The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution, John

John 3

An essay examining the causes of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, as well as the symptoms of the switch from dictatorship of the proletariat, to dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

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It is the absolute truth that without a German revolution, we are doomed.

Vladimir Lenin, cited in A Radical History of the World, p.312

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Before we can talk of the degeneration of the Revolution, we must first ascertain exactly what it was that degenerated, what was lost. To do this, we must describe the state of affairs in the very first months after the October Revolution, in November 1917 or thereabouts, when Russia was without doubt a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. On October 24-25th, 1917, the Military-Revolutionary Committee (MRC) of the Petrograd Soviet (which had a Bolshevik majority) seized power behind the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ On October 25th, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets met in Petrograd, with 300 of the 670 delegates being Bolsheviks and ‘a clear majority of the Congress delegates [coming] with a mandate to support transfer of all power to the Soviets.’[1] However, a large number of Menshevik and Right-SR (Socialist Revolutionary) delegates immediately stormed out of the Congress in protest at the revolution, giving the Bolsheviks an absolute majority.

What was a Soviet? The Soviets were councils of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors, who had up and down the Russian Empire began spontaneously to elect delegates to these local bodies since February 1917. The Soviets themselves represented the inhabitants of towns, cities and rural areas, and delegates were elected to them from wards of varying sizes, including residents of urban districts, workers in particular factories, the sailors on certain dreadnoughts and so on. The spontaneous nature of these Soviets meant that in these early months they were chaotic, with no regular system for electing delegates in place. Delegates came from a dizzying plethora of socialist factions – Bolsheviks, Menshevik Defensists, Menshevik Internationalists, Right-SRs, Left SRs, SR Maximalists, SR Minimalists, anarchists, and non-party delegates. Generally, the Bolsheviks dominated urban Soviets and the SRs rural Soviets. Each local Soviet sent a certain number of delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, each delegate given precise instructions by his constituents as to how to vote and so on. The Central Government, elected by the Congress, was known as the Council of People’s Commissars – local variants existed in all the Soviets. The Council of People’s Commissars was comprised of delegates from the Bolsheviks and Left-SRs (a faction of the SR’s who supported the October Revolution), headed by Lenin and with Trotsky as de facto second in command as Commissar for Foreign Affairs. It is also worth bearing in mind that initially, the RSFSR (Russia) was not the only Soviet Republic. Instead, there were a bewildering variety of different governments set up – for example, just in the area of modern Ukraine, there was the Odessa Soviet Republic, the Soviet Socialist Republic of the Tauride, the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, and the Donets-Krivoi Rog Soviet Republic[2].

What did Soviet power look like in practice? Whilst all the Soviets ultimately deferred to the Congress with its Bolshevik majority, they enjoyed a large amount of local autonomy[3]. They were not necessarily Bolshevik dominated – for example, the crucial Kronstadt Soviet which sent the troops to storm the Winter Palace had as its delegates to the Congress: Yarchuk, an anarchist, Rivkin, an SR Maximalist, and Flerovsky, a Bolshevik. The Kronstadt Soviet passed resolutions and laws changing the tax system, introducing a militia, abolishing private ownership of land and so on all without the interference of the Congress and the Council of Commissars[4]. In fact, decrees socializing property were passed by the SR-Anarchist bloc of Kronstadt in opposition to the Bolsheviks – this was certainly not a one-party dictatorship[5]. This is representative of Soviets all across Russia, in which the workers and peasants took power into their own hands, holding lively public debates, passing resolutions, electing delegates on their own idiosyncratic principles and so on. The newly nationalised printing presses published local Soviet newspapers such as Kronstadt’s Iszestiia, which contained spirited opinion pieces from the literate workers. At the same time, former bourgeois elements were excluded from voting or conducting propaganda and agitation, ensuring that this would remain a dictatorship of the proletariat. The 1918 constitution of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federated Soviet Republic) proclaimed:

“The Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies believes that now, during the progress of the decisive battle between the proletariat and its exploiters, the exploiters should not hold a position in any branch of the Soviet Government. The power must belong entirely to the toiling masses and to their plenipotentiary representatives- the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies.”[6]

The Cheka were established as the ‘secret police’ under Felix Dzerzhinsky, given large extrajudicial powers to crush counter-revolution – a necessary function in the months and years after the revolution, in the face of concerted anti-Bolshevik sabotage and agitation. In the words of Engels:

“A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.”[7]

This body was accountable to the Congress of Soviets. The workers were more often than not armed (and had been since the ‘July Days’) and were organised into Red Guard militias by their local Soviets[8]. The Red Guards were supplemented by the soldiers of the Russian Army, who had by October mostly either killed or imprisoned their officers and set up military Soviets. Both the Red Guard units and the military Soviets were dominated by the Bolsheviks, but they were by no means one-party institutions, and they answered to the Military-Revolutionary Committee only as far as the local Soviet agreed[9]. In the countryside, since the February Revolution the peasantry had by and large spontaneously expropriated the aristocracy and the kulaks, dividing up the land according to need and organising production based on the traditional Russian mir, often roughly translated into English as ‘commune’[10]. Such was the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1917-early 1918.

