Its a Party!: The Bolshevik Consolidation of Power 1917-1924
A huge power-vacuum was created following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. After the fall of the Romanov Dynasty, who had ruled the Russian empire for over 300 years, it was unclear who would come to the forefront of Russian politics and how the Empire would be governed. Numerous factions within Russian society sought to fill the power-vacuum created by the fall of the Romanovs. What was at stake was not only control of the state, but also control of the economic and societal future of Russia. Eventually the Bolshevik faction, led by Vladimir Lenin, gained enough power and influence to control the government. This control was not initially absolute however, and the Bolsheviks had to defend their right to rule at multiple times between 1917 and 1924, when the Bolsheviks emerged as the dominant agent in Russian politics and culture.
Russia was in a state of civil-war following the fall of the autocracy and the October Revolution, with anti-Bolshevik factions including land-owners, republicans, conservatives, liberals, and middle-class citizens uniting to resist the “red” Bolshevik regime (Figes). This ragtag force of resistance became known as the “white” army. Although the Whites were led by a number of former military commanders such as General Mikhail Alekseev and General Lavr Korilov, the movement was always at a disadvantage compared to the Red Army (Freeze 296). The empowered Bolsheviks controlled the most-central provinces, the very heart of Russia. This simplified the logistics of supplying and communicating with the army. Meanwhile, the White forces were spread throughout the Russian hinterland, poorly supplied and in a near-constant state of disarray. The high-point for the White Army was the capture of Orel, a town only 300 kilometers from Moscow (Freeze 297-298). The civil-war ended in 1920 as the Red Army pushed into White-controlled lands, recapturing the lost territory and forcing the remaining White combatants out of Russia (Freeze 298).
The most immediate concern of the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution was not only gaining greater control of the government, but also growing their base of power and influence among the people themselves. It is fair to say that the Bolsheviks won the battle of public relations. Bolshevik popularity continued to rise throughout the revolution, growing from 23,600 members in 1917 to over 750,000 members in 1921 (Freeze 294). This growth had as much to do with the mistakes of other parties as it did with successful Bolshevik tactics. The Kornilov affair created a fear of counter-revolution among the Russian public. After recently emerging from the yoke of autocracy, no one in Russia was willing to surrender the societal gains which the counter-revolutionaries were said to oppose. The debacle made public the instability of the post-Imperial government, and disintegrated support for the provisional government run by Alexander Kerensky (Freeze 288).
Bolshevik popularity continued to grow after the October Revolution, and it was in this time that the Bolsheviks began to consolidate their power and transition from revolutionaries to legitimate rulers. An important cornerstone in the legitimization of Bolshevik authority was ideology. The idea of class warfare was always emphasized, with socialism always being the positive antithesis to the exploitative capitalist system (Freeze 298-299). An example of such ideology is pictured at the top of the page, with the top of the poster dramatizing the capitalist past, the middle representing the present-time, and the bottom depicting the quite Utopian-looking socialist future.
Bolshevik popularity began to wane in 1921. The public grew weary of a government that had failed to keep its promises of new economic order, equality, and prosperity. In response, the Tenth Party Congress endorsed the New Economic Policy (NEP). The policy sought to appease those who were suffering from the civil-war, stabilize the economy by attempting to regularize supply and production, and generate capital for further industrialization and modernization. In general, the NEP meant to lay the foundation for a future socialist economic system.
The Eleventh Party Congress of 1922 would prove to be Lenin’s last. The Congress focused of further consolidating and enhancing their authority. Lenin also initiated a cleansing of the Russian bureaucracy, in which many of the bureaucrats left over from the autocracy were forced out of the government and replaced by loyal party officials (Freeze 310).
By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 the socialist government had firmly entrenched itself as the source of power in the Russian state. Though the Party was by no means unified on every issue, the threat of war had passed and the soviet government had instituted the reforms which they had promised seven years earlier.
Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy – History of the Russian Revolution. Penguin Books, 1996.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. n.d. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php (accessed September 20, 2014).