Why is Beyond Today taking note of the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that gave rise to the Soviet Union? What are we to learn from an openly atheistic movement whose leaders were complicit in and responsible for the deaths of millions of people through genocide, starvation, war and forced relocation to labor camps?
In 1983 U.S. President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and correctly predicted its demise, which came eight years later. When it unraveled and collapsed, Western nations were both stunned and relieved that this could happen to this powerful empire that appeared to be so enduring and immovable.
The Bolshevik Revolution helped define the world of the 20th century. It led to the advent of the first socialistic government, which soon expanded into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviet Union aggressively spread communist ideology to Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and Southeast Asia. At the same time, it enslaved its people behind an “iron curtain” of a tightly controlled political, economic and cultural system.
My Russian connection
In 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, I was invited to travel on a six-week visit to the USSR as a translator and photographer. Since my first visit I have traveled to this vast land dozens of times and have worked with Radio/TV Leningrad, youth tours, churches in Estonia, Sabbath-keeping groups in Western Ukraine, and disabled children in the Chernobyl area of Ukraine.
My parents came from the Soviet Union. My mother was born near Kharkov, Ukraine, during Stalin’s regime, and my father in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine. In Germany’s 1941 invasion of the USSR, the Germans forcibly took young people from the lands they conquered to work in German factories. My father also spent time in a concentration camp.
My parents met in Germany. When the war was over in 1945, they found themselves in the hands of hostile Russian troops who looked on many of the young workers in Germany as collaborators with the enemy, even though they had no choice in being there. In the immediate chaos that ensued, my parents were able to escape from their Russian occupiers to Hannover, located in Allied-occupied Germany. They found their way to a refugee camp, where they married. I was born in 1947, and in 1949 we all found a new home in the United States.
Having lived in the Soviet Union and suffered abuse, the specter of war and death left indelible scars on my parents. A most notable period was the year 1933, the year of the “Holodomor,” the Ukrainian genocide. Six million people in Ukraine starved to death as grain was forcibly taken from people who lived in the breadbasket of the USSR to quell resistance to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.
My mother, who was eight at the time, recalled stories of her household hiding grain in the walls to survive. Horror stories of people dying all around were still vivid in her memory. Their bodies would be taken out of their homes and placed in the street to be picked up as garbage.
My mother was finally able to go back and visit her parents after being away from them for 27 years. My father never saw his family again, many of whom perished in World War II.
How could such an inhumane government with such cruel leaders ever come to be? Let’s review how the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution occurred. What were some of the hopeful expectations, and what went wrong?
The road to Russian revolt
Several events in the beginning of 20th-century Russia led to this milestone revolution—with the confluence of economic oppression, exploitation, World War I and the glittering promises of Marxism-Leninism.
For hundreds of years the czars ruled Russia as absolute monarchs. The last czar was Nicholas II. During his reign, in 1905, tens of thousands of workers went on strike. Their living conditions were unbearable, as they worked 13 hours a day, were paid very little, lived in tiny cramped apartments and had no rights.
On Jan. 22, 1905, a protest march of striking workers went to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the residence of the czar. Their list of grievances and demands included freedom of speech, workers’ rights and increased pay, better pay for women, shorter workdays, and representation in government. These workers were beginning to form what were called “soviets,” representative bodies of the workers.
What happened? “Bloody Sunday” is what happened! The workers thought they would be able to approach the czar and start a dialogue. They were dead wrong. Instead, the Imperial Guard fired on the unarmed petitioners. Hundreds were killed and wounded. The czar was not in the palace when this happened, but he had issued orders to fire on the demonstrators.
The massacre provoked public outrage, and a series of strikes spread quickly through industrial centers of the Russian Empire. This set in motion events that would culminate in the Bolshevik Revolution 12 years later.
The wave of unrest that followed the atrocity is now known as the Russian Revolution of 1905, as it led Czar Nicholas to relent and issue the October Manifesto in which he made a series of promises. One was to give the people the right of representation similar to that in Great Britain, where parliamentary democracy worked alongside the monarchy. In this representation, named the Duma, the Russian people would supposedly share power with the czar.
The first Duma was a very awkward mixture of workers and peasants. While they were to “share” power with the czar, the czar never really saw himself in any less position than he had been before. The first demands called for universal suffrage, radical land reform, release of all political prisoners and much more. This arrangement wasn’t going to work. The czar dissolved the first Duma in June 1907, escalating tensions.
World War I and the end of czarist rule
A further cause of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was World War I, which began in 1914. The turmoil it created within Russian society helped lead to the overthrow of czarist rule.
In World War I, Russia was allied with Romania against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The war was a disaster for the Russians, who suffered 10 million dead and wounded. The Ottoman Empire blockaded the south, and Russia was short of supplies and food. Prices soared, bringing the nation to a critical impasse.
