While the history of every country is embattled in some sense, the history of Russia is particularly contested, a subject of public debate, History Channel specials and pundits’ polemics. Yet because the cause for which so many fought, died, killed and suffered no longer holds its former potency, there appears less incentive to try to convey the story’s full complexity and moral ambiguity. Mass culture–books and movies–favors a simplified anti-Communist version of the tale, complete with the dramas and tragedies of Stalinism, the gulag and the Great Terror. The central metaphor for the Soviet experiment has become the prison camp, and the central figure is neither the state’s founder, Lenin, nor the well-intentioned reformer who unraveled the system, Gorbachev, but rather Stalin, the unexpected heir of the revolution and, for many, its gravedigger. While academic historians might still engage in subtle and elaborate explanations of the ambitions, successes and failings of the Soviet regime, their publications find a small professional audience; most popular accounts range from indictments to flat-out condemnations. The Soviet monster must be killed over and over again, for like the slasher in horror films it may rise again, perhaps in a new form: authoritarianism lite, capitalist but statist, reinvigorated by a small, fit, dour policeman.
The Soviet experience stands culpable first and foremost because of the violence it visited on its own citizens and other peoples. From Edmund Burke on, conservatives have emphasized the willfulness of revolutionaries, their decision or at least willingness if not enthusiasm for violence, bloodshed and terror. For the left, the use of force has often been excused as unavoidable, a corollary of the chaos accompanying social change. Eggs must be broken. Revolutions cannot be made with white gloves or on polished floors. Whatever else might be said about Russia’s revolutions–both Lenin’s and Stalin’s–they were extraordinarily violent. They maimed or destroyed the lives of millions as they rushed into a rough modernity, held back the flood of fascist barbarism and built a peculiar and crude version of socialism.
The debate over the direction and the necessity of the revolution began in the first days after October 1917, among participants, supporters and opponents of the Bolsheviks. Perhaps most famously, mere months after the October Revolution, Karl Kautsky, the patriarch of German social democracy, blasted the Bolsheviks’ use of terror in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918). Kautsky maintained that workers could move toward socialism only through democracy, not dictatorship. As he put it, “There exist only two possibilities, either democracy, or civil war.” He was answered by Lenin in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918); and Trotsky’s replies, in Terrorism and Communism (1920), illustrated the thinking of the Bolsheviks: “Who aims at the end cannot reject the means” and “The man who repudiates the dictatorship of the proletariat repudiates the socialist revolution and digs the grave of socialism.” Trotsky argued that since the bourgeoisie has all the weapons in its hands–factories, banks, newspapers, universities, schools, the army, the police–democracy works for it. He applauded the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s grand constitutional convention, which had been elected relatively democratically, and censorship of the opposition press, which was a weapon in the hands of enemies. “If the White Terror can only retard the historical rise of the proletariat, the Red Terror hastens the destruction of the bourgeoisie,” Trotsky wrote.
The origins of Soviet “state” terror are explored in the latest volume of what has turned out to be a trilogy on the revolution in the Russian capital, Petrograd, by historian Alexander Rabinowitch, a professor emeritus at Indiana University. His detailed exploration asks the central question of the post-October period: why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power? In his previous two volumes–Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (1968) and The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976)–Rabinowitch famously argued that rather than being a coup d’état engineered by a disciplined, centralized party with little popular support, the October Revolution was broadly backed by workers and soldiers in Petrograd who envisioned a government based on democratically elected soviets and including representatives of all the socialist parties.