Describe the problems that faced the Bolsheviks in their first year in government and their solutions

This is what Lenin announced as he came into power in November of 1917. It is argued that this was completed within the first couple of years of his ruling, though as with any new government, the first year was the most difficult. Many problems were encountered within that time, some handed from the previous provisional government, and others from the Bolsheviks themselves.

The first of these large problems was an international one, and that was World War One. Russia had been fighting alongside the British and the French against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The war had begun in 1914 and was currently draining Russia of its few precious resources, such as food, coal and iron. Being a Socialist movement, the Bolsheviks aim was to instigate peace.1 War went against their main beliefs, and this therefore had to be dealt with straight away. One of Karl Marx’s most famous quotes was “No nation which oppresses others can itself be free” and Lenin was a great admirer of Marx and his theories on Communism. Not only this, but if the war had continued and had been won, Lenin was afraid that Germany may claim some of their land in victory, and this is something he wanted to avoid at all costs.

Therefore it seemed logical to withdraw from the war altogether. Lenin sent Trotsky, his second in command, to negotiate a treaty, which meant they could pull out from World War One. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March of 1918 but was not all that Russia had hoped for. Unfortunately some of the clauses of the treaty meant that Russia lost out greatly. Large quantities of territory were lost, along with the population that inhabited it and the industry that was there too. This meant that a country already far behind the rest of the Western world industrially, had taken another large blow. The land lost was also extremely valuable, in terms of farming, agriculture and industry, which added to the growing shortages of food and employment within Russia. However, peace was what Lenin had promised and thus peace was what he had to deliver.

Upon seeing this loss of land, other parts of the Russian Empire saw their chance to claim independence. At this point in time, Russia was full off different languages, religions and races, and the timing of the Treaty and the chaos of World War One gave them an excuse to break free. Polish and Ukrainian independence had been greatly encouraged by the Germans, as they saw it would stir up trouble within Russia. Along with Poland and Ukraine; Transcaucasia2, Don Cossacks, Byelorussia, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Lithuania all claimed their independence from Russia. Again, Lenin had to let this go ahead for many reasons. The first of which was rather short term, in that they simply had to go along with it, as they couldn’t stop it. Any attempt to stop these states’s independence would only create more opposition to the Bolshevik ruling, which they could not afford. They would also be contradicting themselves on the Bolshevik’s belief of freedom. Marxism is the belief of finding freedom, or independence, for oneself, and therefore stopping this from happening is the direct opposite to what the Reds believed in. Also the Provisional Government that they had taken over had promised independence to certain states, and this was not something they could go against. However in the long term, Lenin believed that these newly formed states would want to rejoin the Russian Empire, once Communism was introduced properly, as they would see the outstanding benefits of it. This was not so, and only Don Cossacks was reunited with Russia after the Civil War. Rather ironically, only the Jewish people were loyal to Russia throughout all this, despite being branded as traitors and conspirators by the Germans they were fighting.

As a consequence of the Treaty, many Russians felt betrayed and greatly opposed this defeatist exit to the war. These were mainly the army Generals who had fought so hard for the good of their country, and the supporters of the Tsar who had abdicated the previous year, who wanted to reinstate dignity into Russia.3

It was not easy for the Bolsheviks to try and maintain a state of calm throughout the country, as to begin with they only held power in Petrograd. They had gained power by means of revolution and not by the elections usually held. For this reason they had a large opposition in the form of many different kinds of social and political groups. The Provisional Government that they had overthrown had organised elections to take place in the months following Lenin’s rise to power. Wanting to keep the majority happy and on their side, the Bolsheviks agreed to continue with the scheduled election.

During the run up to this event, Lenin and the Bolsheviks concentrated on raising their profile and issuing decrees that they thought would please the electorate. These included abolishing ranks in the army, eliminating titles for people4, setting strict working hours which meant workers had an 8-hour working day and no more. However, these decrees were ideological and impossible to put into practise. For example, with the economic decline, it was unfeasible and illogical to send workers home at a certain time, when food and money were in such shortages. People simply had to work longer to survive. Of course, it was easy to declare such decrees, but Russia was an expansive country and the Bolsheviks only really had Petrograd under control, and so implementing these decrees across the entire land was almost hopeless. It seemed that the solutions the Bolsheviks had tried to apply just created more problems. This became more so, when the results of the elections arrived.

The Bolsheviks believed that after all the decrees they had passed to keep different social groups happy, that they would win the election by a large margin. However this was not the case. They only came second, to the Socialist Revolutionaries.5 The SR’s took their place in the Constituent Assembly, which Lenin was not happy about. The Assembly was meant to provide a broad-based type of government, whereas Lenin wanted his party in control. He sent in the Red Guards to shut this Assembly down and force the SR’s to hand over power to the Bolsheviks once again. This worked, and the Reds joined with the extreme Left SR’s to form a coalition government. Lenin believed this would still keep the mass electorate satisfied, although the Left-Wing SR’s broke off from the Bolsheviks a few years later.

However, the tension between the Bolsheviks and other parties and social groups did not end there. In 1918 Civil War broke out in Russia, primarily between the Reds and the Whites, however every party that was opposed to the Bolshevik rule join in on the Whites side. This occurred as a result of the shutting down of the Constituent Assembly, and because of the scare of Communist revolutions across the world. The Allies decided to join the Civil War a few weeks in, and fought against the Bolsheviks. They also feared that the setting up of a Communist ruling within Russia would prompt other nations to do the same. They were angry at the fact that Russia had withdrawn from the war in such a defeatist manner.

