The Great October Revolution: Propertied Classes And Profit



The moment the Great October Revolution proclaimed its victory “the English and French press was filled with horrible stories about the servants of the revolutionaries, the massacres of the propertied classes, the ruin of the innocent ministers of Kerensky and of the Tsar’s regime, about the anarchy in the streets of Petrograd and the chaos in the provinces.” (Morgan Philips Price, Capitalist Europe and Socialist Russia, a pamphlet, British Socialist Party, London, May 1919, datelined Moscow, November 1918, publication no 12 of the International Socialist Library, and Morgan Philips Price was noted as the “Former correspondent of the Manchester Guardian”.)

Who were the propertied classes the Revolution “terrorized and massacred”? To who was the “honorable” English and French press sympathetic? And, how was the tsar, the emperor?

The following description helps comprehend the tsar:

Prince Urusov, governor of Bessarabia, described the tsar’s reaction to the Japanese attack on Port Arthur: “I presented myself to the Emperor at the Winter Palace. [….] The Emperor’s tranquil, almost cheerful manner struck me as soon as I entered his office. […] I spoke of the misfortune which was befalling Russia as a result of this unexpected war. […] [He replied] ‘I am entirely at ease about the outcome of this war. […] as for you, your task will become easier from now on.’ Since I could not grasp his train of thought, he explained to me that because the war was producing an explosion of patriotism, anti-government agitation would by the same token be reduced, and that consequently, if troubles were to break out anywhere, the authorities would easily re-establish order.” (John F Hutchinson, Late Imperial Russia 1890-1917, “Document 10, A Royal Flea-bite”, Routledge, New York, London, 2014)

Doesn’t the description tell type of mindset and attitude of the tsar, the person heading the flock of the propertied classes? It was repress the rebel, be content with privilege, don’t get agonized with whatever misfortune falls on the country.

Land, huge in size, was one of their properties.

“Of the 393 million dessatines of land”, writes Morgan Philips Price in his pamphlet, “only 138 million belonged to the peasant and the rest was the property of private landowners, the Tsar, the imperial family, the ministers and church. Only upon one-third of the land of Russia was the peasant assured of the fruits of his labour. [….] Thus it often happened that in years of great want and famine among the peasants of one part of Russia, the landlords of another part were exporting corn to the Western countries. In 1913, 500 million poods of corn, that is, one-third of the total harvest, was exported in this manner.” (op. cit.) Don’t the facts reveal identity of the tsar and his class-friends?

Gapon, not a Bolshevik, but a Father and a police agent within the working people’s movement, described condition of the poor in his petition – “A Most Humble and Loyal Address” – to “HIS MAJESTY”, the tsar:

“We are impoverished; we are oppressed, overburdened with excessive toil, contemptuously treated. We are not even recognized as human beings, but are treated like slaves who must suffer their bitter fate in silence and without complaint. […] [W]e are being further […] pushed into the slough of poverty, arbitrariness, and ignorance. We are suffocating in despotism and lawlessness. […] [W]e have no strength left, and our endurance is at an end. We have reached that frightful moment when death is better than the prolongation of our unbearable suffering.”

The appeal told that employers didn’t “agree to discuss” the workers’ needs, the workers “were prohibited even from speaking of” their needs “since no such right is given” to the workers “by law. The following requests were also deemed to be outside of the law: the reduction of the workday to eight hours; our mutual participation in determining the rates of our work and in the settlements of our grievances […]; to raise the minimum daily wages […] to one ruble; to give our sick better medical attention without insults; and to arrange our workshops so that we might work without encountering death from murderous drafts, rain, and snow. According to our employers and managers, our demands turned out to be illegal, our every request a crime, and our desire to improve our condition an insolence, insulting to them. [….] [W]e, with the rest of the Russian people, do not possess a single human right, not even the right to speak, think, gather, discuss our needs and take steps to improve our conditions. We are enslaved, enslaved under the patronage and with the aid of Thy officials. Anyone of us who dares to raise his voice in defense of the working class and the people is thrown into jail or exiled. Kindheartedness is punished as a crime. To feel sorry for a […] downtrodden, maltreated human being bereft of his rights is to commit a heinous crime! The workers and the peasants are delivered into the hands of the bureaucratic administration, comprised of embezzlers of public funds and robbers [….] We, the workers and people, have no voice whatsoever in the spending of huge sums collected from us in taxes. We do not even know how the money, collected from impoverished people, is spent. The people are deprived of the opportunity to express their wishes and demands, to participate in the establishment of taxes and public spending. The workers are deprived of the opportunity to organize into unions in order to defend their interests. O SIRE, is this accordance with God’s laws, by the grace of which Thou reignest? Is it possible to live under such laws? Would it not be preferable for all of us, the toiling people of Russia, to die? Let the capitalist-exploiters of the working class and officials, the embezzlers and plunderers of the Russian people, live and enjoy their lives.” (John F Hutchinson, op. cit., “Document 11, Father Gapon’s Petition”) [Interestingly, the same condition, interests and functions of exploiting and governing machines prevail in many lands with different names. Doesn’t this appear as a reason for learning from the Revolution?]

