Russian Revolution: The Party's over, but the memories still live on

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The Independent Online
This week marks the 80th anniversary of Russia's October Revolution, an event which heralded some of history's sorriest episodes. Yet Russians are increasingly ambivalent about their past.

As Phil Reeves reports, Homo Sovieticus has found a habitat in post-Communist Russia.

The picture showed a strapping, blonde Slavic-looking woman striding through a field brimming with wheat on her way to another joyful day labouring in the fields for the good of the people.

The camera cuts to another image, a painting of Joseph Stalin, his chest inflated with patriotic pride. And then, to a third: another heroic portrait of the dictator, looking resolute but avuncular.

For a moment, the clock seemed to have spun back half a century. But then Boris Yeltsin appeared on screen. It was the first day's broadcasting of Kultura (Culture) TV, a new state-run channel launched on Saturday, on the president's orders, to promote Russian art and traditions in the face of a tidal wave of Western pop culture. At last, he said, Russians could seriously discuss spiritual values, their morality, their heritage.

To be fair, the Stalin portraits were only a few minutes of a day devoted to wall-to-wall films, ballet, and a concert by the three tenors, Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras.

Yet the implication, underlined by endless interviews with ex-Soviet "people's artists", was clear. The Party, literally, is over, but the Soviet Union's achievements have a place in today's Russia.

Or at least, for some. The 80th anniversary of the Revolution on Friday will reveal that Russia is suffering from a deepening identity crisis, bought about by both an ideological vacuum that has followed the end of Communism and the genuine fear of a Slavic people which, with its population plunging, feels painfully under threat.

Two motions drawn up in parliament last week revealed its contours. One, authored by the dominant Communists, congratulated the nation on the 80th anniversary, and declared that the ideals "for which the older generations selflessly fought remain alive in the hearts of millions of countrymen". (It passed.) The other, from an independent, called for the revolution to be condemned as "a coup that established a totalitarian regime in the country based on mass terror". (It failed.)

Russia's ambivalence about its history was even more evident on Thursday, remembrance day for the victims of political persecution. Given the scale of suffering - the slaughter of millions by Lenin and Stalin, the deportation of entire nations, the labour camps, the repression of Jews, intellectuals, dissidents - one might expect such an occasion to bring the country to a stunned, horrified, halt. It didn't.

There were a few ceremonies. Some 400 people visited a forest outside St Petersburg, the site of a mass grave for victims of Stalin's Great Terror in 1936-37. Yet the turn-out was tiny, when compared with the 46,000 people believed to have been buried there by the NKVD, forerunners to the KGB.

"We must admit that we have lost the fervour with which we denounced the political butchers in the early 1990s and the sympathy we felt for the victims of the Bolshevik regime," said the newspaper Rossiskiye Vesti. "We tend to repeat the phrase which was popular in Brezhnev's time: the persecution campaigns were evil, but not everything was black or white."

The staff of Russia's parliament, the State Duma, went one step further. On the same day, they held a concert and lavish awards ceremony to honour those who stormed the Ostankino television centre in Moscow an attempt to unseat Boris Yeltsin during his stand-off with parliament in 1993. To many liberal eyes, this was tantamount to honouring a band of hardline Soviet reactionaries.

The absence of any mass sense of outrage about the past flaws has multiple roots. Russia's historical memory has been warped by decades of Soviet propaganda and censorship, and by a weary disillusionment with the new society (and its western friends). The rest of the world perceived the end of the Soviet Empire as a distinct punctuation mark, a rending between the past and the future. But for the majority of Russians, especially those outside larger cities, life has continued seamlessly, usually getting worse.

Homo Sovieticus is still at large all around them. They still need a residence permit to live in Moscow (despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement). In the provinces, the security services still pry, supporting governments which are run by the old Communist-era apparatchiks. The courts are often unfair; the prisons, filthy; the police, brutal.

Despite Mr Yeltsin's efforts to introduce enabling laws it is usually impossible to buy land. The shops are basic. And Russia's genuine triumphs - free speech, the right to travel abroad - mean little to the economically dispossessed. Promises of reform have not materialised. So why should they reject the past, an era that inspires not hatred but nostalgia?

Nor is this phenomenon confined to the impoverished, the majority who have gained nothing from the privatisation of 70 per cent of Russia's economy. Homo Sovieticus has also spawned a modern, cosmopolitan successor who moves cheerfully amid the banks, boutiques and glittering new malls of Moscow.

Less Soviet than Russian patriot, he believes in capitalism combined with state interventionism (and lots of foreign investment), including state-owned land. He runs his fiefdom with an iron rod, helped by his security forces; he has some distinct imperialist markings, such as a conviction that Sevastopol in Ukraine should be returned to Russia.

Like the Soviets, he enjoys erecting enormous monuments - for instance, to the triumph over the Nazis, and to Peter the Great. He believes in the cult of the personality, and is constantly seeking the national limelight. His name is Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor. And he is perhaps the strongest contender to be the next president of this vast land.