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Monday, 6 November 2017

Russia's Revolutions

BBC Radio three is presenting a series of programmes of Russian and Soviet-era music in commemoration of the centenary of what they call 'the Russian revolution': and the presenters have called the series "Breaking Free". Who exactly these denizens of the BBC reckon became 'free' as a result of the second - the Bolshevik, or Soviet - Revolution is not clear. By the mid-twenties, after the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin to almost-complete power, composers, playwrights, and artists had to become careful about their output. As Stalin and his significant army of associates consolidated their hold over the new order, with the purges of the 'thirties and the 'forties, musicians and other cultural figures - who were allowed to be named in the media - were persecuted by imprisonment and worse [assignment to slave labour camps and the constant risk of 'administrative' death sentences] if they exposed themselves to the suspicion that they might have dissented from actions by the party and its current leaders.

Only the party leaders, the commentators who praised them and the artistic community were named in the media and thus known to the mass of the populace. Therefore any deviation from the sort of 'socialist realism' that Stalin approved was likely to result in the victimisation of a perpetrator who was one of the nomenklatura. Stalin considered himself an aficionado of music and ballet, enjoyed theatre [when he approved of the content of the play] and was a voracious reader, making a massive number of marginal comments in his books: both fiction and non-fiction: so no writer or performer could escape his critical oversight. He also followed Lenin in being a massively prolific writer. In speeches several hours long, in newspaper articles [often written anonymously] and in longer texts Stalin set out the party line. There is no doubt that Stalin worked hard, often far into the night: after which he was often ready to booze until dawn with the changing cohort of his intimates. Over the decades the tenor of his output changed, according to circumstances and to the writer's changing moods; therefore the literate classes had to review continuously what they kept openly on their bookshelves, hiding away [preferably, destroying] editions and items which expressed views that were no longer acknowledged by their originator.

Stalin himself was not 'free'. He had to lug his impedimenta of Marxist-Leninist dogma - as reinterpreted on an almost-daily basis by himself - everywhere he went, because he saw that as his legitimating authority. Provided he wrapped up everything that he said and wrote in party-speak, he felt that his utterances were authoritative. An added difficulty with this arose from the fact that he was not a native Russian speaker, and apparently some aspects of sentence construction always eluded him when setting out his stall in the prevailing language. Thus his followers sometimes had to develop their own exposition of what they assumed he had said, in handing down the message to the underfed, tired cohorts of heroic proletarians whom they sought to urge on to ever-greater efforts in the cause of 'socialist construction'.

By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Imperial Russia was already the world's ninth-greatest industrial producer, and the fourth-biggest economy in the world [by estimated turnover, or GNP]. During the war massive investments were made in mines, steelworks and industrial plant in the Ural mountains, well away from the old industrial areas of Russian-ruled Poland and the Ukraine which were dangerously close to the front. There was a constant danger during the war that the Germans and/or the Austrians would be able to capture the long-established heavy industry around St Petersburg and in the western provinces. So the Tsarist regime promoted massive development of industry  in the east, much of which Stalin was later to claim had been built on virgin territory under the succession of five-year plans by which the Stalin regime claimed to be 'transforming' the USSR. It is unclear how much of the 'new industry' that turned out the tanks and the guns for the Red Army after the Nazi invasion of 1941 was actually new under Stalin, and how much came from the Tsarist war economy: and at this distance in time the resources of economic historians may never be sufficient to find out.

This blog can only scratch - very slightly - at the surface of the massive issues that are disclosed as soon as the Russian Revolutions of 1917 is to be studied. In the coming days I intend to look as just a few aspects of economy and society in an era that should have been exciting, but which was made massively more oppressive and depressing than the society and the regime that had existed before the first revolution.

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