Doesn’t the cited part of the petition expose the classes and interests exploiting and repressing the working people, the poor? Is it difficult to discern the classes standing opposed to the exploited people – employers, managers, “Thy officials”, bureaucratic administration, embezzlers of public funds, “O SIRE”, the law that empowers the “O SIRE”, the capitalist-exploiters, plunderers? Don’t the elements identified here lump themselves into a single interest for carrying on exploitation for time infinite?

How do the “O SIRE”, the tsar, and his friends have a happy life full with luxury and spoil? The answer is in the humble appeal: impoverishing, oppressing and overburdening with excessive toil, treating like slaves, pushing into the slough of poverty, arbitrariness, ignorance, despotism, lawlessness, no law allowing free expression, longer workday, arbitrarily determining the rates of work, not raising minimum wages, no expenditure for better health care and work place safety, plunder and non-transparency in the use of public money.

Citing savings bank literature, Lenin wrote:

“[I]n the eighties and early nineties the total deposits increased most rapidly in the famine years, 1891 and 1892. […] [D]uring the eighties and nineties taken together, the increase in ‘the people’s savings’ was accompanied by an astonishingly rapid and drastic process of impoverishment, ruin, and starvation among the peasantry.” (“From the Economic Life of Russia”, Collected Works, vol. VI, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1964, emphasis in the original)

So, impoverishment and ruination of the people increased in league with accumulation of capital with the “help” of “the people’s savings’. Who were getting benefit from the accumulated capital? Is it the poor, the people or the exploiters, “honest” enough to exploit?

“Their [the industrial workers] labour was mercilessly exploited. As an example of this one may look at the wage returns and profits of 142 industries in the Moscow industrial area for the last three years of Tsarism. In 1913 the average wage per month was 213 roubles, in 1914 221 roubles, in 1915 251 roubles, that is, in the first two years there was an increase of one per cent and in the second 15 per cent. During the same period the prices of seven necessaries of life had risen by 23 per cent in the first two years and 79 per cent in the second two. But with the profits of the owners of these industries the picture was very different. For 1913 the net profits on the capital invested were 14.6 per cent, for 1914 16.5 per cent, for 1915 39.7 per cent, showing the total increase in the rate of profit throughout the three years of 171 per cent!” (Morgan Philips Price, op. cit.) There were one per cent and 15 per cent, and there were more than 39 per cent and 171 per cent. The first were for the workers, and the last were for the exploiters. The first was wage, and the last was profit.

There were, writes Morgan Philips Price, “monopoly rights acquired from Tsardom for the payment of bribes and indulgences to ministers”, sharing “the spoils with foreign banks and company-promoting syndicates.” (op. cit.)

Morgan Philips Price adds:

“Many of the great Southern and Central railways were monopoly concessions of French banks, many mines in the Urals and Siberia of English and German companies. Two-thirds of the capital invested in the Don iron mines and smelting works were owned in France and Belgium. These syndicates earned in the three years preceding the war an average of 32 per cent on their capital and one of them earned 121 per cent! There was absolutely no control of profits or of the conditions of labour in these industrial undertakings. [.…] A judicious bribe to a Tsar’s minister gave the right to levy tribute on the Russian public in freights, rates and other imposts in the public services to an unlimited degree, and the understanding would be given at the same time that none should interfere on behalf of the Russian labourer.” (op. cit.)

The classes profiteering, and the alliance between the profiteers, the exploiters are visible.

