Before the revolution of 1917, Russia had been an imperial autocracy since the reign of Peter the Great in the 1700s. Russia had become a great world power after the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the 1800s. During the 1800s, the desire for social and political change in Russia began to grow, with revolts and the formation of political organizations. In the early 1900s, Russia had splintered politically into two factions: the Bolsheviks, lead by Vladimir Lenin, and the Mensheviks. By 1917, Russia found itself in the midst of World War I, demoralized and facing shortages and other hardships.
In the February Revolution of 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated his position as leader of Russia, ending the nation’s imperial rule under the Romanov Dynasty. For more than half a year after the czar’s abdication, an ineffective provisional government ran the vast empire. During that time, Lenin returned from exile and regrouped his strength and support. Lenin saw in the army’s dissatisfaction with the provisional government an opportunity to gain control. He guided the soviets, his fellow communists, in establishing good relations with Russia’s troops. Helping Lenin were Leon Trotsky, another former exile, and Joseph Stalin. On October 24, 1917, Lenin and his collaborators launched a successful, full-scale coup against the provisional government, which came to be known as the October Revolution. They established a new government based on the tenets of communism, which included the equal distribution of wealth and the promotion of atheism and gender equality.
Lenin’s rise to power did not ensure further success or popular satisfaction immediately, although his New Economic Policy (NEP) increased agricultural production. Russia met with the Central Powers at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, losing a significant portion of its territory to other nations. Meanwhile, Russia’s former elite as well as its working and farming class were becoming dissatisfied with the new government and were garnering foreign support for their cause. In response to the public’s dissent, the leaders formed the Red Army, led by Trotsky. The Red Army launched an internal campaign of terror called the Red Terror, in which it intended to root out and kill the “internal enemy” of anti-Communism. Thousands of people, many of whom were only suspected of being anti-Communist, were slaughtered in unthinkably cruel ways. That conflict turned into the Russian Civil War, which lasted until 1921 and terrorized Russia’s citizenry. Lenin saw the Civil War through, including the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922, but died in 1924. (His embalmed body is still preserved in a mausoleum in Red Square, and it is a popular tourist attraction.) In his wake Lenin left Trotsky and Stalin, both power-hungry politicians, to battle for Russia’s leadership.
In Lenin’s absence, Trotsky’s oratorical acumen proved no match for Stalin, who defeated him easily with the help of important internal alliances. Stalin expatriated him, along with many other leaders, in the Great Purge and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in exile. For the next quarter of a century, Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union. Determined to bring Russia out of its long-standing economic deficiency, including the Grain Crisis, and recoup the losses sustained in World War I, he abandoned NEP and launched several “Five Year Plans,” aggressive campaigns to increase the country’s productivity while bringing the economy completely under government control. The plans were successful but resulted in dissatisfaction among the citizens of the Soviet Union. In order to prevent them from rebelling, Stalin used the tactics of deception and terror. He began a series of "purges" in which he executed anyone suspected of harboring sentiments contrary to his ideas. Determined to protect himself and his government from treachery, Stalin not only increased the government’s internal espionage, carried out by the NKVD and its subsidiary, the KGB, but he turned Soviet citizens against one another. Terrified of imprisonment, torture, work in the Gulags (labor camps) and execution, people spied on and turned in their coworkers, neighbors, and even family members. In total, tens of millions of people experienced Stalin’s terror firsthand, and those who did not knew someone who had.
With the Soviet Union’s internal affairs under tight (and violent) control, Stalin focused his attention on international affairs. He and his government took Hitler’s ascension very seriously, especially considering the losses Russia suffered in World War I. For this reason, in the 1930s Stalin lent Soviet support to Spain in the Spanish Civil War, in which the country was trying to defend itself against the German and Japanese forces of fascism. (This is the war in which George Orwell fought, against fascism but also against the Soviets.) Despite Stalin’s mistrust of Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939 and continued to trade with Hitler’s nation. When World War II broke out in September 1939 and in 1941, Germany broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. World War II took a terrible toll on the Western parts of the Soviet Union. This included the nine-hundred-day Siege of Leningrad, in which 1.5 million of the city’s citizens died of cold, starvation, or bombardment by the Germans. Despite harsh battles and the loss of more than twenty million citizens, the Soviet Union managed to drive the Nazis out and continued marching westward, seizing control of Berlin in May 1945. A few months later, Animal Farm hit the bookshelves in England and recounted, allegorically, much of this history. Stalin remained in control of the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.