The Russian Revolution of 1917 is widely considered by historians to be one of the most important political events of the 20th century. The overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II ended centuries of feudalism under the Romanov dynasty and resulted in the imposition of communism which later spread to other parts of the world – not only Eastern European countries which became satellites of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but also nations in Africa and in Asia, notably China in 1949.
The centenary of the revolution is being commemorated this week and, even though the Soviet state which emerged from it no longer exists and the Cold War is over, the political ideology of Marxism-Leninism adopted by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still lives on in varying forms and with differing degrees of tyranny and terror in four other countries besides China – Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos.
One aspect of the revolution that is of enduring speculation is the circumstances surrounding the ousting of the Tsar and the subsequent grisly murder of him and his family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks who had gained power from the provisional government.
The historical evidence is clear that after being overthrown, the Tsar, who was a cousin of King George V, was given an assurance of free passage to England for him and his family as refugees, but the King declined to provide sanctuary. This remains of interest to those Bahamians who because of our history as a British colony have always been fascinated by the Royal Family and like to study its fortunes both past and present.
There was already anti-monarchist sentiment in Britain itself and the Romanovs were considered by many to be autocratic tyrants in Russia. The Bolshevik revolution had already sent shockwaves through Europe and at that early stage fears were being voiced that communism could even supersede democracy as the dominant political and economic ideology.
There were serious concerns about the activities of anarchists and revolutionaries both in Britain and in Ireland which at the time was agitating for independence. Thus, fearing that the grant of safe haven to the Tsar and his family might inflame local communist sympathies, the King decided not to give harbourage to his distant relatives though he could not have known that later they would have been under threat of death from the victorious Bolsheviks.
The revolution was precipitated by Russia’s setbacks against Germany in the First World War and by impoverished and disgruntled workers with serious grievances who were seeking a new and better existence.
After a period of civil conflict, communism was imposed by the Bolsheviks, with the Party taking control by force in the name of the proletariat and exercising absolute power over governance and all aspects of the economy including common ownership of the means of production as well as the denial of private property rights. But, as their leader Vladimir Lenin became more authoritarian after achieving absolute power, followed by Stalin’s notorious wholesale purges in the 1930s, eventually the vision of communism bringing about a perfect society in which people lived in social harmony became a wretched and worthless fantasy.
In the end, the revolution brought to the world mostly oppression, blood and dictatorship. The tragedy was the goal of popular emancipation and empowerment gave way to violent repression and this led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Initially, the so-called new dawn of communism attracted those who opposed the excesses of capitalism and were seeking an alternative. But, by removing personal freedoms, incentives and accountability, as well as private property rights, and in the absence of competition and market forces so that standards of living deteriorated, communism ultimately failed.
Here in the Caribbean, even though Cuba became a communist country following its 1959 revolution, other nations have avoided a similar fate through the protection of our giant neighbour. The USA was quick to invade the island of Grenada in 1983 when faced with a Marxist regime there, but Cuba remains a thorn in its side.
Apart from this, nowadays communism is no longer an issue despite the shortcomings and failures of globalised capitalism. But those Bahamians interested in the Royal Family may still ponder what some regard as King George V’s heartless treatment of his own relations all those years ago.