Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime

by Richard Pipes
Knopf, 587 pp., $35.00


Richard Pipes’s new volume takes its place beside its predecessor The Russian Revolution as a masterly account, which brings together the intricate story of the rise and consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, ending with the death of Lenin in 1924. Vladimir Brovkin, who earlier gave us an excellent study of the Mensheviks,1 has now admirably covered the role of the workers and the peasants, and of the political parties, in the Civil War. In many ways reinforcing and in other ways complementing Pipes, his book is a remarkable contribution to the history of the Revolution in its own right.

Pipes writes from a distinctive point of view, and explicitly rejects the call, heard from some academics, to be “non-judgmental.” He is quite right, for several reasons. First, as Lytton Strachey wrote of a work on the English Civil War by Samuel Gardiner, having no point of view it resembled nothing so much as a large heap of sawdust. Secondly, non-judgmental and supposedly “objective” historical writing merely conceals the unconscious prejudices of its proponents’ milieu. The right criterion (as Gibbon and Trevelyan saw) is whether a historian treats the evidence in good faith, and with Pipes the answer is clear:he does. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime is real history—a broad and human study of what has long been a misunderstood and misrepresented cycle of events. We can now, and largely because of Pipes’s work, see how the Bolshevik regime established itself.

Pipes tells us that recent research in Moscow “enabled me to modify and amplify certain parts of my narrative, but in not a single instance did it compel me to revise views which Ihad formed on the basis of printed sources and archives located in the West.” Vladimir Brovkin, a scholar now at Harvard who formerly worked in the USSR, might say the same. This is a major point for historians of the Soviet epoch. For there is a vast literature in the West, academic and other, which does not stand up to this test.

The period between 1917 and 1924 covered by Pipes and Brovkin was until recently the most poorly documented in Soviet history. Paradoxically the more recent and more repulsive Stalin epoch had been giving up some of its secrets as early as the 1950s, and many more were revealed in the 1980s. But in the USSR Leninism was repudiated later than Stalinism; and it remained a Soviet duty to uphold certain falsehoods concerning it, and therefore to prevent access to documents exposing its practices. Above all, the regime, as long as it lasted, was fundamentally committed to the idea that the Bolsheviks had the support of the workers.

Pipes was one of the first to do serious research on the actions and opinions of the workers in cities after 1917. As he says, the new material has thoroughly vindicated his view that the proletariat did not support the Bolsheviks. Vindicated? Yes, for old myths lasted longer in America and Britain than in Russia itself. Pipes has been accused of fighting old battles in rubbing this conclusion in. But to make such a charge is to underestimate the persistence of myth, the obstinacy of error. Indeed the idea of “worker” support for the Bolsheviks is even now not quite extinct.

From both Communist and non-Communist sources, Pipes makes clear, and Brovkin develops in unanswerable detail, that throughout Russia the workers, far from supporting the Bolsheviks, were continually taking part in strikes and mass protests against them; whenever they had the opportunity to vote they did so overwhelmingly not for Bolsheviks but for Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Almost all the “worker” Bolsheviks had become, as Zinoviev admitted, officials of the state and Party apparatus.

In fact by 1918 the Bolsheviks were, as Brovkin puts it, “without a clearly defined social base.” By the middle of that year the Bolshevik Party was no longer a political party in the old sense of the word, since “it no longer expressed the interests of any social group.” It had turned, Brovkin writes, into “a new social group in its own right.” When it came to the final showdown, the rebellion against the Bolsheviks by the sailors of the Baltic fleet based at Kronstadt, Pipes penetratingly remarks that the workers of Petrograd were just as hostile to the regime as the sailors were; the only difference was that the sailors had guns.

Brovkin describes not only the workers’ resistance to and insurrections against the Bolsheviks, but the general sequence of events in which people at every level of society at first hated the Bolsheviks and welcomed the Whites, then grew to hate the Whites and half-heartedly welcomed the Bolsheviks, and then rebelled against the Bolsheviks once more.

