Dream of a Perfect Society That Collapsed in Totalitarian Terror; 100 Years on, Does the Russian Revolution - Which Led to the Rise of the Soviet Union - Hold Any Relevance for Us Today? Dr James Ryan of Cardiff University Looks at the Controversial Legacy of Communism's Dramatic Rise and Fall

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), October 27, 2017 | Go to article overview

Dream of a Perfect Society That Collapsed in Totalitarian Terror; 100 Years on, Does the Russian Revolution - Which Led to the Rise of the Soviet Union - Hold Any Relevance for Us Today? Dr James Ryan of Cardiff University Looks at the Controversial Legacy of Communism's Dramatic Rise and Fall


FEW episodes in history capture the imagination quite like the Russian Revolution of 1917, undeniably one of the most important episodes of modern history. But a century later, what does it really mean? After all, the Soviet state that emerged from 1917 no longer exists and the Cold War is over. Does the revolution have any relevance today? To judge by the flurry of interest in the centenary, a great deal.

Historians and writers are in overdrive trying to convey what happened, how, and why, many focusing on the "ordinary" people involved and the extraordinarily talented artists who experienced, made and captured the revolution.

That's certainly in the spirit of the thing; Lenin himself described revolutions as "festivals of the oppressed and the exploited". But it's unwise to romanticise revolution in general and the Russian Revolution in particular.

The course the Revolution took was determined above all by Lenin and his ruling Bolshevik party, often alongside "the people", but often also by force against them. One of the most important questions to ask, then, is: What was the October Revolution actually for? Why did the Bolsheviks take power? Their motive wasn't power for its own sake; it was communism. It was a vision of a society perfected, one in which people would live in complete social harmony. The essence of the October Revolution was a revolution in human culture and the creation of a "new Soviet person", a better type of human without whom communism could not exist.

This was the most ambitious and sustained attempt at human transformation and liberation in modern European history - and yet the Soviet regime became the most violent state in modern peacetime Europe. This is the central contradiction of the Russian Revolution and one of the great paradoxes of the 20th century.

To understand why it happened and how the Soviet state was formed, it is essential to remember it all happened in the context of World War I. In fact, without the war, there would have been no October Revolution at all.

A century ago, Europe was consumed by assorted crises of enormous magnitude. Four empires - Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman - were collapsing, leaving behind what historians refer to as the "shatter zones" of empire in central, southern and eastern Europe. The experiences of war, state failure and military defeat opened up spaces for paramilitary violence, atrocities and extremist politics over the next three decades.

This tendency was especially pronounced in Russia, in part because of the ideological fervour that the Bolsheviks added to the mix.

Lenin and his comrades were supremely theoretical politicians.

They were not above opportunism and cunning, lies and brutality, but they were motivated more by a theoretical vision of a much better world than by self-interest. During the war, Lenin realised that because Marx had not lived through the age of imperialism, his thought was somewhat out of date. Imperialism, Lenin reasoned, was a new stage of capitalism. Imperial states had sought to conquer overseas colonies in order to exploit natural resources and cheap labour, and competition for colonies among the imperial states had inevitably culminated in catastrophic war.

The only solution for humanity, Lenin believed, would be socialist revolutions, with an end to warfare once and for all. …

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Dream of a Perfect Society That Collapsed in Totalitarian Terror; 100 Years on, Does the Russian Revolution - Which Led to the Rise of the Soviet Union - Hold Any Relevance for Us Today? Dr James Ryan of Cardiff University Looks at the Controversial Legacy of Communism's Dramatic Rise and Fall
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