Stalin and an interesting account of Stalin and Hitler; narrates the consequences of the Second World War, which made the Soviet Union a superpower; and talks about Nikita Khrushchev’s “Thaw” and the “Brezhnev Era”.

Part 3 explores the “Intellectual and Creative Ferment in the Soviet Union” with chapters on education, health care, science, art, literature, ballet and theatre, music composers, the Red Army Ensemble, chess and sports.

Part 4 on “Soviet Union and the World” begins with a chapter on the ideological foundations of Soviet foreign policy; the Cold War (1946-1991) and the Soviet Union’s relations with several countries, especially Afghanistan, India and Iran.

The most important section, Part 5, titled “A New Age is Created by a Dying One”, includes several chapters on the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation and the roles especially of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev. It includes an interesting chapter on “Road to Damascus”.

Part 6 on “Resurgent Russia” has two chapters, “A New Prelude” and “November 1917 Revisited”. In the concluding chapter, the author provides an amazingly positive vision of the overall impact of the Russian Revolution on global politics.

The book begins by noting the singularity of the Russian Revolution, which inaugurated sweeping changes across the world. A powerful literary tradition gave rise to the Russian Revolution, which has been noted, among others, by Tagore and John Reed. The origins of the revolution are traced to the revolt of Stenka Razin (1670), the uprising of Emilyan Pugachev (1773), the Decembrist Revolt (1825) and the Uprising of 1905. Russia was then hurtling towards an anarchic situation of hunger and military defeat against Japan in 1905. The Bolsheviks saw the opportunity and seized it.

Relations with India

In chapter 30, the author examines the Soviet Union’s relations with India and touches on several issues, including Russia’s role in the awakening of colonial India, Tolstoy on India, India’s neutrality, and the rise of the non-Western world. Stalin tended to view India as a British colonial state, but Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s appointment as the Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union changed things. The Yogi and the Commissar could coexist and work in amity!

India’s relations with the United States went bad on account of its non-alignment policy. But the visits of Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Khrushchev to India were hugely successful. Indo-Soviet cooperation began in several spheres. The Soviet Union became India’s most important military supplier. India must be grateful for the economic, military and other support it has received from the Soviet Union, which never asked for a military alliance, which India now seems to have forged with the U.S.

Even as Indo-Soviet relations improved, Sino-Soviet relations became strained over the Ussuri river border dispute. Sino-Indian relations were strained in 1962 over the border question. China moved closer to Pakistan, and amity between India and the Soviet Union deepened. For a decade and a half, from 1964 to 1980, Soviet influence expanded throughout the world. Global concern increased over this when, in January 1966, the Soviet Union intervened to bring a negotiated settlement between India and Pakistan at Tashkent.

The Soviet Foreign Minister in 1971 arrived at a friendship treaty with India even as the U.S. sent its Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean during the India-Pakistan conflict, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. In December 1971, Pakistan declared war on India, and India hit back and crushed Pakistan in the east and west. Military relations between India and the Soviet Union deepened through the 1980s.

Although the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991, leading to the creation of the Russian Federation, ties with India remained strong. In 2007, the Russian-Indian Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Technical Cooperation was set up to ensure further collaboration in the security, energy and nuclear sectors. The “Year of Russia” was observed in India and the “Year of India” in Russia in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

The end of the Soviet era has witnessed many changes in the international scene. A multipolar world has seen multiple friendships between multiple groups. U.S. hegemonic aspirations in the Asia-Pacific have been opposed by China, which, however, has solid commercial and financial relations with the U.S.

The emerging new cold war between the U.S. and Russia has led Putin to endeavour to create a new geostrategy by allying with China with the common aim of containing U.S. expansion in the Asia-Pacific. Despite past tensions between them, Russia and China have now sought cooperative relations against the U.S. This amity may have been the reason for India seeking military cooperation with the U.S.

Russia-Pakistan amity has increased in view of India’s closer relations with the U.S. India has offered to provide naval bases to the U.S. violating its own former policy of non-alignment. Can India offer matching facilities to Russia? Russia never sought a military alliance with India though it had aided and supported it against Pakistan, the U.S. and China in its dark hours of 1971.

Since the early days of Independence, India has enjoyed unconditional friendship from the Soviet Union. There has been scientific, industrial and technological cooperation between India and Russia at a time when the U.S. offered little. Russia, Iran and China (RIC) have formed a solid geopolitical bloc; it may be best for India to join the bloc. Russia has suggested that along with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the RIC could address mutual concerns and differences. Political and cultural bonds of the past may continue into the present. “Volga and Ganga” will hopefully continue their peaceful coexistence.

