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Russia’s disruptive narrative on Bolshevik revolution

While Putin’s Russia is proud of the big achievements of the Soviet era and views the collapse of the USSR as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, it has failed to form a clear view of its past, including the Bolshevik Revolution. As long as that is the case, the country will hardly build a vision for the future.

November 30, 2017 - Rahim Rahimov - Stories and ideas

Image by Man vyi

A series of new documentaries and films about the Russian revolution were broadcast on major Russian TV channels on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. They were designed to disrupt the popular Russian perceptions of the 1917 revolution and foster a more hostile narrative. Alongside its domestic motivations, this narrative has significant implications for post-Soviet nations too.

One of the Kremlin’s main media figureheads, Dmitry Kiselyov, who is the head of the Russian government-owned international news agency Россия Сегодня, authored a film titled The Great Russian Revolution. In the film, Kiselyov, who was dubbed as Russia’s chief propagandist by the Economist and chief spin doctor by the BBC, associated the Bolshevik revolution with colour revolutions, which spread through the former Soviet Union in the first decade of 2000s, even calling it the “first colour revolution”.

Another film, The Genuine History of the Russian Revolution, calls Bolsheviks “extremists led by Lenin” and alludes to the revolution itself as a German-funded coup. A source of inspiration for this sort of narrative is President Putin’s comments such as “They [Lenin and Bolsheviks] planted a nuclear bomb under the building called Russia, later it to blew it up”.  What are the motives for the Kremlin to push for such a hostile narrative on the Bolshevik revolution?

The Kremlin’s sensitivity to the notion of revolution

The first reason is the Kremlin’s sensitivity to the notion of a revolution. As Maxim Trudolyubov from the Kennan Institute puts it, “the rulers do not want a revolution, so they do not want their subjects to celebrate one”. In the Kremlin’s discourse, revolutions, particularly the colourful ones are something inferior, negative and hostile to Russian interests and perceived as a foreign plot.

They are often associated with the arrival of pro-western governments in power in Georgia and Ukraine as well as the events of the Arab Spring. Not accidentally, Russian president Vladimir Putin called  the events of the 1917 Revolution a Maidan–like overthrow of the head of state, Tsar Nicholas II, during the First World War.

The Kremlin’s sensitivity to the revolution is even exaggerated by the deepening social gap in the country. The circumstances that led up to the 1917 Russian revolution resemble the current period in terms of the wide gap between the privileged few – the monarchy and the oligarchy, who had unlimited access to power and resources, and the unprivileged majority, who were tired of wars.

A recent poll shows that 45 per cent of Russians see the plight of the people as the major reason for the1917 revolution. One of the main targets of Lenin’s teaching was the oligarchy. Now the social gap is sharpening in Russia as the wealth of the Russian oligarchy is unprecedented with offshore and foreign bank accounts, multi-million yachts and villas, luxurious life-styles, and so on.

While the Kremlin’s anti-West rhetoric is rising, capital and investment flows from Russia into the same West. That makes Moscow prone to domestic mistrust and discredits the Kremlin’s anti-West rhetoric. That is why popular opposition figure and anti-corruption activist, Alexandr Navalny, campaigned on a social agenda exposing the corruption and luxurious life-styles of Russian elites. Commenting on Navalny’s anti-corruption protests, Putin again reminded his country of the events in Ukraine  and the Arab spring.

Putin’s exhausted ability to deliver

Second, Putin’s ability to meet the public’s expectations has been exhausted and the Kremlin seeks to divert the domestic dissatisfaction with its failures and troubles by throwing responsibility on Bolsheviks.

Being in power for close to two decades, Putin’s regime has heavily relied on higher oil and gas prices for a relative economic growth and has failed to build a competitive economy. Whereas in a few decades, the crumbling Russian empire was transformed into a global nuclear super-power – the USSR, under Bolshevik rule, despite all its controversies.

People in the USSR became dependent on the state budget and expected everything from the leader. This trend resulted in the emergence of a social request for a strongman along the lines of Stalin and Khrushev. This Soviet legacy – a desire for a strongman – survived the collapse of the USSR. Curiously and paradoxically, the social request for a strongman in the post-Soviet era is even amplified by the social desire to implement democratic changes.

Indeed, a large part of society expects a strongman to implement democratic change and reforms. This leads to pessimism that a transition to democracy will be unrealistic if not an impossible task for post-Soviet republics including Russia itself. However, Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 proved the opposite. Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili exemplified a strongman but in a positive function, who succeeded in implementing sweeping democratic reforms.

While Mikheil Saakashvili managed to reform Georgia, Putin was suggesting that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the main cause for many troubles of modern Russia. Thus, the establishment of a USSR-like Russia-centric union can be thought of as a solution. Attempts such as the Eurasian Union are a case in point. But the Ukraine conflict was a huge blow to that kind of plan.

In order to neutralise the public anger, the Kremlin wants to throw the responsibility 100 years back on Bolsheviks and blame Lenin for the collapse of the USSR. In 2016 Putin stated that it was Lenin who favoured the establishment of the USSR on the basis of full equality of the constituent republics with the right to exit the Soviet Union. He also criticised Lenin for an “absolutely arbitrary and unjustified definition of the borders” of the republics. The “transfer of the Donbas region to Ukraine is just a case in point”, Putin said.

All these ideas are well reflected in the 1917 Revolution series of films on major Russian TV. The demonisation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks through the series of films must be seen in the background, where Putin’s recent nationalist campaigns mainly associated with the Crimean annexation have been exhausted. These films are thus aimed at shaping a narrative that is needed to prepare Russian populations for the continuation of assertive policies in Russia’s near abroad.

Therefore, Moscow is likely to become more forceful in the post-Soviet space following the 2018 Russian presidential election. Although Russia declared itself as the successor of the ex-USSR in 1991, the Kremlin acts as the successor of the imperial Russia that vanished with the 1917 revolution. This disconnect constitutes a basis for the Moscow’s assertiveness in the post-Soviet space.

Lack of vision

Paradoxically, both Russia and individual post-Soviet nations despise Lenin and the Bolsheviks for diametrically opposite reasons. The Kremlin holds Lenin and the Bolsheviks responsible for the scattering of the Russian empire into Soviet republics. But the post-Soviet nations often view Lenin and Bolsheviks as those who prolonged the life of the Russian empire under a different name but in the same essence by forcing them into the USSR.

On the one hand, Putin’s Russia is proud of the big achievements of the Soviet era and views the collapse of the USSR, which was the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution, as “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. On the other, Putin negatively depicts the revolution, the Bolsheviks, and Lenin personally.

Russia has failed to form a clear view of its past, particularly the Bolshevik Revolution, based on a neutral and objective evaluation. Yet the view of the past has become subject to the current agenda of the Russian ruling group. As long as a nation fails to have a clear view of its past, it can hardly build a vision for the future.

Rahim Rahimov is a Baku-based independent political analyst focusing on Russia, the post-Soviet space and political Islam. Rahimov holds an MA in International Relations from the Hult International Business School, London, UK, and a BA in Arab Studies from Baku State University.

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