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Part One

'Down with the monarchy'

In St Petersburg (Petrograd, as briefly known), in the lit-up mansion, the Smolny, formerly, a young ladies’ academy, they were making furious plans. Exactly a century ago from now. It was the middle of the night, late autumn, the cold already coming in off the Baltic. Through corridors with offices designated with hand-tacked signs — the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), the Party Secretariat, Communications — they were running back and forth, exhausted men and women, arguing, making up, formulating plans on the hop.

Outside, in the lit dark of the Venice of the North, city life continued as ever. The theatres and all-night bars were still open, the trams still ran. In one room in the Smolny, the MRC leader Lev Bronstein calmly assessed the situation, weighing the pros and cons of when to give the order. Suddenly, amid the crowd in the room appeared Ulyanov, the party leader. Ordered to stay in hiding, he had nevertheless made his way in, disguised in bandages and a moptop wig. “Go now!” he said. “For god’s sake!”

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Part Two

The revolution we had to have

“Why are you being burdened with these trifles?!”

 — From volume 39 of Lenin: Collected Works (Progress Press)*

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Part Three

Rundle: intrigue and skulduggery

He was seen in the Unter den Linden, en route to the German Reich offices; boarding the Orient Express in Constantinople, headed to Vienna; in Copenhagen’s plush Klampenborg district; arriving in Zurich. A friend and confidante to ambassadors, generals and sultans, in silk-top hat, fur-collared coat, cravat and walking cane, hugely fat, he was the living embodiment of revolutionary socialists’ caricature of the millionaire they were going to sweep from the planet. Except, he was a revolutionary socialist, a friend — mostly ex-friend — to the leading radicals of the era. He made at least two revolutions, and the century, and if you’ve never heard of Alexander Helphand-Parvus, well, thereby hangs a tale.

Alexander who? He was born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand (a transliteration) to a Minsk Jewish couple in 1867, grew up in Odessa, and went to university in Switzerland, a common trek at the time. Studying economics, he became a Marxist, and moved to Germany in the 1880s, eventually becoming a writer and editor of note, under the pseudonym “Parvus”. He quickly acquired a reputation as an agile theorist on international trade.

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30 thoughts on “Shooting tsars: the revolution that redefined our world

  1. I thought St Petersburg as it is now was known previously as Leningrad, not Petrograd.

    1. The city was founded as St Petersburg by Peter the Great in 1703, and renamed to the more Russian-sounding Petrograd as a sop to anti-German sentiment during World War 1. Just like the British royal family changed its names from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor, and Battenburg to Mountbatten. After the revolution Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in honour of Lenin, and reverted to St Petersburg after 1991. Locals often refer to it simply as “Peter”.

  2. Only a fool comments . . . until the direction they are being led to; is revealed.

  3. It is very hard to imagine Russia and the 20th century in general without the USSR. Happy centenary you weird dead state.

  4. Petrograd, Leningrad, St Petersburg

    1. St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St Petersburg

  5. Shadowy figures be stuffed Guy. The Germans sent Lenin there specifically hoping he would destabilise the country. It was crooked, but I would think those responsible were very well known.

  6. Grim chuckles at the end of part 2. This is a real proper commemoration/obituary

  7. We can hardly speculate about what might have happened, can we Guy? We can say our world is very bad, due to the rise of neo-liberalism in the eighties. There are signs it is crumbling now but we won’t have a good indication of its fall in Australia until the ALP firmly announces that Newstart should get a substantial increase and a reversal of the dismantling of the Disability pension, so that people with diabetes and heart problems are not forced onto the pittance of Newstart and threatened with the absurdity of the processes by which they will seek and fail to find jobs. I wait with baited breath for a politician to feel they can’t smartly say that the best thing is to get a job when there are more seeking jobs than jobs available and when some simply are too damaged to seek or hold jobs.

    We can say, too, that the October revolution was a an experiment in working class rule that quickly became a Utopian socialist experiment. What would the world have been like without it? Who can say, but it certainly led to great upheaval, much of which has been an advance for common people. Still, we could do better without capitalism

  8. Interesting stuff and well written. But so far there’s been no mention that Communism was the biggest catastrophe in human history, killing over 100 million people and still counting in China and North Korea! In the first part it was said, “In the West, Communism, and its offshoot Trotskyism, would give heft to innumerable civil rights and social movement struggles.” I am struggling to think of any and it’s interesting that nothing in particular was named. Let’s face it, any movement that kills 100 million people in under a century is an absolute disgrace to humanity. One person’s death is a tragedy, let alone 100 million! We should be lamenting over this cataclysmic blunder rather than celebrating it. Who would celebrate the holocaust?

