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After the October revolution of 1917, the population of Russia had many expectations of Lenin and the Bolshevik government. In some areas of Russian life freedom and individual choice were restricted, whereas in others the government was more lenient. The purpose of this essay is to determine whether the Russian people had the rights and freedoms they had had during the tsarist regime. By rights and freedoms, we mean privileges, entitlements, liberty and independence. It will be argued that in Lenin´s Russia there was a lot of suppression of certain rights and freedoms, although this did not affect all aspects of life, by examining four major aspects of this subject – the structure and role of the government, the role and status of women, the role and status of religion and the state of contemporary art and culture.
Firstly I will analyse the government under Lenin. In April 1917, following the introduction by the Provisional Government of a series of measures designed to guarantee basic liberties, Lenin declared that Russia was one of the freest countries in the world. In reality, however, under the Bolshevik regime Russians were deprived of most of the rights they had briefly had in 1917.
Lenin´s Russia was in spirit a one-party state. The Constitutional Democrats were outlawed in 1917 and the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks were openly barred from taking part in political activity in June 1918 and were driven underground by 1922. Because of this there was almost no political opposition to Bolshevism and consequently the government was unfairly represented. This meant that the people´s rights and independence were suppressed since the majority of them could not represent themselves and their interests politically.
Between 1917 and 1918 the Bolshevik Government was distinctly inexperienced. The Sovnarkom was formed in October 1917 and was responsible for making everyday political decisions. It met daily under its chairman, Lenin, and undertook an efficient supervisory role. The Soviets, in particular the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, were very powerful in the early years of Lenin´s rule. Although they met infrequently they were in theory the supreme lawmakers. They were extremely influential and well used and a reasonable representation of the Russian people from 1917 to 1918.
However, between 1919 and 1924 the government radically but gradually transformed. The Sovnarkom began to lose power to the Communist Party institutions, principally the newly formed Politburo. Its meetings became less frequent and Commissars sent their deputies instead of attending in person. Therefore there was less representation of certain parts of society, namely the proletariat and the peasantry. The Soviets drastically lost importance at the expense of the new Communist Party institutions and by 1924 they had marginalised and become little more than figureheads.
The Politburo was founded in 1919 and consisted of nine members. It replaced the Sovnarkom as the key decision making body, and therefore eroded internal democracy within the Communist Party and concentrated the power over millions in the hands of the few. It marked the centralisation of power and the decline in democratic state institutions. Because of this, rights and freedoms were vastly restricted.
Between 1917 and 1924 the Bolshevik Government took a progressively clearer shape and made evident two distinct trends. Firstly the Communist Party grew in importance at the expense of democratic state institutions (i.e. Soviets). Secondly internal democracy eroded within the Communist Party and power was concentrated in the hands of the few members of the Politburo. Both of these developments significantly suppressed the political rights and freedoms of the majority of the population by reducing democracy within Russia.
As far as the arts were concerned, the Revolution of 1917 had provided a range of pressures, from radical experimentation with new ideas to more conservative tastes, which were often pushing in different directions. By 1924 popular culture and the arts were in a state of flux. The Bolsheviks, whilst not seeing culture as apriority in 1917, did have some ideas on how it could be used politically advantageously, but their impact was mixed. According to Lenin, culture was vital but subordinate to class conflict and the retention of power. He saw a desire for the party to keep high quality writers and artists on its side as much as possible, as they were potentially dangerous in spreading bad words of the government if such an occurrence should happen. After renouncing the restrictive censorship policies of the tsarist regime, Lenin encouraged many artists, and he appeared to be prepared to accommodate those artists who were not Communism-orientated, but who were sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution. In this way Lenin was very lenient and deliberately did not suppress the rights and freedoms of the artistic members of society.
A popular cultural movement conceived by the Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov, a member of the bourgeoisie, brought into existence after the Revolution was devoted to eradicating bourgeois culture and developing new, proletarian art forms. It opened theatres, studios, libraries and exhibitions across Russia, and in this way gave independence to the working class, as opposed to suppressing its freedoms. Another movement, the Caustrm Artists, affected and represented many issues of Russian life, its works including architecture, applied arts, theatre and film.
K S Stanislavsky and V I Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the public Moscow Art Theatre with the intention of giving liberties to the people. The Moscow Duma gave subsidies to help the funding and, although it had noticeable success, it only had an impact on a small, elite audience, therefore not thoroughly providing freedoms in Russia.
The Bolsheviks were lenient in allowing rights and freedoms in the world of Russian art and culture. They abandoned the tsar´s censorship policies, allowing freedom of speech and welcomed artists and writers who did not believe in Communism. Bogdanov´s movement promoted the rights and freedoms of the proletarian class, as opposed to suppressing them. Although the Moscow Art Theatre attempted to give liberty to the people, however, it proved unable to do so. Overall, there was very little suppression of the population´s rights and freedoms in the world of art and culture.
Prior to the revolution of 1917 Orthodoxy was the official religion of Russia and accounted for two thirds of the population. Its head was the tsar and for that reason it was always closely linked with the idea of tsardom. However, the Bolsheviks believed religion to be “gross superstition” (Lenin, 1919) and that the Orthodox Church was nothing more than an instrument of social control – which, to a large extent was true; through the use of social repression the ruling classes deceived the masses into accepting their poverty and inferiority without complaint.
