Some revolutionaries are especially attractive to nonrevolutionaries. They are the ones you are likely to find on a T-shirt: usually the losers in the struggle for power; often romantically handsome, like Che Guevara; vulnerable and tough at the same time; and often a martyr, like Leon Trotsky, the victim of the demon dictator. Neither very long in power nor burdened by responsibility for the worst atrocities, they allow us to imagine alternatives to the revolution’s fall from grace. Nikolai Bukharin belongs in this company, though the hip clothes merchants have yet to discover him. He was the good Bolshevik, loved by his comrades and the Soviet public, “the darling of the party” according to Lenin. More tenderhearted than his onetime collaborator Joseph Stalin, Bukharin pleaded in the mid-1920s with police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky that the time had come to give up the harsh methods associated with the bloody civil war of a few years past. He protected certain vulnerable cultural figures, like the poet Osip Mandelstam, and fought to preserve the moderate pro-peasant policies that Stalin eliminated in the forced collectivization. Bukharin too was a martyr to his beliefs as well as a victim of his weaknesses. Revolution is a rough business, and survival requires a particular kind of fitness. Those striving to emancipate often cannot stand up to those with more prosaic political goals, like staying in power at any cost. Bukharin’s story deserves more than a T-shirt–a play, perhaps, even better a novel or movie.
Born to Moscow schoolteachers in 1888, Bukharin joined the revolutionary movement as a young man in the heat of 1905, aligning himself the next year with the Bolsheviks. His career was linked to his home city, and after prison and exile, he was involved in the seizure of power in the old capital in 1917. Close to Lenin personally, he nevertheless had serious differences with the Bolshevik leader on theoretical questions of imperialism and the nature of the state, as well as on strategy, in the first year of Soviet government. Bukharin was a leader of the Left Communists, who opposed Lenin’s treaty with the Germans, which removed Russia from World War I. The Left called for a revolutionary war against German imperialism, a risky, even foolish (if principled) policy that would have cost the Bolsheviks territory and possibly their hold on power. An enthusiastic supporter of the radical program of the Soviets during the civil war (1918-21), known afterward as War Communism, Bukharin later became the major promoter of its reversal in Lenin’s New Economic Policy (1921-28). He favored the smychka, the unity of the peasants and workers symbolized by the hammer and sickle, which was officially promoted for six years when the state conceded control over much of the agricultural economy to the peasants. He allied himself with Stalin, then a party centrist, in his opposition to Trotsky’s more radical approach to industrialization, which entailed heavier taxes and pressure on the peasantry.
Bukharin and Stalin enjoyed a few years of unprecedented economic success in the mid-1920s, when the battered Soviet economy grew steadily if slowly. As his biographer, Stephen F. Cohen, has argued, Bukharin was in those years a far more influential member of the party than Trotsky, whose defeat earlier in the decade had marginalized the fiery orator to a role of permanent oppositionist. But by 1927 it was evident to all the leaders that the pro-peasant policy could no longer satisfy growing peasant demand, given the meager and high-priced industrial goods available. Bukharin agreed to increased financial pressure on the peasants but within the general contours of the New Economic Policy. Stalin, however, turned abruptly toward a far more coercive program reminiscent of civil war tactics–forced requisitioning of grain from the peasant villages, removal of the well-to-do peasants, the so-called kulaks, and armed suppression of all resistance. Bukharin tried reason and persuasion to stop Stalin, and even made a futile and foolish attempt to ally with other oppositionists, but the wily Georgian already controlled the levers of power and was able to portray Bukharin and company as a deviant “Right Opposition.”