Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)

Part II. STALIN, DZIERZYNSKI, AND THE CHEKA

He will battle to the grave with dark clouds, Beaten back a thousand times he will rise up to the end.

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Chapter 7. Prelude to Power

THE PETROGRAD to which Stalin, Kamenev, Lenin, and Trotsky flocked, in trains from Scandinavia or Siberia, in spring and summer 1917 was unrecognizable to them. Bliss was it at that dawn to be alive, or so it seemed. The removal of Tsar and court left Russia with a parliamentary government of the great, the good, and the reasonable. Aristocratic liberals (constitutional democrats) shared power and platforms with socialists and dormant terrorists. Men like Alexander Kerensky, the lawyer and orator who was leader of the Duma, and effectively prime minister, would have been adequate in a peaceful Scandinavian country. They presided over the total abolition of the death penalty and complete freedom of speech and assembly. They demolished the instruments of oppression: the gendarmerie, the penal system. Crowds filled the streets and made their demands with impunity: housewives wanted bread, workers took over factories, sailors and soldiers rose up against their officers.

In fact a demographic and political disaster had occurred. Millions of peasants had died at the front while the survivors were deserting en masse to seize the land. Hundreds of thousands of officers had perished, some at the hands of their own soldiers. There were too few people left alive to feed the cities or to administer them. Russia was cut off by war from its European allies, except by tortuous rail and ship connections through Sweden and Norway or the interminable route across Siberia, the Pacific Ocean, and the United States. All this was too much for a government of well-meaning men to cope with, especially when faced with the dilemma of whether to withdraw from the war and make peace with Germany, thus provoking the hostility of the British and French and mutiny by the officer class, or to continue the war to “final victory” and doom the country to inevitable collapse and revolution, leaving the Bolsheviks and social revolutionaries to seize power from the ruins.

Kerensky’s government dithered, but had it made a firm decision, could not have enforced it. Trapped between the anvil of an officer corps determined to restore order and fight the Germans, and the hammer of workers and soldiers bent on taking power from the Duma to the councils (soviets) that had flourished during the 1905 uprising, Kerensky, enlisting one set of opponents against the other, talked himself into irrelevance.

Lenin and Trotsky, let alone minor players such as Stalin, had no difficulty hiding from halfhearted attempts to arrest them. A demoralized society saw no need to extirpate them. As food became harder to find, as transport and medical services collapsed and life on the streets and at home was endangered by armed marauders, the population became resigned to accepting any force, left or right, that could seize power and take decisions. The spring of euphoria led to a summer of disillusion and an autumn of despair. When in November the Bolsheviks struck, in ten days that shook the world, paralyzing Russia by seizing railway junctions and telephone exchanges, even their most principled opponents put up no coherent resistance, so great was the relief that a group of men had taken on responsibility for the future. However ominous their leaders and ideology, they would put an end to the dithering; they would fill the vacuum.