The author pays detailed attention to the Soviet role in West Asia, Africa, Latin America and other regions. Her discussion on the Soviet Union’s role in Afghanistan and Syria is illuminating.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union

Putin noted (page 410) that the “dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a national tragedy on an enormous scale”. How did Gorbachev, who came to power in a “Time of Trouble” in 1985, bring about the tragedy and become the “man who lost an empire”? The author tells the story grippingly though not in detail (pages 343-374). Not much of the story is known in India, perhaps not even to main communist party insiders. Gorbachev began the reform process in 1985 with some wrong appointments to the Politburo and State Planning Committee (Gosplan), including the “alcohol-prone mediocrity” Yeltsin, without realising the complexities of governing a country such as the Soviet Union with its several republics, its myriad races, creeds and traditions. The sudden removal of controls opened the sluice gates of revolts.

In early 1987, Gorbachev initiated a new policy of democratisation of the Soviet Union and went directly to the people seeking support. He freed 10 political prisoners and invited dissident intellectuals such as Andrei Sakharov and the Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn back to Russia. Several protest demonstrations took place near the Kremlin. In the struggle between liberals and conservatives, Gorbachev dismissed Yeltsin, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Moscow who was demanding faster reforms.

By allowing elections to the central legislature, Gorbachev removed the Soviet republics in 1989. With more autonomy conceded to the republics, the underlying ethnic differences burst into the open. The centralised Soviet state was created in 1918 for security reasons assimilating various ethnic groups of central Asia. The thaw initiated by Khrushchev in 1955 inspired Gorbachev in 1989 to initiate another “thaw” by introducing constitutional changes to separate the Soviet government from the Soviet Communist Party. The elections were held in March 1989.

Gorbachev’s flawed innovations

The newly elected first Congress of People’s Deputies met in May 1989. Yeltsin, the newly elected member of the Supreme Soviet, pressed for reforms. The elections had taken place with no reservation of seats for 11 Communist Party units. The constituent Soviet republics were given greater powers.

In December 1990, the KGB, the secret police outfit, demanded declaration of a state of emergency. Gorbachev, then on holiday in Crimea, rejected the demand. The hardliners met and delivered an ultimatum to Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency or resign. When he refused, he was placed under house arrest. The ground was prepared for the arrest of his followers.

Back in Moscow from Crimea, the hardliners announced a state of emergency in the Soviet Union with a declaration by the “acting President” that “the honour and dignity of the Soviet man must be restored”. Gorbachev was reported to be ill. Only the Communist Party papers were allowed to publish the news. Huge demonstrations in Moscow and other cities were sought to be suppressed by force, but the soldiers refused to open fire. On August 19, 1991, a group led by Gennady Yanayev attempted a coup but the Army was asked not to support the move. Yeltsin declared that reactionary forces had attempted a coup. When Gorbachev returned from Crimea, the hardliners surrendered. Huge protest gatherings made it clear that the people wanted change. Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991. He attempted to usher in a new era in domestic and foreign policies without considering the consequences. Economic reforms, glasnost and perestroika failed when attempted from a weaker position. The Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe allowed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the U.S. to renege on assurances. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were dismembered.

Yeltsin, who became the President, grabbed powers that were not allowed under the Constitution. The parliament opposed Yeltsin when he insisted on total privatisation. Threatened with impeachment, he “dissolved” the parliament and ordered new elections and a referendum on the Constitution. When the parliament deposed him, Yeltsin attacked it with Special Forces and the Army. The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1992. The struggle for power in post-Soviet Russia led to political crisis, and violence erupted in 1993.

One by one, the former constituent States of the Soviet Union declared independence and became sovereign republics. Some former republics maintained economic and political links with Russia by forming the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The newly formed Russian Federation became a member of the United Nations. A Constitution was approved for the Russian Federation in December 1993.

The Yeltsin regime witnessed complete reversal of the Soviet system. A new class of exploiters, mainly indigenous, emerged. They had enjoyed the powers and privileges of the Soviet system. In one leap forward, once fervent communists were transformed into capitalists. Complete reversal of the Soviet system and privatisation of former state-owned enterprises took place.

Rise of oligarchs

In scandalous transactions, state-owned enterprises were transferred to powerful financial groups. Several oligarchs emerged, dominating banks and commercial enterprises in sectors such as energy, communications and the media. By 1995, the brightness of perestroika had faded as reflected in the Duma elections of 1995 and the presidential election of 1996. Declining Russian exports in vital commodities led to an economic crisis, which deepened inequality.

