Why could Trotsky not overcome Stalin?

Soviet Union I: 1917-1953

Susanne Schattenberg

Prof. Dr. Susanne Schattenberg is director of the Eastern Europe Research Center at the University of Bremen. Her research areas include Stalinism, the cultural history of foreign policy and the Soviet Union after 1953. She is currently working on a biography of Brezhnev.
Contact: [email protected]

Maike Lehmann

Dr. Maike Lehmann is Junior Professor for Eastern European History at the University of Cologne. Her research interests include nationality politics, questions of Soviet identity (e.g. Armenia) and the transnational networks of dissidents and western intellectuals in the late Soviet Union.
Contact: [email protected]

Alexandra Oberländer

Dr. Alexandra Oberländer is an associate scientist at the Research Center for Eastern Europe in Bremen and teaches at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her current research project is "If you don't work, you shouldn't eat: A cultural history of work in the late Soviet Union".
Contact: [email protected]

With the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks ended the democratic experiment in order to assert their power in the civil war that followed. They wanted to free the multinational Russian empire from its backwardness and transform it into a modern industrial nation. They saw the working class as the bearer of progress, while the nobility, peasants, bourgeoisie and church were declared a ruthless struggle.

Extreme class differences, shown here in a contemporary woodcut (19th century), and an almost exclusively agrarian economy characterize the tsarist empire. Young Russian intellectuals criticize the situation and sympathize with the peasantry. (& copy akg / North Wind Picture Archives)

Disintegration of a European empire

There are three competing master narratives, i.e. fundamental narrative structures, about the collapse of the tsarist empire: first, that it was so backward that it had to go under, and second, that the great reforms of the 1860s were so radically aligned with the ideals of a small, western-influenced elite were that rural Russia inevitably fell apart, and thirdly, that Russia had been on the right track since the introduction of the Duma, the Russian parliament, and the constitution in 1905 and other agricultural reforms, but the First World War ended the reform process.

Social structure

Regardless of whether the story of Tsarist Russia is told as an inevitable decline, as a cultural clash between the elite and the peasantry, or as a success story with an abrupt end, everyone agrees that the Tsarist empire united many opposites: It was an agrarian country, its Around 1900 the population consisted of around 80 percent farmers. They were released from serfdom in the course of the Great Reforms in 1861, but were not "free" because the farmland that the farmer was supposed to pay off over 49 years belonged collectively to the community and the farmer had to pay his taxes in the community .

Population development in the empire until 1914 (& copy Hans-Heinrich Nolte, Kleine Geschichte Russlands, Philip Reclam jun. GmbH & Co., Stuttgart 2003, p. 513)
Because the tsar, like all European governments of the time, feared an uprooted "rag proletariat", the peasants remained tied to the clod until 1906 Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911) decreed the transfer payments and gave the peasants the right to own their land for sale and move to town. The industrialization of Russia before 1906 was therefore strongly characterized by migrant workers who commuted to their village to work in the fields and whose rough culture they carried back into the cities. It is assumed that in 1913 the proportion of industrial workers in the total population of 181 million was 3.3 percent (6.1 million).

The great reforms brought not only the "peasant liberation", but with the judicial reform of 1864 also the separation of powers in Russia. Farmers now also had the opportunity to defend their interests in court. However, to this day, it is highly controversial in research whether the majority of farmers made use of it and to what extent they even understood the new legal procedure and gave up their customary law for it.

Other major reforms were the introduction of self-governing institutions for the governorates (administrative districts) in 1864 and for the cities in 1870. The development of Russian cities up to then had proceeded differently than in Western and Central Europe. On the one hand, there was no medieval town charter that allowed the citizens to self-govern, and on the other hand, with the subjugation of the Russian principalities in the 15th century, the Moscow Grand Dukes ensured that all independent structures were destroyed. Therefore, in addition to the two capitals Moscow and St. Petersburg (seat of government 1710-1918), all other cities developed as administrative, garrison or trading centers only depending on the court. Since there were no free townspeople and a bourgeoisie emerged very late and only sparsely, historians argue to this day whether it is even possible to speak of a "bourgeoisie" as a separate, influential group. However, around 1900 there were not only merchants, entrepreneurs and lawyers, doctors, professors and teachers, smaller traders, employees and craftsmen in the two metropolises who organized themselves in associations, cared about the workers' welfare, appeared as patrons, visited theaters and coffee houses , Read newspapers and lived a lifestyle that was little different from that in London, Paris or Berlin.

