Sunday, December 8, 2013
“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” ― Winston Churchill
Actually, it's a lot more involved. The Czar's government collapsed under the stress of involvement in World War I, and as the result of decades of social mismanagement and change. There had been a major revolt in 1905 that was quelled, but the root causes weren't addressed. In the intervening 12 years before the seizing of the Winter Palace, an inexorable chain of events led to the final cataclysm that killed millions of Russians.
The Revolution that actually deposed the Czar was the result of inept government, food shortages, unemployment, ethnic antagonisms, collapse of the social system, and separatism among the component states of the empire. All this was exacerbated by opportunism, corruption and a bloated bureaucracy on the part of the political establishment among other things.
Once the Bolsheviks overthrew the liberal government that replaced the Imperial regime, a massive civil war broke out and lasted more than three years. During that time, while the Bolsheviks stamped out all indigenous resistance, they also fought American, British, Japanese, Czech and French soldiers on three fronts. I'm interested in military history and this is a particularly fascinating book because of the detail it contains. The most interesting part though, is in a chapter entitled The Struggle to Survive. This chapter deals with how the ordinarly Russian tried to keep alive as chaos spread. As I read it, I thought how so much of what they went through, and how it came about, mirrors today.
One of the first things that happened once the Communists had full power and began to try to rebuild the economy was massive unemployment. Without managers who knew how to run the plants (the Reds killed them for being capitalists), the workers collectives that tried to operate the factories soon ran them into the ground. Those people became unemployed, so the businesses that depended on them went under, and the ripples just spread outwards. Then the Communists seized personal assets. They made an inventory of all the safety deposit boxes, and took any precious metal or jewels they found. Gold climbed in value so rapidly compared to the paper ruble that one ruble in gold was worth thirty thousand in paper early on.
Every different Central Committee in every town and city printed rubles as fast as they could. They printed so much money that plain paper became one of the scarcest commodities in Russia. Since most of the Russian gold reserve had been sent out of the country as surety for Allied supplies of war material, nothing backed all this paper. Inflation on a staggering scale began immediately, wiping out personal savings and making the salary of those who were lucky enough to retain jobs worthless. People bartered for what they needed, and the chapter has detailed accounts of why the barter economy began to wind down as what could be traded, was traded. Soon the vast majority had nothing left to trade for food, firewood, or other necessities. One of the most highly sought after items was simple matches. Once the factories making them quit running, matches became as precious as gold.
The communists seized food supplies from the countryside, and any food that people had stored away was confiscated by the local party commissars. Firewood , coal, tools, and other personal possessions that individuals owned were confiscated. Possession of firearms was prohibited. To try to retain the support of the poorest segments of society, ever other level of society was plundered and the goods so obtained redistributed amongst the poor. The immediate result was that even those factories still in operation, and services such as the rail lines, slid into chaos, because the workers realized that they would receive distributions whether they worked or not. Most of them quit coming to the job.
The dislocation all this caused to the Russian economy resulted in massive collapse of the agricultural system, and starvation killed hundreds of thousands of people in the second and third years after the fall of the Czar. The communists sent armed columns into the countryside to collect grain from the farmers without payment, with the result that the next planting season, no one bothered to plant a new crop.
The cities began to empty out into the countryside as more and more urban people left looking for food. Conflict between the people living in the country and these masses of wanderers saw whole villages destroyed as the hordes of starving people simply consumed everything in their path. Cannibalism on a large scale broke out. There are pictures in the book of people who were arrested for cannibalism and they are just families with kids who were at the end of their rope, not the monsters you'd expect.
It's impossible to describe everything in the chapter, let alone the book. But as I read it, I thought over and over again, that the parallels between their situation and our own are certainly remarkable. Especially the progression of events that led up to all this chaos. There are some differences of course, but I noticed many more similarities.
It's always interesting to read post apocalyptic fiction to try to get an idea of what could happen in the future, but when you read what did happen in the past, you may be getting a more accurate picture of how events could unfold.