What a year! After the quincentennial of the Reformation two weeks ago, we now have the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. Together with the USA entering World War I earlier in the same year, the October Revolution marked the beginning of a new era – an era that would not be ruled by European empires anymore, an era in which ideologies mattered like never before, an era in which the United States and the Soviet Union would be the two antagonistic models for societal progress.
In this post, we’ll have a look at the roots of the revolution in Russia, the unfolding drama of the 1917 revolutions, Russia under the Bolsheviks and during the Russian Civil War and the legacy of the revolution. As there is – to my knowledge – no game about the revolution proper, the board game section will cover games about the Russian Civil War.
The Roots of Revolution
The October Revolution is called the Russian Revolution, but it was indeed already the third revolution in Russia since the turn of the century (after the revolution of 1905 and the February Revolution in 1917). Why, one might ask, were there so many revolutions in Russia? It comes down to a very traditional country being unable to cope with the modern times. First, the highly despotic rule of a small aristocratic elite was at odds with the demands for political participation voiced by the workers and the urban middle classes. Second, Russia’s backwards economy could not bear the burdens of modern war. When the peasants opened up for matters outside their parochial village societies (due to their work in the cities and the experiences made during military service) and the failing economy could not provide for the workers’ basic needs anymore, the old tsarist society collapsed in 1917.
The February and the October Revolution
Strikes had been common in the imperial capital of Petrograd. The new thing of February 1917 was that the traditional method of dealing with strikes did not work anymore. Before, the tsar would have ordered soldiers to make a show of strength, and if required, shoot some of the protesters. After almost three years of unsuccessful war, however, many of the soldiers had little love left for the aristocrats who had gotten them into this situation. When it became clear that the army sympathized with the striking workers, the tsar had effectively lost control over his capital. He hastily abdicated and cleared the way for a Provisional Government of both noble and bourgeois ministers of various parties. While this government relied on the parliament, the Duma, for support, another power center arose over which the old elites had no control at all: The Petrograd Council of Workers and Soldiers aimed to take matters in its own hands, giving rise to one of the most famous Russian words in the world: “Soviet” (council).
The war enemies of Russia were quick to seize on the opportunity. Imperial Germany arranged for the leader of the Russian communists, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, to be transported back to Petrograd from his Swiss exile. Not that the German monarchists had any love for Russian communists, or the other way around, but both were convinced they had somehow bamboozled the other into an incredibly advantageous deal: The Germans believed Lenin would create just enough turmoil in Russia to make the country a non-factor in the war so they could swing west and defeat the Allied powers before the Americans could bring their forces to France, ensuring a German hegemony over Europe no matter what happened in Russia. Lenin, on the other hand, saw a chance to spark the socialist world revolution, which would in turn sweep away the German imperialists. Both turned out to be mistaken, but their mistake nonetheless changed the course of world history. Lenin arrived in Petrograd in April, greeted by several thousand workers. A few days later, he published his April Theses (another of those XX17 anniversaries in which theses matter) and demanded peace – that is, to pull out of the Great War, land – that is, to expropriate the noble landowners, and bread – addressing the most immediate concern of the Petrograd population. Afterwards, Lenin and the Bolsheviks bid their time and planned for their coup.
By fall, time was running out for the Bolsheviks. The election of a Constitutional Assembly was nearing. The Assembly might undermine the authority of the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers in Petrograd, and the Bolsheviks did not have enough popular support to rely on an election. What they lacked in this regard, however, they made up in their unconditional will to power. Lenin and his comrades invented a threat to the Soviet and moved their base of communist workers and the troops stationed in Petrograd to occupy the tsar’s Winter Palace. This small-scale operation – much more a coup d’état than an actual revolution was enough to put the government into the hands of the Bolsheviks.
The Bolshevik government and Civil War
Most of the Bolsheviks had spent the years before their seizure of power in exile, prison or running the party as a conspiratorial underground organization (Stalin, for one, had organized bank robberies in the Caucasus to increase the party funds). None of these occupations was a good preparation to govern a country. What made matters worse was that barely anyone was inclined to help the Bolsheviks: The old elites were imprisoned or had fled, the bureaucracy in the ministries was openly hostile to their new bosses and the countryside which dominated Russia not only by area, but also by population, continued to support the Social Revolutionary Party. Only the workers of the larger cities and the soldiers were attracted to the Bolshevik’s brand of muscular masculinity. However, the peasants were not completely unreceptive for the tenets of Marxism. The idea that manual work validated a person and that material riches were immoral deeply resonated with them. The sharp class divide between the landowners and the rural masses had brewed up enough hatred among the latter to make acts of violence against the well-to-do rather popular. What would become known as Red Terror was not initiated from the Bolshevik government in Petrograd, but erupted from below. It laid the ground for the political violence that would characterize the Soviet Union for the decades to come.
The most pressing matter for the Bolsheviks were the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk to end the still ongoing war with Germany. The Russian army was in shambles, and Lenin needed to make good on his promise of peace. The other Bolsheviks were not convinced. They believed now that the soldiers were fighting for a socialist rather than a tsarist Russia, their morale had been restored. In the end, the party adopted Trotsky’s middle position of declaring Russia to be out of the war, but not accepting the German conditions for peace. The Germans were puzzled by this publicity stunt, but resumed fighting nonetheless. Within the first five days they advanced as far as they had in the three and a half years before. The German general Max Hoffmann described the campaign as a “droll enterprise” in which the troops just had to go to a town by railway, hop out, accept the surrender of the Russian soldiers present and take them prisoner before they could speed on to their next target. When the German armies had advanced far enough to threaten occupying Petrograd, Lenin managed to receive a slim majority among his comrades to make peace with the Germans and accept their demands.