This led to a revolution in early 1917 in Petrograd (renamed in 1914 from “St. Petersburg” so that it sounded less German).
Fifty thousand Petrograd workers went on strike. The city was soon shut down as they tore down statues of the czar. Nicholas tried to stop the protests, but the army was now more sympathetic to the revolutionaries, and the czar’s regime fell apart. In March, Czar Nicholas abdicated and was placed under house arrest. This marked the end of the Russian monarchy. The Duma, which was first created in 1905 to share power with the czar, was now back and in complete power. (Nicholas and his family would be executed in 1918, after the Communists took over in 1917’s October Revolution.)
Communism or Marxism-Leninism
Another reason for the October Revolution was the extraordinary success of Marxist philosophy, which was espoused by an aggressive minority. It was named after Karl Marx, a Prussian-born political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist of the previous century.
Karl Marx saw the world as divided between the working class and property owners. Those of the working class labored for wages but never got ahead because they didn’t own what they created. These were the common people known as the proletariat. On the other side were the bourgeoisie—the property owners, artisans and merchants. The business owners were the ones who really made most of the money. Ownership alone gave them the right to capital. And this was perceived as what split the world. Marxism viewed the world through glasses where everything was colored by property, money and ownership.
Marx saw the solution as communism. Those of the proletariat would eventually wake up. They would elect socialistic governments whose resources would be shared for the betterment of all.
Communism isn’t a government. It is a stateless system where everybody shares. Its motto, coined by Karl Marx, is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The concept is that everybody will give and take what they want, and it will somehow work out.
However, this wouldn’t happen on its own. It needed a catalyst. Here’s where Marxism-Leninism entered. Vladimir Lenin, who headed the final October Revolution, was the first dictator of the Soviet Union who took Marxism one step further.
What was needed, Lenin thought, was a dictatorship of the proletariat to facilitate class warfare. A political party was needed to represent the interest of the workers, and by including the military it could enforce the socialism necessary to creating eventual communism.
By the time of the czar’s overthrow in 1917, Russia’s fight against Germany in World War I was going badly. Lenin, who had been a revolutionary living in exile because he led protests against the czar, was about to become one of the most influential persons of the 20th century.
People were upset and rioting because of conscription, a bad economy and starvation. The Bolshevik party, which was very small—only 20,000 members at this time—favored getting out of the war with Germany. Lenin’s party was no longer banned in Russia, and in April 1917 the Germans provided him safe passage home from Switzerland by train, hoping he would succeed in gaining power and leading Russia out of the war.
After Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd, intrigue and chaos ensued from a bewildering array of political, military, social and national groups. The Bolsheviks failed in a summer coup, and Lenin fled to neighboring Finland.
Then the military tried to take over the provisional government. Alexander Kerensky, the provisional leader, fell back on the Bolsheviks to defend him. The Bolsheviks were the soldiers, many of them navy officers and workers. So Kerensky was now indebted to the Bolsheviks. Lenin, the Bolsheviks’ leader, came back from Finland, and by autumn the Bolsheviks saw their opportunity.
The October Revolution
Now came the finale. The Bolshevik takeover turned out to be bloodless. Many people didn’t even take it seriously, viewing it as more political jousting for control of the government.
But this revolution was well planned and executed by Lenin and his cohort Leon Trotsky. With the control of the soviets and by taking majorities in major cities, they voted through the soviets to dissolve the provisional government and created, with Lenin as the dictator, the Russian Soviet Republic.
The people were supportive of the new regime because it came through on its promise to get out of the war with Germany. Russia proceeded to sign a peace agreement with the Germans on March 3, 1918—in which Russia ceded a lot of territory to Germany.
But the Russians were thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire. A civil war raged for five years, in which about 8 million people died. The Bolsheviks ultimately won. The Communist Party was established as the sole governing party (and remained so until it was abolished in 1991). The USSR was formed in 1922.
Lenin was viewed by supporters as a champion of socialism and the working class, while critics emphasized his role as founder of an authoritarian regime responsible for political repression and mass killings.
His successor Joseph Stalin was one of the most ruthless despots in all history, turning on his own people and being responsible for the deaths of tens of millions.
In communist ideology, the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be temporary because the ideals of communism were eventually supposed to take over, with the state then withering away. But that never happened. Those who took power stayed in power.
My visit to the USSR in the jubilee year
Fifty years after the October Revolution, in 1967, the Soviet government cracked open its doors a little from its isolationism. Its officials wanted the world to see what socialism had brought. I was afforded the opportunity to witness this. At the time, I was a 19-year-old student in California. The managing editor of The Plain Truth magazine and his wife and I joined a group of historians for a six-week trip to more than half of the republics of the USSR. This resulted in a five-part magazine series called The Unfinished Revolution.
