Russia struggles with legacy of 1917 – the ‘first color revolution’


Red flag-draped rallies in Moscow marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution on Tuesday. But despite the demonstrations, the crimes of the past and faded memories have made some Russians ambivalent about the centenary, PBS reports:

Nov. 7 is the centennial of the second of two revolutions in 1917, called the Bolshevik movement, which overthrew the provisional government that had ended the tsarist autocracy eight months earlier and gave birth to the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin could not simply gloss over the Russian Revolution, so Mr. Putin has played it down, analyst Serge Schmemman writes for The New York Times:

The official government order for commemorations referred only to “the revolution of 1917 in Russia” — not Great, or Russian, or Socialist, or October, or any other adjective that would imply glorification or disparagement. And the lesson Mr. Putin stressed was the need for reconciliation — “the strengthening of the social, political and civic consensus that we have managed to achieve today.” No major national events were scheduled.

Putin has famously described the 1991 Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” but he also has deplored the 1917 revolution. This ambivalence is rooted in his desire to tap the achievements of both the czarist and the Soviet empires as part of restoring Russia’s international clout and prestige, The Washington Post adds.

“He will not celebrate this event,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “It couldn’t be used for the legitimization of Putin, because he’s a counterrevolutionary. For him, Lenin disrupted a great empire.”

Invoking the legacy of 1917 risks appearing to celebrate the first color revolution, observers suggest.

“The crucial political point here is that, while the Communist-era narrative and Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev hailed the revolutionary rupture — the abrupt destruction of the ancien régime and the advent of the brave new world — Putin is deeply averse to any abrupt political shifts,” analyst Masha Lipman writes in the New Yorker. “He is a distinctly anti-revolutionary conservative, deeply apprehensive of any grassroots challenge. To Putin, all signs of independent public activism and protest are a challenge to stability — specifically, the stability of his rule.”

Russia’s liberal opposition is on the losing end of the battle over Russian history, which Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Putin uses “both as a means of legitimizing his regime and a method of governing the country,” the Post adds:

Some might argue that Putin tries to twist the national memory, invoking the achievements of imperial and Soviet history, claiming them as his inheritance, while ignoring the rest. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Stalin’s Great Terror, one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, Memorial (left), which for 30 years has sought to expose Soviet-era crimes, organized what has become an annual reading of the names of people executed.

Russia hasn’t come to terms with the past, said historian and publicist Irina Sherbakova, a co-founder of Memorial. Perhaps the anniversary of the revolution is such a difficult fact for the Kremlin because the concept of a revolution has negative connotations for the Russian government,” she told Deutsche Welle.

Irina Sherbakova.

Adopting Leninist tactics

“Within two decades of October 1917, the Revolution had devoured not only its children, but also its founders — the men and women who had been motivated by such passion for destruction,” National Endowment for Democracy board member Anne Applebaum wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It created not a beautiful new civilization but an angry, unhappy, and embittered society, one that squandered its resources, built ugly, inhuman cities, and broke new ground in atrocity and mass murder.”

Putin and his regime have adopted the Leninist tactics of “konspiratsia” and “dezinformatsiya,” which have turned out to be ideally suited to today’s technologies, notes Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of “‘The Romanovs,” “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar” and the forthcoming novel “Red Sky at Noon.” Americans may have invented the internet, but they saw it (decadently) as a means of making money or (naïvely) as a magical click to freedom. The Russians, bred on Leninist cynicism, harnessed it to undermine American democracy, he writes for The New York Times.

One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, three main lessons emerge from the 75-year Great Soviet Experiment, notes Sergei Guriev, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. They are not rocket science but worth re-stating, he writes for The FT:

First, industrialisation through terror is inefficient. Second, without terror the command economy eventually flags and goes bankrupt. Third, lack of political competition creates a rigid governance system unable to make necessary reforms. …..In the absence of political competition and free debate, the USSR ended up with a leadership that was neither competent nor decisive. This was not a coincidence — it was how that system selected and promoted its leaders.

Soviet nostalgia, Orthodox revival

The first achievement of Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia was to attack and destroy the Mensheviks, together with all of the other non-Communist institutions and organizations of the Russian working class, and this became Communism’s goal in every other country, too, notes Paul Berman. Everywhere in the industrial world, the first and most lasting political achievement of the Communist Party was to create a split in the labor movement—one more observation of Sidney Hook’s. Wherever a labor party or a socialist party existed, the Communists broke it up in order to create their own party. Wherever a trade-union movement was reasonably strong, the Communists split the unions, he writes for the Tablet.

“Vladimir Putin’s resistance to the West, with his peculiar mix of Soviet nostalgia and Russian Orthodox revival, builds on Stalin’s precedent,” says Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

For its part, of course, China remains the last communist giant, even as Beijing promotes and tries to control a mostly market economy,” he writes for The Wall Street Journal. “Under Xi Jinping, the country now embraces both communist ideology and traditional Chinese culture in a drive to raise its standing as an alternative to the West.”

“Communism’s bloody century has come to an end, and we can only celebrate its passing. But troubling aspects of its legacy endure,” adds Kotkin, who explains how Stalin became Stalinist.

Credit: Economist


Russia’s new czar’s ambivalence about Nov. 7 is a reflection of his politics, which are anchored in two things that were, at least on paper, anathema to his Soviet predecessors: blood-and-soil Russian nationalism and a close embrace of the Orthodox Church, The Washington Post adds:

Yet Putin’s repression of dissidents and squeezing of civil society in Russia would be familiar not only to his communist predecessors but to the czarist regime that preceded them, in which courts could indict you for harboring “the insane lust for change.”

The intelligentsia’s response to totalitarianism was “internal emigration”, notes Angus Roxburgh, the author of Moscow Calling: Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent. In this world free thinking was actually stimulated by the lack of official freedom, he writes for The Guardian:

Shortwave radio broadcasts provided the single lifeline to the world outside the cocoon in which the Communist party attempted to wrap its citizens. Western stations such as the Voice of America, the BBC and Radio Liberty were known collectively as “voices”. I remember sometimes hearing their call-signs at night, ringing out in the darkness from a nearby apartment, and you knew that there were people around who thirsted for the truth. Without the invention of radio, the Soviet authorities could have kept their citizens in complete darkness.

There are few prospects of a similar revolution occurring in modern liberal democracies, analyst Neil Faulkner says. “The system is immensely powerful and it is multi-layered. Unlike Tsarist Russia in 1917, where the state and the ruling class was extremely weak, modern capitalist societies have layer upon layer upon layer of civil society institutions.”

Collectively, communist states killed as many as 100 million people, more than all other repressive regimes combined during the same time period. By far the biggest toll arose from communist efforts to collectivize agriculture and eliminate independent property-owning peasants, notes analyst Ilya Somin:

In China alone, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward led to a man-made famine in which as many as 45 million people perished – the single biggest episode of mass murder in all of world history. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin’s collectivization – which served as a model for similar efforts in China and elsewhere – took some 6 to 10 million lives. Mass famines occurred in many other communist regimes, ranging from North Korea to Ethiopia. In each of these cases, communist rulers were well aware that their policies were causing mass death, and in each they persisted nonetheless, often because they considered the extermination of “Kulak” peasants a feature rather than a bug.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email