Russia's 20th Century
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Russia's 20th Century

A Journey in 100 Histories

Michael Khodarkovsky

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eBook - ePub

Russia's 20th Century

A Journey in 100 Histories

Michael Khodarkovsky

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About This Book

Michael Khodarkovsky's innovative exploration of Russia's 20th century, through 100 carefully selected vignettes that span the century, offers a fascinating prism through which to view Russian history. Each chosen microhistory focuses on one particular event or individual that allows you to understand Russia not in abstract terms but in real events in the lives of ordinary people. Russia's 20th Century covers a broad range of topics, including the economy, culture, politics, ideology, law and society. This introduction provides a vital background and engaging analysis of Russia's path through a turbulent 20th century. A representative sample of chapters in the book includes: 1902: Peasants
1903: The Pogrom
1906: The Tsar's Speech
1908: Church
1910: Tolstoy's Death
1913: The Romanovs
1916: Rasputin
1922: USSR
1927: Orphans into Communists
1931: Palace of the Soviets
1935: Manufacturing Heroes
1939: Hitler's Ally
1941: Moscow on the Brink
1945: Rape of Germany
1949: Atomic Project
1954: Nuclear War Exercise "Snowball"
1955: Empire of Nations
1960: Virgin Lands
1969: The Soviet Dr. Seuss
1971: The Soviet Bob Dylan
1972: Nixon in Moscow and Kiev
1977: USSR, Less than a Sum of its Parts
1980: Moscow Olympic Games
1984: "Iron Maiden" Behind the Iron Curtain
1985: Vodka
1990: Soviet Nationalisms and Ethnic Wars
1997: Russian Fascism
1998: Return of the KGB The historical mosaic of Russia's 20th Century provides a unique examination of modern Russian history one snapshot at a time, prompting us to reflect on a larger picture of Russia's past and its place in the world today.

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Part I

The Empire Must Die


Autocracy Wrestles
with Change


The beginning of the new century found Russia’s great writer, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, at his house in Khamovniki, an old district of Moscow. Tolstoy believed that city life was a punishment and preferred to stay at his country estate in Yasnaia Poliana. Yet various social engagements and business matters compelled him to spend time in Moscow.
Tolstoy was not well. The aging and tired Russian writer was in a melancholy mood. Treated like a god by fellow writers and like a tsar by peasants, Tolstoy played the role of the wise, old, and unpredictable man. A welcome interruption from his daily routine came on January 13 with a visit from a young writer, Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, better known under his pen name Maxim Gorky (“gorky” literally means “bitter”).
The two writers were separated by what seemed like a chasm of age and experience: at seventy-two Tolstoy was the most venerable Russian writer, while the thirty-two-year-old Gorky was a rising literary star. Yet the two had a clear bond: they both had a great sense of affinity with the common people. Born into wealth and nobility, Tolstoy had chosen to reject “the sins of materialism” in search of moral self-improvement and to idealize peasant virtues. A carpenter’s son and an orphan since he was eleven, Gorky’s early life was one of misery and hardship; the privation of downtrodden working men and women became the main subject of his work.
Their meeting in early January 1900 was important for both writers. Tolstoy felt rejuvenated by the enthusiasm of the young writer, while Gorky was inspired by the enormity and profoundness of Tolstoy’s personality. Later that year, Gorky traveled to the Crimea to visit another ailing Russian writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.
Book title
Russian writers: Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, and Anton Chekhov in the Crimea.
Chekhov was sick, very sick. He had tuberculosis but denied it until he suffered a major hemorrhaging of the lungs in 1896. Chekhov was a practicing physician and knew that he did not have many years left. His health required a warmer climate, and Chekhov decided to spend more time at his newly built summer house in the Crimean resort of Yalta.
Until Chekhov’s death in 1904, the house was a magnet for the best of Russia’s intelligentsia: writers, composers, singers, actors, and painters all visited Chekhov at Yalta. Yalta and its environs were studded with the mansions and palaces of top government officials and members of the imperial family. While both Russia’s governing and intellectual elite shared the same corner of the Crimean Peninsula, they continued to live in parallel worlds, which never seemed to have overlapped in the Crimea or elsewhere.
In the following years, Gorky and Tolstoy would return to Yalta to spend numerous days in conversation with Chekhov over the fate of Russia and humanity. At the dawn of the twentieth century, these three great Russian writers represented different strands of Russian philosophy and culture. Within several decades, the new Soviet ideology that came to dominate most of the twentieth century in Russia would leave little room for the universal love of Tolstoy or the psychological humanity of Chekhov. In the Soviet Union, they would be made into cultural icons prescribed for restricted viewing by a captive audience.
Only Gorky would live to see the most radical transformation of the country from the oppressive autocracy of the tsars into the brutal dictatorship of the Communists. In some sense, he absorbed both the monumental moral weight of Tolstoy’s philosophy and the deep humanity of Chekhov. He would never feel entirely comfortable with the Soviet cultural dogmas. Yet, at the beginning of the twentieth century, his search for justice turned Gorky into the bard of a new and rising class, the proletariat.