When the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in 1917 one of the first things they did was to launch an attack on the Orthodox Church, one of the reasons being that Orthodoxy provided an alternative ideology to their adopted Marxism. By the end of 1918 the Church had lost its privileged status as the official Russian religion and much of its wealth and land. In particular, Lenin issued a decree in February 1918, separating the Church from the State. This nationalised the Church´s property, banned religious education in schools and destroyed many Church buildings. 1919 saw the eradication of all monasteries and during the Civil War attacks increased.
After Bolshevik success in the Civil War the government adopted ‘softer´ methods of reduction of Church influence. According to S. Philips, “the focus was on propaganda” – much of it was spread by the League of the Militant Godless. By 1922 the Orthodox Church was the only organised body in Russia outside Communist control. By using blackmail to which the Church could not comply with, Lenin charged it with refusal to obey laws and many other crimes, whilst discrediting it in the eyes of the people for alleged callousness. The ensuing acts of resistance resulted in arrests and even deaths.
Lenin´s attempts to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church were arguably too harsh. However, at local level, a more lenient approach was often taken. For example, in Smolensk the local party branch decided that Bolshevism and Orthodoxy were compatible. And a survey in 1920 revealed that 55% of the people were still active Orthodox Christians. Instead of crushing the Church Bolshevik measures may have intensified religious feeling.
Despite the anti-religious climate and the Bolsheviks´ attempts to suppress religious rights, religious worship continued, showing that the people still had many of their freedoms they had during tsarist rule. Although the Bolsheviks controlled this area of Soviet life and attempted to suppress a lot of the people´s freedoms, the population was still reasonably independent.
Upon coming into power the Bolsheviks´ first move in order to gain and retain support was to make changes. The successful emancipation of the serfs, back in 1861, served as a role model for Lenin´s plan to emancipate women. Although this had its opponents in the more traditional parties, it did gain the support of one of the largest groups within society – women. By liberating women, Lenin thought that he would be able to give some of the rights and freedoms back to the people that he had been simultaneously taking by amending the governmental structure.
Alexandra Kollontai was a key feminist and member of the Bolshevik Party. She gained substantial influence over Lenin by supporting his April Theses and used this power to make numerous policies in the favour of the liberties and independence of women. Women were encouraged to become non-subordinate to their husbands. They were given equal rights to polygamy and free love if they desired. Kollontai wished for equality between men and women, and even encouraged the destruction of the stereotypical family. As far as Kollontai was concerned there was very little suppression of women´s rights and freedoms.
By 1921 the Communist Party and its government were pretty well established, creating less need to gain more support from the people. Consequently individuals, including Kollontai, were given power and influence, which was subsequently accepted. During the Bolsheviks´ early years of power a compromise was required and the women became emancipated. . However, by 1924, Kollontai´s power had waned since there was little need to attract support for the Communist Party.
In 1918 the Bolsheviks´ Family Code was passed, being the most liberal approach to feminist and family issues in the whole of Europe. At the forefront of European human rights and feminist issues, in 1920 Russia became the first country to legalise abortion. Although this had its problems (by the 1930s there were 1 million abortions every year) it gave women many freedoms and rights they had not enjoyed during tsardom.
All of these uncharacteristically liberal Bolshevik decisions may have been made for several reasons – to gain support during the early years of Bolshevik rule, to prevent hypocrisy within the government or to give a good impression of the Bolsheviks to other countries. In all, they gave many rights and freedoms to women, one of the largest and most repressed groups of society. Alexandra Kollontai´s presence in the government allowed many of these liberties to be given and the emancipation of women means that many rights and freedoms were not suppressed. Many of Kollontai’s policies backfired, such as the huge increase in abortions, particularly because of the decreasing need for supporters as time went on. However, there are other groups within society and not all had the independence that women gained in Lenin´s Russia.
In Lenin´s Russia, some rights and freedoms were suppressed. In the government, the Communist Party, chaired by Lenin, grew in importance, whereas democratic state institutions, i.e. Soviets, drastically fell in terms of power, influence and importance. Internal democracy gradually collapsed and power increasingly fell into the hands of the Politburo. Both of these transformations greatly suppressed the rights and freedoms of much of the population by reducing democracy within Russia. This was different in the world of art. The Communist Party was easy-going. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie were encouraged to express and represent themselves and instead of being suppressed, their rights and freedoms were promoted and encouraged. In religion, the Bolsheviks attempted to suppress the people´s liberties to the highest degree by trying to obliterate the Orthodox Church. Despite the anti-religious climate and the Bolsheviks´ attempts to suppress religious rights, religious worship continued, showing that the people still had many of their freedoms they had during tsarist rule. Although the Bolsheviks controlled this area of Soviet life and attempted to suppress a lot of the people´s freedoms, the population was still reasonably independent. As far as women were concerned, the Bolsheviks gave rights and independence to them, the largest social group, by emancipation. Pioneers, such as Alexandra Kollontai, pushed for women´s liberties and there was very little suppression in this area. All things considered, rights and freedoms were suppressed to a certain extent, but not in all aspects of Russian life.
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