As for the peasants, it is hardly necessary to prove even to the most myopic Westerners that they were deeply hostile to the Bolsheviks. As Brovkin says, the peasant war against Lenin’s forces was larger, and more important for Russia’s future, than the fighting between the White and Red armies. The peasants fought alternately against Bolsheviks and Whites, and when the Whites had gone, and they were left to fight against the Bolsheviks alone, they were savagely repressed; the result was a lasting heritage of hatred on the part of the peasantry toward the new order. Pipes shows clearly how most of the intellectuals within the Bolshevik regime had no serious understanding of the different habits of mind of the peasantry, the narod. On the other hand he notes that the Social Revolutionary Party, originally organized during the early 1900s, was made up of intellectuals who had nevertheless succeeded in appealing to the peasantry. But the SRs, as he points out, were politically inept to an extravagant degree; and Brovkin’s analysis supports this. But what if they had managed to throw up a few effective leaders?

One of the major myths of pro-Soviet history was the idea that the West “tried to strangle the infant regime at birth”—by “intervention.” The metaphor of strangling is in any case slanted and the intervention could be described with a quite different phrase: that the Allies, say, were trying to “stamp out the plague before it spread.” But, as Pipes notes, though they made some military efforts these never amounted to much. The American unit in Siberia never fought at all; the incompetent French force on the Black Sea was easily brushed off. The efforts of British troops in Murmansk, who originally came there at the invitation of the local soviet, were a little more substantial, but even they only suffered a couple of hundred casualties. The vast anti-Bolshevik expeditions often referred to never occurred.

The Western powers did, indeed, support the Whites with arms and money, but these too were skimpy, and the supply was interrupted at critical moments. Pipes and most others appear to believe that the Whites could not have won in any case—at least after the withdrawal of the Czech Legion, World War I volunteers for Russia against Germany who had lately been fighting the Bolsheviks with great success. The argument is reasonably convincing, though history is full of examples of long odds paying off, and Lenin seems to have thought that the White commander, General Denikin, might be victorious—he told Molotov that, in case of defeat, “the Party will go underground.” As to the real Allied military effort, when it was wrongly reported that two British divisions had landed at Murmansk, Lev Karakhan, a leading Bolshevik, told the British officialBruce Lockhart (then a prisoner of the Cheka)the same thing—the Party would go underground. Certainly, quite a small force could have determined the outcome.

Ironically, as Pipes observes, virtually all the effectively organized units on both sides were non-Russian:the Czech Legion and, on the Red side, the Latvian riflemen—in both cases military units of World War I that had survived the disintegration of the rest of the old Russian army. The Latvians had in fact stepped in to save the Bolshevik regime as early as 1918 when it barely survived a poorly organized Left Social Revolutionary coup in Moscow, supposedly pro-Bolshevik Russian units failing to intervene. The later fate of the Latvians, including the Red commander-in-chief Ioakim Vatsetis, who went on to make a military career in the peacetime Red Army, was normal by Soviet standards. They were shot in the 1930s as spies for bourgeois Latvia.

The real argument against the theory that the Bolshevik regime was created in response to a wicked intervention is, of course, that Lenin himself regarded the entire struggle in Russia as an incident in an international civil war. As late as the failed campaign to conquer Warsaw in 1920 he intended the Red Army to carry the battle to Central Europe. Only the mutiny by the key Red commander, Nikifor Grigorev, who, in May 1919, “turned against Communist commissars and Jews” as Pipes puts it, prevented the planned Soviet attack on Romania, which was designed to link up with the Communist regime of Bela Kun in Hungary. The Red Army indeed was used to “intervene” and overthrow the temporarily independent governments in the Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Central Asia.

Churchill is almost alone among the Allied leaders in coming out well from Pipes’s story. He understood, as Lloyd George and most others did not, that Leninism’s dominating principle was unappeasable conflict, struggle to the death with the non-Communist regimes—just as he later understood Hitler when Chamberlain and the others failed to do so. Churchill also emerges well on another count:he strongly condemned the anti-Semitic excesses of some of the Whites.

Pipes quotes not only Lenin and Bukharin but also Marx on the necessity of civil war for any true revolution. The Russian civil war seems in any case inevitable, in that large elements of Russian society were bound to resist a small group such as the Bolsheviks imposing their control throughout the country on the strength of seizing the capital. And the civil struggle became in fact the testing ground of the Bolsheviks, in which military-type Leninist centralization of the Party prevailed against the disunited and contradictory ways of their opponents.