The Soviets spiffed things up for the benefit of us curious foreigners. Notably, on one of the most famous boulevards in Russia, Nevsky Prospect in Leningrad, the buildings were repainted and truly looked majestic and festive.
While the Cold War was raging, blustery political statements always seemed to be coming out of the Kremlin. This was muted when the Russians wanted us to see their country. Even more important than the historical focus of the trip were our observations of Soviet life where we were allowed interaction with the people.
We had an overall guide, a sullen sort, who was with us the entire trip. Then in each of the cities we would be met by local guides and historians who would talk about the historical significance of each area we visited.
It was evident from the outset that the entire psyche of the nation was saturated with the ideology of communist thought. Immediately evident were huge billboards praising the system with such slogans as “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” or “Glory to Labor.” This was to extol the victory of the proletariat in a purportedly classless society.
Large portraits of leaders were displayed everywhere. Most notable by far was Lenin. The Soviets were also into naming buildings and cities after their leaders or historic events. Russia’s second-largest city, Petrograd, was now renamed Leningrad. My mother’s hometown was renamed Pervomaysk ("first of May") in honor of International Workers Day, again celebrating the proletariat.
We were told by our hosts that theirs was a young country only 50 years old then, while the United States was almost 200 years old.
Life in the “workers’ paradise”
The people there were isolated from the West. The vast majority of trade was with Eastern European nations behind the Iron Curtain. Prices were strictly controlled by the state. What any given item was priced in one area was exactly the same in another. If it was an item that the government felt the people needed, the cost was affordable. For example, the government wanted the people to have televisions and radios so that it could talk to them, so it made certain that prices were within reach.
On the other hand, if the item was something personal, such as a man’s suit, the cost could be several months’ wages.
I saw a chocolate bar for sale, but the price was about seven or eight times what we’d pay in the United States. I bought one to see what it was like. The chocolate was already getting old from being unsold for so long. I asked our guide why the chocolate was so expensive. He told me that perhaps it was because it was “purer.”
There was no real marketing of products and certainly no competition. If there was a brand name, it was the only one per product. In Moscow, the only brand of beer was “Moscow Beer.” Consumer items were obviously scarce. We were puzzled how such a system that promised so much to the people was so deficient in filling needs, yet was able to launch the first satellite into orbit around the earth and send the first man into space.
Communication from the government was constant propaganda, telling the people how great things were in their “workers’ paradise.”
A typical TV program would be a boring documentary about a factory foreman commenting on plant production. These programs were very uninteresting to the people. But what a contrast when on one Sunday afternoon at our hotel a soccer game was playing on TV—the lobby was packed with cheering people!
Only the government was allowed to disseminate information. Shortwave programs from BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were banned and jammed. On cathedrals we noted inverted V antennas which broadcast interference on foreign broadcast frequencies. Soviet leaders clearly didn’t want their citizens to know what was happening in the West. I recall my parents sending family photos to their siblings in Ukraine. All mail was censored. If my parents in the United States included photos showing the home where we lived or our family car, those pictures would be removed.
On the other hand, free literature touting the magnificence of communism was plentiful and everywhere.
Religion was decried for its failures and historically corrupt clergy that often collaborated with or were under the control of the monarchy. Out with all religion!
Karl Marx wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” With the exception of a few churches that remained open to allow for the few ignorant souls, churches were closed.
The famous Kazan Cathedral was now the “Museum of Religion and Atheism.” This was proudly noted, and we were encouraged to visit. The displays started out with early primitive man looking up in awe to the moon and stars. Exhibits explained that man began to worship these objects.
As you proceeded through the displays, you saw the formations of organized religion for the purpose of national control and governance. Abuses of religion were highlighted, notably the Christian conversion in 988 of the entire city-state of Kievan Rus. A painting portrayed the city’s population being marshaled into the Dnieper River for a mass baptism. Alongside were depicted the dire consequences for those who refused.
The display continued to what was then the present, noted to be a time of enlightenment in the USSR. It showed rockets being launched into space with people watching in awe. We noted the full circle, as the final display had similarities to the first museum scenes showing primitive man awed by the heavens.
No photos were allowed to be taken during our trip at airports, from planes or at train stations. Our guide monitored us closely and would raise his hand if we were taking photos of something “illegal”—which might have been poorer neighborhoods that our tour bus passed through.
We were to stay with our group at all times. Once, however, the editor and I slipped off on our own for the entire afternoon while in Uzbekistan. We walked into a park of “culture and rest” and casually entered the administration building. The administrators acted like they had never seen foreigners before. We spent the afternoon engaged in lively and enlightening talk and sharing. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When we came back to the hotel, our head guide scolded us and told us to never do that again!
We were taken to visit several “Young Pioneer” camps. All youth were required to be indoctrinated by the state, which controlled the hearts and minds of its subjects. This started with Little Octobrists up to age 9, then the Young Pioneers to age 14, and finally Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. Admission for membership to the Communist Party was an honor, with only 15 percent of the population being party members.
