SOFIA, Bulgaria – Our reading regimen these days is filled with anniversaries and scandals. This year, bookstores are flooded with an army of new books related to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. And on the scandal front, not a day seems to go by without another disturbing and incendiary indignity tainting the Trump administration.
Could the recently published books on the Bolshevik Revolution help us make sense of President Trump’s Russia-centric scandals? You might be surprised.
Many contemporary writings see the 1917 revolution as little more than a German plot. This view is particularly popular today in Russia itself, where “revolution” is considered a dirty word. We are rarely content to explain revolutions by a banal political logic. The changing events of history are interpreted as something inevitable like the work of God or the intervention of a foreign power. And with Kaput Communism, many popular histories of the Russian Revolution have now focused their attention from the rise of the masses to tales of espionage that show how the Germans, as Winston Churchill put it, “carried Lenin into a truck sealed like a plague”. bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.
Now, since many people see Mr. Trump’s election victory as little more than the effect of a Russian plot, if we understand why the Germans helped the Bolsheviks in 1917 and what happened after, we could better understand why Moscow might have been tempted to help the Trump campaign in 2016 and what we can expect next.
The 1917 analogy suggests that Russia interfered in American politics because of a Hillary Clinton she hated rather than a Donald Trump she loved. Certainly, the Kaiser’s Germany had no sympathy for the revolutionary dreams of Vladimir Lenin. If the Bolshevik nonconformist had been German, the authorities would have thrown him in prison. But Lenin was Russian, and the German high command considered the Russian revolution useful to Germany in the war. Likewise, it seems that Moscow’s main focus in 2016 was major disruption above all else. Unduly emphasizing ideological or other ties between the Kremlin and the US president would be misleading.
Russian history also teaches us that for a revolutionary politician like Lenin, the real enemy is internal. Just as Germany viewed the Bolsheviks as instruments to achieve German war aims, Lenin viewed Germany as an instrument to achieve his revolution. Something similar is likely true for Mr. Trump. And while it’s unlikely the president personally conspired with the Russians, he probably wouldn’t have objected to others exploiting Russian support to win. Mr. Trump’s only other priority besides “America first” is “election victory first.”
This makes me believe that contrary to the fears of many Mr. Trump critics, even if the President and his campaign knowingly or unwittingly colluded with Moscow during the election, that in no way means that the new administration will be pro-Russian or controlled by this. Among other things, for the Russians to control Mr. Trump, the president would have to have his own degree of self-control – which he does not have. Paradoxically, alleged Russian interference in the US election in favor of Mr. Trump makes US-Russian cooperation less likely. The White House’s fear of being perceived as lenient with Moscow outweighs its willingness to work with Russia. This could indeed become the hallmark of the administration’s foreign policy.
Above all, Democrats should learn another lesson from 1917 and abandon their dreams of impeachment: exposing Mr. Trump’s alleged Russian connection will not automatically delegitimize the president. The story of Lenin’s journey to power via a sealed covered wagon was well known to the Russian public – the Provisional Government even issued an arrest warrant for the leader of the Bolsheviks – but that was not enough to diminish him or diminish the revolution in the eyes of its supporters. In an atmosphere of radical political polarization, leaders are trusted not for who they are but for who their enemies are. And in the eyes of many Republicans, President Trump may have the wrong character, but he has the right enemies.
The story of 1917 may also be instructive for President Vladimir Putin‘s Kremlin. Germany’s strategy of helping revolutionary forces in Russia achieve German geopolitical goals had an unfortunate ending: the revolution in Russia withdrew the country from World War I, but it spread revolutionary fever throughout the country. Europe – and even brought civil war to Germany. Mr. Putin’s Russia faces a similar risk. A recent report by a pro-Kremlin think tank devoted to the rise of tech populism suggests that the populist wave in vogue in Western democracies could soon reach Russia – and become a serious threat to the country’s political order during the next election cycle.
The irony of the current situation is that a century after the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow risks repeating the same mistake made by Germany in 1917: believing that revolutions can be a reliable ally in achieving geopolitical results. The point that Americans risk missing is that the current revolution in Washington cannot be explained simply by Russian interference. It was mostly homemade.