Why Putin is not celebrating the Russian revolution’s centenary
Impulses that drove 1917 insurgents might resonate today in deeply divided Russia
Russian president Vladimir Putin: 1917 revolution does not fit his neo-tsarist, nationalist Great Russia myth. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty Images
On March 15th, 1917, the day of his abdication, Tsar Nicholas II noted forlornly and very briefly in his diary: “All around there is treason, cowardice and deceit.”
“What is now happening in Russia, ” Leon Trotsky wrote the next day, “will go down in history for all time as one of its greatest events. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will speak of these days as the beginning of a new epoch in the history of mankind.”
Their children and grandchildren, indeed they did, every year and with great pomp. Great-grandchildren, perhaps not. . . A great historical silence has descended on Russia in this of all years, the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Or, more correctly, revolutions: February, the overthrow of tsarism and 300 years of Romanov rule; and October, the world’s first successful communist (Bolshevik) seizure of power (March and November in the modern calendar).
It was, as Trotsky argued, for good and ill, truly the beginning of a new age – in creating a new model of liberation for the exploited the world over, the Bolsheviks did much to shape the 20th century in their image. Socialism was possible, in Russia it lived, they argued, albeit because of the isolation of their revolution, a distorted, bastardised socialism that was sustained in time by Stalin only through terror.
But the idealistic ripples from Russia’s 1917 revolution defined the character one way or another much of what came later, from the failed German revolution at the end of the first World War to its descent into Nazism, to China’s and the colonial revolutions and the dismantling of empire in the wake of the second World War, and the Cold War itself. Its shadow left nothing untouched. But Russia today, and specifically Russian president Vladimir Putin, wants no credit.
As we emerge from our own commemoration of the Rising that was the founding narrative of the State’s creation, Russia’s silence appears odd. Our largely-shared, complex narrative of the Rising broadly found a space to accommodate different political traditions, from the revolutionary nationalist to the unionist – all part of the rich tapestry of who we are. Ownership of the Rising – and any special legitimacy – was denied to any one group, but it was more than just commemoration. It was a collective celebration of where we have come to.
But Putin, who enthusiastically commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the second World War, which played well his neo-tsarist, nationalist Great Russia myth, sees no unifying national story in 1917, no heroes to celebrate in either February or October, no bright new dawn for Russia, let alone the world, to celebrate. He loathes the very idea of revolution, not to mention the thought of Russians dancing in the streets to celebrate the overthrow of any ruler. They remind him of Georgia and Ukraine, revolutions against his own kind.
At one public forum, after disparaging Lenin, whom he had accused of “planting a bomb” under the Russian state, he said: “We didn’t need the world revolution.” He added: “We can’t allow splits, animosity, insults and the bitterness of the past to be dragged into our lives today.”
Orthodox patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally, said in a sermon in Moscow last month: “The revolution was a great crime.”
The impulses that drove 1917’s revolutionaries, hunger, social justice and an opposition to a bloody, unnecessary war, might also have resonances today in this socially deeply divided society. Putin and his oligarch friends can particularly do without talk of socialism. And so, aping Stalin, whom he has done much to rehabilitate as a great wartime leader, Putin, the former KGB officer, has embarked on a rewriting of Russia’s history in which the Bolsheviks play a minimised part.
School history books have been standardised to gloss over Stalin’s crimes. In a 2014 meeting with the authors of the new textbook, Putin noted how unfortunate it is that some textbooks describe Soviet rule over eastern Europe after the second World War as a Stalinist occupation.
Which all makes the celebration of 1917 – even of the distinctly “bourgeois” February revolution – rather difficult to explain. Better just to pretend it didn’t happen. Unlike the blood-drenched French revolution and its Terreur, celebrated with enthusiasm and no apologies for its excesses by France’s modern democratic governments for ushering in the modern French state, the spirit of Russia’s own revolution has once again become a threat to its new tsar and his oligarch acolytes.