Russian Revolution, in 10 sentences

The Russian revolution of 1917 happened in two steps. In February, a popular unrest in the capital St. Petersburg forced the Czar to abdicate. In the fall, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional government and started seven decades of Communist rule.

Here’s the essence of what happened.

  1. The Russian revolution in Autumn 1917 was about (1) leaving WW1, (2) giving land to peasants and (3) confiscating industrial properties and banks.
  2. The power was grabbed by a small group of radical Socialists in St Peterburg, who had the support of several military units in the city.
  3. Because of the political fragmentation after the fall of the monarchy in March 1917, no other forces in the country managed to oppose Lenin and his comrades.
  4. The new rulers nationalized everything, including land, in keeping with the Marxist teachings, as well as switched side in the war by signing peace with Germany.
  5. A countrywide economic collapse followed that only partly was reverted several years later.
  6. A tripartite civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks (“Reds”) supported by many militaries and the Germans, the former Imperial urban classes (“Whites”) supported by the Allies, and private peasants who opposed the confiscations of food by the “Reds”.
  7. After the Bolsheviks crushed the “Whites”, a truce was entered between them and the peasants that lasted between 1921 and 1928, and became known as “New Economic Policy”.
  8. The Bolsheviks deemed the NEP a failure, and Stalin dismantled it, crushing private peasants during the Collectivization of 1928–1933.
  9. The Collectivisation, along with the confiscation of valuables from individuals (Torgsin) and from the Church, gave the USSR the means to build the military-industrial complex and the army needed for the initial Marxist project of world revolution.
  10. The successful industrialization made possible a renewed push for world revolution previously thwarted by Poland in 1920, by the USSR entering the Spanish civil war of 1936–39 and partitioning Eastern Europe in an alliance with Germany in 1939.

Below, a painting The Bolshevik, by David Jagger. This piece of art was made in 1918 and reflects the torrents of chaotic passion that swallowed the country during the first months after the Communist takeover.

The Bolshevik by David Jagger
Image: “The Bolshevik”, by David Jagger

Torgsin: Stalin’s money machine

The massive Soviet industrialization needed a lot of cash to pay for Western technology and equipment. Stalin used famine for getting out gold and jewelry that people were hiding in private stashes.

During the collectivization of private peasants in 1928-33 in the USSR, a large part of the food produced in new collective farms was exported to cover the cost of import for Stalin’s breakneck industrialization. This was the major purpose of the collectivization.

Price fall

However, quite soon Stalin’s agroexports hit a considerable wall. The economic crisis in the West led to a sharp drop in prices on Soviet commodities. The collapse of grain farming due to the disappearance of private peasants made it impossible to increase exports in order to compensate for the price fall.

Stalin and his prime-minister at the time Molotov found a smart Communist solution to that impasse. They used the famine to vaccuum gold, jewelry, foreign currency, art and other liquidity from people’s stashes hidden around the country.

Gold for food

Collectivization resulted first in a shortage of food, and then a nationwide famine. The black market prices went exhorbitant, the state rationing paikí was limited to those employed in the party and government. For the rest, the only way to feed themselves and the family was often to bring out their valuables and sell them for food.

In order to forestall private profiteers, Stalin and Molotov grabbed the business for themselves. They opened up to 1,500 Torgsin shops around the country. Anyone could bring their valuables there and exchange them for food, no questions asked. One “Torgsin rouble” was at the time worth 35–40 regular Soviet roubles in the black market. An average worker’s salary at the time, ~125 RUB, was roughly equivalent to three “Torgsin roubles”. In 1933, at the height of the famine, three TR would buy you in Torgsin about 9 kg meat or 6 kg sugar.

Family abroad

People who didn’t have valuables, but had relatives abroad, could send them a telegram or a letter asking for a currency transfer. Calls of distress that contained the magic line “Wire the dollars to Torsin” were allowed to leave the country unimpeded. For those who had charitable relatives abroad, Torgsin even felt obliged to dispatch the priceless relief packages to their doorstep.

During 1931–1936, the Torgsin system covered between 1/3 to 1/5 of annual cost of Soviet industrial imports. Soviet estimates say that 90–95% of all liquid valuables in private possession was confiscated during this time.

The photo below shows one of the Torgsin shops in Leningrad. The sign to the left is a price list for bread, to the right says “Don’t touch the merchandize”.

Torgsin shop in Leningrad
Photo: A Torgsin shop in Leningrad.

Russia’s national motto

The national idea of Russia is power. Over time, it took different forms, including veneration of Czars and an assortment of Communist memes. The harsh era of Stalinism helped forge a motto that fuses all of them into one powerful one-liner.

Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”.

This was born in the Gulag. New arrivals were taught is as a kind of a lucky spell for survival. It encapsulated the massive wisdom unearthed by hundreds of thousands of people thrown into the meat grinder of the Communist rule. Its deep meaning seems to have been well absorbed by all our shakers and movers ever since the Bolsheviks had destroyed the Russian empire.

If President Putin lasts long enough to write a memoir, this line might be a very good epigraph to the book. If not, a tombstone?

“Don’t trust”

It’s about cutting through the ideological nonsense dispensed by the State. Even more important is a warning not to have any illusions and high expectations, as well as not to succumb to hubris, no matter how good is the hand you’re holding. A very helpful thing to do is also never to let your guards down. In the homeland of the best spies and the most professional secret police in the world, your wife, your best friend and even your kids might be informing on you. Better be fully prepared to absorb this, too.

“Don’t fear”

The massive, sky-high wall of State power is full of holes and cracks. Find them and use them. Don’t let bad luck paralyze you. Sticking up your neck is dangerous, but it also projects an internal force and dignity that many people mistake for power. Fake it until you make it—some people somehow made it to the very top.

“Don’t beg”

Begging projects weakness, which is worse than a mortal sin in Russia. In our neck of the woods, weakness attracts all kinds of vultures, demons and bad luck that otherwise are strangely indifferent to those who steal, rob and plunder. Therefore, even when you lose, always bite the dust in silence.

There is a 15-year old hit of the fake lesbian duo TATU titled Ne ver ne bóysya ne prosi (“Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”). The lyrics are mostly a nonsensical expression of adolescent confusion, defiance, and the fascination of the words of criminal wisdom. You may also find interesting a book about recent adventures of a group of Western ecologists in Putin’s jail, titled Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg.

don't trust don't fear don't beg
Photo: A tattoo design suggested by Studio with the Russian national motto in Latin.

Classroom in a Soviet primary school

Soviet primary schools had a particular focus on orderliness and following the rules

Below is a photo from what seems like 3rd year of a primary school in the USSR in the early 1980s. Years 1-4 were classes where most subjects apart from specialized ones (like sport and foreign language in the elite schools) were taught by the same teacher, called “class master”.

Kids in a class of a Soviet primary school are dressed up for the photo-op
Kids in a class of a Soviet primary school are dressed up for the photo-op. Early 1980s.

The girls wear white aprons and white ribbons in the hair. This was customary for special occasions like nationwide celebrations of heroes, visits from supervising authorities, foreign guests. Normally, they were wearing black aprons over brown dresses. Boys had waist-long jackets with metallic buttons and pants in dark blue.

On the left side of the chest, all kids have a red badge: a small pentagram with a portrait of baby Lenin. This marked their membership as Little Octobrists in a Communist organization for youngest schoolchildren. Everyone was enrolled wholesale, no parental consent asked. A refusal to join would raise a red flag in the school administration concerning the ideological loyalty of the parents.

The way most kids keep their hands folded was a requirement inherited from Czarist schools.

The furniture is a 1930s Soviet design, a double-seat table set consisting of one piece. This is a variation of the Farmer desk set developed in Germany in the 1870s. This particular furniture is at least 15 years old: the holes in the front of the desk were made for ink holders. Schools in Moscow switched to ballpoint pens at the end of the 1960s.

The windows have double panes for insulation during winter. School routines required airing the classrooms by opening the windows during breaks (10 or 15 min) at all seasons. The curtains were necessary for darkening the classroom during slide shows using filmstrips.

The boards on the back wall are titled “Reading” and “Math”. They show a synopsis of the current curriculum. The “Reading” board has portraits of Russian authors who produced the required school reading: Krylov, Lermontov, Turgenev, Nekrasov, Tolstoy and Pushkin.

Samizdat: system-critical publications in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union prohibited publication or even imports of “anti-Soviet” and “ideologically vague” books. Being caught in contact with them was a sure way to become a dissident.

Inside the Soviet Union, replication and dissemination of system-critical books and articles was an impossibility. Publishing was performed by state or co-operative agencies. Publishing was under total ideological control. State censorship covered everything. Individual citizens are not allowed to engage in such activities.

Even small print runs of the Bible and psalm books required explicit permission from the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Smuggling prohibited

Nothing deemed even remotely critical of Real Socialism was ever translated. If you traveled abroad and had such books in your luggage entering the country, they would be confiscated. If you were a foreign citizen, you risked to be expelled. Soviet citizens in possession of such books could be indicted for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. Titles in Russian and other languages spoken in the country were considered an aggravating evidence.