Unable to tackle the economic crisis, Yeltsin faced a political crisis: the 1994 revolt in Chechnya. Russian troops quelled the revolt and a ceasefire was worked out in 1997. Increasingly unpopular, Yeltsin won a narrow victory against the communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 parliamentary elections. Yeltsin was unable to control the rapacity of the oligarchs. After successive Prime Ministers, he opted for the low-profile Putin as Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in 1999.

Russia under Putin and Medvedev

In December 1999, Yeltsin resigned as President of the Russian Federation. Putin became acting President and then President in May 2000. He tried to improve the economic situation and set up the National Priority Projects the same year to improve the health care system, educational facilities, housing benefits and agriculture.

Putin permitted the oligarchs who had amassed wealth to retain their power if they supported his government. In 2009, the World Bank favourably viewed the government’s response to the Recession of 2008. Putin’s position as President was consolidated. He then took on the 15 powerful oligarchs who had acquired a stranglehold on the Russian economy by illegal control of huge state assets during Yeltsin’s time. Observers noted that Russia had modified “unbridled privatisation to a variation of state capitalism”. The Russian government established control over television channels and newspapers set up by the oligarchs. In 2006, an outstanding journalist, Anna Politovskaya, was found murdered allegedly at the instance of an oligarch.

Since the Russian Constitution prohibited three terms as President, Putin, after completing two terms, stepped down in 2008. His faithful colleague, Medvedev, was elected President. The last few years of the Soviet Union had been characterised by the very things that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 tried to eradicate: corruption, inefficiency and privileges for a few. Dissolution of the Soviet Union led to increased corruption in Russia’s political and economic life. The situation was reversed to some extent by Putin’s strong measures. Medvedev promised to continue the work. In May 2012, Putin assumed office for the third time as President.

Writing on Gorbachev, who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet state, India’s eminent scholar Randhir Singh has stated in his book Crisis of Socialism (Ajanta Books International, 2006) that his programme of perestroika and glasnost, discussed in Gorbachev’s book New Thinking for our Country and the World (1987), offered no more than conventional remedies for the Soviet Union’s deteriorating economic situation (page 462). Gorbachev’s new thinking was a cover for undermining and dismantling the Soviet institutions at home and paved the way for capitalism, of whatever sort, in Soviet Russia. Gorbachev had no vision stretching beyond “a more efficient and productive economy” and a “democratised version of the nomenklatura rule” (page 471). Randhir Singh added that seeing the chaos and destruction unleashed by his policies, some observers viewed Gorbachev as criminally naive if not worse. A former editor of The Times, London, said of Gorbachev that he was “brilliant when measured in days, persuasive in weeks, mediocre in months and disastrous in years”.

Randhir Singh noted that Yeltsin, who in 1991 ousted Gorbachev to take charge of the Soviet Union, did the final act of dissolving it. On October 17, 1993, Yeltsin abolished virtually all fundamental economic, social and legal achievements of the October Revolution (page 547).

Missing class analysis

Frontline, in its special issue on “One Hundred Years of the Russian Revolution” (December 22, 2017), has noted that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, despite many negative aspects of the subsequent evolution of the Soviet Union, was a turning point in human history, demonstrating the possibility of transcending capitalism and creating a socialist future, dismantling the global colonial system.

Surprisingly, Achala Moulik, who espouses an admirably radical and compelling humanistic vision for the future, fails to note the class nature of the impact of the Russian Revolution on communist-led peasants’ movements in the then colonial and semi-colonial societies. These movements played a crucial role in the democratic politics of these societies to move them towards revolutionary changes.

The Bolshevik Party led by Lenin blazed a trail not just for Russia but for the liberation movements in colonial and semi-colonial societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America symbolised by the setting up of the Communist International, which debated Lenin’s Theses on National and Colonial Question, 1920.

The author could have noted this in specific terms. She could also have noted that India’s multiple communist movements have been significantly impacted by the Russian Revolution and have produced many distinguished leaders, theorists and activists. These movements have vigorously debated and split over the role and relevance of the post-Independence parliamentary democratic institutions in bringing sociopolitical changes (see K.S. Subramanian, Parliamentary Communism, Ajanta Books International, 1989). The process is still not over.

The articles that appeared in Frontline’s commemorative issue underline the significance of class analysis of these movements and their enemies in the light of the experience of the Russian Revolution, which combined anti-imperialist and socialist transformations in Russia (“A new epoch” by Prakash Karat; Frontline, December 22, 2017, page 67). In his article titled “Imprint on freedom struggles” ( Frontline, December 22, 2017, page 41), Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), describes how excited the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, then living in obscurity in France, had felt on reading Lenin’s Theses.

The author could consider adding a map and index to the book.

K.S. Subramanian is a former IPS official and Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union Home Ministry, New Delhi.

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