Instead of the citizens, another group appeared in Russia: the "Rasnotschinzen" (Russian; different ranks) - mostly sons of clergymen and impoverished aristocrats who did not fit into any class and formed the basis of the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia was distinguished - more than its academic studies - for rejecting and fighting tsarism. It is characteristic of Russia and the relationship of its educated class to the state that it was not until 1909 that some intellectuals wrote a manifesto called "Vechi" (Russian; milestones) in which they called on the Russian intelligentsia to cooperate with the Tsarist government and to do patriotic reconstruction work .

Political activity was denied to all until the Tsar in response to the bloody revolution of 1905 with the October Manifesto (October 30, 1905; old calendar October 17, see glossary) some basic rights, including the establishment of parties and the election of a parliament , granted. However, class suffrage was introduced to ensure that the small group of landowners retained the greatest political influence. A landowner's vote counted as much as that of 3.5 townspeople, 15 peasants, or 45 workers. The tsar had the Duma dissolved twice, in 1906 and 1907, because the election result had nevertheless given many liberal forces a seat of parliament. This is why the period of Russian parliamentarism (1905-1917) is sometimes referred to as "pseudo constitutionalism". Even if the political culture and urban society changed as a result of the basic state laws of 1906, the tsarist power remained almost untouched.

When they were admitted in 1905, the following large parties formed: The "Octobrists", named after the October Manifesto, were considered liberal-conservative and represented the landowners who were loyal to the Tsar. The "Kadetten", derived from the abbreviation "KD" for "Constitutional Democrats", were a left-wing liberal force who strived for democracy and a republican constitution. It emerged from the self-government movement and was composed largely of academics and the bourgeoisie. The Social Democratic Workers' Party of Russia (RSDLP), founded underground in 1898, has been able to operate legally since 1905 and have deputies elected to the Duma. It consisted largely of professional revolutionaries who rejected both autocracy and democracy and fought for a dictatorship of the proletariat. The "Social Revolutionaries" (SR) were a revival of the "Narodnitschestvo", the "friends of the common people". This movement caused a sensation in the 1870s when young aristocrats and Rasnotschinzen began to idealize and proselytize the peasant people: unpolluted by Western influences, unspoiled and pure, be it the strength from which Russia could recover. After many "Narodniki" had been condemned as popular agitators, the movement was illegally re-established in 1901 as a party of the "Social Revolutionaries". In contrast to the RSDLP, they did not rely solely on the "workers' avant-garde", but on the broad masses of the people. They were the only party to represent terror as a legitimate political tool in their program. The terrorist attacks were intended to help shake up the masses and reveal the true face of the government. In fact, the time after the revolution was marked by repression measures against (supposed) revolutionary participants, workers, peasants and students, who protested for more rights, set up blockades and plundered manors. The Social Revolutionaries' fighting organization responded with terror, which killed around 9,000 people by 1907. Her most prominent victim was Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911.

The political problems were joined by economic ones: the lack of a large urban class before 1900, the lack of entrepreneurial activity of the nobility and the long existence of serfdom are held responsible for the fact that industry in Russia only developed in the last third of the 19th century. The first factories were founded around 1800 by serfs who bought themselves and their land from the profits and built up important branches of industry. State investments, including in railway construction, ensured rapid growth from 1890 onwards, which continued until 1917. However, since no broad entrepreneurial class emerged, 50 percent of the mines, oil production facilities, iron works and industrial plants were in foreign hands by the beginning of the First World War.

The parliament according to the Russian constitution of 1907 (& copy Bergmoser + Höller Verlag AG, figure 842 510)

The tsarist empire was a multi-ethnic empire that extended through annexation and colonization from the 16th to the 19th centuries from the Baltic to the Sea of ​​Japan and from Siberia to Central Asia. Partly out of respect for older cultures, be it in the Baltic States or on the Silk Road in Central Asia, partly due to a premodern understanding of rule, the Czar officials for a long time respected the traditions and social structure of the conquered areas (e.g. in Siberia) and contented themselves with the uprising of taxes and the recruitment of educated men.