Allowed readership

Single copies of “anti-Soviet” and “ideologically vague” works were available to “specialists” and “researchers” in Spetskhran, repositories of classified printed matters and publications with tightly regulated access. Selected members of Nomenklatura had access to referentskyie obzory, a kind of executive summaries on a range of classified subjects, including a description of book plots, with essential quotes.

” works were available to “specialists” and “researchers” in Spetskhran, repositories of classified printed matters and publications with tightly regulated access. Selected members of Nomenklatura had access to referentskyie obzory, a kind of executive summaries on a range of classified subjects, including a description of book plots, with essential quotes.

This job was assigned to the most trusted translators with impeccable resumes. Their work was anonymous and resembled the Wiki style.


Enthusiasts of reading sometimes translated some of prohibited works and spread them around in the form of Samizdat (“kitchentable publishing”). This involved producing six (sometimes more) carbon copies of a title using typing machines, which then would be handed to six other people who produced another batch for further cycles.

These Samizdat pieces circumvented state control and changed hands even when the disseminators were caught by the police. Novels, poems and songs
they contained enjoyed wide popularity, much more than most of the titles peddled by official media and mouthpieces.

samizdat title USSR
A typical Samizdat title, with minimized margins and single line spaces. The were rarely bound, so that several people could share a single copy for a night or two of binge-reading

Did Russia revert back to totalitarianism?

Putin’s rule, despite the many traits of authoritarianism, still is a big step ahead compared to the Soviet rule

Calling what we have now in Russia “totalitarianism” is misplaced. What we have now in Russia, is a mildly authoritarian state-oligarchical Capitalism—which is miles away from totalitarianism, thank God.


Totalitarianism is a very strong word, too often misused. It’s about a system that not only robs you of freedom and sucks you dry for everything it wants you to contribute. It also expects you to love the process, and devises a lot of tricks to check if you really mean it, when you say you love it.

The acid test for totalitarianism is to check if the State systematically tries to invade people’s homes. This is definitely not Russia today.


Now, if we re-formulate the question into “how come Russia reverted back to Putin’s authoritarianism from the state of hope during the Gorbachev era”, what would be the answer?

The truth is, we didn’t revert. We have progressed. The illusion of “relapse” comes from the unfulfilled expectations that Russia would leap from the state of Communist non-freedom into the post-modern Capitalism in a matter of one generation. That was silly. Unlike Poland, or the Baltics, we never knew democracy. Also, we never had a chance to develop a fully-fledged nationalism, which could enforce accountability of our rulers before the nation.

Best era ever

But a lot has changed to the better anyway.

  • We live much more prosperous lives than under Gorbachev.
  • Back then, I couldn’t leave the country without a few weeks of vetting by the secret police, waiting for my “exit visa”. Now, I can grab the first cab to the airport, and be on my way to anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.
  • I couldn’t own my own apartment, or sell it, or give it to my kids.
  • Even the illusion of fair elections that Putin maintains nowadays, was a wild dream in the 1980s.
  • Sending my kids to a school or university of their choice wherever in the world, or buying a health insurance that could give my family treatment in the best clinics, or vacationing with my family in Turkey, or France, or Hawaii—all of that was pure science fiction.
  • Communicating with people on social media, many of who are from NATO countries, was risky and could easily get me a lot of trouble. Even in the sweetest years of Perestroika were not much better because of all the good old Stalin-era laws and regulations against spying and anti-Soviet activity, many of which were not even made public.

Privacy allowed

Right now, the mighty Russian state doesn’t care what I do, as long as I’m not involved in politics. They are watching me all right, just in case, but so far I have never felt these guys’ breath on my neck, or their hand on my shoulder.

I’m old enough to fully appreciate the change.

Vegan in the USSR

Vegans in the USSR faced scarcity of food, general skepticism and cold climate, but was inspired by the promise of hidden wisdom and healing

During the 1970s, and especially 1980s, being a professed vegetarian or vegan in the USSR would acquire you a lot of social points. Not always positive, but still. “Hey folks, you won’t believe it but I know a strict vegan. Kinda weirdo, but listen to what he told me the other day…”.

Hidden wisdom

We Russians have long been suckers for arcane wisdom. Vegans were viewed exactly like that: freaks who (possibly) have discovered a secret well of wisdom. It was kinda scary to follow their path. Yet a whole lot of people eagerly listened to apocryphal tales of longevity and miraculous healings, thanks to the right selection of foods and drinks.

People collected the rumors, read Samizdat and discussed this with their friends and colleagues. Many cherished the thought that maybe sometime next year they would to give it a try.


