This month, commemorations will be held in towns and cities across Russia to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Whilst the state and system that the revolution gave birth to – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Soviet communism – is no longer in existence today, the positive legacy of this pivotal event in history has endured in modern-day Russia. Indeed, as a result of the political, economic and social carnage of the 1990s in Russia, stemming directly from the collapse of the Soviet system, and which Russians continue to be haunted by to this very day, the legacy of what was officially known in the USSR as the Great October Socialist Revolution continues to receive more and more prominence within all age groups in Russia today, including the young.
February 1917 by Nikolai Dolgorukov
It is also the case that people from outside of Russia will also be commemorating the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, such was the magnitude of the event and what it meant, in practice, to ordinary people the length and breadth of the world.
So what did the Bolshevik Revolution initiate? And why is its legacy so significant for Russians and others peoples, too?
The coming to power in Russia of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party, on 7th October, 1917, ushered in the first socialist state in history. For the first time, the ordinary man and woman had reached the pinnacle of power in a country. And their views and needs would now be at the core of decision-making in Russia.
The Bolsheviks quickly began carrying out reforms which would both inspire people around the world and set a precedent for other countries to replicate.
The Soviet Union, in 1920, was the first country in history to introduce free healthcare for its citizens. For the first time ever, all Russians, regardless of background, would be entitled to free medical treatment, including medications and operations. That was a truly remarkable reform and one that enabled the Bolsheviks to claim, with justification, the moral high ground over the capitalist world. Furthermore, progressive politicians in other countries, such as those from the Labour Party in Britain, were inspired by the Soviets’ healthcare system and this significantly contributed to their campaign for a National Health Service in the UK, which eventually came about in 1948. Incidentally, British politicians and journalists, today, erroneously claim that the UK was the first country in the world to give birth to a national healthcare system; this accolade actually goes to the Soviet Union.
Today, it is all too easy to take for granted a national healthcare system. And we should always remember that in 2017 the United States still does not provide free healthcare to its people; in America, the concept of treating its citizens for free is regarded by American politicians and, sadly, many doctors as being at odds with the American way of life, which is, in essence, about putting money and profits before the welfare of people. So whilst the Russian people have been enjoying free healthcare for nearly 100 years as a result of the Bolshevik revolution, the American system continues, to this very day, to deny its own people this most fundamental of human rights.
Education was another area that the Bolsheviks completely overhauled and, in doing so, set a shining example to the rest of the world. Compulsory education for all Soviet children was introduced, while higher education – in colleges and universities – was made free. The Soviets constantly emphasised to children and young people the importance of education and reading, and this would eventually result in the Soviet Union having one of the most skilled labour forces in the world, together with a highly educated population.
Illiteracy in the Soviet Union, which had plagued the old Russia and handicapped her economic and industrial endeavours, was eliminated within a relatively short period of time by the Bolsheviks. By 1900, literacy levels in Imperial Russia was less than 30 per cent; however, by the end of the 1930s, literacy in Soviet Russia was approximately 75 per cent, and by the end of the 1950s this figure had risen to nearly 100 per cent. [Editor’s note: For comparison purposes, by 1950, the literacy rate in the UK was 90%.]
Poster: Who introduced anti-Semitism to the Tsardom of Russia?
‘Anti-Semitism is the conscious counter-revolution. Anti-Semites are our class enemies. Who introduced Anti-Semitism to the Tsardom of Russia? Your enemies are: the Tsar, the minister, the priest, the land-owner, the general, the policeman…all these organised pogroms and the persecution of Jews.’
Source: Marx Memorial Library (MML)
The Bolsheviks averred that the right to a free and good quality education was the right of all children and young people in Russia. And by having created an education system that was one of the most revered in the world, the Soviets laid the foundation for the USSR to eventually become one of the leading countries in science, engineering, medicine, industry, space and health.
Healthcare and education were, indisputably, two of the greatest achievements of Soviet communism, and following 1945 the communist countries in Eastern Europe emulated the Soviet system, which yielded tremendously successful results for their respective populations. The rest of the world marvelled at the Soviet education system.
In England today, the education system has largely been turned into a business. Infant and primary schools are rapidly turning into academies, which is privatisation by the backdoor, while universities charge students, on undergraduate courses, an average of £9,000 per year – and this does not even include accommodation costs. The UK should be ashamed of itself.
The next area that the Bolsheviks excelled in was the emancipation of women. How many women in the world today, when celebrating International Women’s Day, on March 8, know that the origins of this day are to be found in Soviet Russia? Because Lenin gave women the same rights as men in political and social matters; so, for instance, women and men were afforded equal pay, women were given the vote and were free to enter politics, and a minimum wage was introduced in which both sexes were paid equally. The Bolsheviks also introduced paid maternity-leave and legalised abortion.
The Soviet Union was a beacon in the world for women’s rights and gave a whole new meaning to gender equality. And the fact that the first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova – was a Soviet speaks volumes about the Bolsheviks’ contribution in bringing equality to women.
