The Revolution in Russia
In the last years of World War I a Revolution in Russia overthrew the Tsar and eventually led to the establishment of the world's first avowedly Communist state. The Soviet Union that rose out of the ashes of the Russian Empire would play a critical role in the events of the remainder of the century.
A useful way of understanding the course of the Russian Revolution in 1917 is to compare it to a wildfire. In this metaphor, the instability of late Imperial Russia and the deep dissatisfaction of large segments of its population provided plentiful fuel for the fire that was sparked by the disastrous course of the First World War. Although the vast majority of the population was initially cheered when the Imperial government went up in flames, moderates soon began to worry that they too would be consumed if the blaze was allowed to spread. Their caution backfired, however, as they gradually lost the respect and trust of the population. As their authority broke down, the inferno spread out of control, benefiting radicals willing to go along with the growing anarchy and support the demands of the people. The militant Bolshevik Party was the group best able to ride the firestorm into power, which they seized in the famous October Revolution. They went along with the revolution until it burned itself out, and were then able to consolidate their position as the absolute rulers of the country.
Despite being one of the world's largest, most powerful and most feared nations, late Imperial Russia rested on unstable foundations. The peasantry, the industrial workers and progressives were all deeply dissatisfied. Moreover, they had little hope of improving their situation through peaceful means. Representative institutions in Russia were weak, unrepresentative and ineffective, and the government adamantly refused any sort of compromise or cooperation with its critics. When the revolutionary flames came, they would quickly sweep through the dead wood of Russian society, especially in rural regions.
Even into the twentieth century Russia was an overwhelmingly rural country, the vast countryside an uneducated and violent land of “[religious] icons and cockroaches.”1 The peasants, who made up some 80% of the population2, had been freed from serfdom only in the 1860s. Their emancipation, however, created as much discontent as it cured. The peasants believed they had been cheated out of land that was rightfully theirs. Occasional famines increased their desire to seize and redistribute the land by force in a so-called 'Black Repartition.' “An instinctive anarchist,” the peasant refrained from revolt only because he was forced to by the autocracy.3 Many peasant uprisings broke out nonetheless, only to be suppressed by the police or army.
Another destabilising force was the industrial working class. Although far smaller than the peasantry, workers were clustered around the centres of power in the largest cities of...