    “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”
    – John Donne

    1. Pretty sure Guy has your points covered with:
      ‘Prior to passing the usual empyrean moral-political judgements on people caught in the chaos of world upheaval in 1917, it is worth taking a step back and noting how particular all this is.’

      The 100 million is an interesting/half-fantastical figure. That observation is not an attempt to mitigate the brutality of what transpired, more a way of pointing out that it lacks a comparison when it is bandied about. The obvious question that lack of comparison poses is: ‘What is the body count of non-communist world systems/Weltanschauungs?’ Given that only humourous reposts (some of them very good have been made to my tax-avoiding countryman’s observation that ‘Every time he claps his hand a child in Africa dies’, it would be prudent to do the math on globalised liberalism’s economic death toll. 1 year = 365.25 days = (365.25 days) x (24 hours/day) x (3600 seconds/hour) x (100 years [roughly the lifespan ) = 3155760000. That is just Africa; just the result of inequality, not war; and the method is about as sound as that required for the 100 million. John Donne’s was a qualitative assessment, but I reckon the numbers count for something. Now you enjoy that cobalt-requiring laptop and phone.

      1. Your rubbery figures regarding the number of deaths in Africa are not the result of inequality, but demonstrably of poverty – lack of clean water, ineffective disease prevention, low rates of education, equal rights for women, etc. Some African countries “enjoy” the lowest rates of inequality in the world, because everyone has nothing.

        Many of these countries operate(d) under dictatorial regimes, with Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Benin, Congo-Brazzaville and Mozambique having suffered dreadfully under communism. Of course, you’d actually have to read to know this.

        Say what you will about capitalism, but it has lifted people out of poverty at an astonishing rate. Life expectancy has increasing dramatically in the last century due to medical and pharmaceutical advances brought about by not-communism and people are being connected to the electrical grid at an astonishing rate.

        So if 100 million is indeed a half-fantastical figure, do tell: given that everywhere communism has been attempted, cross-culturally, itresulted in nothing but impoverishment and murderousness, how many corpses do you need to convince you that it’s a bad idea?

        JDBrown makes the salient point that one wouldn’t celebrate the Holocaust.
        It’s an absolute mystery to me why the Holocaust is known to every junior high school student in the world but nobody knows that up to 100 million were killed by the Russians under Lenin and Stalin and the Chinese under Mao.

        Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago should be mandatory reading for everyone living in the West. But of course, at 2100 pages, that would actually require some intellectual effort. Much better to just say “that wasn’t real Communism” – the implication being that if you’d been dictator, the Utopia would have manifested itself under your benign hands.

        1. In what universe are you living where capitalism has lifted people out of poverty and continued to have them allayed of such a societal ill? I’m assuming you were alive during the GFC – also brought about by those amazing not-communism systems you seem so keen to celebrate, or do you sincerely think this particular global crisis was just an aberration?

          Are you aware of Detroit’s history? Of its trend of unprecedented economic growth to the ghost city that it now is? What do you suppose was responsible for that?

          If “not-communism” isn’t to blame for the ever-widening chasm of wage inequality – to take one example – what is?

          Automation taking jobs away from people? Thanks, not-communism!

          Over half of US citizens earning less than $35k a year? Yay, not-communism! And Trump? Well he won just because some nasty people are racist and sexist, didn’t he?

          Socialism/Communism doesn’t beget murder. Tyrannical State Capitalism, however, as evidenced by Stalin and Mao, absolutely does. Equating dictatorial regimes with these systems is categorically no different to blaming religion for terrorism.

          1. A cursory look at child mortality rates and life expectancy in the West over the preceding century might point you to the universe in which I’m living, to say nothing of the fact that everyone has access to clean water, energy, medicine, fresh food that is always available, and the entirety of civilization’s accumulated knowledge in a device that fits in one’s pocket. You don’t get to decry capitalism on your computer from the safety of your home/office in this free society without displaying a certain level of cognitive dissonance.

