Violence and Terror in the Russian Revolution

By the end of the civil war in 1920, the Bolsheviks had to build the new economic infrastructure of the new Soviet Union. Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy (NEP) which created some stability and instituted limited free-market policies, such as land ownership. However, Joseph Stalin eventually won the power struggle that followed Lenin's death in 1924, when Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), a supporter of the NEP, was expelled from the Politburo in 1929 and executed in 1938. Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 and exiled in 1929.

Like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1918 was plagued by excessive violence. The advent of new weapons and technology only aided an already volatile situation. Read this article which examines why the Russian Revolution descended into violence, and the long-term impact the terror had on the formation of the Soviet Union.

Violence before the Russian Revolution

Violence was rife in Russia even before the First World War and two revolutions of 1917, with international war (Russo-Japanese War), insurrection during the revolution of 1905, state repression and anti-Semitism.

In addition, Russian progressives saw Tsarist society as resting on a bedrock of violence due to its exclusion of most of its population (such as the lower classes and non-Russian nations) from the political process.

In reaction to this, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, underground cells of conspiratorial intellectuals and revolutionary martyrs assassinated thousands of figures associated with the state, including Tsar Alexander II himself in 1881. Such terrorism was effectively 'propaganda of the deed', aspiring to rouse the people against the government by example.

As well as the isolated acts of conspirators, pre-war Russian society also saw different types of collective violence, including working-class violence linked to strikes and other forms of labour unrest. The Russian Empire also became known for its 'pogroms': waves of anti-Jewish rioting which killed tens of thousands and sent millions of Russian Jews into exile.

An iconic moment of Tsarist state violence occurred on 22 January (Old Style: 9th January) 1905, known as 'Bloody Sunday', when government forces fired upon a demonstration which had been petitioning peacefully for political and social rights. The '1905 revolution' which followed has often been described as a predecessor to, or in Lenin's words, a 'dress-rehearsal' for, the larger and more explosive 1917 revolutions. 

After initially quelling this unrest with concessions and reforms, the Russian state made sweeping use of martial law and extraordinary measures – their arbitrary use of power creating an atmosphere of oppression.

Bloody Sunday in The Ninth Wave Journal

A Russian magazine commemorating the anniversary of 'Bloody Sunday'

Many historians have stressed the radicalising role of the First World War on this pre-existing violence. As a 'total' war fought with modern industrial methods, the First World War drew civilian populations into the conflict, helping to normalise violence and suffering. The war tested the European states to their limits and ultimately, in the defeated nations, brought their entire social systems into crisis.

The breakup of the Russian state throughout 1917 left a void of authority which many parties and organisations struggled to fill – the externalised violence of the war was redirected internally, and intensified.

Source: Mike Carey,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.