“In the State Duma and in the press”, writes Leon Trotsky, “a few of the war [World War I] profits were published. The Moscow textile company of the Riabushinskys showed a net profit of 75 percent; the Tver Company, 111 percent; the copper works of Kolchugin netted over 12 million on a basic capital of 10 million”. (History of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2008)

“Speculation of all kinds and gambling on the market went to the point of paroxysm. Enormous fortunes arose out of the bloody foam. The lack of bread and fuel in the capital did not prevent the court jeweler Faberge from boasting that he had never before done such a flourishing business. Lady-in-waiting Vyrubova says that in no other season were such gowns to be seen as in the winter of 1915-16, and never were so many diamonds purchased. The nightclubs were brimful of the heroes of the rear, legal deserters, and simply respectable people too old for the front but sufficiently young for the joys of life. The grand dukes were not among the last to enjoy this feast in times of plague.” (ibid.)

The rich, the exploiting classes have their identity and history. Anika Stroganov, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (16th century), was the richest entrepreneur. He received millions of hectares of land from the tsar. Under Catherine II (the Great), wealthy people owned thousands of serfs and enormous areas of land.

The following is a brief description of the oligarchs of imperial Russia:

Railroad tycoon Polyakov, writes Oleg Skripnik,  plundered the treasury; in the 19th century, Polyakov (1837-1888) was “the most famous railway ace”, as the industrialist was called by finance minister Witte; Polyakov received concessions for the construction of railways, established commercial banks, and embezzled public funds and left a fortune of 31 million rubles; “Vodka King” Pyotr Smirnov (1831-1898) left a fortune of 8.7 million gold rubles during his death; Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898) owned cotton mills, sold linen, cotton and wool, and was in the board of the Merchants Bank, in 1898, his fortune was estimated at 3.8 million rubles; Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), the sole heir of 21 million rubles, and the Yusupov family owned houses, mines, 23 estates, and shares; Nikolai Vtorov (1866-1918), the richest Russian businessman in 1914, inherited 8 million rubles, built a five-story shopping center in Moscow, issued loans to factories, sold tea, and was engaged in gold mining and the production of cotton, and in 1914, Vtorov’s fortune exceeded 60 million rubles. The Romanovs were some of the richest people in Russia for many centuries. Catherine the Great gave multi-thousand sums to her favorites. Later on, the Romanovs only accumulated wealth. Nicholas II’s first cousin once recalled: “The dead capital of the royal family [in jewelry] was estimated in the amount of 160 million rubles.” According to the assessments of historian Igor Zimin, Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna had saved 600 to 700 diamonds by 1917. The tsar had a multimillion-dollar stake in the Noble Bank and railways. To be on the safe side during the failed 1905 revolution, Nicholas transferred millions in personal savings to German banks. […] [F]rom 2 to 15 million rubles was kept there in 1917. The imperial family owned villas in France and palaces in Denmark. In Russia, they owned vineyards, farms, luxury estates and castles, mines and cottages with a total value of 100 million rubles. Nicholas II’s income reached 20 million rubles a year. But even this was not enough for the tsar, and he sometimes took money from the coffers. Witte recalled that Nicholas once gave his peer a loan of 2 million rubles from the State Bank.” (“Rich man’s world: Who was on the ‘Forbes List’ of tsarist Russia?” Russia Beyond The Headlines, October 21, 2016, slightly abridged) [Don’t these sound very familiar in many lands today?]

The real scene shines bright with the following information:

“According to the Audit Chamber, in 1913, a grammar school teacher received 85 rubles, a janitor – 18 rubles. The average family spent 20-25 rubles on food. The ruble-to-dollar exchange rate in 1913 is known. From 1898 to 1913, the value of the ruble did not change much (it was pegged to gold), so the 1913 exchange rate was used for calculations. By this estimation, Tretyakov would have $52 million today (in the 2016 equivalent), Smirnov – $119 million. Polyakov’s capital would be approaching $583 million. The Yusupovs would have $250 million, and Vtorov – more than $716 million. (ibid.)