On May 1, 1901, more than 1,000 workers at the Obukhov metal works in St. Petersburg did not show up for work. The Obukhov factory—the main manufacturer of guns and artillery for the Russian Navy—was a large state enterprise employing between 6,000–7,000 workers. To some Social Democrats, the relatively low participation of workers in the May Day walkout was a clear sign of the immaturity of the Russian working class. To others, like Lenin and his comrades, who insisted on greater centralization of the party, it was a promising beginning that was destined to grow with improved leadership and better organization among the workers.
Book title
Russian workers at the turn of the century.
Yet, to the factory administration, which consisted of military personnel, a walkout for political reasons was the perfect way to get rid of the troublemakers. In the days that followed, several dozen workers were fired, and rumor had it that more were to go. But instead of calming the waters, the administration’s hard line had the opposite effect. The recently founded St. Petersburg Worker’s Organization secretly organized a general strike. On May 7, the factory came to a full stop. Within several hours, roaring crowds spilled into the neighboring streets demanding the right to celebrate Workers’ Day on May 1, an eight-hour working day, and better working conditions.
Various attempts to pacify the workers failed. When the deputy director of the factory, Colonel Ivanov, tried to reason with the workers, he had to run for safety. The local police commander, who arrived with several detachments of gendarmes, foolishly confronted the workers and was also forced to beat a hasty retreat. Only the arrival of a director of the factory, Major-General Vlasiev, calmed the crowds. He commanded the workers’ genuine respect, and was prepared to listen to their complaints. They told him that they had decided to launch a strike in sheer desperation after all their requests had been ignored by the administration; he was their last hope. The fact that the workers put their trust in him left Vlasiev deeply moved and he promised to leave immediately for the Naval Department to raise their issues with the Minister.
Two hours went by with no news from Vlasiev or anyone else. In the meantime, a squadron of 150 horse-mounted Cossacks and more gendarmes arrived on the scene. When the workers ignored the order to disperse, the Cossacks moved against them with their whips and sabers ready. But the intimidation did not work. Instead they were met by a hail of stones and had to retreat. By 6 pm, the government had dispatched 200 armed troops to join the Cossacks and gendarmes. According to witnesses, the commander opened fire without warning. Shooting directly into the crowd finally had the desired effect: the workers fled in different directions carrying with them the dead and the wounded. The official casualties were three dead and more than twenty wounded.
Yet the confrontation was not over. The workers retreated only to build barricades and to begin taking apart the streets to arm themselves with stones. Almost 2,000 workers from the neighboring factories arrived to support the strikers. The skirmishes continued for several more hours but, in the end, the unarmed workers were no match for the whips, sabers, and rifles of the government forces. The crowds were dispersed, the strike was over, but the news of the bloody events shocked the public.
The violent encounter at the Obukhov metal works was only the beginning. Lenin and his followers criticized the St. Petersburg Workers Committee and its platform of “work, bread, life and freedom.” To Lenin, the lessons of the Obukhov strike were obvious: economic and social demands were not enough; to become successful, the workers needed to organize into a political party.
But before Lenin and his fellow radicals within the Social Democratic party could harness the workers’ movement to their own ends, strikes broke out in numerous industrial centers of the Russian Empire. The twentieth century opened in Russia with unprecedented social upheaval. Whether it was a revolution in the making, no one could predict.


While the workers took to the city streets, the countryside too became a battleground between the peasants and the authorities. The failed crop in the summer of 1901 and the harsh winter that followed triggered peasant riots across many regions of European Russia. There were persistent rumors of “the second freedom,” a new land reform, which, unlike the abolition of serfdom in 1861, would finally provide peasants with decent land allotments.
Skillfully tapping into a despair and discontent among the peasants, Russia’s nascent socialist parties resolved “to bring the class-struggle to the countryside.” In the winter of 1902, an unprecedented number of leaflets appeared in the villages across Russia. These referred to the anniversary of the abolition of serfdom on February 19, 1861 as “the day of the great lie to the people” and called for an uprising.
The disturbances first began in the Poltava province in eastern Ukraine. In late March 1902, dozens of peasants from neighboring villages descended on the Karlovka estate belonging to the great grandson of the emperor Paul I, Prince G. G. Meklenburg-Streletskii. The estate was completely defenseless, and the looting and violence continued for eight days. The peasants arrived in their carts and loaded them up with looted potatoes and hay. The telephone line was cut, hay stacks were burnt, and the managerial staff attacked. Only desperate telegrams from the estate manager secured the arrival of a battalion of Russian troops who quickly restored order.
Book title
Russian peasants. Photo by SPUTNIK/Alamy Stock Photo.
If Karlovka was quickly pacified because it belonged to a member of a royal family, other estates were subject to the continuing wave of violence with no immediate relief in sight. Across the villages of the Poltava and Kharkiv provinces, the peasants raided the granaries, storage barns, and animal pens on the estates of the large landowners. Peasants often arrived accompanied by women and children and carted away grain, potatoes, tools, and cattle.
Most of the violence was directed towards seizing property, not against the individual landowners and their managers. The peasants often believed that the tsar approved of their actions and that redistributing property and seeking justice was government sanctioned. Even when the troops arrived, many peasants initially believed they had been sent to protect them and to supervise the redistribution of property.
In the following month, peasant raids and looting spread to other parts of the Russian Empire: the provinces of Saratov and Tambov in central Russia and the regions of southern Ukraine and Bessarabia. Everywhere, the main underlying issue was the same: land plots that were too small to sustain a peasant family. In the wake of the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and subsequent land reforms, the peasant plots continued to shrink. In the early 1900s, for example, 49 percent of land in the Poltava province was owned by the landowners, who comprised 1.5 percent of the population, while the remaining 51 percent of land was ...

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