But with the Enlightenment, Russia also came up with the idea of ​​being a progressive civilization whose duty it was to bring "progress and reason" to other ethnic groups. The so-called civilization mission caused a bloody war in the Caucasus against the mountain peoples, who were only "pacified" after around 50 years (1817-1864). Under the influence of the other European colonial powers, the tsarist elite continued to think about presenting themselves as a superior western civilization by creating a colony in Central Asia with Turkestan in 1867, treating the nomads like "savages". In order to break their traditions and resistance, the government let Russian and Ukrainian farmers settle there, especially from 1891, who occupied the fertile pastureland.

Since around 1859 an increasing, but very differently structured, Russification policy caused further trouble spots in the western provinces among Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles, Finns and Balts. The tsarist government was less concerned with making Russians out of all subjects. Rather, she wanted to cut off the population in the border regions through language and writing policy from nationalistic influences that came from Austria-Hungary, Germany or Scandinavia: Those who could no longer read the Latin script and only spoke Russian could not understand incendiary scripts either. But the national movements that the rigid language policy was supposed to suppress gained even more popularity.

A European power

Even if the tsarist empire is repeatedly portrayed as "backward" in its economic and social structure, it was a European power. This is how the tsars saw it since Peter I (1689-1725), and this is how they shaped colonization, foreign and dynasty policies. In the 19th century, Russia, along with Great Britain, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary, was part of the European "concert of powers" of the five greats. The wars it waged in the 19th century were typical armed conflicts of a colonial power for supremacy over third powers and thus for a dominant role in the circle of the five (Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire 1853-1856, to which England and France rushed to the aid ) or new colonies (Russo-Japanese War 1904/05 over Korea).
The Imperial Romanov family was closely related to the European royal houses: Kaiser Wilhelm II. (1859-1941) and Tsar Nicholas II. (1868-1918) were grandsons of the British Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and maintained their correspondence in English with the Salutation "dearest Nicky" and "dearest Willy", Tsarina Alexandra Fjodorowna (1872-1918) was a princess of Hessen-Darmstadt.

But the dynastic alliances did not change the fact that the political alliances were made differently. The widespread militarism, the unchecked rearmament in Europe, was exacerbated by imperialism, the competition for ever new colonies and the dispute for supremacy in Asia and Africa. In addition, nationalism was fermenting: not only did every major European power have an exaggerated self-image; Even the small peoples who had previously been subjects and part of the empires strove for their own state, sometimes with terrorist violence. After the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne by a Serbian nationalist, Germany sided with Austria-Hungary and on August 1, 1914 declared war on Russia, which had sided with Serbia.

First World War

The initial enthusiasm for war, which was also present in Russia, quickly gave way, as in other European countries, to disillusionment and protest against the drafts. Contrary to the expectations of its allies, Great Britain and France, Russia could not activate the "steamroller" and throw new recruits from the populous country to the front. As early as 1916 there were no more reservists, so the tsarist government decided to use Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus for military service, which led to uprisings there that had to be suppressed with military force and which in some cases lasted until the beginning of 1917.

But also on the Western Front, the Russian military used violence against their own population: in 1914 all ethnic groups "suspected" of "collaboration" and "espionage", i.e. all Germans, Jews and others, were deported from the war zone; Estimates range from 500,000 to a million people. In May 1915, the Russian army command ordered the entire population to be evacuated from the frontline area, which led to uncontrolled looting, pillage and a further 3.3 million abandoned refugees.

At the same time, the supply situation for both the army and the civilian population deteriorated dramatically; There were new workers' strikes and protests in the cities or the factories stood still because they could no longer get supplies. More and more soldiers deserted and marched through the country as marauding gangs. As Commander in Chief of the Army, the Tsar had left the capital since 1916; Political Petersburg blamed the German tsarina and her "advisor", the wandering monk Rasputin (1869-1916), who manipulated her politically as her confidante, for the war misery. In an act of desperation, he was murdered "to save Russia" in December 1916.