Russia pays little heed to October Revolution centenary
It’s 100 years since the Bolsheviks seized power but the Kremlin appears indifferent
Russian communists carry Soviet red flags and portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin at a ceremony at Red Square in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov
Vladimir Lenin would turn in his grave if he knew that Russian state television was marking the centenary of the Great October Revolution this week with a historical drama telling how the Bolsheviks seized power with the help of funds provided by Imperial Germany, Russia’s enemy in the first World War.
The Soviet authorities always denied that Lenin had financial dealings with Alexander Parvus, a Russian-born Marxist and German intelligence agent, while living in exile in Europe in the years before the 1917 revolution that gave birth to the world’s first communist state.
But the first part of the Demon of the Revolution series, aired by Rossiya 1 TV on Sunday evening, has Lenin – played sympathetically by Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov – wrestling with his conscience as the scheming Parvus talks him into accepting “German gold” in exchange for a promise to pull Russia out of the war against the Kaiser once the revolution was won.
Historians still argue about whether Germany was Lenin’s paymaster, but Mironov told Russian TV last week that Demon of the Revolution was the product of intensive research and gave a true picture of what the Bolshevik had done. “It’s obvious”, he said. “He took black money.”
Centenaries are special occasions, but the Kremlin has largely ignored the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, which falls on Tuesday.
Vladimir Putin, admired by his supporters for bringing stability to Russia after the chaotic first decade of capitalism, is allergic to the idea of revolution and has hardly commented on the centenary.
Demon of the Revolution may just be made for popular entertainment, but it illustrates the Russian president’s entrenched belief that western powers out to undermine his country constantly are forever fomenting political uprisings.
Russia faced two revolutions in 1917 – the first in February when Tsar Nicholas II, facing bread riots and growing opposition to the war, gave up the throne, followed by a second when the Bolsheviks seized power on October 27th (or November 7th according to the Gregorian calendar that Lenin quickly adopted to bring Russia in line with “all other civilised countries”).
In Soviet times the anniversary of “Great October” was a public holiday marked each year with parades and rallies across the land celebrating the triumphs of socialism. Boris Yeltsin, who became president of Russia after the USSR collapsed in 1991, invented the Day of Accord and Reconciliation to replace the politically sensitive revolution holiday. Putin changed the calendar again, reinstating the Tsarist-era National Unity Day that, celebrating Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders on November 4th, 1612, fits better with the present-day Kremlin’s positive historic narrative.
It would be wrong to say that Russia has buried all memories of the 1917 revolution. Wander any Russian city and an October street or square can almost always be found. Lenin’s embalmed body still lies on display in the mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square, a place of pilgrimage in Soviet times and now a popular tourist attraction. Every now and then there are calls for the mummified remains of the Bolshevik leader to be given a proper burial – the Kremlin, wary of alienating the older generation of Russian communists, is for the time being not listening.
The same concern has given the Russian Communist Party room to proceed with a full week of centenary events, which kicked off on Saturday with a gala concert in Saint Petersburg’s huge October hall, where some 4,000 guests rose to their feet to sing the Internationale, the anthem of the world socialist movement. “The Great October Holiday is the holiday of the future,” Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, told the crowd. “I am sure the red day in the calendar will be restored.”
Moscow city authorities have given permission for communists to rally on Tuesday (November 7th) when the party faithful will march through the city centre and lay flowers on the tomb of the unknown soldier in the Kremlin wall. Lenin’s tomb will be off-limits.
Otherwise the 100th anniversary of the revolution will pass largely unnoticed; no fireworks, no street parties, just an ordinary working day. Public opinion polls indicate that interest in the revolution holiday has fallen steadily in Russia over the last 10 years. Only 15 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted last month by the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency in Moscow, said they would be celebrating Great October this year, down from 23 per cent in 2016.
But major Russian museums, like their counterparts in Europe, are not letting the centenary go unnoticed.
Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, housed in the Tsar’s Winter Palace, is staging a number of exhibitions that tell the story of both the revolutions of 1917 and the battle to save the imperial family’s treasures. Photographs of the tsar’s private apartments taken by a court photographer provide a sense of the nightmarish drama as Bolshevik supporters rampaged through the building on the fateful night of November 7th, overturning fine furniture and puncturing a portrait of Tsar Alexander II with their bayonets.
Curators at Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts have taken a positive approach with an exhibition of works by Cai Guo-Qiang, China’s most famous contemporary artist, that highlights the cultural benefits brought about by the revolution.
In a written tribute, Cai Guo-Qiang paid tribute to Konstantin Maksimov, the Russian painter who, dispatched by the Soviet authorities to teach in Beijing as communism took hold in China in the 1950s, inspired generations of Chinese artists.