Russia and the Great Revolution, 1917-2017

Russia and the Great Revolution, 1917-2017

by Prof Dr Dr h.c. Peter Bachmaier*

On 7 November 2017, Russia commemorates the 100th anniversary of the bolshevist revolution which according to the Julian calendar had taken place on 25 October. Today Russian historians refer to the Great Russian Revolution, by which term they define the period form 1917 with both February and October revolutions and the Civil war until the foundation of the USSR in December 1922. The extended period from the first revolution in 1905, the First world war until 1922 is also called “time of turmoil”, in analogy to the beginning of the 17th century when there was no Czar in Russia.

Decree of Putin about the jubilee

On 1 December 2016, Vladimir Putin declared at the Federal Assembly in the Kremlin: “We know well, which consequences the so-called ‘great perturbations’ may have.” He continued: “We need the lessons of history, most of all in order to achieve societal closure. … We hold the significance of self-preservation, solidarity and unity in high regard … We are a united people”, he concluded, “one people and we only have one Russia.”
On 8 December 2016, Putin issued a decree with guidelines about the anniversary celebrations. The Russian Historical Society, which had been re-established in 2012, was put in charge to organise them. The parliamentary president of the Duma, Sergey Naryschkin, himself the descendant of an old aristocratic family, serves as their chairman. The society called for an increase in history lessons at school and published a new history textbook. The list of events planned by the Russian historical society in 2017, i.e. conferences, exhibitions, films and monument inaugurations, shows 188 items.
One of the main events is the exhibition: 1917: “The code of revolution” in the Museum of Modern Russian History (the former Museum of the Revolution). Another exhibition is organised at the State Literature Museum about twelve authors, about half of whom were emigrants and/or opponents of bolshevism, whose oevres reflect the controversies of the time: under the title “The Twelve” it deals with Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ivan Bunin, Alexander Blok, Sinaida Gippius, Alexander Vertinsky, Demyan Bedny, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Aleksey Remizov, Maximilian Voloshin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Valery Bryusov and Maxim Gorky. The exhibition was shown in Moscow until May 2017 and has been travelling through European capitals since, including Berlin.

The reconciliation of opponents

Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky emphasised in a preparatory meeting in May 2015, that both the Whites and the Reds had been inspired by “holy patriotism” in the civil war which he regarded as a basis for unification – in his words “historical Russia” had been victorious in the conflict since it was reborn as the unified Soviet Union.
“The attempt to establish a just society on the face of the earth … had shaped historical development decisively, not only in Russia”, but “had a huge influence on the progress of all nations on the planet.” “We must not divide our predecessors into righteous and unrighteous ones.” “Both Reds and Whites were inspired by what we now call patriotism.”
Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov argued in the journal Russia in Global Affairs that it was wrong to reduce the Russian Revolution to a mere coup d’état. Similar to the French Revolution, terror and societal achievements were to be weighed against each other.
Greater emphasis on the February Revolution and the Provisionary Government is a new twist in the story. The new narrative reads, that under the influence of foreign powers, Alexander Kerensky and the liberal government had done nothing to prevent the disintegration of army, police and the state as a whole although they would have been able to, and so they had paved the way for the October revolution.
Strikingly, Lenin as the leader of the October revolution is hardly mentioned any more. Putin has blamed Lenin for drawing arbitrary borders within the Soviet territory, thereby placing a time-bomb under the united state. When the former Soviet republics declared their independence in 1991, this bomb exploded. On the same occasion Putin warned against new divisions in society and called for  reconciliation.

