This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It began in February 1917 and culminated eight months later in October when the Bolsheviks took power. A year of enormous significance in the nation’s history, it has so far received small note in 2017.
It seems to be difficult for the current Russian government to decide how to commemorate or celebrate what happened 100 years ago. Revolution as a concept is something Vladimir Putin has been attacking for years, ever since the “color” revolutions first appeared on Russia’s doorstep in Georgia at the end of 2003.
The nation, to his eyes, has had enough of revolutions. For him, they disrupt people’s lives, causing severe material deprivation, with a negative impact on the prosperity and power of states. And while Putin admits that some countries need serious political and economic reform, he believes evolution to be a better route. This is the path he wants Russia itself to take. Since the Arab Spring and subsequent civil wars in the Middle East, Putin has equated revolution with instability, extremism and terrorism.
It also proved very difficult for Putin and his government to enshrine 1917 in the positive, patriotic and unifying version of Russian history that they have been writing since 2000. Like the leaders of the USSR, Putin used the story in an attempt to galvanize and unite Russia. society behind its leadership – starting with school children.
In June 2004, the Minister of Education declared that history textbooks be rewritten to exclude “pseudo-liberalism, aimed at misinterpreting our history”. He suggested that some textbooks undermined social cohesion and national pride in Russia.
A more “positive” way of looking at history was highlighted in 2012 when Russia marked the bicentenary of Napoleon’s invasion with a shameless attitude patriotic holidays. Putin was leading an election campaign and gave an enthusiastic speech speech in which he spoke of “battle for Russia”, patriotism, national unity and self-sacrifice. He describes his supporters as the natural successors of the generation of 1812 and his adversaries as the foreign invaders.
The revolution is however difficult to register in a positive and unifying vision. Many elements of Russia’s pre-1917 imperial power are sympathetic to the current regime, so celebrating the February Revolution is awkward. All the more so considering that attempts to build a Western-style liberal democracy are clearly out of step with Putin’s authoritarian style of democratic politics.
Similarly, Putin recently sentenced the violence deployed against the clergy and other social groups after the October Revolution. He blamed the Bolsheviks for the loss of Russia in World War I. The creation of new socialist republics in the early 1920s had resulted in the dispersal of Russians out of Russia and, according to Putin, laid the groundwork for the collapse of the Soviet Union. By retaking Crimea and intervening in eastern Ukraine, the official line goes, Russia is just righting the wrongs caused by the revolution and bringing ethnic Russians home.
All this explains why it took until December 2016 for Putin to authorize the creation of a Committee organize the commemorations of the centenary of 1917.
The committee is dominated by state officials, heads of academic institutions, media personalities, and directors of museums and archives. At his first meeting in January, he agreed to a program conferences, exhibitions, publications, “educational projects” and media activities. Those involved seem unanimous in seeing the revolution as a complex process – but share the official line that the revolution was a tragic and unwanted experience.
Declared members Many times that the “historical lessons” of 1917 must be highlighted to promote unity in contemporary Russia. Asked afterwards about the lessons of the revolution, a participant answered crudely that revolution was not the best way to resolve social conflicts because it only leads to violence and death.
The first major conference, held in February at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, included a speech by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskii. He spoke of the “national tragedy” of a revolution that failed to solve Russia’s problems. His message echoed Putin’s call since his presidential address in December 2016: drawing the lessons of history to strengthen reconciliation and only solidarity will ensure Russia’s success.
It is therefore unlikely that we will see any major national commemorations highlighting 1917 for what it really was – a short-lived, euphoric experiment in civil liberties, equal rights and democracy. Instead, the official “lesson” we seem destined to hear repeatedly this year is that revolution fosters violence and instability – and must be avoided at all costs.