This week marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. As the date approached, contemporary commentators have offered their own reflections on the significance of events in 1917 and the Soviet state that followed in its wake. One column by Paul Mason in the Guardian sparked particular controversy, his publicity tweet suggesting the Russian Revolution represented ‘a beacon of hope to the rest of humanity’.
The meaning of October 1917. It was a beacon to the rest of humanity, no matter how short lived. https://t.co/ULuWCE76Ht
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) October 30, 2017
Mason describes the centenary as cause for celebration, confining his criticism of the Bolsheviks to the subsequent loss of workers’ freedoms rather than the almost indescribable excesses of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. 1 In this respect, Mason has much in common with other prominent figures on the left of British politics. Indeed, the twentieth century was littered with those who attenuated their misgivings about the Soviet Union out of misguided ideological sympathy.
In particular, between the two world wars “fellow travellers” lined up to eulogise the Soviet experiment. The playwright and Fabian George Bernard Shaw was representative of many who visited the Soviet Union and remained beguiled by the utopian image that was presented, in his case visiting in 1931 at the age of 75 on a trip with Lord and Lady Astor. A magnificent banquet replete with vegetarian dishes for Shaw was even arranged to celebrate his birthday on 26 July.
Shaw returned to Britain with effusive praise for the ‘great Communist experiment’ which he saw as the only way to prevent the ‘collapse and failure’ of civilisation. 2 Others followed. Beatrice and Sidney Webb spent two months in the Soviet Union in 1932, and their book Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? offered a similarly uncritical view of Stalin’s regime.
The Webbs’ commendation was published despite increasing knowledge of the repressive programme of forced collectivisation in agriculture and the ensuing Soviet Famine of 1932-33. In the Ukraine alone, the famine resulted in estimated deaths of between five and seven million. 3
One “fellow traveller”, however, broke ranks and revealed the reality of life under Soviet rule. Malcolm Muggeridge, a nephew of the Webbs, more famous today for his fiction writing, went to Russia as the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in 1932. Muggeridge escaped the shackles of Soviet press control and censorship to witness conditions beyond Moscow, and the full horrors of famine conditions were revealed in a series of Guardian articles published in March 1933.
Muggeridge’s distaste for the Soviet regime was matched only by his contempt for the myopic rationalisations of foreign visitors to Russia. Perhaps his most admirable work, Winter in Moscow, satirised the lives of Western admirers resident in Moscow and their sycophantic conformity to the idealised, officially-sanctioned facade of Soviet life.
As Muggeridge memorably described in the book’s preface, ‘It was as though the Salvation Army had turned out with band and banners in honour of some ferocious tribal deity, or as though the organ of a vegetarian society had issued a passionate plea for cannibalism.’ 4
Winter in Moscow offers a bleak assessment of conditions in Russia for ordinary Soviet citizens, the casualties of unchecked totalitarian rule and ideological apologia. Though the text is no longer especially well known, as the centenary of the Russian Revolution is marked and once again reinterpreted in light of contemporary agendas, it is worthwhile to remember Muggeridge’s depiction of life under ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. Indeed, Paul Mason could do worse than pick up a copy and remind himself of the words of his Guardian predecessor.
Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @ DavidCVessey.
Image: Soviet poster (1922) dedicated to the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution and IV Congress of the Communist International [via WikiCommons].
- Paul Mason, ‘Those who lived through the Russian Revolution understood history – unlike us’, theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/30/russian-revolution-those-who-lived-through-understood-history-unlike-us (accessed 31/10/2017). ↩
- Stanley Weintraub, ‘GBS and the despots’, Times Literary Supplement, 22 August 2011. ↩
- Stephen Oleskiw, The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (London: The National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983), pp. 54-5 ↩
- Malcolm Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1934), pp. viii-ix. ↩