Remembering the Russian Revolution: What is the right approach
November 7th marked the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the more memorable of the pair of uprisings known collectively as the Russian Revolution. Just seven months after Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate as a result of the February Revolution, Vladimir Lenin’s marginal socialist Bolshevik party overthrew the Provisional Government in a bloodless coup. The seventy-four years of Soviet rule that followed – responsible for the deaths of millions of Russian citizens – go a long way to explaining the controversy that surrounded this year’s centenary.
Whilst much of Europe reflected on the events of 1917 with apparent nostalgia, official commemorations in Russia were notably sparse. The day marking Lenin’s triumph over the Provisional Government has not been a national holiday since 2004 – when Vladimir Putin wiped it from the Russian calendar – yet this month the veracity of the President’s motives came under fire.
Given the unprecedented suffering caused under both Lenin, and later Stalin’s, communist regimes, what do Russians today believe is the most appropriate way to commemorate the Russian Revolution of 1917?
For an analysis of this topic we use the Socratic method – a form of argumentative dialogue developed in the 5th century BCE, which is a perfect example of critical thinking – to consider issues from the viewpoints of various interested parties.
What can we learn from applying the Socratic method to the debate surrounding the appropriate Russian response to this year’s centenary?
Secondly, we must recognise the multiple viewpoints surrounding this issue, both of those directly involved in the organisation of commemorations, and of the Russian population more generally. The groups we will consider are:
· Putin and the Kremlin official line
· The opposition, led by Alexei Navalny
· The Communist Party (CPRF)
NB. This is by no means an exhaustive list and these groupings are of course simplifications with many variations within them.
Below, we have sought to pose key questions and have constructed answers from different positions according to information gathered from a collection of articles. The following dialogues are constructed and informed by articles, statements and debates held on the subject. Please see the bibliography for a full list of the articles used
The Kremlin: ‘Whilst we recognise the importance of revisiting the events of 1917 in order to learn vital lessons from the mistakes of the past, we did not feel it was appropriate to celebrate the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution.’
Questioner: ‘But given the fundamental role played by the 1917 Revolution in the creation of the USSR, and the subsequent trajectory of Russian history, is it really an event you can afford to overlook?’
The Kremlin: ‘We must remember that the period of Bolshevik rule following the October Revolution was a time of tremendous suffering and tragedy for the Russian people. As President Putin said last month, the ‘terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.’[i] This is why we instead chose to erect the new Wall of Grief memorial to the victims of the Great Terror.’
Questioner: ‘I can appreciate being wary of glorifying the atrocities committed by the Soviet regime, yet you have not been so reluctant when it comes to commemorating other violent periods in Russia’s history. November 4th replaced the previous national holiday with a celebration of the Times of Troubles; last year the Kremlin backed a controversial new monument of Ivan the Terrible. How are these any more justifiable than remembering the Revolution?’
The Kremlin: ‘It is the dangers of promoting revolution itself that we are particularly concerned with. As we have witnessed in recent years around the world, revolutions lead to widespread disruption, suffering, and violent extremism. We should remember the events of 1917 solely to the extent that they can help us to avoid following a similarly destructive path in the future.’
Questioner: ‘So, ignoring historical events that go against your political beliefs is a legitimate approach, even though not everyone in Russia agrees with your analysis?’
The Kremlin: ‘We have not ignored the anniversary. An official committee responsible for the centennial commemorations has been in place since last year; our programme of educational events is simply focused on learning the lessons of history rather than celebrating a violent social upheaval.’
What do we learn in the course of these questions?
· The Kremlin was reluctant to commemorate the birth of a regime it attributes primarily with loss of life on an unprecedented scale.
· In addition, they did not wish to promote revolution as a desirable model for social change.
· They believe that commemorations of 1917 should be limited to learning from past mistakes.
The opposition: ‘Mr Putin cites the violence of the Soviet regime as his reason for ignoring this year’s centenary, but the reality is far less principled. He is reluctant to commemorate the overthrow of a regime he has spent his premiership resurrecting.’
