Communism in Russian History

Russia was for many centuries separated, geographically and politically, from the development of Western civilization and culture, and thus came late into what, for most of Europe, would be called the modern age.1 But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, witnessing as they did an extensive overcoming of these earlier barriers, permitted a very considerable progress in the modernization of Russian society. By the time the country was overtaken by the First World War, its situation was not entirely discouraging. Industrialization was proceeding at a level only two or three decades behind that of the United States. There was under implementation a program of education reform which, if allowed to continue unimpeded, would have assured total literacy within another two decades. And the first really promising program for the modernization of Russian agriculture (the so-called Stolypin reforms), while by no means yet completed, was proceeding steadily and with good chances for ultimate success.

These achievements, of course, had not been reached without conflicts and setbacks. Nor were they, alone, all that was needed. Still to be overcome as the war interceded were many archaic features in the system of government, among them the absolutism of the crown, the absence of any proper parliamentary institutions and the inordinate powers of the secret police. Still to be overcome, too, was the problem of the non-Russian nationalities within the Russian Empire. This empire, like other multinational and multilingual political constellations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism; the maintenance of it was beginning to come under considerable pressure.

But none of these problems required a bloody revolution for their solution. The removal of the autocracy was, after all, destined to be achieved relatively bloodlessly, and the foundations of a proper parliamentary system laid, in the first months of 1917. And there was no reason to despair of the possibility that Russia, if allowed to develop without war or violent revolution, might still encompass a successful and reasonably peaceful advance into the modern age. It was, however, just this situation, and just these expectations, that were to be shattered by the events of the final months in that fateful year of 1917.

II

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