The collapse of communism brought great benefits, but there is much that would be simpler in today’s Russia if the years between 1989 and 1992 had not happened. Russia would not be trying to reinvent itself as a great power; it would not be having to adjust its thinking to shrunken borders; it would not have had to watch its western neighbours flock to the security of the European Union and Nato. Above all, it would be spared awkward anniversaries.
And few come more awkward than the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution that was celebrated in Soviet times on 7 November (or 25 October in the old Julian calendar). Without the renunciation of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the anniversary could have been the occasion for vast national festivities. The loyal masses, with their red banners, would have marched through Red Square; there would have been long eulogies from political leaders by the Kremlin wall, followed by an enormous blowout of food and drink, and fireworks – the same replicated in every city and town across the country.
As it is, the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution will be a muted affair, hardly marked nationally at all. There will be a rag-tag march organised by the country’s dwindling band of communists. There have been a few exhibitions; some academic discussions, and Project1917, an admirable web initiative by the writer Mikhail Zygar that has chronicled the events of that year day by day. That is all.
One reason for this – the most obvious – is that the Soviet system the revolution ushered in lasted long enough to leave its profound imprint on several generations, but not long enough to reach its hundredth year. While France and the United States can celebrate their revolutions and keep much of revolutionary vocabulary their national canons, the Bolshevik Revolution was, in effect, undone between August and December 1991.
Those four months left a country and a population that were not just smaller than before, but sharply divided about the experience and consequences of the previous 74 years. Those divisions remain; but many also hold conflicting images in their head, Stalin offering the prime example. For many he is the paranoid monster who multiplied the prison camps and sent millions to their death. For many others, he is the military commander and father of the nation, who mobilised the Soviet Union, at immense cost, to see off the Nazi threat. For many more, he is both.
Around half the Russian population now has no memory of living under the Soviet system. But around half the population has memories that are by no means all negative – amid the material shortages and limited personal freedom, they saw good education, free nurseries, stability and predictability, so long as you did not try to rock the boat. In terms of fostering national cohesion, the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution could hardly have come at a more complex, transitional time.
But there is another reason why this anniversary is so difficult – especially for the Kremlin. In Soviet times, revolution, and the words and symbols that went with it, denoted essentially the status quo. Any threat came from counter-revolution. Now, revolution means the opposite. It means change, disruption, probably violence – with all the hopes and fears, depending on your perspective, that would entail.
To celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution would risk giving succour to the concept of state overthrow. And it does not take much imagination, especially after the Moscow street protests of 2011-12, to understand how that might look from the Kremlin.
The fear of exported revolution, rather than any special foresight or wisdom, helps explain why officially Russia harboured little enthusiasm for the various manifestations of the Arab Spring. This turmoil in the Middle East came after Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution, after Mikheil Saakashvili seized power in Georgia’s Rose Revolution, and before mainly young Ukrainians ousted Viktor Yanukovych in what they now call their Revolution of Dignity. In short, 100 years after Lenin seized power in Russia, others may celebrate successful insurrection, but the Kremlin is in no mood for revolution.
In Russia today, the divisive legacy of 1917 and the risky message that might be sent by glorifying regime change, combine to make any high-profile celebration – or commemoration – ill-advised. For the Russian President not to say or do anything to mark such a landmark anniversary, however, would have left a void where at least some judgement on this turning point in Russian history was needed.
Last week, this is what Putin told the annual Valdai Club gathering of international Russia-watchers, during his customarily wide-ranging speech. “Revolution,” he said, “is always the result of a lack of accountability, on the part of those who want to freeze in place an outdated order ... and those who resort to civil conflict and destructive resistance in order to accelerate change.”
He went on: “Today, as we turn to the lessons of a century ago, namely, the Russian Revolution of 1917, we see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences ... are intertwined. Let’s ask: was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and ruthlessly fracturing millions of human lives?”
What Putin says here – in a passage that was surely drafted as carefully as anything the Russian President has ever said – probably reflects the contradictions that very many Russians feel as they contemplate the centenary of the Revolution. But it also reveals a lot about Putin’s own temperament and approach, as Russia emerges – or so it must be hoped – from almost a century of near-constant upheaval.
He wants to be seen as a leader who prefers steadiness and order over sudden lurches, for evolution over revolution. How far he will achieve this, however, will depend not only on him. It will depend chiefly on a new generation of Russians for whom the Soviet Union is a land barely remembered even by their parents and 1917, just a chapter in their history textbook.
In the meantime, a less divisive way has been found to mark the Revolution. The last Tsar and his family were murdered in Ekaterinburg the following July. A century on, and now canonised, they will be honoured with all due solemnity by church and state. Thus will Russia try to fill the gap left by this year’s anniversary commemoration that never was.
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