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1917: What Is There to Celebrate?

Mostly Russians are ignoring the messy question of what happened back then, and even Vladimir Putin can’t come up with a consistent narrative.

by Olga Malinova and Peter Rutland 7 November 2017

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have struggled to come up with a historical narrative that can unite the nation and serve as a foundation for building a better future. However, they are finding that history can serve to reopen old wounds and expose stark divisions in contemporary society. Americans made the same discovery this year, with the controversy around Confederate monuments.   


Russia marks today the centenary of the “Great October Socialist Revolution.” But there is no consensus about how to commemorate the occasion. For some, Vladimir Lenin was a brilliant thinker and tactician who changed the course of human history. For others, he was a traitor and mass murderer who destroyed the Russian state.


Both views are represented in the pages of newspapers and on TV chat shows. The polls show the Russian public is divided on the issue. Forty-eight percent still consider the October Revolution to be a “positive” or “very positive” event, versus 36 percent “negative” or “very negative.”


Younger Russians are less engaged with these questions than the older generation, educated in Soviet times to regard Vladimir Lenin, the architect of the October Revolution, as the founder of their nation. Recently, an audience of more than 100 political science students at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg was asked how many of them had read any of Lenin’s writings. Not a single hand went up.


The official Russian government position inclines to the view that the revolutions of February 1917, which overthrew the tsar, and the Bolshevik coup in October are events of world-historical significance, part of a series of tragic experiences that befell Russia in the first half of the 20th century.


But mostly Russians are ignoring the messy question of what happened in 1917. Instead they are exercising themselves debating the merits of a new movie, “Matilda,” about one of the lesser mistresses of Nicholas II. The Orthodox Church canonized the tsar as a martyr, and some believers consider the film blasphemous and are disrupting screenings. (Polls show that only 17 percent of respondents think the film should be banned.)


Rather than imposing a master narrative, the Russian state now finds itself more in the position of trying to avoid social conflict in managing what is now a pluralist debate about the meaning of Russian history. The arrival of the internet and social media has democratized the infrastructure of memory politics. In Lenin’s day it was sufficient to seize the telegraph office and announce that the revolution had succeeded.


Now, different points of view from across society have a chance to be heard. For example, on 30 October a memorial for victims of political repression will be unveiled on Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow. At the other side of the political spectrum, a group called “Essence of Time,” headed by radical Stalinist Sergei Kurginyan, is protesting a planned monument in Crimea to reconciliation between the “Red” and “White” forces of the civil war.


Vladimir Putin has sewn together a national narrative of sorts, invoking the “1,000-year history” of the Russian state, without going into too much detail of what it entailed. The result is an eclectic bricolage: in some schools you can find a portrait of Vladimir Lenin hanging next to an icon of Holy Mary.


One point on which all Russians can agree is that 1945 was their country’s finest hour. The major commemorative event of the year is the parade marking Victory Day, on 9 May. This was introduced as a national holiday in 1965. Boris Yeltsin picked up the tradition in 1995, with a large military parade marking the 50th anniversary. And a study of all of Putin’s speeches on historical themes since 2000 shows that 30 percent of them involve World War II.


Meanwhile, in the 1990s Communists continued to gather on 7 November to celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution. In a bid to steal their thunder, in 2004 Putin declared 4 November  “National Unity Day.” That date was chosen at the suggestion of the Russian Orthodox Church, marking the day that Polish forces were driven from Moscow in 1612.


However, “National Unity Day” was hijacked by radical nationalists, who consider Putin insufficiently patriotic. So Putin came up with another idea: he renamed 7 November a “Day of Military Honor,” commemorating the military parade that took place on 7 November 1941, when Nazi forces were at the gates of Moscow. 


The fall of the Soviet Union deprived Russians of the promise of a brighter future. But it also stripped them of a usable history. With an unstable past and an uncertain future, it may not be surprising that they tend to project all their hopes and fears onto the person of their leader, Vladimir Putin. 

Olga Malinova is a professor of politics at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow), and Peter Rutland (pictured) is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

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