The Red Project

The Central Russian Television has been broadcasting a series of documentations and talk shows since 1 July 2017 under the title “The Red Project”, but the historians find it hard to reach a consensus on how to judge the revolution. Emphasis is put on the continuity of Russian statehood. The concept of class struggle doesn’t play a role any more in history theories. The defining category in today’s political historiography is no longer the class but the state which needs strong leadership.
Politologist Dmitri Kulikov, who is in charge of the broadcast, declared: “To this very day we haven’t fully understood what really happened in these 70 years.” And he added: “The question today is, what is the next move and when will it happen.”
The “passionary energy”, as defined by philosopher Lev Gumilyov, may be embodied by such different figures as Prince Vladimir of Kiev who had baptised the people of the Rus in 988 and whose monument was erected immediately in front of the Kremlin in 2016, or Pyotr Stolypin, prime minister from 1906 until 1911, whose statue stands in front of the “White House”, the seat of the Russian government.
The opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter games in Sochi on 7 February 2014 had already foreshadowed this new culture politics of the Kremlin. Almost all important figures were summoned there for the greatness of the Russian nation: from the suprematist painters to Gagarin the cosmonaut.

The history of Russia as a ballet

From the cultural programme at the Sotschi Winter games:

“Time explodes – the Russian revolution – the main event of the 20th century. A radical social upheaval which shatters the world. New forces, new topics, new colour, a new subversion in the arts from which the new world emerges, the avantgarde.

   Time ahead, new time in a new land in the new era, in the realm of ideology, which pressures everything towards the absolute. Man becomes part of the machine… The horses made from steal overtake the living horses. Russia jumps ahead towards progress at all costs.
   The frightening mechanic mill builds the machine, in which man is formally master of everything but in reality just a detail which glues the titanic construction together. New times are beginning… Tensions rise. The land moves ahead, but where to? What will the near future bring? Red colour, so much red colour, the colour of blood. Und suddenly a crisis shatters the world, something breaks, the movement of this gigantic red machine grinds to a halt. Something terrible is bound to happen: the spotlights are switched on with cold light.
   Frightening sounds explode. An explosion at midnight. The most horrible time in the thousand-year-old history of Russia begins. The crucial hour when the fate of Russia is decided: to be or not to be.”

History politics create the image of a Russia of heroes and winners. The opponents of the bolshevist revolution have been reconciled with today’s Russia in many symbolic acts. Already in 1998, the remains of the last Czar Nicholas II were buried in a solemn ceremony in the historical burial place of the Czars in St. Petersburg. The new historical narrative views both Bolshevists and their former enemies as defenders of Russian civilisation which has been under attack then as it is today.

The new Russian state doctrine

A new state ideology has been created in which the state once again plays the central role, with patriotic and military training at school, with national holidays – 9 May as the day of victory – 24 May  as the day, dedicated to Saints Kyrill and Method, now celebrated as the day of Slavic culture – 4 November the day of national unity (the day when Moscow was recaptured from the Poles in 1612). It is all about the unity of the people, a national historiography, a leading role of Orthodoxy and also Eurasianism. Putin quoted Lev Gumilyov, a leading proponent of the Eurasian theory.
With the foundation of the USSR in December 1922 and particularly with the first 5-year plan in 1928 the state had been re-established, it was industrialised, illiteracy abolished, scientific research centers founded and space conquered. From the beginning of the 5-year plans in 1928 the growth rate of Soviet economy increased by more than 10% every year in the 1930ies and 1940ies. The Soviet Union became a powerful industrialised state.
The most important symbol of memory is the “Great Patriotic War” today and the victory over Hitler’s Germany on 9 May 1945. Starting with the 60th anniversary in 2005 the celebrations have been recommenced, with the Russian flag being flown in addition to the Red flag. The black and orange St. George ribbon was used, which dates back to the 18th century as a token of condolence.
In the year 2015 the government organised a historical reconstruction of how the revolution was commemorated in beleaguered Moscow on 7 November 1941. By this shift it became possible to integrate the theme of the revolution into the established official history saga of the victory over Hitler’s Germany. The parade in 2015 at the 70th anniversary turned into the biggest military parade in the entire history of Russia.
For several years now a grassroot movement has emerged from the Russian province, the movement of the “immortal regiment”, in which more and more people every year join to commemorate their fallen relatives by showing their pictures in a march. This year 850,000 people participated in this march in Moscow and 16 million in the whole of Russia.