For the past few years there has been an understandable tendency in Russia to romanticize the White armies. While admirably fair to them, Pipes and Brovkin will have none of this, and they clearly describe the incompetence and brutality of most (though not all) of the anti-Bolshevik regimes and armies. It can be argued that a victory of the Whites would at least not have produced the totalitarian nightmare and have left a fair chance for a different political society to develop. But at the time, the “White Terror” was also a reality. The main difference was, as Brovkin puts it, that White Terror consisted of murdering, looting, and raping by rampaging soldiers, while politically taking the form of indiscriminate killing of socialists by undisciplined White officers. The Red Terror had much the same ingredients but was followed by an organized police terror, ordered from above.

Pipes and Brovkin are both exhaustive and illuminating in their accounts of the pogroms that accompanied the fighting between 1918 and 1922, and they fairly apportion the blame for them. The short-lived nationalist Ukrainian government of Semën Petlúra, which was hostile to both Whites and Bolsheviks, was not anti-Semitic, but could not control some of its soldiers. Some White forces were much more guilty than others, and Bolshevik troops in the fighting zones also left a trail of pogroms. In fact, of the several thousand documents of Lenin’s that were kept under lock and key until recently, many were kept secret specifically because they revealed the extent of the Red Army’s involvement in pogroms.

Still, over nine tenths of anti-Semitic pogroms and other excesses were committed by forces associated with the Whites. As Denikin’s army neared Moscow, Pipes writes, it “became increasingly infected with hatred of Jews and lust for vengeance for the miseries they had allegedly inflicted on Russia.” He adds, more broadly,

While it is absurd to depict the White movement as proto-Nazi, with anti-Semitism “a focal point of [its] world-view”—that was provided by nationalism—it is indisputable that the White officer corps, not to speak of the Cossacks, was increasingly dominated by it. Even so, it would be a mistake to draw any direct link between this emotional virulence and the anti-Jewish excesses during the Civil War…. The pogroms were inspired far less by religious and national passions than by ordinary greed:the worst atrocities on the White side were committed by the Terek Cossacks, who had never known Jews and regarded them merely as objects of extortion. Although the anti-Jewish pogroms had certain unique features, in a broader perspective they were part and parcel of the pogroms perpetrated at the time throughout Russia.

But the White leaders almost never, and never effectively, intervened to stop the killing.

As for the Bolsheviks, including Jewish Bolsheviks, they, as Pipes puts it, “subscribed to Marx’s view that the Jews were not a nation but a social caste of a very pernicious and exploitative kind.” And apart from Red Army pogroms, many Jews were executed by the Bolsheviks as bourgeois—prefiguring the Stalinist view. Nor were the Jews themselves generally pro-Soviet. As Pipes points out, even in the elections in 1917, the Bolsheviks got very few votes in the regions of the old Jewish settlement.

The Bolsheviks did not permit pogroms in territories where they had established control, but for political reasons they did not publicize pogroms in the areas controlled by Whites. Pipes concludes that “the only prominent public figure to condemn the pogroms openly and unequivocally was the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon.”


The sheer atrociousness of the Civil War emerges from both books. As Brovkin puts it, “fighters in the field [of all the armies] always seemed to get out of control,” and the Civil War “incorporated mass murder into the routine of government.” It “meant a profound brutalization of society and especially of its new ruling class.” And, he adds,

The militarization of Bolshevik political culture was also a result of the intellectual void Bolshevism found itself in since it isolated itself from the political community of the rest of the nation. Once everybody else was an enemy, there was no one to argue with anymore…. The self-imposed intellectual isolation of Bolshevism contributed to its militarization, sterilization, and eventual hollowness decades later.

Only about a quarter of Pipes’s book deals with the Civil War. The rest is concerned with the further consolidation of the Bolsheviks’ political grip, and this he describes well. Anyone who has any remaining illusions about Bolshevik good faith should read his chapter on the trial of the Social Revolutionary leaders. Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, the lot of them, appear publicly as shameless liars, bullies, inciters of mob prejudice, perverters of justice. The trial, Pipes writes,

resembled more agit-prop theater than a tribunal:the actors were hand-picked, their roles assigned, the evidence made up, a suitable atmosphere of violence created to justify conviction, the sentences predetermined by party organs, and the “masses” involved as in street theater….

On June 20, the authorities organized a massive demonstration in Moscow’s Red Square. The crowd, in the midst of which the presiding judge marched alongside the prosecutor, demanded death sentences for the defendants. Bukharin harangued the crowd. The accused were forced to appear on the balcony and expose themselves to the jeers and threats of the mob. Later, a hand-picked “delegation” was let into the courtroom and screamed “Death to the murderers!” Bukharin…praised the lynching rabble for articulating the “voice of the workers.”

