Lifting The Lid - What The Secret Soviet Archives Reveal

It is now over a century since the Russian Revolution when Lenin and Stalin’s severe censorship brought a blanket of silence to the media reporting of public opinion and of facts in the Soviet Union. Wherever dictatorship exists, its first act is to establish strict control over the mass media, so that only one voice is heard – that of the dictator and his surrogates. Nowhere illustrates this point more clearly and emphatically than Russia, the period after Lenin and his Bolshevik clique seized power.

But now, with the opening up in recent decades of Soviet records to Western historians and researchers, several books have been published, covering different periods and aspects of the Soviet period. Here we will look briefly at points that can be gleaned from some of these, although we are aware there must be many other volumes of interest so this will not be and cannot be the last word on the subject.

The Russian Revolution & the Soviet State 1917-1921 – Documents

Selected and edited by Martin McCauley (SSEES / Macmillan, 1975, 1980)
As Socialists, it is useful to have here many original documents, from the time of the February Revolution, through the spring, summer and autumn of 1917, and then on through the period of the October Revolution, the civil war period, the politics of the “Socialist State”, and social and economic conditions, before and after the revolution, and around the inauguration of the New Economic Policy (NEP). McCauley also provides useful summaries of each period and topic, plus statistics and maps, and a Preface.

There is no mention of Socialism/Communism in the ‘Soviet Appeal to all the Peoples of the World’ (14 March 1917), from the Bolshevik Petrograd Soviet, which declared “the Russian revolution has overthrown the age-old despotism of the Tsar... Our victory is a great one for universal freedom and democracy” (p24). Not a word about the overthrow of capitalism and the wages system – the issue was “freedom and democracy”.

On the land question, the Bolshevik paper IZVESTYA (2 May 1917) was most confusing: “all land to the people” but then a warning against land seizures - inequitable and would result in famine. That question must be decided yes, by the will of “all the people” – but no, by the Constituent Assembly (pp62-3). And just weeks later, the Congress of Peasants’ Deputies on the Land Question prioritised the “higher interests of the whole people and the State” because of the food supply crisis, and resolved to nationalise the land (pp63-6).

In Lenin’s call for an armed uprising (12-14 September), he argued that the majority of urban workers and many in the army were supporters of the revolution. But Kamenev and Zinoviev openly warned against this: the soldiers were for peace but mostly not for revolution; the peasants were overwhelmingly for the SR party, not for the Bolsheviks; and a premature revolution would set back the cause of international revolution, citing signs of revolutionary movements in Italy and Germany. This statement of their argument, held in the archives of the Central Committee, was not published in Moscow until 1956 – the year of Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin’s excesses (McCarthy, pp115-117).

Lenin’s call for this armed rising stated his aims to be “a democratic peace, giving the land to the peasants and re-establishing the democratic institutions and liberties which have been shattered by Kerensky” and to form a “government which nobody will be able to overthrow” (McCarthy, p113).

Again as Socialists we look in vain to see anything in this which would suggest a Socialist revolution, based on the class struggle and class consciousness. Giving the land to the peasants would create a class of small farmers, about as revolutionary in their outlook as a class of shopkeepers. And by his rejection of the Kamenev-Zinoviev argument that a Russian revolution, if premature and lacking any international support, would be a setback for the international proletarian revolution, meant Lenin had turned his back on any international concept of the class struggle.

More recently, having found himself suddenly in power in 2016, the American TV-star president Trump immediately issued scores of ‘executive orders’. Similarly, Lenin issued decrees by the dozen.

One of his first was that setting up the Cheka (20 December 1917), a short, secret, document not published till ten years later:

... The Commission shall keep an eye on the press, saboteurs, right Socialist-Revolutionaries and strikers. Measures to be taken are confiscation, imprisonment, confiscation of cards, publication of the names of the enemies of the people, etc. (pub. Pravda, 18 Dec. 1927 - McCarthy, pp181-2).

From this early date, long before any actual counter-revolutionary forces emerged, the Bolshevik dictatorship enforced strict censorship and ruthless measures to be taken against even strikers. But to treat strikers as if they were saboteurs and so-called “enemies of the people” and, in times of extreme food scarcity, to confiscate their ration cards: that was equivalent to a death sentence, without right of appeal. To strike in a time of high inflation and real shortages was simply workers defending themselves with their only weapon – withdrawal of their labour. To the end, the Soviet Union resisted any such independent action by workers, even using machine guns to fight against strikers e.g. in Novocherkassk (1962). To call this ruthless state, with its government-approved ‘official trade unions’, a ‘workers’ state’ was a triumph of the black art of propaganda.

It soon turned out that the ‘Red Terror’ was not merely a Western media scare. Soviet documents from 1919 mentioned the use of extreme torture, and described how Cheka officials often needed to be relieved due to “the terrible conditions of work” and the effect of this on the nervous system of officials, at least any lacking a “heart of adamant” (McCarthy, p188).

By April 1918 there was evidently serious opposition by some trade unions, and McCarthy cites this document under the heading Trade Unionists criticise the government:

The trade union movement is in danger... New trade unions which support the Soviet government have been set up to counteract the opposition of certain trade unions. The government then decides which union really represents the interests of the working class (Novaya Zhizn, 30 April 1918).

But outside Soviet Russia, there was only blind support for the Bolshevik regime by Western trade unionists and others of the Left in Britain and other countries, and only hostility to those – especially the SPGB – who challenged and opposed the claims of the Soviet so-called ‘Socialist State’.

To be continued.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.