The Degeneration of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Note – in 1918, the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Communist Party. From now on the names will be used interchangeably.

However, the situation of late-1917 to early-1918 was not to last long. By mid-1918, the Russian Civil War had begun, with anti-communist White forces, a strange mixture of proto-fascists, religious fanatics, monarchists and liberals rallying against the Soviet Republic[11] – backed, of course, by the Allied powers[12]. The Civil War had a catastrophic effect on the revolution.

Originally, the Bolsheviks had planned a wholly democratic, informal militia as the basis for any fighting that might need to be done:

“Ensign Krylenko’s main tasks as Supreme Commander In-Chief were democratization and demobilisation… [there were] a flow of decrees that brought in elected commanders, ended all ranks, and sent home class after class; the army melted like snow…but for the Bolsheviks…the loss of the Imperial Russian Army did not matter. Any invasion would be defeated by revolutionary outbreaks in the enemy’s homelands and the internal decay of his armies. If any fighting was required it would be done by the Russian masses with minimal organisation.”[13]

However, as the Spanish Republicans found out in 1936-39[14], fighting a brutal war without a highly centralised military organisation is a recipe for disaster – the Bolsheviks were not prepared to jeopardise the revolution for the sake of ‘ultra-left’ demands for decentralisation[15]. This meant several things. Firstly, the Red Guards were by and large abolished and rolled into the regular Red Army, meaning that the armed proletariat were put under complete control of the MRC and therefore the Bolshevik party[16]. Secondly, it meant that the disastrously unpopular policy of ‘war communism’ was implemented – this policy essentially involved state expropriation of grain in order to feed the army, resulting in famine. Thirdly, it meant that socialist parties critical of Bolshevik policy were increasingly suppressed. Finally, it meant that the Soviets increasingly had their authority stripped from them in order to ensure maximum efficiency and control.

What did this look like in practice? I will quote at length:

“The process began in earnest on 14 May 1918 with the appointment (not election) of Ivan Flerovsky as general commissar of the Baltic Fleet and chairman of its Council of Commissars, a body which replaced the disbanded elective Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet. Flerovsky promptly appointed brigade commissars to whom all ships’ committees were subordinated… Shortly thereafter, the Communist-dominated Fifth Congress of Sailors of the Baltic Fleet decreed the expulsion of the Left SRs from all ship and base committees and subordinated the ships’ committees to the party collectives by vesting the ‘guarantee’ for the suitability and performance of the committee’s chairman in the collective itself, subject to the approval of the general commissar. Naval democracy was finally destroyed on 18 January 1919 when Trotsky, chairman of the Military Council of the Republic, decreed the abolition of all ships’ committees, the appointment of commissars to all ships, and the setting up of revolutionary tribunals to maintain discipline, a function previously vested in elected ‘comradely courts’.”[17]

This process was repeated across most previously elective offices, such as the workers representatives responsible for supervising the bourgeois factory managers (who had been retained as a matter of necessity for their expertise).

This leads on to some of the other telling ways in which the revolution began to degenerate. At first, management of the factories had been taken over by the workers themselves, pretty much spontaneously, through factory committees. These councils established in the factories comprised the grassroots of Soviet democracy, nominating the candidates up for election and so on. However, very quickly it became apparent that this was harming productivity (essential to maintain in a war scenario), and so bourgeois managers were brought back, eroding the power of the factory committees. This was repeated in the army, where Tsarist officers were reinstated to lead the soldiers, and the bureaucracy, where ex-Tsarists were also reinstated[18]. This ran wholly contrary to Bolshevik ideology, with Lenin emphasising again and again as late as September 1917 the need to wholly smash the bourgeois state, replacing it with a completely new, proletarian state power[19]. Meanwhile, in order to maintain productivity in the face of economic collapse, Taylorist techniques were introduced into industry, regimenting production in a decidedly capitalistic fashion[20]. Gradually, pre-revolutionary ‘normality’ re-appeared, as things reverted to the days of ‘ordinary’, bourgeois capitalism.