The overriding importance of industrialisation was not lost on the Soviets, especially Joseph Stalin. What the Soviets achieved in industrialising Russia was nothing short of a miracle.
While by 1914 Imperial Russia was starting to industrialise, the Tsars did not have the foresight or drive to put together a strategy for industrialising the country on the scale required. However, within a very short period of time, beginning in the late 1920s and lasting throughout the 1930s, Soviet Russia was industrialised on a scale never witnessed before in history, which saw the country go from a backward, peasant economy-based one to a modern, industrialised one. Now, it is true that much of that industrialisation was achieved at a terrible human cost, with Stalin attaching no importance at all to the individual (it must be said, however, that Russians have historically favoured collectivism over individualism, and Peter the Great was one such Tsar who used similar methods to Stalin in strengthening Russia, though not on the same scale – but his mindset was, nevertheless, the same as the Soviet leader). Despite the human cost, which should never be forgotten, Stalin transformed the USSR into a country whose industrial sector matched that of the West’s. As the saying goes, Stalin found Russia with the wooden spoon and left it with the atomic bomb.
The industrialisation of the USSR was to benefit the Soviet people for decades but, most importantly, it played a cardinal role in the Red Army’s victory over the Wehrmacht and thereby help to save the Soviet people from extermination at the hands of the Nazis. The Imperial Russian Army collapsed in the Great War because it did not have the required industrial sector to sustain it on the front line. But the Red Army had a juggernaut of an industrial sector that enabled it to firstly blunt the German armies and then eventually to destroy them. Russia is in existence today partly as a consequence of the Soviets’ industrialisation of the country. That is a legacy of the October Revolution which is sacred.
There were so many achievements stemming from the Bolshevik Revolution that I simply do not have enough room, here in this article, to mention them all. From engineering to science to space to sports to the military to transport to literature – the list is almost endless. But I would like to tackle, albeit briefly, negative appraisals on the Bolshevik Revolution which exist in the world today.
Firstly, there were, undeniably, terrible excesses in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, with many innocent people being arrested and executed. And the crimes committed by Stalin, in particular during the 1930s, remain, and justifiably so, a bloody stain on the Soviet era. But the Tsars also committed heinous crimes against their own people, while countries such as Britain and America also have dark and bloody episodes in their respective histories. Tens of millions of Indians died because of British rule in India, while millions of Native Americans perished because of the actions of European Americans. No country and no people are saints – not America, not Britain and not Russia. Human beings can be extraordinarily enlightened but can also be extraordinarily brutal. And the history of the world proves that.
Secondly, the Bolsheviks’ public campaign for atheism and their subsequent persecution of all religions in the Soviet Union, especially Christianity, requires a far more impartial and in-depth discourse than what is currently occurring in modern-day Russia.
Many priests were killed and many churches and monasteries were destroyed on the orders of the Soviet authorities, representing a dark chapter in Soviet history. Whilst the actions of the Bolsheviks can never be justified, on the grounds of humanity and culture, they can be explained. Because the Russian Orth0dox Church, during the years of the Tsars, was far from innocent. The church was the spiritual defender of the absolute and brutal monarchs who ruled Russia over hundreds of years, and for this the church was rewarded with great prominence in Russia society, resulting in it accumulating vast amounts of wealth and land. While the ordinary Russian was living in abject poverty and without a means to education and healthcare, the leadership of the church was living a life of luxury and privilege and was indifferent to the suffering of the Russian people. Senior priests were leading a lifestyle which totally contradicted the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was therefore inevitable that anger and resentment amongst the Russian population towards the church was widespread by the turn of the twentieth-century. And it was that anger and resentment which explained why the Soviet authorities, supported by significant numbers of Russians, began a brutal campaign against the church. Action, reaction. Unacceptable behaviour by the church was met with an unacceptable response from the Bolsheviks.
Russia, throughout its history, has achieved many remarkable feats. That was the case under both the Tsars and the Communists. Russian history is one of the richest, most magnificent, most captivating and most mysterious in recorded history. Russians have much to be proud of as a people; they have made invaluable contributions to mankind.
The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it truly was, is another glorious episode in the history of Russia and, without a doubt, one of its greatest. The revolution gave birth to a country which would eventually become a superpower and the most powerful state in Russian history. But, even more importantly than that, the revolution gave the Russian people and, indeed, all of the others peoples who went from being citizens of the Russian Empire to citizens of the USSR, something they had never really experienced before: security and stability, in the form of education, healthcare, jobs, housing, welfare and pensions.
The Bolshevik Revolution is when the needs of the ordinary man and woman, for the first time in human history, came to the fore in a country and dictated government policy. That is something to rejoice about, especially in a world today where the focus is on money and materialism, with little attention given to providing the ordinary person with the fundamentals in life. Let us celebrate, with pride, on 7th October, the centenary of a most remarkable event in history.