Some of the details in Pipes’s account of the squalid and obscure Terror of the period might be queried. For example, as in his previous volume, he accepts the traditional version of the attempt on Lenin’s life in Moscow in August 1918—that it was carried out by the half-blind revolutionary Fanny Kaplan. She was indeed shot for it, but Moscow researchers now tell us that the files show no evidence against her apart from her being among the many people nearby: a brilliant young scholar in the US, Semion Lyandres, presented the case in model fashion a few years ago,2 and the facts are still uncertain, to say the least. This is a minor point in the great sweep of events Pipes describes;but (as with other Russian assassinations like those of Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin in 1910 and of Kirov in 1934) it looks as if the story may be murkier than at first appears. There is some suggestion that Iakov Sverdlov, the CPleader in charge of Party organization, might somehow have been involved. At any rate, doubts remain.

Pipes gives long and effective accounts of the Communist assault on religion in the early 1920s and of the regime’s use of “culture as propaganda” through censorship and monopoly of all cultural organizations. He writes that “in the first decade the Communists displayed a tolerance for independent creativity that was quite absent from their politics and economics,” but he goes on to show that the Bolsheviks failed badly in many cultural matters. “The ideal of universal primary and secondary education,” he writes, “came nowhere near realization—indeed…by the time of Lenin’s death, compared to tsarist times, the number of both schools and pupils had regressed.”

But Pipes is concerned not only with the Bolsheviks’ victory in Russia but also with the effects of that victory on the world as a whole. He recounts Lenin’s launching of the myopically Russocentric, or Bolshevik-centered, Comintern and its early disasters. When European Communist parties emerged in 1920, the Bolsheviks, working through the Comintern,

were unable to use them effectively because they insisted on their adopting the strategy and tactics of coup d’état and civil war used in Russia. This was not feasible, if only because the anarchy the Bolsheviks had exploited in their own country did not exist in Western Europe: even in Germany, an effective government was in place three months after the Kaiser’s abdication.

Pipes has no difficulty in showing that Mussolini emerged from the top layer of radical socialism—when Molotov was editing Pravda, Mus-solini was editing Avanti!. Mussolini’s discovery, during World War I, that nation was more important than class changed this, though the early Fascist leadership was almost entirely from the left. Lenin and Trotsky are both on record as thinking that Mussolini was the one man who could revolutionize Italy. And it is remarkable how many Communist leaders from Italy and France later became Fascist. Fascism in its original form can thus be seen as in a sense a sibling of Communism: both are based on a dictatorship supposedly representing a transcendent mass entity, as against the idea of individuals with rights within a civic order. But of course there is more to be said than that, as Robert Paxton has so well shown in his recent article in these pages.3

The link between Communism and National Socialism, which Pipes then explores, is a far more refractory matter. Pipes seems to imply that Hitler got the idea of the centralized, militarized party from the Bolsheviks. Perhaps:but even in the sciences, Newton and Leibnitz, and the astronomers Adams and Leverrier, made the same discoveries independently; and the general idea of a ruthless centralized party is anyhow hardly a new one. Pipes’s phraseology seems to overstress the links between Hitler and the Bolsheviks. Hitler, after all, was not Lenin’s heir. Unlike Mussolini, Hitler did not emerge from the old socialist movement. But he did emerge from the vaguely radical “café intellectual” milieu of the time. It is sometimes suggested that Communism can be broadly seen as a product, however perverse, of the Enlightenment tradition, and National Socialism of the Counter-Enlightenment. In a formal sense, there is some validity to such arguments:Communists can be said to rely in principle on the “rational” and Nazis on the “instinctual.” Partly because of this different genealogy, Pipes has been criticized for overstressing the linkage of the two movements.

In trying to understand the intricate web of causation and interrelation that makes up the history of human ideas and actions, we should doubtless not dismiss the influence of older trends of thought. All the same, the distinction between reason and instinct as usually stated is surely too broad. In the first place “reason” is no guarantee against mania; as G.K. Chesterton once wrote, a madman is one who has lost everything except his reason. Secondly, the Communists also appealed to instinct:time and again they cited “class instinct” as a sure means of detecting guilt. But above all, as Hugh Seton Watson put it, “Moral nihilism is not only the central feature of National Socialism, but also the common factor between it and Bolshevism.”