This was also highlighted by the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, which served as an admission that Soviet Russia was going to have to act as a normal bourgeois state, negotiating with other governments over territory and resources. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk was highly unpopular, ceding large areas of land to the Central Powers and making concessions to Polish, Ukrainian and Finnish nationalism. Many socialists were so appalled by this treaty that they called for a ‘partisan war’ against the Germans, with the Left-SR’s attempting to resume the war by assassinating members of German High Command[21]. This culminated in the Left-SR’s leading an armed uprising against the Bolsheviks, calling for a revolutionary war with Germany and an end to grain requisitioning – both of these demands were of course practically impossible, as the Bolsheviks knew[22]. Brest-Litovsk (which had been signed under extreme duress, as the Red Guard units were mopped up by the German Army) also gave the Bolsheviks a valuable lesson in the need for decisive action and centralisation. Five days after the signing of the treaty, the party leadership recognised “that the primary and fundamental task of our party, of the whole conscious proletarian vanguard, and of Soviet power, is the taking of the most energetic, ruthlessly decisive and draconian measures to raise the self-discipline and discipline of the workers and peasants… for the creation everywhere of soundly-organised mass organisations held together by a single iron will… and, lastly, to train systematically and comprehensively in military matters and military operations the entire adult population of both sexes.”[23]

The hand of the Bolsheviks was thus essentially forced to end the multi-party Soviet democracy. In October 1917, the Mensheviks and Right-SR’s were expelled from the Congress (technically they voluntarily stormed out, but they were not allowed back afterwards) for refusing to support Soviet power (this was supported by most Left-SR’s and anarchists)[24]. Then in July 1918, the Left-SR’s were expelled from government and banned as a party for leading an uprising against the Bolsheviks, discussed earlier. This left only the Bolsheviks, SR-Maximalists and a few non-partisan and anarchist delegates in the Congress, with a large Bolshevik majority, large enough that any Bolshevik legislation could be pushed through with ease. Although the Mensheviks were re-admitted in late 1918, their platform against Soviet power guaranteed them few votes[25]. The Bolsheviks were generally seen to be the only party that stood unambiguously for Soviet power, whilst the Mensheviks and SR’s were tainted with their earlier support for the Provisional Government and opposition to the Revolution[26].

This meant that by 1919, Russia had de facto become a Bolshevik dictatorship, with no party able to launch an effective challenge to them. This does not mean that elections did not occur – for example, in the February 1920 elections to the Kronstadt Soviet, 211 Bolsheviks, 25 non-partisans, two Mensheviks, one SR and one ‘Armenian socialist’ were elected[27]. However, the enormous Bolshevik majority meant that elections had become perfunctory affairs, their outcome a foregone conclusion. In addition, initially elections were supervised at the grassroots by representatives of the party-cells of all the socialist parties. However, in July 1918, this system was replaced. Elections were now overseen by a representative from the Bolshevik dominated Congress, and a representative from the local Bolshevik party-cell – only the Bolshevik cell[28]. This meant that the guarantee of fairness in the elections, jealous supervision by the different parties, disappeared.

Another important factor was that the social base of the Bolshevik party disappeared. In 1917, the proletarian population of Russia had been 3.6 million – by 1920, it was only 1.5 million, a result of industrial closures, conscription, and most importantly urban starvation during the Civil War[29]. This meant that it became a numerical impossibility for Russia to be a dictatorship of the proletariat – outside of a few centres like Moscow and Petrograd, there was no proletariat. In this context, the Bolshevik party, lacking its own support, was forced to resort to party dictatorship in order to survive. Appeals to the peasantry were fruitless – grain requisitioning ‘war communist’ policies had thoroughly alienated them. In 1920 the Bolsheviks were facing two major peasant revolts – the Makhnovist anarchists in Ukraine, and the more serious Tambov Rebellion, which required some 50,000 soldiers to defeat[30].

