The radical democracy that the Russian revolutions of 1917 represented was overwhelmed by the harsh realities of the next three years. Several factors led to its demise.
Lenin, Trotsky, and other leaders of the October Revolution had anticipated an international wave of revolutions. They believed that such revolutions would grow out of working-class resentment over long-standing exploitation and oppression, heightened by revulsion for the massive slaughter of World War I and inspired by the revolutionary events in Russia. They were sure that these revolutions would bring about the creation of working-class socialist regimes in more industrialized countries and that these new regimes would come to Russia’s aid. A wave of radical mass strikes and uprisings in many countries did take place from 1918 to 1920, but the new Communist parties in these countries were relatively inexperienced. Attempts at socialist revolutions outside of Russia were not successful. Consequently, Soviet Russia found itself isolated in a hostile capitalist world.
The efforts of the Soviet government to pull Russia out of World War I also proved more difficult than anticipated. Representatives of the Soviet government, with Trotsky as the leading negotiator, met with German representatives from December 1917 through January 1918 at Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus). They found themselves putting forward their own revolutionary principles against the German negotiators’ threats of further military action and demands for territory and resources. Trotsky hoped that working-class uprisings in Germany and Austria would soon cut the ground out from under his opponents.
He therefore played for time, and he ultimately declared that Russia was simply withdrawing from the war regardless of the demands of imperial Germany. At this point, the Germans launched a military offensive that overcame the disintegrated Russian army.
Germany quickly captured a broad belt of territory, as well as many prisoners and resources. The German government then put forth even harsher peace terms. Trotsky’s failure at the peace talks led to another crisis that undermined soviet democracy. After a fierce debate, Lenin persuaded a Communist Party majority in the government to accept the harsh peace terms. The Left SRs strongly opposed any agreement to the German demands, which included Russia’s giving up the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and Ukraine. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918, and the Left SRs angrily walked out of the government and began organizing against both the peace settlement and the Communists. The Left SRs had a far better understanding of realities among the peasants than did the Communists. Their departure from the government opened the way for serious (sometimes even criminal) misjudgments by the government in dealing with the rural population. In particular, efforts to secure grain from the countryside in order to relieve bread shortages in the cities resulted in violent conflicts that undermined support for the Communist regime.
At the same time, members of other left-wing groups also began organizing against the government, in some cases through armed violence. The Cadets and forces that wanted to restore the tsarist regime prepared for civil war.
Some of these elements were working with foreign governments, including those of Britain, France, and the United States. These and other nations imposed a devastating economic blockade on Russia to strangle the Soviet government. They also gave substantial material support to counterrevolutionary armies (and even sent some of their own troops) to help overthrow the Soviet regime. During this civil war, the Communists were often called Reds (from the traditional color of left-wing banners) and the counterrevolutionaries were known as Whites.
In this situation of civil war and foreign invasion, the Communists had to build an effective military force as rapidly as possible to defend the new regime. Trotsky was given the responsibility of organizing a Red Army and leading it to victory. The hard-fought victories were heroic but costly and brutalizing. The Cheka was given expanded powers to deal with internal enemies (actual and potential) of the revolution. The death penalty, initially abolished by the Soviet regime, was reestablished. Increasing restrictions were placed on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. Opposition parties were banned, allowed to operate again, and banned again at various points. In 1918 there were assassination attempts against Lenin and other Communists, combined with even more substantial forms of violence organized by opponents of the regime. In response, the Cheka organized the countermeasure of a massive Red Terror, a campaign in which suspected opponents of the revolution were arrested and often executed. Although the peasantry had become hostile to the Communists, they supported them, fearing that a victory by the Whites would result in a return to the monarchy. Poorly organized and without widespread support, the Whites were defeated by the Red Army in 1920. "Russia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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