Helen Rappaport presents a picture of Petrograd in 1917: Common citizens in queue through the night for bread as food shortages overwhelm ordinary life, and thousands of workers thrown out of factories move through streets while the Cossacks and mounted police saber strikes and opera house is crammed with the rich, and parties of the elites in hotels flow with wines. (Caught in the Revolution, Hutchinson)

These indulgence and impoverishment were not creations of any poet or novelist. “Autocratic, mercantilist, and protectionist, Russia’s government gave more attention to building warships and bottling vodka than these should have merited. […] An income tax was mooted but not implemented.” (Paul R. Gregory, Russian National Income, 1885-1913, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1982, cited in Mark Harrison and Andrei Markevich, “Russia’s Home Front, 1914-1922: The Economy”, Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, Department of Economics, University of Warwick. CAGE Online Working Paper Series, vol. 2012, no.74, unpublished, December 20, 2012)

“Relative to other European countries, Russia showed more signs of fiscal regressivity, declining to redistribute from rich to poor. [….] Another sign of regressivity was that failure to pass an income tax […] when other governments were doing so in the early twentieth century. Regressive was also evident in the central government’s unwillingness to spend on mass education, leaving primary school finance at the mercy of political debate within zemstva and other impoverished local governments. [….] Imperial autocracy dependent on elites for its power continued to be reflected in the income inequality among estates and classes.” (Steven Nafziger & Peter Lindert, “Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution”, March 13, 2011, a preliminary working paper for the conference Quantifying Long Run Economic Development, The University of Warwick in Venice, March 22-24, 2011)

Political developments following the reality of exploitation, loot and luxury by the exploiting classes, and impoverishment and pauperization of the people followed its path charged with political struggle the proletariat under the leadership of the Bolsheviks were waging. It climaxed at one stage, and the tsar and his class-brothers had to listen to the music they were orchestrating.

“[T]he tsar was kept appraised of the situation in Petrograd by the military governor and the police; he also received a sheaf of telegrams from the now panicky Rodzianko, who warned that the monarchy would collapse unless concessions were made immediately. Nicholas responded by proroguing the Duma and ordering measures for the restoration of order, but by then it was too late. When insurgent soldiers and self-declared revolutionary guards arrived in the building where the Duma met, even diehard monarchists like Rodzianko were forced to become reluctant revolutionaries in a desperate attempt to keep power from falling into the hands of the newly-formed Petrograd Soviet [Council] of Workers’ (and soon Soldiers’) Deputies.

“The tsar’s abdication was now unpreventable, although ironically it was Nicholas II’s most vocal critics who tried their best to ensure that the monarchy itself survived. Abandoning his planned coup, Guchkov joined his fellow industrialists in calling for Grand Duke Michael to be named regent immediately, so that a new government could order an end to the strikes and get on with the war. Miliukov […] emerged in 1917 as the monarchy’s last outspoken defender; he feared that in the face of mass pressure any provisional government would collapse without the symbolic legitimacy derived from the continuation of the monarchy. [Further political developments followed] By now assessments of the political situation reached him [tsar], not only from Rodzianko but also from his top-ranking military officers, all of whom agreed on the need for a dramatic gesture to halt an apparent collapse of military and civil authority. After much soul-searching, he [tsar] agreed to abdicate […] [The tsar] passed the crown directly to Grand Duke Michael, a decision that made the task of saving the dynasty even more difficult. […] [T]he tsar, after signing the decree, asked […] ‘Do you think it might have been avoided?’” (John F Hutchinson, op. cit.)

Don’t the following parts of John F Hutchinson’s description carry meaning: “the monarchy would collapse unless concessions were made immediately”, “proroguing the Duma and ordering measures for the restoration of order”, “by then it was too late”, “even diehard monarchists became reluctant revolutionaries in a desperate attempt to keep power from falling into the hands of the Soviet”, “abdication was now unpreventable”, “abandoning planned coup, Guchkov joined his fellow industrialists”, “order an end to the strikes and get on with the war”, “mass pressure”, “collapse of any provisional government”, “dramatic gesture to halt an apparent collapse of military and civil authority”? Does the reality present evidence of Bolshevik-treachery or adventurism? Or, doesn’t it present a people’s upheaval, people’s active participation in politics, where the Bolsheviks played the role of a vanguard?

The article is the 4th part, in abridged form, of a series composed on the occasion of the Great October Revolution Centenary. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd parts of the series were carried by

Farooque Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based freelancer, has not authored/edited any book in English other than Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis and What Next, The Great Financial Crisis (ed.), and he doesn’t operate any blog/web site.

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