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Putin’s Dialectic: How the Kremlin “Saved” the Great October Revolution

The way Soviet legacy is presented in today’s Russia is undergoing changes. How should we explain the Kremlin’s reinterpretation of the October Revolution?

June 22, 2018 - Marcel H. Van Herpen - Articles and Commentary

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, Moscow Photo: EvgeniT (cc) pixabay.com

When one visited the Soviet Union in the 1980s the October Revolution was still everywhere: there were monuments, there were parades, there were commemorations. And when people spoke about the revolution, it was never simply about the October Revolution, but about the VELIKAYA Oktyabrskaya Sotsialisticheskaya Revolyutsiya: the Great Socialist October Revolution. The revolution was “great”. Russians were proud of their revolution and their pride even put the French in the shadow, because they never called their revolution “great”. In France the adjective “great” was reserved for Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the Great Army, which, by the way, was defeated by the Russians near the river Berezina.

After 1991: Commemorations with a new meaning

During the whole Soviet epoch, beginning in the year 1918, November 7th was an official holiday. However, it was only in the 1930s, under Joseph Stalin, that it was called “The Day of the Great Socialist October Revolution.” Under Stalin it became an institutionalised celebration with parades of workers, and a military parade in the Red Square. On the tribune on top of Lenin’s mausoleum, attended by Stalin himself. The Russian population had two free days, not only November 7th, but also November 8th. This continued until 1991. On November 7th 1991, after the August coup d’état, it was the first time that there was no official celebration. In Yeltsin’s Russia it became a problem. What should be done with “the Day of the Great October Revolution” in a country which was in a process of decommunisation, rejecting the heritage of the Bolshevik October Revolution?

Yeltsin came up with a solution. On March 13th 1995 he signed a federal law, called “On the days of the military glory of Russia,” in which November 7th became the “Day of the Liberation of Moscow,” commemorating the defeat of Poland in 1612. November 7th no longer celebrated international socialism, but rather switched to patriotism and national pride. One year later, in 1996, Yeltsin changed the name of the celebration in an ukaz and the new name became “The Day of Harmony and Reconciliation” (Den soglasiya i primireniya). We see here the new spin Yeltsin wanted to give to the November 7th celebrations, adding national unity to national glory.

Vladimir Putin continued Yeltsin’s reinterpretation of the November 7th celebration. On December 29th 2004, Putin signed a law, which re-baptised November 7th from “Day to Honour the Military of Russia” into “Day of the military parade on the Red Square of the city of Moscow in commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution (1941).” This was a completely new turn: November 7th became a day to commemorate the parade on the Red Square of Moscow of November 1941, when Moscow was besieged by the German army. This change was not meant to celebrate the October Revolution, but a quite different event: the Great Patriotic War and the role of the Red Army in defending Moscow, the gorod geroy – the heroic city. Seven months later, on July 21st 2005, Putin signed a new law, changing, yet again, the title of the celebration into a commemoration of all victories of the Russian army.

We see, therefore, during the Yeltsin and Putin years a continuous change of focus. It is no longer heroic revolutionaries of 1917 who are celebrated, but the heroic role of the Russian army in Russian history – in tsarist times, as well as in Soviet times. A celebration of the Bolsheviks is replaced by a celebration of “eternal Russia” and the victories of its armies over foreign invaders.

2017: The year of truth: Ignore or reinvent the revolution?   

The year 2017, however, became the year of truth. In 2017 it was one hundred years ago that the revolution took place and foreign observers were curious how the Kremlin would react. Would the Russian leadership try to “save” the Russian revolution with a low profile commemoration, celebrating the few achievements which, eventually, could be attributed to the revolution? Or would the Kremlin “forget” this date, preferring not to offer the still existing Communist Party of the Russian Federation an opportunity to benefit from such an event, especially since, in March 2018, the presidential election would take place. Soon, it became clear that the second option was chosen. Before and during the date of the commemoration a deep silence reigned in the Kremlin. The Revolution was over. The Revolution seemed to have definitively disappeared.