The problem was purely practical: if you lived in provinces, and cut out meat and eggs, your diet would be largely reduced to canned food and carbs: bread, cheap pasta and sugar. Growing fruits and vegetables, and particularly storing them for more than a few weeks, never was the strength of the Socialist agriculture.

Cabbage, beetroot, tainted potatoes and some other basic vegetables, along with apples and other native fruits during the season were mostly available. But the quality was patchy, at best, as was the taste. With an extremely limited line of things to spice it up—fresh greenery, spices, sauces and suchlike—in the length, even the most vegan-curious would get second thoughts.

Skeptical environment

Add to that social pressures. Almost all in the USSR ate lunch in state-owned cafeterias at their workplace. Zero veg awareness there, for starters. And when you wrap up your small weird vegan stuff when everyone are busy sending down the hatch their borshch and ground meat with pasta. “Hey buddy, are you in a cult or something?”

Too cold and dark

The crown argument against vegetarianism in the Soviet was climate. You don’t survive on fibers in the midst of our wind-blown, snow-covered plains. Animal fats and proteins are king. This attitude covered another, more profound truth—we Soviets were people who knew hunger only too well. You really need to experience hunger only a couple of times, to be painfully aware for the rest of your life of one simple Soviet wisdom: whatever is your situation now, your next meal is never guaranteed. Don’t be stupid. Grab this meat now, and eat it.

Soviet vegetables fruit shop Moscow

Photo: Inside a Soviet era “Vegetables” shop in Moscow.

How well-documented was WW2 in the Soviet Union?

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was subject to strict requirement of the official narrative. Private documents were scarce and keeping them often risky

Documentation of WW2 in the Soviet Union was heavily tilted by the official narrative.


The USSR was a security-obssessed power. Especially during Stalin’s era, it strived to be a hell for spies, saboteurs and turncoats. And it was indeed.

  • It was forbidden to the troops to keep diaries (proof link in Russian). Some did it surreptitiously, at their peril. If you were in the Red Army, and hated your officer, and knew where he keeps his diary book, all you needed was a short talk to a Smersh operative, and you wouldn’t see the sucker anymore.
  • Only authorized propaganda personnel carrying special permits were allowed to have photo cameras. If you happened to snatch a camera off a dead German, you were required to hand it over to the special trophy storage. Were you caught with a camera in your possession, good luck proving to the Smersh guys you are not a spy.
  • All correspondence to and from the army was vetted.
  • You come home alive from the war, or you are in transit entertaining fellow officers with true stories from the battlefront, and start sharing shocking details that show the Red Army in an unflattering light—you always have the harsh Stalin’s sentences for anti-Soviet activity hanging over you.

All this explains, why on the WWII forums, even the most patriotic Russians often operate with quotes from German war memoirs, Nazi archives and German photos. We often have too few own data, and those available were heavily sanitized during the war and after it.

Which leads us to the following point.

Strict narrative

The Soviet Communists were the most consummate ideologists of all times, probably beating to that title even the Catholic church. Bolsheviks knew not only how to lie in the most majestic, inspiring ways. They also knew that ideology should never stand in the way of expediency. That required the sublime art of covering their actions in plain sight. Stalin and his people simply excelled at this.


Contrary to Nazis, Bolsheviks, starting with Stalin, made a good job of disguising their true intentions, when they knew enemies could use it against them. No advertising for lebensraum, or unsubstantiated hate speech. No Trotskyists “permanent revolutions” and suchlike. The same went for documentation.

Suffice to say, in my time in the Soviet propaganda, we denied the existence of the secret protocols to the ’39 Soviet-German pact to the very end. The Soviet archives preceding WWII show great holes for the details of how the Red Army and the Soviet leadership were preparing for the oncoming war. Everything that’s left points in the direction of “stupid Stalin having too much faith in Hitler’s honesty”.


Cornerstone of identity

The victory in WWII has been the cornerstone of our national identitly ever since 1945. No Russian ruler, and very few Russian opinion leaders, or historians—with a short exception before and after the collapse of Communism—have shown any desire to dig deep into history, for the fear of disrupting the narrative of our greatness. We don’t even know the exact number of our dead during the war.

We are going to live with some huge white spots, and a myriad of tiny ones over the history of Soviet WW2 for some time, maybe forever. And you know what—the nation is perfectly fine with it.

Picture: Anyone with a camera in their possession in the Red Army needed such an ID. Their owners were stars among the troops: they could fix you a mugshot to send home—maybe, the last one, before you die in the next attack, or from an incoming mortar shell.

id cameraman USSR ww2
Photo: a wartime ID of a cameraman Ibragimov issued by the Political Administration of South-Western Front

Kissing, Kremlin-style

Russian rulers practiced a lot of public lip-kissing before, but now it’s gone out of vogue. President Putin hates kissing people.

