When World War I broke out in 1914, Russia was one of Europe’s most underdeveloped countries. The war further exacerbated the social tensions. The February Revolution of 1917 put an end to tsarist rule, but left fundamental expectations unfulfilled. The Communist party (Bolsheviks) – which had been small in number until that time –, gained popularity by championing the popular demands for immediate peace and the fair distribution of arable land, and seized power within the context of the October Revolution of 1917. The upheaval went hand in hand with the promise of a just society without repression – a vision that sparked fascination far beyond Russian boundaries. The Communist International founded in Moscow in 1919 was to serve as a means of realizing the “new society” beyond those boundaries as well.
The Bolsheviks neither proved capable of gaining the Russian majority’s support, nor did they succeed in bringing about the “world revolution”. It was only through brutal violence that they stayed in power. The history of the Gulag and its millions of forced labourers represents the dark side of the Soviet-Communist promise of a better life.