Communists, Criminals or Both? The October Revolution

The door is thick and well padded, but it was not enough to protect the leaders of the first Russian revolution.

It is located in a room in the labyrinth-like Hermitage Palace on the seafront of Saint Petersburg. Today, the Hermitage is the world’s largest museum. In October 1917, it was the headquarters of the Mensheviks – a weak, social democratic government.

The Mensheviks had overthrown Czar Nicholas II a few months before and captured his vast palace. Unable to govern effectively, or deliver bread or peace to a starving, war-weary population, they, in turn, were overthrown by a mutiny of sailors who stormed into the palace. The final scene was that of the cabinet cowering behind the door while sailors fired through it.

This “October Revolution” occurred exactly 100 years ago this month (the anniversary falls in November because of a difference in calendars). The story of the naval mutiny that ushered in 72 years of Soviet Communism is celebrated in countless films and books.

What happened afterwards to the sailors is not. Four years later, in 1921, most of them were massacred. They were killed because they had dared articulate the open secret at the heart of the Soviet revolution: Much of it was controlled by criminal mobsters for their own benefit. The sailors called this criminal capture of the communist movement, a “greater enslavement”of Russia.

To be clear, this is not to say that there weren’t many communists who genuinely believed in the ideal of “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs”: nor is it to deny the similar links in North America between the mob, some labour unions and corporations.

However, the links between Russian mobsters and communists – even from before the October Revolution – are undeniable. Both groups understood the importance of secrecy and violence in ways that the Mensheviks did not. They met each other in prison (as the original founders of Islamic State did). The Bolsheviks got money and strategy from the Russian bandit class or vor y zakone. The bandits received protection and even jobs from the communists.

“The remarkable affinity between the two groups,” wrote Stephen Handelman, the Canadian author of the international bestseller, Comrade Criminal, “raises the interesting question of whether the development of the Soviet Communist Party owes at least as much to those of the gang world as to the tenets of Marxism.”

Stalin, the man whom many communists claimed kidnapped the revolution and transformed it into a genocidal bloodbath, was from the Caucasus, an area like Sicily on steroids. His nickname – Kuba – was specifically taken from a well-known Georgian criminal. Stalin borrowed far more than just a name. His tactics of violent repression of any conceivable rival are much more understandable if he is seen as a mafia godfather rather than a politician.

Yet the mobsters provided far more important services to the entire Soviet state. One example among many was in the Gulag Archipelago, the vast network of prison camps established by Stalin. These jails were effectively governed by the Russian criminal class. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who survived years in the Gulags, wrote about “the animals who pretend to be human.” It was a classic case of organized crime providing a service that the establishment wants but does not want to admit to wanting.

After the Stalin era, there came a long, twisted entanglement between the criminals and key Communist authorities that essentially granted a massive section of the Soviet economy to the “avtoritet mafia.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, estimated that, by the time he obtained power in 1987, almost half the Soviet economy was run by criminals and key communist officials. To be fair, much of this informal economy was actually useful in providing food and supplies to the people.

When the Soviet Empire collapsed in the early 1990s. It was this avtoritet mafia that profited most from the hubris. They had the connections, they had the expertise – and it was they who drove much of the privatization of the vast Soviet economy into their own hands.

Today, exactly 100 years after the revolution that changed the world, the alliance between mobsters and key members of the Russian government still exists. Spanish prosecutors are currently trying to bring to trial a series of Saint Petersburg mobsters and senior political aides to Vladimir Putin. For readers who want to understand the current Russian situation, it might still be more useful to read The Godfather than anything else.

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5 thoughts on “Communists, Criminals or Both? The October Revolution”

  1. Alyson Levchuk says:

    Well done as always Declan.

  2. That is pig-ignorant. The February Revolution was genuinely spontaneous. Neither the pro-war Mensheviks nor the anti-war Mensheviks had much to do with it. The Social-Revolutionaries were at all times the major alternative to the Bolsheviks. And the Tsar had been abandoned by those close to him

  3. Stalin was only ever criminal for political ends. He robbed banks to help fund the expanded Bolshevik party after 1905. He never took anything for himself, living very modestly. As indeed he did when ruler of the entire country, taking what would be the norm for the manager of a medium-sized corporation in the West.

  4. James Cork says:

    Well, when you’re busy offing the population by the millions you can sometimes lose sight of the finer things in life.

  5. Declan Hill says:

    Thank you Alyson – really appreciated.

    As for Gwydion – James says it best. The only thing I would add is that the number of people who deaths Stalin was responsible for is 20 million.

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