However, can you let a historical event disappear by simply ignoring it? Stalin had the habit of clipping party leaders from photographs and eliminating disgraced comrades from history books (mostly after having eliminated them physically). But this method can no longer be used today. So, what could the Kremlin do? Obviously, what the Kremlin needed was a reinterpretation. A reinterpretation, but how? Reinterpretation is, as a rule, a task assigned to historians. Historians are the high priests of historical truth. However, in Russia they are not prevented from changing the historical truth if it is deemed necessary by the leaders in the Kremlin. They can do this in the same way as the Pope of Rome can proclaim a new article of faith. So what is the new official truth?

On December 27th 2016, Sergey Naryshkin, (who is today head of the Foreign Intelligence Service) who was the speaker of the State Duma at the time, as well as the head of the Russian Historical Society, came together with the members of the presidium of the Historical Society, to discuss the coming anniversary. During this meeting Yuriy Petrov, director of the Institute of Russian History, remarked that “in our society there exists very different interpretations of the Revolution: from a locomotive of history to an absolute evil.” It was clear that the revolution had become a highly sensitive subject. Petrov repeated Putin’s wish “to avoid confrontations”. One year later, when the fatal date approached several conferences were organised. However, Mikhail Demurin, a journalist of the Regnum news agency complained that “the most important media outlets published almost nothing about these conferences,” adding that “the leitmotiv of the official and semi-official comments on the October Revolution is, unfortunately, that ‘it would have been better if it would not have taken place’”.

At the end of November 2017 – after the fatal date had passed – the Russian Historical Society organised a new event with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The subject of this conference was “The results of the revolution of 1917”. Also this conference took place amid great silence by the media. Of course, everyone was very curious what this conference would present as the official “results” of the October Revolution.

The Revolution Becomes a “Link” in a “Chain of Events

After the event one could read the following text on the website of the Russian Historical Society:

“Under the aegis of the Russian Historical Society, a new educational historical-cultural standard has been decided that will offer a new guideline for history school textbooks. The scientists proposed to view the October Revolution not as an isolated event, but as a chain of interrelated events, which included the tsar’s abdication from the throne, the events of February and October 1917, the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the civil war. In this way, the term “The Great Russian Revolution 1917-1922” appeared for the first time. The term “Great” refers to the scale of its consequences … they had a global impact.”

This seemed like a brilliant move. The historians neither praised the October Revolution, nor condemn it, but made it a part of a larger historical process, which included the February Revolution and the civil war. Lenin, still in his mausoleum on the Red Square, would be turning in his glass cage, hearing that his revolution had become a subchapter of the February Revolution. Also the way in which the adjective “Great” was saved was a stroke of genius. It no longer referred to the supposed heroism and courage of the communist revolutionaries, but only to the scale of the consequences. Neither the communists, nor the anti-communists could feel offended. In the Russian press there was much speculation about the question: what if the October Revolution would not have taken place? The answers were interesting. Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of the Duma and a descendant from the writer Lev Tolstoy, said that without the revolution, Russia would have won the First World War and would have had a seat at the table of the victors and – with their approval – would have received “the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and Constantinople.” However, Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Molotov, Stalin’s minister of foreign affairs, defended the October Revolution, arguing that it was thanks to the October Revolution that Russia “for the first time in its history became one of the superpowers.”

Putin on the Positive Consequences of the Revolution

Putin himself went further still, touting the Revolution’s supposed positive consequences. Not in Russia, but abroad.

“Many of the achievements made by the West in the 20th century,” said Putin, “were an answer to the challenge of the USSR … the increase in the standard of living, the formation of a powerful middle class, the reform of the labour market and of social security, the expansion of education and human rights protection, including women’s and minorities rights, the end of racial segregation, which some decennia ago still was a shameful practice in many countries, including the USA.”

Putin’s list of the October Revolution’s supposed benefits is almost endless. If we believe him the October Revolution was the driving force behind many key events including: Roosevelt’s New Deal, President Johnson’s Great Society, the civil rights movements, women’s liberation, and the establishment of the welfare state. One cannot deny that the existence of the USSR functioned as a bogeyman for western politicians and made them more willing to conduct reforms. However, to present the October Revolution, which brought so much suffering to the Russian population, as a “present” to the West, resembles a praise to hell; its existence would be an incentive for people to live a decent life and to strive to go to heaven.