The degeneration of the Revolution must be seen in the context of the international revolutionary wave that peaked in 1918-19. When the Bolsheviks launched the October Revolution, they did so under the conviction that they would soon be joined by the rest of the European proletariat, ushering in an international communist revolution (as per Marxist theory, see for example point 19 of Engels’ Principles of Communism: “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others”[31]). For example, in a speech in Moscow, April 14th 1918, Trotsky, after describing the communist future, proclaimed

“all this we can and shall realize completely only when the European working class supports us… the working class of other countries will come to our aid, and, following our example, will rise and bring our task to a successful conclusion.”[32]

Whilst international revolutions did not take place immediately in 1917, as had been hoped for, they did take place en masse in 1918-19. There were attempted revolutions in Germany and Austria, the establishment of short-lived Soviet Republics in Hungary, Finland and Bavaria, mass working class and peasant unrest in Italy and Spain, mutinies in the British and French armies, strike waves in America – it briefly looked as if international revolution was really round the corner[33]. However, by the end of 1919, and certainly after the failed invasion of Poland in 1920 (in which the Polish working class, to the shock of the Bolsheviks, rallied to the Polish capitalists rather than the Russian workers[34]), it was clear that the international revolution was not going to happen. All the revolutionary movements had either petered out or been crushed by violent force.

The Bolsheviks had originally supposed that the Civil War would be won quickly as the European proletariat came to the aid of their comrades. They imagined that the European (especially German) workers, who were far more educated than their Russian compatriots, would be able to run the proletarian state without the need for using Tsarist bureaucrats, would be able to provide Russian with the technical expertise and material aid to industrialise and educate, and much more besides. The failure of the international revolution therefore forced the Bolsheviks to fight the gruelling Civil War of 1918-1920, fight against foreign intervention, manage their own economy, rehire ex-Tsarists and so forth. The Bolsheviks had openly courted Civil War in 1917, but they had not really expected to have to fight one, at least alone[35]. The root of most of the issues identified previously can be placed soundly with the failure of the international revolution.

1921: The Death Knell of the Revolution

Several key events occurred in 1921 that mark it as perhaps the definitive year in which it can be said that Russia ceased to be a dictatorship of the proletariat. The most important of these was the Kronstadt Uprising against the Bolsheviks. However, this was joined by the misjudged ban on factions in the Bolshevik party itself, the adoption of the New Economic Policy, and the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement (the first trade agreement with the bourgeois world). I am not going to go over these events in detail; that would be superfluous. However, I will sketch a brief outline, and explain their significance to the Revolution.

Kronstadt (the town and most importantly the Baltic Fleet based in its port) had long been a bastion of the October Revolution – Kronstadt sailors had stormed the Winter Palace and provided the shock-troops of many a Civil War battle. The Kronstadt Soviet overwhelmingly supported the Revolution, with Left-SR, anarchist and Bolshevik delegates dominating. The Soviet was widely upheld as a model for the rest of Russia and had epithets such as ‘The Red Baltic’[36]. However, despite their fervent support for the Revolution, most sailors had been peasant conscripts, and as they went home during leave to witness the grain requisitioning, arbitrary power of the commissars and so on that was rife in the countryside, the seeds of discontent began to be sown. Communist Party membership plummeted, and mass meetings began to be held outside the purview of the ‘commissarocracy’, as in the heyday of 1917-18.

On the 27th February 1921, the rank-and-file sailors of the Sevastopol and the Petropavlosk elected a fact-finding delegation to go to Petrograd in order to investigate rumours of strikes, lockouts, mass arrests and martial law there. Once there, the delegates were met with proclamations like this one:

“Since you are from Kronstadt…and you want to know the truth, here it is: we are starving. We have no shoes and no clothes. We are physically and morally terrorized. Each and every one of our requests and demands is met by the authorities with terror, terror, endless terror. Look at the prisons of Petrograd and you will see how many of our comrades sit there after being arrested in the last three days. No, comrades, the time has come to tell the Communists openly – you have spoken enough on our behalf. Down with your dictatorship which has landed us in this blind alley. Make way for non-party men. Long live freely elected Soviets! They alone can take us out of this mess!”[37]

On the 28th, having heard the findings of the delegation, the Kronstadt Fleet issued a declaration demanding free Soviet elections, and end to the commissar system, the end of state support for the Bolshevik Party, freedom of speech and assembly for trade unions and socialist parties, the equalisation of rations and more in this vein[38]. On the 1st of March, 16,000 soldiers, sailors and workers turned up for a mass meeting at which Kalinin, a senior Bolshevik figure, was shouted off stage, and a new government was set up in the city. The news of this revolt arrived in the midst of the 10th Communist Party Congress, dramatically forcing many delegates to run out in military uniform to join the Red Army and Cheka detachments that crushed the uprising. “The Kronstadt revolt seemed a symbolic parting of ways between the working class and the Bolshevik party… The Soviet regime, for the first time, had turned its guns on the revolutionary proletariat.”[39] The significance of this event needs no explanation.

