Monday, May 18, 2009

History 112: The Russian Revolution (Q&A)

In class today we did the Russian Revolution, going from Russia’s participation in World War I, the February and October revolutions, the Russian Civil War through the rise of Stalin. Like last quarter I assigned a section from John Scott’s Beyond the Urals. Scott was an American who worked in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

1. In your opinion, do you think the revolution was brought about by Russia's involvement in WW1, or was it an inevitable occurrence?
2. Some of the readings suggested that the Russian government was already in anarchy before being overtaken by the Bolsheviks. What caused the anarchy other than the war?

The Czarist government had serious problems and World War I was a major crisis. All governments have their moments of crisis. Crises, though, have a way a bringing to light the depth or lack of which of any government. A more able government could have survived a crisis like World War I. As with the financial crisis in France which highlighted the failures of the Monarchy, World War I put the Czarist government in all of its disfunctionality on display and they did not survive.

3. For class today, I cannot help but remember how closed off I thought the Soviet Union was immediately after its revolution. How is it that this American worker was able to so easily get work and a visa into Russia at this time?
4. At which point did the Soviet Union become an enemy of the US?

The funny thing about the Soviet Union between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II is the extent they remained in contact with the West. This is not the Cold War. At this point the Soviet Union still believed that it could win the ideological struggle with the West on economic grounds. Considering that the Great Depression was going on, this was not as implausible as it might seem. Post World War II America is an unchallengeable economic superpower. Also both sides are facing off with nuclear weapons. This makes for a far tenser situation. The post World War II Soviet Union is not a place where an American citizen would be very welcome.

5. Was this a common thing for young people to leave the US to find work in other countries?

I certainly would not view this as something common. It is a theme that shows up in a number of writers during this period. For example Ernest Hemmingway was this traveling American, doing different jobs in different countries. This formed the basis for many of his novels.

6. The whole Davies text is about the cruelties performed by Stalin. Why did the people of Russia and the politicians not over throw him if he was so crazy and killing millions of innocent people? Why was he ever allowed to get into that kind of power?

The question you have to ask yourself is who was supporting Stalin. Stalin by himself was just one man. He needed an entire bureaucratic apparatus to carry out his plans and kill millions of people for him. One of the things that I like so much about Scott is that he gives you a picture of Russian society where people are willing to go along with Stalinism because they believed that, despite the hardships, Stalin’s push to industrialism would benefit them.

7. Usually when learning about World War II you hear more about Hitler than you do Stalin, in terms of war crimes who was considered to be the worst?

I would respond by saying that it is not obvious to me that Hitler was worse. Stalin has benefited from a number of things. While most Americans see Nazi ideology as inherently evil, Communism manages to get away with at least having good intentions. People are therefore willing to “forgive” Communism for its crimes. Americans feel guilty over the persecution of Communists in this country. I guess you can say that Americans are lucky that they have never faced a homegrown Communist movement that posed a serious political threat. Jews have done an effective job at keeping the Holocaust in the public eye through Holocaust movies and school curriculums. I suspect that things would be different if you regularly had movies and lesson plans on the Ukrainian “Holocaust.”

8. I notice a lot of dictators in the past had good public speaking skills (Hitler for example). Was Stalin also one? Would you say his speeches were more about scaring people, or more about encouraging people to do what he wanted?

One of the interesting things about Stalin was that, unlike Lenin or Trotsky, he was that he was never much of an orator. He stayed isolated in the Kremlin and sent out orders from there. He was the hidden deity of the Soviet Union.

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