Ironically, the October Revolution has also become a bogeyman for the leaders in the Kremlin. Putin constantly warns against “divisions” in the population, praising “national unity.” A revolution is a nightmare which haunts the Kremlin leaders. Wasn’t the October Revolution, the “Red” Revolution, the first colour revolution? In an interview last April, Putin warned that Russia would fight all colour revolutions, not only in Russia, but also in the countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s new mini Warsaw Pact. He implicitly claimed a Russian droit de regard over the member states of the CSTO, restoring a soft version of the old Brezhnev doctrine.

 The cycle of revolutions

How should we explain the Kremlin’s reinterpretation of the October Revolution? For this, we need some help from a man who played an important role in the February Revolution. The name of this man is Pitirim Sorokin. Before the First World War Sorokin was a young liberal opponent of the tsarist regime. He was imprisoned several times under Tsar Nicholas II. In 1917 he became the personal secretary to Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, installed after the February Revolution. He was sentenced to death by the Bolsheviks, but ultimately exiled in 1922. He went to the United States, where he became one of the leading sociologists and founded the sociology department of Harvard University. His personal experiences during the February and October Revolution led him to analyse the phenomenon of revolution. He did this in his book Man and Society in Calamity, first published in 1942. In this book he distinguished different phases in revolutions. A revolution wants to accomplish a total break with the past. The October Revolution, for instance, attacked the tsar, religion, bourgeois science, the market economy, and the great military generals of the past. However, a revolution is usually followed by a second phase: a counter-revolution. “Ideologies of the second stage,” writes Sorokin, “represent a revival of the living ideologies of the pre-revolutionary society in new dress and colours. The revolution itself, when successful, inherently and necessarily consumes its earlier ideologies and resurrects the living pre-revolutionary ideologies. This explains why in practically all great revolutions the ideologies of the first phase turned out to be unpopular in the second.”

Sorokin was not the first to analyse the different phases of revolutions, nor their imminent tendency toward restoration of pre-revolutionary trends. Crane Brinton, an American political scientist, for instance, made a similar analysis in his book The Anatomy of Revolution, which was published in 1938.  However, although Sorokin’s analysis is tempting and interesting, it cannot explain what is going on right now in Russia. Russia’s counter-revolution took place in the 1990s, when the communist party was temporarily forbidden, when a pluralist political system was established, the Russian Orthodox Church was rehabilitated, and a market economy was introduced. This meant a total break with the communist past. However, that was not the end of the story. According to the German philosopher Hegel, a dialectic process has three stages: a thesis, an antithesis, and – in the end – a synthesis. Sorokin’s model only contains the first two parts of the Hegelian dialectic: revolution and counter-revolution: thesis and antithesis. However, it does not contain the third part of Hegel’s dialectic: the synthesis. And that is exactly what is taking place in Putin’s Russia today: a merger of the first and the second phase. Russian historians, guided by the Kremlin, made a new package: coupling the October Revolution with the February Revolution and offering it as one event, called “The Russian Revolution 1917-1922.” However, this synthesis is a far cry from Hegel’s synthesis. Hegel’s synthesis means that both the thesis and antithesis develop into something new that is higher and richer. One may doubt, however, whether this is the case in contemporary Russia. It is rather an effort to rehabilitate and save the nationalistic, patriotic and imperialist ingredients of both the tsarist and the communist era, without confronting the huge crimes of the Stalinist regime.      

This speech was delivered on March 15, 2018, at the Conference “Between Russian Empires: One Hundred Years On,” organised by the College of Europe Natolin, Warsaw.

Marcel H. Van Herpen is director of the Cicero Foundation, a think tank. He is the author of three books on Putin’s Russia: Putin’s Propaganda Machine – Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy, Putin’s Wars – The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism and Putinism – The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia.

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