While Russia was out of the war now, the war was not out of Russia yet. The supporters of the old order, the Whites, fought against the new Bolshevik government (which, in contrast, became known as the Reds). The other allied nations intervened in Russia on behalf of the Whites to restore them to power and bring Russia back into the war on the allied side. And the non-Russian peoples within the former Russian empire rose to form their own nations. The Russian Civil War, as the amalgamation of these three connected fights was called, only ended in 1922, when the Red Army had defeated the last White troops and the foreign powers had all retreated from the newly founded Soviet Union.
Violence and Commemoration
The Soviet Union was born the child of autocratic tsarism and conspiratorial Bolshevism, who had war and civil war as the midwifes. Political violence ran through the Soviet Union from its inception and would remain a distinct feature of it throughout its existence. Political violence came in the form of secret police and labor camps for dissidents as well as the excesses of the 1930s, when Stalin starved Ukraine (the Holodomor or “hunger death”) and subjected 1.5 million citizens to arbitrary trials for their alleged political crimes. Almost half of the detained were executed. The Soviet citizens developed an impressive resilience towards this kind of terror and violence, which is probably the only explanation for them to make it through the shock of World War II. The Soviet Union took heavier military and civilian losses than any other country, but still bounced back and defeated the invaders.
The October Revolution remained the proudest achievement of the Communist Party. It was central to the official Soviet interpretation of history and to public commemoration. The latter changed in the 1960s. By then, most participants of the revolution were dead. Socialism had lost its shine to many people after Stalin’s excesses and his successors’ interventions in allied states who wanted re-interpret socialism (Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968), so the Soviet leadership needed a different idea with which they could mobilize the masses. They turned to patriotism and made World War II the new focus of public commemoration. The Soviet leaders remained committed to the revolution, however, and until the very end each of them was compelled to argue that his political plans were in line with the revolution and what Lenin would have done.
Board Games about the Russian Civil War
To my knowledge, there is no board game about the fateful days of October 1917 in Petrograd. Some war games, however, deal with the Civil War that followed. The peculiar nature of the conflict has translated into some remarkable out-of-the-box thinking in these games.
One of these peculiar approaches is found in Soviet Dawn (Victory Point Games, Darin A. Leviloff). It is the first game in the States of Siege series of solo games with the player in a desperate position (other games of this series feature the Confederacy in the Civil War or Imperial Japan in World War II). The player must fend off various threats to Soviet rule and survive both militarily and politically, always feeling the desperation the Bolsheviks must have experienced while they pulled off one of the more memorable against-the-odds coups of history.
The opposite in terms of player count is Russian Civil War (SPI, Jim Dunnigan). Now both the publisher and the designer are mostly famous for defining the genre conventions of war games, not so much for straying from these conventions, but for Russian Civil War they just threw all their regular design principles straight out of the window. The game works with one to six players, but follows a “the more, the merrier” approach. The map is subdivided into irregular areas instead of hexes. The players don’t control one faction each, but can take control of units of any faction with which they have some degree of political connection. If it seems expedient, they can set up their own units for disaster – or even attack them themselves with another faction they control to score points for that faction or stop another player is more invested in the attacked faction from winning. The result is a game almost as messy and chaotic as the Civil War itself.
A somewhat more conventional approach is Reds! (GMT Games, Ted Raicer). Two players fight as Reds and Whites, with the Whites winning if they can keep the Reds from dominating long enough. What makes it special (and captures the spirit of the Russian Civil War) are two things: First, the low counter density – a large map is filled with relatively few units, so that local success can result in bold follow-up moves. Secondly, the game forces the strategically defensive White army to go on tactical offensives in order to convince the Allied intervention forces to stay because they believe the Whites can actually win.
Reformation 500 or October Revolution Centennial – which do you think is the more influential event for our times? And what is your favorite game on either? Let me know in the comments!
A fascinating eyewitness account of the October Revolution is John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which you can find online here. Bear in mind that Reed had strong sympathies for the Bolsheviks and co-founded the Communist Labor Party of America when he returned from Russia.
If you’re looking for a detailed, but engagingly written account of the revolution including its context and ramifications as well as biographical details of many of the protagonists, turn to Figes, Orlando: A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution, 1891—1924, Cape, London 1996.
1. Other names for the October Revolution are Russian Revolution, Bolshevik Revolution, or, in Soviet propaganda, Great Socialist October Revolution (or simply Red October).
2. Later: Leningrad. Traditionally and today again: St. Petersburg.
3. Russia still employed the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one in 1917. Depending on which calendar is used, the same event has two different dates. This article uses the Julian dates to keep in line with the Russian customs from which the names of some events (February Revolution, October Revolution) are derived.
4. Notice how each of the three demands especially targeted one of the three groups the Bolsheviks wanted to sway to their side: Peace for the weary soldiers, land for the impoverished farmers, bread for the urban workers.
5. Conveniently enough, Lenin was a pragmatic opportunist who had advocated or pursued most political courses one or the other time, so a plethora of different and contradictory positions could rhetorically be marked with his seal of approval: Lenin had centralized the economy during the Civil War, but later he had also introduced limited market-based mechanisms. Lenin had advocated for class struggle and world revolution, but he had also known when to strike a deal with the enemy (see Brest-Litovsk) and even accepted investment from Henry Ford to build a modern automotive factory in the Soviet Union.