Russia After the Bolshevik Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Lenin took charge. Now he could force his absolute control over the country. In the coming months, he took extreme measures to hold onto the trembling power that was threatened by internal and external forces.

American, British, and Japanese Troops parade through Vladivostok in armed support to the White Army.
American, British, and Japanese Expeditionary Forces in Support of the White Army (Image: Williams, Albert Rhys, 1883-1962/Public domain)

Vladimir Lenin’s Efforts to Maintain his Authority

Vladimir Lenin, now the head of the Council of People’s Commissars, did not believe in democracy. He believed that absolute control should be exerted and the government is “absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever”. In December 1917, the Bolsheviks organized their secret police force, the Cheka. Its mission was to guard the revolution, and the Cheka officers named themselves the “sword and shield of the party”.

With their long black leather coats, they were easily recognized everywhere and commanded fear. The headquarters, which was a former insurance agency, turned into a formidable place of torture and terror. This place has since been the headquarters of the Russian secret forces under different names of Cheka, NKVD, KGB, and now FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service.

The Bolsheviks imprisoned their rivals, closed down other political parties, and banned newspapers. They formed a new Red Army, and Leon Trotsky became the commissar of war.

Learn more about Revolutionary Russia.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

In an attempt to gain more international recognition, the Bolsheviks now preferred to be referred to as communists because it was better understood than the Russian Bolsheviks.  In the international arena, they tried to stay away from the war, requesting an end to the First World War. Also, they nullified all the Russian Empire’s foreign debts.  

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Lenin had vowed to exit the war once he took over. So, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany and its allies. It was a humiliating treaty that resulted in massive losses for Russia. The peace negotiations started in December 1917 at the Brest-Litovsk fortress. This was especially important for the Bolsheviks because it was an opportunity for them to impress the global opinions. In a gesture to highlight their scorn for traditional hierarchies, the Bolsheviks sent a group of workers as their negotiators.

Then, Leon Trotsky became the leader of the negotiations. However, he ended the negotiations, saying “neither peace nor war”. In response, the Germans resumed fighting on the eastern fronts and made quick advances in the Russian soil. Lenin and Trotsky realized that they had to sign the peace treaty because they were too weak to have bargaining power.

Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev at Brest-Litovsk negotiations (c. 1917–1918).
Leon Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. (Image: National and University Library/Public domain)

In their failed attempt to win the global sympathy, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty that turned out to be one of the treaties with the harshest terms in history. Russia had to give up large portions of its land, population, industry, and agricultural fields.

However, it didn’t concern Lenin because he wasn’t going to enact it. It was supposed to buy them time as a strategic withdrawal.

Learn more about the red bridge to world revolution.

Russian troops in trenches awaiting a German attack.
Russian Troops Waiting for German Attacks. (Image: George H. Mewes/Public domain)

Lenin’s Challenges in Ruling Russia

After Russia went out of the war, Lenin faced many challenges, both nationally and internationally. The country was plagued with many civil wars due to the growing conflicts among Bolsheviks. It had catastrophic repercussions for the country as it claimed many lives due to violent conflicts, diseases, or starvation.

Internal conflicts included counter-revolutionary whites and angry farmers who had their produce confiscated by the government to feed the city workers and soldiers.

International contenders included Britain, France, Japan, and America, who had their expeditionary forces in Russia. Also, the Czech Legion, which was formed by the Austro-Hungarian army’s former prisons of war, presented themselves as a challenge.

Terror and Violence Take Over Russia

The brutal nature of the Bolsheviks started to manifest itself in the murder of the czar’s family. To show that the czarist empire had ended completely and there was no going back to the Russian Empire, they slaughtered the czar and his family.

This was the first step towards using violence as a decisive tool in maintaining their authority. So, they crashed any form of resistance with utmost violence. Anyone who was suspected of opposition was sent to concentration camps and hanged.

Things got even worse when Lenin survived an attempted assassination by Fanny Kaplan, a social revolutionary. The initial reaction to this attack was shooting 500 hostages in Petrograd. Based on the official order on Red Terror, and according to a Cheka officer, anyone who belonged to the upper class would be executed no matter what he thought of the revolution. So, people went to extremes to deny their social classes and pass as workers.

Common Questions About Russia After the Bolshevik Revolution

Q: What did the Cheka do?

The Cheka was the name of the Russian secret police service formed after the revolution by Bolsheviks. They were a formidable force and helped Vladimir Lenin establish his authority and absolute power.

Q: What happened as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk?

As a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia lost a third of its territory, a quarter of its population, much industry, and rich agricultural lands.

Q: Why did Vladimir Lenin sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk?

Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk because he had vowed to get out of the First World War. He had to give up a great portion of Russia’s territory because the Germans were advancing into Russia, and his fragile government could not resist them.

Q: Who shot Vladimir Lenin in 1918?

Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin in 1918. She was a revolutionary who attempted to assassinate Lenin but he survived.

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