The other three events need less explanation. In large part as a reaction to Kronstadt (and the recognition that war communism had to come to an end), the New Economic Policy was adopted. This legalised private property and selling goods on the market (which in fact had been occurring anyway on the exponentially expanding black market). Not only did this mark a symbolic retreat, a concession to the bourgeoisie, it also had the important effect of removing one of the few remaining functions of the Soviets, that being control over industry. This also liquidated many of the factory committees that had sprung into existence in 1917. Later in 1921, after a series of fierce schisms in 1920, Lenin banned factions in the Communist Party. This had the effect of stifling Left-Communist opposition to the degeneration of the revolution and was later invoked by Stalin to completely eliminate party democracy, accusing all dissenters of ‘factionalism’[40]. Finally, the signing of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement was a tacit acknowledgment that international revolution was not going to happen, and Soviet Russia was going to have to start behaving like a normal capitalist state. Gone were the days when Trotsky attempted to ignore the German bourgeoisie and issued his peace proposals straight to the German proletariat, or when the Comintern actively supported revolutions in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere[41].

Conclusion

To conclude, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution was the result of a series of complex factors. It cannot be reduced to any one singular event or catalyst, although the failure of the international revolution surely served as an effective death sentence. It can clearly be seen, contrary to the claims of Trotskyist historiography, that the degeneration occurred well before the final Stalinist coup of 1927 – Stalin was, in the words of Bordiga, the gravedigger of the revolution, not the cause of death. I will provide here, to summarise, a timeline of the key events in the degenerative process:

February 1917 – Network of Soviets set up across the country

October 1917 – Bolsheviks seize power in the name of the Congress of Soviets; Mensheviks and Right-SRs leave the Congress

January 1918 – Red Army formed in place of the Red Guards

March 1918 – Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

April 1918 – Petrograd anarchists arrested

May 1918 – Czech Legion revolt, officially starting the Russian Civil War; appointment of Commissars begins, eroding Soviet autonomy; Reds lose the Finnish Civil War

July 1918 – Left-SR rising against the Bolsheviks; Left-SRs expelled from government; Bolsheviks have 745 out of 780 delegates at the Fifth Congress of Soviets– de facto one-party state; Soviet elections overseen by Bolshevik representatives only from now on

January 1919 – Spartacist Revolt in Berlin crushed

May 1919 – Bavarian Soviet Republic collapses

August 1919 – Hungarian Soviet Republic collapses

August 1920 – Tambov Rebellion begins; Polish workers rally against the Bolsheviks and score a major victory for the Polish nationalist government at the Battle of Warsaw

November 1920 – Bolsheviks destroy the Makhnovist anarchists

September 1920 – Biennio Rosso in Italy begins to end; European Revolution now very unlikely

March 1921 – Kronstadt Rising; Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement signed; ban on factions in the Communist Party

April 1921 – New Economic Policy begins

January 1924 – Lenin dies

December 1927 – Defeat of the Left-Opposition; Stalinist coup in the Communist Party completed


[1] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution, 4th edition. p. 66.

[2] Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War.

[3] Wright, Damien. Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin. p. 21. The example he gives is ironic – the Murmansk Soviet, mistakenly believing that Germany had resumed hostilities with Russia, requested that Britain land an expeditionary force to defend the city against Germany. This same expedition force would later be used to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.

[4] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[5] Ibid.

[6] 1918 Constitution of the RSFSR, https://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1918/

[7] Engels, Friedrich. On Authority.

[8] Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991.

[9] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[10] Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991.

[11] Palmer, James. The Bloody White Baron.

[12] Wright, Damien. Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin.

[13] Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War. p. 46-47

[14] Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War (Updated Edition).

[15] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[16] Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War.

[17] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy. p.191

[18] Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991.

[19] Lenin, Vladimir. State and Revolution.

[20] http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2017-09-08/n-ossinsky%E2%80%99s-critique-of-state-capitalism-in-russia

[21] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[22] Mawdsley, Evan. The Russian Civil War.

[23] Ibid. p. 50

[24] Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991.

[25] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution.

[30] Ibid.

[31] http://materialnecessity.org/2019/07/29/the-principles-of-communism-friedrich-engels/

[32] Trotsky, Leon. A Word to the Russian Workers and Peasants on Our Friends and Enemies, How to Preserve and Strengthen the Soviet Republic, in An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe. p.78

[33] Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes 1914-1991.

[34] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Getzler, Israel. Kronstadt 1917-21: Fate of a Soviet Democracy.

[37] Petrichenko. O prichinakh Kronshtadtskogo vosstaniia.

[38] Pravda O Kronshtadte.

[39] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. p. 96

[40] Lewin, Moshe. The Soviet Century.

[41] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution.

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