            On the impoverishment front, take a look by contrast at Venezuela, the USSR, East Germany, Cuba, etc. If that seems like a good idea, I’d be questioning your motives.

            Capitalism is far from perfect, but the idea that it can simply be replaced by a Utopian vision is absurd and suggests a staggering ignorance of 20th Century history. Compared to a Utopian vision, capitalism is a flaming wreck, but compared to every other system that has been implemented in the history of humanity, it’s produced a remarkable amount of progress.

            I assume you live in Australia, Craig. By historical and current world standards, we are all rich here. Can you not look at the immense technological marvel that Western democratic capitalism has created and have a sense of gratitude?

            Re: socialism/communism not begetting murder, it’s worth pondering why everywhere it’s been tried, again cross-culturally, it has resulted in impoverishment and mass murder through the inevitable suppression of individuality that such a system requires. Again, check out Solzhenitsyn, that book will take you apart.

            Automation is a serious challenge, but do you think it’s insurmountable? Look at what humans can achieve! So sure, capitalism has produced wage inequality, but inequality is the hallmark of freedom. Ensuring that everyone in our society is given the opportunity to achieve to the best of their ability/work ethic is something I believe we do pretty well in the West. If everyone is equal (good luck with that one, by the way), then what is there to strive towards?

        2. JQ
          much of the ‘lifting out of poverty’ by capitalism, was in fact done by China and Vietnam; one-party directive socialist systems with a section of the economy run by the market, surrounded by 5 year plans etc.
          What you call ‘poverty’ as if it were a thunderstorm, I call systemic underdevelopment, resulting from countries kept within the capitalist circuit, run by client elites, and bled dry by interest owed to western banks. You don’t need a gulag to kill a lot of people.

    2. jdb
      1) i’d say 19th century capitalist imperialism gives communism a run for its money. tens of millions of unnecessary deaths and social destruction created by imposing slave labour, ‘market’ societies etc. See Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis, Verso Books, for an overview.

      2) as I noted, 20th c. imperialism wouldn’t have been defeated without Leninism. You make the common mistake of assuming that that liberation would have occurred without it.

      3) social democracy in the west wouldn’t have occurred without the heft of organised Marxism, and the threat of Bolshevik revolutions

      4) dig deep into the us civil rights movement, 1st and 2nd wave feminism, 3rd world liberation, indigenous peoples struggles, anti-apartheid struggles, urban neighbourhood struggles, and you’ll find communists and Trotskyists organising them

      5) if everyone’s death diminishes you, that presumably includes the many millions who died unnecessarily from global finance policies that fuelled the western bubble/boom, over recent decades.

  9. And to think Crikey was founded by a former staffer of a Victorian Liberal Premier!

  10. Guy, it’s curious that you point to progressive social movement achievements in the West, and successful state-propelled growth in China, as two prime examples of the residual positive influence of the Russian Revolution, and yet that you entirely pass over their incompatibility. China for example is quite openly now preparing to launch a public regime-acceptability ranking system for every individual nationwide (fascistically entitled the social credit system) to ward against progressive social movements ever emerging there. What, I’d ask, gives you confidence that a right to have rights could ever precipitate from even a progressive dictatorship?

    1. will
      yes, well not a fan of china’s explicit new social credit system – though our private credit rating system etc acts in a similar way.
      But the question is whether socialist/state-capitalist china since 1949 lifted more than 2 billion people overall out of a poverty, while third world regions under capitalism went backward. Freedom from starvation, disease and abslute poverty is the freedom to be fully human, surely?

      1. Guy, please! Communists feed us, so we don’t need rights? That’s really throwing the phenomenological baby out with the revolutionary bathwater.

        1. will
          if raising a society out of absolute poverty – which is the creation of freedom – necessarily involves the disregard of individual rights, then yes, that’s a real question which must be decided. It’s because you don’t think of being liberated from poverty, subsistence work, the dominance of disease, etc, that you can talk one-sidedly about rights

          1. Yes, of course, relief from hunger and disease logically precedes release from subjugation and servitude. But Guy, you make a life of exercising your right to call for a better world, and yet you don’t demand that very right for all others?

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