Russia has a rich tradition of royal lip contacts with their subjects. However, the history presidential kissing is rather short. There has been only two of them (if we include the placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev, three). The first one, Yeltsin, came about first in 1991.

Out of vogue

There were a couple episodes of Yeltsin kissing other alpha males. Yet, they were relatively prudish. He was nowhere near the famous Russian lip-locks practiced by General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev (“mediocre politician—but what a kisser!”) and the occasional lip-brushing of Mikhail Gorbachev.

One of the last holdouts of this ancient tradition was reported to be Putin’s former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Otherwise—especially amid the wide nationwide campaign against gay propaganda—it has largely disappeared.

No kisses, please

Some theorists of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s attribute the deterioration in the bilateral relations to repeated attempts at brotherly kissing on the part of Soviet functionaries, which the Chinese interpreted as a repulsive manifestation of their intent to dominate the international Communist movement.

Like the Chinese, President Putin belongs to the group that have an aversion to lip-kissing. Moreover, he is famous for hating touching other people unnecessarily. He rather prefers facial contacts with horses, dogs, fishes, religious artefacts and kids’ bellies. Silvio Berlusconi tried Slav-kissing on Putin once, but found no reciprocity.

This is shared by an absolute majority of Russians. Even amid the universal jubilation on the Easter day, when true Orthodoxes congratulate each other with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it’s not a good idea to try to lip-kiss people.


The tradition of male lip-kissing was brought to us by Balkan clergy. They performed a holy kiss as a standard Easter greeting. The habit caught on immediately. Foreign travelers describing Muscovy in the XVII century were puzzled by the ubiquitous lip-kissing among Russians. The tradition was somewhat relieved by a customary kiss on the lips that guests in the house were expected to exchange with the wife of the host.

There is an apocryphal explanation that linked to lip kisses the legendary robustness of our people. Russians were allegedly subjecting themselves to the bombardment by virulent foreign germs. Throughout generations, it conditioned our bodies to all kinds of hardship.


Among old-timers in some local Russian Orthodox communities there is still a tradition of laity kissing the priest on the lips at the Easter service. Czar Nicholas II often did the same on his troops when awarding medals (the picture below).

Czar Nicholas of Russia kisses troops
Photo: Czar Nicholas II bestows royal kisses on the best of his troops during WW1.

Khrushchev’s time in power: pros and cons

Khrushchev was good for a common man in the USSR. But the softening of Stalin’s version of Socialism ultimately led to weakening of the Communist project.

The main legacy of Khrushchev as a Soviet leader is rather straightforward. After the death of Stalin, Khrushchev continued supporting our Communist friends abroad. But despite the continued Cold War, Khrushchev took the Bolshevik concept of international Communist expansion (i.e. revolutionary wars) off the Soviet agenda.

The pros and cons of Khrushchev —  the man and his era — are all consequences of this fact. 

Post-Stalinist Thaw

Even before Khruschev’s famous secret speech, Stalin’s quasi-permanent state of siege was relieved. Some resources were redistributed from the military-industrial complex into the civil sector. Farmers had more freedom of movement. Some tensions with the West were defused.

As the subsequent development showed, from a Marxist point of view, it was plain wrong. In the longer term, Communism seems to have a chance only in a state of heightened economic and social mobilization. Communism also requires a recurrent rotation of elites through large-scale purges.

After the quick development in the 1950s, a gradual stagnation and decline in the USSR followed. It resulted in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Good for commoners

While from the Communist point of view Khrushchev was a slow-working disaster, for a common man like me, Khrushchev’s rule was a good thing. He ended Stalin’s cycles of never-ending terror. Khrushchev was the first of Soviet leaders who gave precedence to making life better for the Soviet people, sometimes ahead of advancing the cause of Socialism.

Khrushchev seemed to firmly believe in peaceful competition between Socialism and Capitalism. Khrushchev introduced the buoyant optimism of the youthful 1960s. It was probably the happiest decade, full of hope and creative energies. This was not only the era of Gagarin’s 1961 space triumph, but for millions of families it was when they got their first ever home they didn’t need to share with anyone else.

Graph below: Residential building in USSR and Russia, 1918–2007, in sq.m. Blue: state-funded, brown privately funded.


Residential building in USSR and Russia, 1918–2007

G Graph below: Meat consumption in the USSR, kg/person/year


Meat consumption in the USSR

Graph: Soviet gold reserves (blue) and gold exports (red), in metric tons


Gold Reserves / Gold Exports