Later visits to the USSR
Since my first visit to the land of the USSR in 1967, I’ve traveled there a few dozen times more on church and humanitarian missions. I have also had a memorable reunion with my parents’ families. In 1988, still the Soviet era, we had a gathering of uncles, aunts and cousins of both sides in my mother’s hometown of Pervomaysk, Ukraine.
It was eye-opening and moving to meet for three days with family I had never seen and mostly would never see again. We talked about their families, their work and their gardens. They most liked chatting about their children. They spoke of their hopes for their children’s future. They hoped very much that their children’s lives would be better than theirs.
They were very curious about everything we did in the United States. They wanted to know how much money we made and how big our houses were. They wanted feedback about what we thought of them.
I received a lesson in economics as understood under communism from my cousin. I explained how business is done in the United States. When we talked about how things were produced and sold, he quickly responded that this kind of economy is exploitative. Buying and reselling for profit was an absolute no-no.
He brought up the example of a man catching a fish. To sell the fish to another person for resale was, from a communist perspective, immoral. This was speculation, a word uttered contemptuously and in their society severely punished. The one buying the fish was in that case looked on as being exploited. The proper thing, it was thought, would be for the one who caught the fish to sell it to the consumer. Then, it was argued, no one would be taking advantage of anyone. But to produce and then sell to a wholesaler who might sell it to a retailer was unthinkable and illegal.
The government was the only employer in the nation. There were no private enterprises. Farms were collectivized. Working on these collectives was lackluster, inefficient and unstimulating. Why work hard? Why care?
However, the government did allocate small plots to each family to raise produce. These thrived! When it was theirs, people produced, and produced a lot.
Construction of new buildings was shoddy. People didn’t have any incentive to make their work stylish or take pride in it.
Alcoholism was rampant among both men and women. As people became bored and hopeless, they found solace in vodka. Life expectancy decreased to the mid-40s. This system founded in godless Marxism-Leninism was not working.
The series of articles we produced after 50 years of communist rule was called The Unfinished Revolution. Now, after 50 more years, we can safely say that this was a failed revolution. That is the epitaph on yet another system of government authored by the deceptive being, Satan the devil, who has “weakened the nations” (Isaiah 14:12).
When visiting the Soviet Union before its collapse, we saw the signs of an unraveling empire. Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, recognized well the stagnation, apathy and rot. He introduced two concepts. One was glasnost or openness, which was a policy of frankly discussing economic and political realities. While straightforward in our thinking, this wasn’t something the Russian people were used to in a society that did not permit that kind of thinking.
The other was perestroika, or rebuilding. The people definitely saw the need for this. Everyone I talked to about these subjects in the USSR seemed resigned to the fact that it would take a long time—maybe 20 years—to rebuild. There was no sense of urgency or enthusiasm to make it work. It was too little and too late.
Not long after, in 1991, the empire imploded. Just as it had started out bloodlessly, it imploded in the same manner. The world marveled. My friends in western Ukraine said that the system needed a bulldozer to level it before being rebuilt.
While the ideals of sharing and friend-ship (they called each other “comrades” or friends) and equality were spoken of, a greater, more dominant aspect of human behavior overrode the sincere innocence of goodness. While the knowledge of God dimmed, allowing lying, stealing and killing to become acceptable, the values of productive work and socially acceptable behavior gradually became lost as the national psyche rotted.
On so many occasions we saw the complete disinterest among service workers such as waiters to act civilly. Why should they have? There was no incentive to do better. Doing better just got you into trouble.
A coming time of openness, rebuilding
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was onto something when he introduced glasnost and perestroika—because the Bible actually speaks about a far greater perestroika that will include the rebuilding of all nations.
First, however, there must be a glasnost, a dialogue between man and God. The world today is in darkness because it has rejected God. A glasnost has already been established between God and the Church that His Son Jesus Christ is building.
And notice what the apostle Peter says of the future in Acts 3:18-21: “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (emphasis added).
A rebuilding of the world is coming! But it will be nothing like the failed attempts by human beings to create manmade utopias.
The ideals of Marxism have failed. Communism in the USSR failed. While China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba officially claim to be communist states, the country that adheres most strictly to communist principles is North Korea—not a shining example as it starves its own citizens to produce weapons of mass destruction to threaten its neighbors.
A time is coming when man will no longer look to fallible human messiahs and political systems to solve our problems, but will say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths” (Micah 4:2).
That coming time—when the Kingdom of God will be established on the earth—is God’s sure promise and great hope for mankind.
As we look at the flawed and failed systems mankind has created over 6,000 years of human experience, and the ongoing dangers our world faces today, let us always fervently pray, “Your Kingdom come!”