A a hundred years ago this month the Russian Revolution began, producing some of the most terrifying crimes on record. Given the focus now on Russia, one would expect this anniversary to be big news. Yet the centenary of the Revolution is largely ignored; and what has been said about it is often a mixture of romantic myth and Orwellian revisionism – sending the truth straight down the memory hole.
In London, for example, there isBig on Bolshevism», a series of programs and exhibitions showcasing works from the early communist era. Among its events is the Royal Academy’s “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932”, which art critic Olivia McEwan assures us is “monumental” and “rewards those who look past the red flags”. Even those who recognize the darker side of the Russian Revolution have praised the exhibit. the Economist commented“Myth has it that in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, bland socialist realism trampled the avant-garde. In fact, after the Revolution, but before Stalinism tightened its grip on culture, there was a frantic gasp of creative brilliance.
Pushback was provided by the of the guardian jonathan jones, who pointed out, “The way we casually admire Russian art from the time of Lenin sentimentalizes one of the deadliest chapters in human history.” This comment raises a pressing question: why are so many people inclined to sentimentalize the Russian Revolution?
Many believe that the Romanov dynasty, then led by Tsar Nicholas II, deserved to be overthrown. Many also believe that the Revolution was a popular uprising, led by Lenin, and had democratic aspirations, later betrayed by the totalitarian Stalin. And as long as a revolution is in the name of progress, there will always be social justice warriors ready to defend it, no matter how bloody the outcome. From a moral and historical point of view, however, none of these reasons have weight.
One need not be blind to the abuses and failures of the Romanov dynasty to question its overthrow. Before the Revolution, Russia was ruled for centuries by capricious emperors and tsars. The last of them, Nicholas II, led his country into World War I and had a wife, Alexandra, who raised the pseudo-mystical madman Rasputin. Yet, despite these realities, Alex Fiuza writing, “came the end of serfdom, the emergence of a middle class…and incredibly rapid industrialization in the 1890s that saw Russia become the fourth-greatest industrial power in just two decades”. All this ended with the Revolution.
The disparate and dysfunctional forces that swept the Romanovs from power never stood a chance of successfully governing Russia – and thus violated a key precept of the teaching of just war. The Provisional Government set up in the spring of 1917 was even weaker than the Romanov regime and was largely open to the Bolshevik seizure of power in October. And unlike the February uprising – which was supported enthusiastically, if naively, by many ordinary Russians – the Bolshevik decision was a classic Rebellion, orchestrated by Lenin. His unpopularity led to a brutal civil war, which cost up to ten million lives and only ended because of Lenin’s Red Terror, a campaign of massacres, torture and repression.
So it was Vladimir Lenin who erected the first totalitarian state in Russia, along with the secret police and concentration camps, a precursor to the prison system of the Gulag Archipelago. The only reason Lenin didn’t slaughter more people is that he died in 1924, shortly after the creation of the Soviet Union. Stalin simply inherited and extended the murderous instruments that Lenin had put in place. Moreover, Stalinism and Leninism denied Judeo-Christian morality and refused to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of anyone, especially religious and political opponents. The cost of this amoral vision has been the death of tens of millions of human beings over two generations.
By the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, it had traumatized every country under the control of the Kremlin. Russia still has not cast off the entire legacy of communism, as evidenced by the autocratic and often brutal rule of Vladimir Putin. He still has can’t decide whether preserve or bury the embalmed body of Lenin, still on display in Moscow, as a quasi-religious symbol of Soviet Communism. And the Russian people still haven’t decided how to remember Nicholas II and his family, including Lenin had executed during the Revolution, down to Nicolas’s youngest daughter, Anastasia.
But while many Russians and intellectuals still haven’t come to terms with the full consequences of the Russian Revolution, the rest of us shouldn’t sit quietly while its ills are “nuanced.” As historian Max Hastings recently wrotethe Russian Revolution was an epic human tragedy, one that deserves to be publicly mourned, and not celebrated with lies, rationalizations or propaganda art.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.