Questioner: ‘Is that why Mr Navalny and his supporters accompanied their anniversary march through St Petersburg last month with chants of ‘Down with the Tsar!’?
The opposition: ‘Yes, exactly. We wanted to take the opportunity to point out the glaring similarities between the Tsarist autocracy that was brought to its knees in February 1917, and Mr Putin’s own administration. While many Russians are rightly reluctant to celebrate the start of what was for many a time of needless tragedy, it is important that we use this occasion to re-evaluate the alarming direction our country is moving in today.
Questioner: ‘Is not rather opportunistic of Mr Navalny to use what was for a many a day of mourning for his own political gain?’
The opposition: ‘Due to the administration’s stranglehold over mainstream media, and refusal to engage with its political opposition, we are left with little choice. Last month’s march was just one way in which we have tried to use centenary commemorations as a forum for political discussion. Mikhail Zygar’s Project 1917 has the same goal, only it is using the internet and social media to achieve this.’
Questioner: ‘I’ve been following Project 1917 for the last few months. Was there really the demand for this venture given the reticence of a large proportion of the Russian population to relive the events of the past century?
The opposition: ‘I think Project 1917 is about much more than just marking the hundredth anniversary of Lenin’s ascendance. Mr Zygar was motivated by a desire to challenge the ‘pseudo-agenda’ that passes for news in Russia today,[ii] and get people to realise that they do they have the power to alter the status quo. By shifting the focus away from the usual key players of the Revolution, and onto everyday individuals, Project 1917 aims to contest the assumption that Russia is incapable of becoming a true democracy.’
What do we learn in the course of these questions?
· The opposition under Mr Navalny believe commemorating the 1917 Revolution is key to highlighting the increasingly autocratic regime they detect in Russia today.
· Project 1917 is one way in which opposition voices have sought to move the dialogue in the political sphere onto a more widely relatable level.
The Communist Party
CPRF: ‘For us, the 7th November will always be a day of celebration. The atmosphere within the crowd at the Moscow march was a testament to the fighting spirit of the Communist Party, and our intention to return the banner of socialism to its rightful place in Russia, and in the world.’
Questioner: ‘The CPRF was the only political group in Russia to openly celebrate the Revolution’s centenary. Does that not suggest that you are out of touch with public feeling in today’s society?’
CPRF: ‘To the contrary, I think the number of young people at the memorial march shows that the Communist Party is very much alive in Russia today. The 1917 Revolution was about securing equal human and labour rights for all – that is a message that has universal appeal. Although the political context is different now from what it was one hundred a years ago, it is vital we use this occasion to fight against the state corruption and stark inequality that are all too apparent in our country.
Questioner: ‘Your party has not, on the whole, been particularly critical of Mr Putin. Given this how can you justify his administration’s decision to downplay the significance of this year’s anniversary?
CPRF: ‘We have been motivated in part by the Kremlin’s silence on the matter. We see it as our mission to dispel the numerous myths and misnomers that exist about the Revolution and its events through a campaign of education.[iii] In doing this we do not pretend to overlook the obvious horrors that occurred under the Soviet regime, but believe their cause was the right one and can provide us with valuable lessons for the future.’
What do we learn in the course of these questions?
· Celebrating the events of 1917 remains central to the philosophy of the CPRF who believe similar concerns still exist in Russia today.
· They also see commemoration as a means for demanding political reform.
Use the comments section below to let us know what you think about this debate.
– Catherine Lillycrop–
Catherine Lillycrop is a History graduate currently in the second year of a law conversion course. Her particular areas of historical interest are twentieth-century Europe, and immigration in the United States. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and foreign travel.
[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-carefully-marks-100th-anniversary-of-great-october-revolution/2017/11/06/94afde02-c284-11e7-9922-4151f5ca6168_story.html?utm_term=.335b29625560, accessed 21 November 2017.
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/17/russia-1917-revolutions-legacy-lenin-putin, accessed 22 November 2017.
[iii] See ‘The JACOBIN Russian Revolution 1917 Commemoration Project’, https://www.marxists.org/history/ussr/events/revolution/100th/english.htm, accessed 23 November 2017.