RUSSIA 100 YEARS AFTER REVOLUTION
One hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution, how do the Russian people and the current Russian regime view the events of 2017 today?
A survey made in 2016 on Ekho Moskvy Radio about whether people would support the February Revolution against the Tsar found that only 47% said they would; 53% would not. Back in 1917 almost nobody supported the Tsarist monarchy.
Another survey, in 2016 by the Levada Centre showed that 53% of Russians have a positive view of Lenin’s role in history and just 27% have a negative view, along with 20% that did not express a thought.
The first and second revolution
The Russian Empire up until 1917 was a complete autocracy ruled by the Tsars of the Romanov family. Military, political and economic decline, in a nation led by an incompetent autocracy unwilling to give in to any democratic concessions amidst the massive Russian casualties of World War One led to two revolutions in 1917. The February revolution and the October revolution (November in the modern calender).
While the first revolution of February attempted to bring about liberal democratic reforms, the new parliament was besieged by infighting and disagreements over Russia’s ongoing role in World War I and an inability to deal with persistent economic and social hardship. The second revolution later in the same year, which some may describe as a coup d’etat by Lenin’s communist Bolsheviks led to the eventual establishment of a socialist Russia. Debate rages as to the exact nature of the second revolution, as to whether the move by the Bolsheviks, who had formed alliances with parts of other parties (such as the Socialist Revolutionary party) had a democratic legitimacy in taking power, and whether they were defending the newly found workers power of the Soviets (essentially large scale workers groups based in cities across Russia) against a potential shutting down of both parliament and the Soviets by reactionaries, notably the attempt by the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army Lavr Kornilov in September of 1917. The Bolsheviks came to power in November under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky promising simply Peace (an end to the war), Bread and Land.
Prior to 1917, Lenin and many other Russian and European intellectuals had begun to develop their own theories based on the writings of Marx and the possibility of applying them to a relatively backward economic conditions of Russia (contrary to traditional Marxist thought which stated that the revolutions must first take place in the most advanced capitalist nations). The support for Marxist ideology only grew with the Tsars implacability and the ongoing horrors of World War I which the left regarded as a natural result of competing capitalist empires.
As the new revolution took shape, Russia was plunged into a four year civil war as parts of the old-order removed by the October revolution aimed to take back power assisted with the support of western capitalist powers. Lenin died in 1924, just two years after the Bolshevik victory in the civil war.
The collapse of the Soviet regime and the new era
In 1991 the USSR (comprising 12 socialist nations, of which Russia was by far the biggest) fell. The first ten years of the new Russia saw dramatic rises in unemployment and poverty, a shock not just to the material wealth of working people but to the psyche of a once powerful nation.
The economic reforms implemented in 1991, among which included the privatization of the public sector and the opening to free trade led to a deep economic crisis due to the fact that there was not a transitional period between one and the other economic system, nor any sort of “Marshall Plan” by the very countries gloating over the defeat of the Soviet Union. Millions of Russians were reduced to poverty, from a poverty rate of 1.5% in the final years of the Soviet Union poverty rose to 39-49% by the beginning of 1993. In 1999 Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and then oligarch businessman, became president Russia promising a restoration of wealth and prestige.
So how do the Russian people and the current Russian regime regard the Russian revolution 100 years on?
Unlike during the Soviet period where the revolution would be remembered with great parade and fanfare today the date is not even a bank holiday. Even on this the centenary, official celebrations were virtually non-existent. Putin and his followers prefer to remember another date, Unity Day. It is the 4th of November 1612, in which Lithuanian and Polish forces were removed from Russian territory, and Victory Day (May 9th) which celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Putin in his speeches talks of revolution as a risk. One of his key tenants is the unity of Russia, that cannot be disturbed by uprisings that lead only to violence and instability. Since the beginning of his first mandate, Putin draws himself as a kind of successor to the Tsars. The character of Stalin, who oversaw the Soviet victory of World War II, much more than Lenin, is the leader which is held in higher esteem amongst the new regime. Putin himself has stated that Stalin’s impact on Russia was more positive than negative. In this way, a dualism exists. The new regime do not celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution as a bank holiday but they inaugurate a new Stalin's bust in Moscow. Celebrations are left to historians and to academics. After the fall of USSR, the Romanov family was canonized, while the Revolution was depicted as a kind of national tragedy.
This year in Moscow there is the exhibition “1917. Code of the Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, but it is visited mostly by tourists from abroad; “Somebody called 1917” at the Tretyakov Gallery is a mix of exhibitions, lectures, concerts and performances about Revolution. In Saint Petersburg in the Palace Square, the Festi Group, an Italian theatrical group, performs a play about Russian Revolution. It was not easy for them to find sponsors and a location and at the end, they had to speak about that period from a social and not political point of view, because the ruling class simply does not approve the celebration of the event. A very original initiative is “Project 1917” by Mikhail Zygar, that tells in Russian and in English the Revolution in real time on a website and on social networks, as if persons (politicians, artists and intellectuals) of that time are living the events and sharing their posts on the internet. The fact that such events are the highlights of the Russian revolution 100 years on within Russian territory speaks volumes.
There is good reason for the old regime to canonise the victories of Soviet Russia during World War II while dismissing the revolutions of 1917. To the modern Russian regime the nationalism and patriotism of the Stalinist World War II era and the historical defence of Russia in prior centuries serve their interests.
To talk of the Russian revolution itself, which rejected oligarchy, Tsarism and inequality is in fact athema to those who now hold power in Russia. The Russian regime enacts the dualism of wanting a powerful nation that Sovietism provided while rejecting the egalitarian ideals on which Sovietism was founded. The modern Russian regime must remember though that it was the inflexibility and inequality of the Tsarist regime years leading up to 1917 that led to the downfall of the Tsar, and they must realise that in the long-term they too must not make the same mistakes if they are to maintain their power.