At this time, the Bolsheviks had introduced the Cheka into Russian society. This was lead by Felix Dzerzhinsky and was aimed to be a secret police force. However the Cheka’s tactics were far from discreet. It is estimated that by 1924 the Cheka had executed more that 250,000 people. Different sections of the Cheka had preferred methods of torturing and killing citizens who did not comply with the Communist way of living. For example, in Kiev they placed rebels in a coffin with a decaying corpse, buried them alive and then half an hour later dug them out again.6 The Cheka were heavily involved in the Bolsheviks defence during the Civil War and were renamed the Red Terror because of the horror they inflicted into people’s lives. The brutality of this force, however, went against traditional Communist teachings that oppression is not the way forwards, but backwards in a growing society. This was conveniently overlooked during this period.

Nevertheless, using the power of the Red Terror and the existing Red Army, the Bolsheviks were triumphant in the Civil War. This was mainly due to the weakness of their opposition, rather than the strength of their attack. Although it was mainly Whites that were fighting the Bolsheviks, many other social groups were involved too, from all different parts of Russia. They were united under one common trait – the hatred of the Communists, but as a whole they were not united together, for they believed in several different causes. For this reason it made their attack less effective, as the Bolsheviks could pick off the smaller armies one by one, rather than face them all at once. The physical expanse of Russia made this easier still. The Tsarists, those who wanted the monarchy back in power, were causing more trouble than the Reds had foreseen and so, in July of 1918, the remains of the Romanov family were taken into the woods of Siberia, shot and buried, to show that the Bolsheviks were truly in control.

Other reasons for winning the Civil War included Lenin’s good friend Leon Trotsky. He was an excellent strategist and war leader. He instigated the belief into the troops that they were fighting for a better Russia, one that they could be proud of and one that they had helped to build up themselves. Lenin also introduced War Communism, which ended up having more negative consequences than good. The government began taking food from the peasants making it, and supplied it to the troops and workers. The Cheka were involved in this as well, shooting anyone who was found to be keeping food, or producing more than they needed. Factories were nationalised and once again the 8-hour working day was forced upon the people. This produced serious backlash and lost the Bolsheviks support, however this was regained when the war had been won. The Cheka continued to function well after the war was over, which was unpopular with the citizens of Russia, as Communism was meant to provide a freedom for all people, rather than be oppressed. This made people conform, but through fear rather than actual desire.

The Civil War had devastated the Russian economy, possibly even more so than World War One, and because of the effects of the land loss from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. There was a great shortage of food, as a result of War Communism, a shortage of money, because of the expenses of the wars and a shortage of work, due to lack of money. Although Lenin hadn’t constructed an economic plan for when he came into power, he had to create one quickly, to make Russia into a thriving nation again. Lenin had believed that as Capitalism died away, a new Socialist economy would surface. However when it did not, Lenin created a plan to see Russia through this period of hardship – he called this State Capitalism.7

This idea would focus on nationalisation and eradication of Capitalist methods, although the word ‘Capitalism’ in the name would seem to suggest otherwise. Lenin believed that if the state’s main industries were nationalised, then Capitalist business people would not be gaining all the profit, and instead, the money created from these would go straight to the state. Thus, everyone would be working for the good of the state, with no one being more profitable than others. The first of these industries to be nationalised, was the state control of the banks. However there was an adverse reaction to this proposition, as the bank workers went on strike before this could be implemented. This made the industry come to a stand still, because with no banks in operation wages could not be paid. A decree was also passed announcing Russia’s refusal to pay off any debts to her allies, firstly because they could not afford to, and because of their hatred of Capitalism.

Further measures were taken to hand over total control of the factories to the workers. However this produced repercussions when some workers used the factories for their own benefit. It seemed that after such a long period under Capitalism, people could not help going back to that it, even though the workers were the ones supposedly supporting the Bolsheviks. Lenin had hoped that workers could run the factories in harmony with equal share in both work and pay, but this did not occur. When he saw that his plan was not going ahead as intended, he created a Supreme Economic Council called the Vesenkha. This was a group of people who Lenin believed could bring cooperation within the factories. But this was seen as a new hierarchical system in the industry, which is what the voters had thought would be abolished under Bolshevik ruling. This, as well as the entire State Capitalism idea, was seen as extremely anti-Communist.

As a last final resort, Lenin issued a decree on land. This got rid of any private ownership of land. It opposed Capitalist moneymaking schemes and allowed peasants to take land as they wished, as their own to farm, cultivate and look after. The only ruling was that they were not allowed to employ anyone else to do their work – the land had to be looked after by themselves only. Obviously the peasants were not used to this way of being treated and became greedy. Peasants took more land than they could afford to keep, and as result lots went to waste. Other peasants had very small amounts of land and could not make enough food to survive. This resulted in yet worse problems with food shortages in the cities, whilst some of the peasants thrived in the countryside.

In all, it seemed that some of the policies introduced by Lenin had made Russia worse off than before, and some were even saying that the reign of Tsar Nicholas II was a better one to live under, rather than this Bolshevik rule. Many of the Russian citizens saw that Lenin was only thinking of short-term solutions to the problems that had occurred, rather than thinking of the long-term options and contemplating the consequences of the decrees and strategies before he put them into practise. However, we have to remember that all this was in Lenin’s first year of power and, like all leaders; he faced many problems that needed dealing with. Lenin did the best he could to cope with these given the position he was in, and it is debatable that anyone else could have done better in the circumstances.

Lenin continued to lead the Russian people, later developing the New Economic Plan, and was only replaced upon his death in 1924 by Stalin. Petrograd was renamed Leningrad in his honour.