Putin’s Russia

Revolution, what Revolution?

Anastasia Edel
Yuri Maltsev

A woman holding a placard that reads, "Stalin is our father, homeland is our mother, Soviet power is our sister and our friend", at a rally to mark the Russian Revolution's centenary, Vladivostok Russia, November 7, 2017.

Imagine France canceling Bastille Day. Or America demoting the Fourth of July and celebrating British monarchs instead. That sounds fantastical, even in our "post-truth" West. Yet in Russia, this is how Vladimir Putin is trying to refashion the country's history. The leader who once lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" deems the October Revolution itself, the USSR's foundational event, no cause for celebration. Today, November 7, the official birthday of the USSR, is no longer part of Russia's holiday canon.

National holidays tell a story of a nation. Every Soviet person born before 1985—more than half of Russia's population of 144 million people—knew that on November 7 (in the old, Julian calendar, October 25) an armed insurrection led by Lenin's Bolshevik Party overthrew the "bourgeois" Provisional Government and transferred power to the Soviets in the name of the people. On that date, we were told : the "bloody tyranny" of the tsars had fallen, and the clock of world history had been reset to zero. We, the Soviet people, were the beneficiaries of mankind's century-long quest for freedom, justice, and communion.

This major event required major celebration. For some three generations, the "October Holidays" were one of the three pillars around which the country's collective life revolved, followed by the New Year and May Day holidays. November 7, "The Red Day of the Calendar" meant two days off work or school, a mass demonstration of labor collectives, streets closed to traffic, military bands, red balloons tied to everything from rocket carriers to strollers, carnations, giant portraits of party leaders on wheels. There were floats shaped as the revolutionary cruiser Aurora, which had fired upon the Winter Palace to signal revolutionary insurrection. In St Petersburg, "the cradle of the Revolution", thousands joined a religious procession formally dedicated to the transfer of the holy relics of Alexander Nevsky, a medieval Russian prince, and turned it into a demonstration against Matilda. The banners people carried had an uncanny Soviet ring: "The Honor of the Sovereign is the Honor of the People!" Instead of Communist Party symbols, there were icons and portraits of Nicholas.

Poklonskaya is hardly a product of the Soviet Union. She was eleven when the USSR collapsed; her values are truly post-Soviet, with an emphasis on religion and respect for autocracy. Earlier this year, she proclaimed the miracle of Nicholas's statue weeping tears of myrrh in Crimea. "This is how the sovereign", said Poklonskaya, "guards his country a hundred years after the Revolution. He died for us, and for Russia to be stronger".

Framed like this, the spiritual superiority of the Russian people, tirelessly invoked as a counterweight to the "godless and corrupt" liberal West, reeks of obscurantism stoked to support the imperial revival. The religious renaissance of the 1990s has been hijacked in the service of swapping one authoritarian ideology for another. Out went the relics of communism, with its mass demonstrations and portraits of Lenin, in came the relies of the Orthodox Church, with its miracles and icons. In the new lyrics of the national anthem, still sung to the old Soviet tune, "The unbreakable union of free republics" becomes "Russia, our sacred dominion". President Putin, who once served in the KGB, the Soviet organization tasked with surveillance of churches and religious leaders, stands next to the Patriarch for Christmas and Easter services, as the tsars of old did. Nationalism rooted in religious concepts is not new for Russia. Nearly two centuries ago, Nicolas I responded to the European revolutions with a domestic triad of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality". That reactionary ideology helped to make tsarist Russia "the prison house of nations", as the Russian empire was known. Nicholas's conservative mantra was the state's official ideology until 1917, when the February Revolution dispensed with it, along with the autocracy. After the October Revolution, the nations of the former empire gained, at least in theory, the right to self-determination. Not surprisingly, every nation wanted to separate from the old dominion. In that brief window of opportunity during the Revolution's early days and before communism restored Moscow's iron rule, a few of the former imperial provinces—Poland, Finland and the Baltic states—succeeded in gaining independence.

In the twenty-first century, Vladimr Putin has singled out Lenin's original policy of granting nations self-detemination as "an atomic bomb" planted under the USSR. Adopting a new patriotism that extols Russia's "unique path", Putin often echoes the ideas of Alexander Dugin, the notorious leader of the so-called Eurasian movement, which sees Russia as the head of a great empire founded on ultra campaigns of terror, prisons, famines, gulags. And it ultimately led to the cold war, casting a long shadow of potential nuclear annihilation.

Without confronting this tragic legacy, Russians can neither understand their revolutionary past, nor meaningfully commemorate it. The great sweeping of Russian history under the rug, this replacing of one set of lies with another, cannot work. It is only a matter of time before things blow up again.

[source : Stalin Society]

Vol. 50, No.22, Dec 3 - 9, 2017