Print Edition - 2017-11-12  |  Free the Words

What Russian revolution?

  • The Kremlin could not simply gloss over the Russian Revolution, so Mr. Putin has played it down
- Serge Schmemann

Nov 12, 2017-Most countries have an unpredictable future; Russia has an unpredictable past. That old chestnut has cropped up often this year as the Kremlin has struggled to find an appropriate official way to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Manipulating history for political ends is not unusual—see the Trump administration and the Civil War. But in Russia, invoking history has long been a way of proclaiming political or ideological affiliation. The “Great October Socialist Revolution” was the founding myth of the Soviet Union; Nov. 7 (Oct. 25 on the old Russian calendar), the date of the uprising that brought the Bolsheviks to power, was the national holiday, on which tanks, missiles and high-stepping soldiers swept through Red Square.

The history of the revolution—and of the czarist past, and for that matter of the entire world—was written to fit the myth of Soviet Russia as the vanguard of civilization, and woe to those who tampered with the official version. Unless they were the guardians of the official version, to whom it fell now and again to rewrite and update that history—like when Stalin went abruptly from demigod to footnote.

The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 set history adrift. The collapse of a totalitarian dictatorship that had overthrown an absolute monarchy forced Russians to confront a painful task of choosing what to glorify, what to condemn, and what to gloss over. Impassioned debates over what role of “liberalism,” “democracy” or “elections” might have had a century ago are really about today.

Those who pine for a powerful state, President Vladimir Putin among them, have come to blame Lenin for the territorial costs he incurred for quitting the war with Germany and to credit Stalin with putting it together again (until it was dismantled anew by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin). The last czar, Nicholas II, is alternately seen as a weak master who either foolishly allowed the autocracy to founder or who failed to ride with a democratizing tide. The Russian Orthodox Church has canonized him as martyr of an idealized, God-fearing past.

The fall of Communism is the onset of freedom for some, the collapse of empire for others, and simply irrelevant to many Russians under 35, who, according to public opinion polls, simply don’t know much about 1917.

The revolution doesn’t fit comfortably into any of the competing narratives. The very concept of “revolution,” sanctified in Soviet mythology, changed radically after the chaos and impoverishment of the 1990s, until today the overwhelming majority of the Russian population, across all categories, declare that “whatever happens, a revolution in the country cannot be allowed.” That, too, is a sentiment Mr. Putin fully shares, though his reason may be less a fear of chaos than of losing power the way his Ukrainian neighbors did in their “color revolutions.”

The history Mr. Putin has sought to write is one in which his Russia is a continuation of a great and powerful Russian state that has existed over the centuries, under the czars and the Bolsheviks. In this vision, revolution is a foreign-instigated setback. The chairman of the official Russian Historical Society, Sergei Naryshkin, who is also head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said as much when he spoke to the organizing committee charged with the 100th anniversary of the revolution about “those centers, primarily beyond the ocean, where the decisions to fund coups d’état are made.”

The Kremlin could not simply gloss over the Russian Revolution, so Mr. Putin has played it down. 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.

The official silence doesn’t mean there’s been no excitement in this jubilee year. A movie called “Matilda,” about a relationship between Nicholas II when he was still heir to the throne and a dancer named Matilda Kshesinskaya, set off a nationwide furor long before it was released. One legislator demanded that it be banned for demeaning the image of a sainted czar, Orthodox Christian extremists tried to set fire to a theater showing it in Yekaterinburg, where the czar’s family was killed, and the premiere last month required heavy security. There’s no controlling the past.

—©2017 The New York Times

Published: 12-11-2017 08:06

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