The truly distinctive doctrine of National Socialism was the anti-Semitism that was part of its theories of Aryan racial superiority. In fact, the Nazis were not at first particularly hostile to Communism; they changed this attitude when they accepted the propaganda of certain Whites that it was a Jewish phenomenon. Even in later years Hitler used to refer to the German Communist rank and file as “sturdy fellows” who had been misled by Judeo-Marxists.

Pipes links Hitler’s anti-Semitism to the Russian variant, and above all the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide4 has earlier given the classic account of this influence. Hitler certainly accepted the Protocols as true, but he was anti-Semitic long before he came across them. They derive, moreover, from medieval prejudice, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism was developed from modern, supposedly “scientific,” theories of race, biology, eugenics, which can be traced early in the century even in the pronouncements of progressives like H.G. Wells. We find, in the 1930s, many professors in German universities accepting racial theories as sound. Others had, of course, been silenced even before 1933 by the harassment of the large body of politically correct Nazi students.

Pipes has been criticized as anti-Russian. He is said to treat Soviet Communism with too much emphasis on the inherited political archaism of Russia and too little on the non-Russian ideological ingredients derived from Marx. Of course any analysis of the mixture of influences must include both; but it can hardly be maintained that Communism was no more than a continuation of Russian history. Tsarism may have been the most repressive regime in Europe:but if we take the total executions between 1860 and 1914 (mostly of terrorists between 1905 and 1910), and add in all the other victims of civil repression such as the pogroms, we can hardly reach a figure of 20,000. The current estimate just for executions during 1937 and 1938 is nearly two million. To use the terms of the dialectic, this is surely an overwhelming case of the quantitative becoming the qualitative. And, indeed, Lenin’s regime was already far more violently repressive than anything seen for generations.

As Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, Russian history, in addition to glum oppression and anarchic revolt, contained elements of civic responsibility, and from the 1860s onward the bases of modern society were starting to emerge. Lenin’s achievement was to destroy these as yet inadequate beginnings. In this sense Pipes is doubtless right to say that the older, more ruthless traditions of Russia were powerfully reincarnated in Communist rule. The Civil War itself lowered the country to a level of internecine ferocity not seen for centuries. Moreover, as Pipes points out, though November 1920 “marked the close of the Civil War in the military sense of the term; in the political and social senses, it would never really end.”

How different is Russia today?Brovkin notes that in the revolutionary period the “tragedy of Russian society was its disjointedness, the lack of understanding between its diverse parts.” But he also remarks on the persistence with which Russian workers demanded free soviets and independent unions, in strike after strike, year after year. This record suggests that a democratic political culture had roots at least among the workers, while it took an all-out Bolshevik terror to destroy it. Thus one can see good omens as well as bad during the early years of the Bolshevik regime.

Can a consensual society emerge now?Or could, on the other hand, the archaic, uncivic Russia of which Pipes speaks be the one to fill the gap left by the collapse of Marxism-Leninism?The tsarist statesman Sergei Witte wrote of the Black Hundreds early in the century that their

patriotism is primitive, it is based not on reason and generosity but on passion. Most of its leaders are political upstarts, people with unclean ways of thinking and feeling; they have not a single viable political idea and concentrate all their efforts on unleashing the lowest possible impulses in the benighted, savage masses… This party can instigate the most frightful pogroms and convulsions, but it is incapable of anything positive. It embodies a wild, nihilistic patriotism which thrives on lies, slander and deceit, it is a party of wild and cowardly despair but has no room for courageous, far-sighted, creative thinking. The bulk of the membership comes from the wild, ignorant masses, its leaders are political villains….

Does that sound familiar? The game is yet to be played out. The chances for avoiding another dictatorship seem much better, very much better, than in 1918. Still, one must agree with Brovkin’s final remarks, “Russia is desperately searching for its new identity and its place in the world. One can only hope that its transition to a modern and complex society will not lead this time to a catastrophe like the one the country experienced in 1917-22.” n


Who Is to Blame? August 11, 1994

  1. 1

    The Mensheviks After October: Socialist Opposition and the Rise of the Bolshevik Dictatorship (Cornell University Press, 1988).

  2. 2

    In Slavic Review, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Fall, 1989), pp. 432-448.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, June 23, 1994.

  4. 4

    Scholars Press, 1981.