The Russian idea

A crucial term in the definition of the “Russian idea”, as the Orthodoxy refers to it, is “sobornost” [spiritual community of many jointly living people] which means ecumenicity in the sense of adherence to the ecumenical councils of the Orthodox churches, and is understood now as a sense of community in opposition to Western individualism leading to the dissolution of society. Another term is “prawda” which came to mean “truth” but stood for “justice” in the Old Russian language. “Russkaya prawda” was the legal codex of the old Russia. Communities such as the family and the state are true and just, and the common good is regarded superior to the individual well-being.
The Russian-Orthodox church experiences a revival at present and plays a big role. The state supports the church and builds churches and monasteries. Although the church is not affiliated with the state, it represents “the religion of the majority of the Russian people” and the only force from which any renewal of the people could proceed.
In 2005 the remains of Ivan Ilyin, a religious philosopher and important thinker of the Orthodoxy who had died in Zollikon near Zürich in 1954, were reburied at the cemetery of the Donskoij monastery in a solemn celebration. Ilyin had been a proponent of the “Russian idea” and recently was accepted into the Pantheon of Russian state theorists. Since 2008 a plaque at the Lomonosov Moscow State University has been commemorating the fact that he used to teach there.

The imminent crisis

However, the construction of the new state is not completed yet, it passes through an important phase of its development at present. There has been no real reconciliation between the Reds and the Whites. The Soviet Union failed but so did the adaptation of Russia to the Western system.
The alienation of the new oligarchy from the people is growing. The majority of the people has positive memories of the Soviet Union and rejects liberalism. There is a real danger of another “colour revolution” and a resulting civil war with support from the West. Western elites still regard Russia as their main enemy and prepare for war.
In June 2017, the play “The shorthand text” by author and producer Sergey Kurginyan was premiered at the Moscow theatre “On the boards” which features the discussions of the Soviet leadership at the XV. Party conference in 1926 about crucial topics of the country. These topics were: How can capitalist elements in the economy be overcome, how can a foreign invasion be prevented, how can decadent fractions and lack of trust in the strength of the country be suppressed and the people longing to build a sovereign society with solidarity be satisfied?
In the play the question of Russian identity is posed. “Scythians”, the famous poem by Alexander Blok is quoted, the metaphysical antithesis of Russia and the West: Yes – we are Scythians, yes – we are Asians. This way an anti-Western stance of Russia and the inacceptability of capitalism to the Russian mentality is emphasised, which prefers collective systems of society to individualism.
A new rebirth is necessary. The president controls foreign policy and the armed forces, while the ministry of finances, the departments of trade and industries, the central bank (bank of Russia) are all dedicated to the spirit of the Washington Consensus, and private print and broadcasting media, theatres and the movie industry are liberal, too. Among the youths a spirit of nihilism is growing.
The Stolypin Club, founded by critics of economical liberalism in 2012, aims to build an autonomous financial and economic system, independent from foreign powers. It promotes state sponsored investment programmes and developed an alternative strategy to rid Russia of the dependency on the dollar and strengthen the real economy. The common good should be at the centre of national economic efforts instead of profit margins. The German Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (Reconstruction Credit Institute) from the post-war period is referred to as a positive example of how an economy may be invigorated successfully. Sergey Glazyev, advisor to president Putin on matters of the Eurasian Economic Union, also speaks approvingly of this institution and its role in developing a national infrastructure. The central bank should be governed by the state instead of being “independent”, for the state to be in charge of its vital sovereign monetary system. The day of some crucial decisions will come very soon.    •

*    Prof Dr Dr h.c. Peter Bachmaier, Vienna, Eastern Europe expert an politologist, 1972 – 2005 associate of the Austrian Institute of East and Southeast Europe, since 2006 freelance publicist, President of the Austria-Belarusian Society.

(Translation Current Concerns)

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