Circling a Red Square

2017 marks the centennial anniversary of one of modern world history’s seismic events: the October Revolution. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and seized control of the country from the provisional government set up after the deposition of Tsar Nicholas II in February of that same year. What followed is history: the establishment of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s death, Stalin’s rise, and the emergence of the twentieth century’s second-strongest superpower.

Russia’s treatment of this anniversary provides a window into the country’s current political dynamics. Its muted commemoration of the Revolution initially seems rather odd: presumably, such a significant occurrence would draw either unapologetic condemnation or resplendent festivities. Instead, in the interest of political expedience, the Kremlin is quiet and dismissive of the importance of these events. Putin’s regime is attempting to identify itself with the fervent nationalism and superpower ambitions characteristic of the USSR, while at the same time working to instill a sense of stability that shuns Bolshevik revolutionary zeal.

In Soviet times, the October Revolution was a national holiday, complete with pompous military parades and displays of the proletariat’s patriotic fervor. The event served as both the regime’s ideological foundation—an example of Marxism made manifest— and a example of the power of the people in the face of social and economic peril.

The significance of the Revolution to the USSR, however, also ties the event in Russian historical memory to later Soviet atrocities. Insofar as the Bolshevik Revolution also represents the birth of the USSR—a highly repressive state that killed its own people by the millions, and imposed on the country the rule of a small cadre of elite party members—it is an event rife with conceptual tensions.

Following the USSR’s collapse in 1991, amidst the thriving capitalist economies of the West, a new regime was born that was, and still is, at once different and somewhat similar to its Soviet predecessor. Russia today is a more capitalist country, supposedly a democracy; yet Russian moguls effectively dominate the country’s larger industries, and Putin thrives through consolidation of personal power and veiled repression of the opposition.

Putin’s public views on the Revolution are, accordingly, somewhat equivocal. The Russian president stated in October that “[w]hen we look at the lessons from a century ago, we see how ambiguous the results were, and how there were both negative and positive consequences of those events.”

Russia's State Historical Museum in Moscow, October 2014.

Russia’s State Historical Museum in Moscow, 2014.

This ambivalence has had interesting institutional consequences. Some Russian ministries now trace their founding to pre-Soviet times. Further, the government’s shunning of the Revolution has had a clear impact on how its anniversary is commemorated. No longer a national holiday, celebrations of the October Revolution have been largely replaced by another holiday on November 4th, which celebrates the seventeenth-century Russian expulsion of occupying Polish forces. Both dates have undergone rebranding by the Kremlin: the anniversary of the Revolution is now called Day of Accord and Reconciliation, while the November 4th holiday is Unity Day. On the Day of Accord and Reconciliation this year, a large parade still made its way across Moscow’s Red Square. However, instead of the Revolution, it celebrated Russian resistance to Nazi forces in the Second World War.

This sort of rebranding is part of a larger political project that Putin’s Kremlin is pushing. For many Russians, Putin’s consolidation of personal power is reminiscent of tsarist-era autocracy. His regime wants to promote political stability and dismiss any hint of dissent, present or past. Accordingly, Russian state television has broadcast documentaries suggesting that the overthrow of the tsar and subsequent revolutions were foreign-sponsored plots.

With regards to the larger history of the USSR, the Russian president is vocal in his public condemnation of Soviet atrocities. In a recent inauguration of a monument dedicated to the victims of Stalinist purges, Putin stated, “this terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.”

However, condemnation of such crimes does not go far beyond political speeches. Parts of the Soviet legacy remain alive and well in Kremlin rhetoric. In the past, Putin himself has declared the fall of the Soviet Union to be “the geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century.” A shared Russian nationalism, coupled with Putin’s ambitions to restore Russia’s Cold War-era political relevance, make the current regime and the USSR alike in many respects.

The fact that Putin himself is a former KGB agent suggests a level of continuity between the regimes. After the USSR collapsed, Yeltsin brought in former KGB officers to serve in high ranking government positions, a trend Putin continued and reinforced. Today, post-Soviet Russia has yet to publish the full archives pertaining to KGB action and repression in the USSR. It has also not brought to trial officers who perpetrated such suppression, torture, and murder under Soviet rule.

Other concerns motivate the Kremlin’s institutional ambivalence towards the October Revolution. One concern is the Communist Party, the third-largest opposition group in Russia, which is rebranding itself to try to foster young people’s revolutionary spirit. Moreover, many Russians today still feel nostalgia for Soviet times. As it seeks to promote concord and stability, the Kremlin has to be careful not to actively reject what many Russians still see as their country’s glorious past.

Modern Russia’s ambivalence towards its Soviet and tsarist history, coupled with Putin’s emphasis on political stability, have made the centennial of the Russian Revolution an oddly subdued affair. For the Kremlin, history seems to be yet another tool of authority: The Revolution is useful only insofar as it supports the regime’s ultimate goal of self-preservation.


Image source: Library of Congress/National Council of American-Soviet Friendship // Flikr/Brando

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