One hundred years ago today, Bolshevik forces led by Vladimir Lenin provoked an uprising in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), the then-capital of the Russian Republic. After only eight months in power, the Provisional Government that had been formed after the February Revolution was swept aside and a Soviet republic emerged in its place.
The October Revolution shocked the world and proved that, when fighting for a common cause, the public can have the power to demand more from their governments and even topple them and form their own system. The actions of Lenin and the many other revolutionaries inspired a generation of workers, particularly in the rise of the trade unions in the Western world, the Labour movement in the United Kingdom, and also in the decolonisation movement.
In addition, the state that emerged from the Revolution became one of the two superpowers of the latter half of the 20th century. The Soviet Union not only enjoyed a surge in industrial production, which helped significantly during the Second World War, but also full employment and a better level of female equality than that experienced in the West. As well as this, peasants and those from less privileged backgrounds were able to climb to high positions in society, even to the leadership of the country in Khrushchev’s case.
But despite all the positive change made by the Soviet Union, its record is tarnished for its history of authoritarianism, oppression and destruction of lives not loyal to the leadership or to the cause. Soon after the October Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks created the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Later evolving into the KGB, troops belonging to them policed labour camps, ran Gulags that killed millions and subjected political opponents to torture and execution. In addition, Stalin’s regime brought about further misery, by instigating a genocide in Ukraine by starving the population there and launching a brutal crack down on anyone deemed to be an ‘enemy of the people’ in what become known as the Great Purge. For all this, it has left a stain on the ideology of communism that none of the Soviet leaders were able to wash off.
Today, Russia is run by a man who represents what the revolutionaries a century ago had fought to consign to the dustbin of history. In the same way that the Revolution toppled one authoritarian regime only to spawn another, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has resulted in the creation of an another autocratic state, which exercises strict control over the media, silences opposition voices and distracts from domestic issues by whipping up nationalistic sentiment. In addition, corruption remains rife – as it had in the Soviet Union and in the Russian Empire before it.
The legacy of the October Revolution remains complex a century on, but it is clear that the aim of the revolutionaries that stormed Petrograd a hundred years ago today – of a society run in the interests of the people and not to serve the wealthy – has not been realised.