Karl Marx had expected his theories on communism to be tested in Germany, the United Kingdom, or some other highly industrialized country. But it was in relatively agricultural Russia that Communists first succeeded in setting up a Communist-controlled government.
During the late 1800’s, Russia began to modernize. Although the country was still largely agricultural, its industry began to flourish. As industrialization increased, discontent grew among the rising middle class and workers in the cities. In addition, a series of bad harvests in the 1890’s caused starvation among the peasants. During this period, revolutionary activity grew, and radical ideas-including Marxism-became popular.
In 1898, Marxists founded the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The party split into two groups in 1903. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, accepted his idea of a small Communist Party made up of professional revolutionaries. The Mensheviks wanted the party to have wider membership and to reach decisions through democratic methods.
In 1905, large numbers of Russians revolted against the czar and forced him to establish an elective assembly. During the next several years, the government enacted some reforms. But World War I (1914-1918) created more problems for Russia. The nation suffered heavy troop losses on the front and food shortages at home. In 1917, the people overthrew the czar. A democratic provisional (temporary) government was set up.
In autumn 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, seized power and established a Communist government. When the Bolsheviks took over, they had fewer than 300,000 members in a country of more than 160 million people. The coup succeeded partly because the provisional government leaders did not want to withdraw from the war, and they could not carry out reforms while the war continued. The Bolsheviks also succeeded because of their effective organization and their appealing slogans, such as “Bread, Peace, Land.”
Lenin led Russia from 1917 until his death in 1924. For a short time, Lenin let the peasants keep farmland they had seized. He permitted workers to control the factories and to play important roles in local government. But the government soon tightened control and forced the peasants to give the government most of their products. The government also took over Russian industries and set up central management bureaus to run them. In addition, the state created a secret police force called the Cheka.
Soon after Lenin came to power, Russia made peace with Germany, but from 1918 to 1920 Russia was torn by civil war between Communists and non-Communists. The Communists defeated their rivals, who were divided and poorly organized. From the start, Lenin used force and terror against his political opponents. By 1921, conditions had become disastrous throughout the country. Peasant and sailor revolts broke out, and famine threatened. The world war, revolution, and civil war had brought Russia near economic collapse.
In 1921, realizing the need for a change in policy, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP called for Communists to cooperate with certain groups who were considered enemies of Communism. These included shopkeepers, peasants, engineers, scholars, and army officers. Russia’s economy recovered steadily under the NEP. In 1922, the country became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), or the Soviet Union.
By the time Lenin died in 1924, the Soviet Union had become a one-party state. All non-Communist political parties had been banned, and all public organizations-such as professional associations and labor unions-had become tools of the Communists.