Evaluating the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Remembering a Soviet Ideal, Purged of Revolutionary Ideas
Chris Miller
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The Bolshevik Revolution and the Politics of Memory

Russia’s political elite fears the idea of an uprising, making it complicated for the Kremlin to mark the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Officials took a straightforward approach to the 100th anniversary of the bourgeois-democratic February Revolution: it could not be celebrated because it was too democratic. The idea of street protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg is not something that Russian leaders today look upon kindly. Big public demonstrations against rigged elections in 2011-2012 shook Russian President Vladimir Putin to the core. Thus, Russia’s government crafted a simple message about the February Revolution – that it was a bad idea and it did not matter. One Russian newspaper even ran a story alleging that the February Revolution was the “first Maidan,” linking that 1917 event to what Russia’s state-controlled media has described as Ukraine’s “fascist” and “chaotic” movement that toppled its corrupt former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Remembering the October Revolution poses a bigger problem for the Kremlin because the Bolshevik coup led to the birth of the Soviet Union. And many older Russians still look back fondly on the Soviet era.

The Soviet era is a source of nostalgia for two reasons, namely, it was a time of relative strength and stability. Most Russians remember the Soviet period as a time when their country was respected and feared abroad. The Soviet Union built armed forces that defeated Nazi Germany; it also developed a strong security service, the KGB, in which Putin and many of his top lieutenants long served. This powerful Soviet state was a direct result of the October Revolution. Condemning the revolution would thus condemn this legacy.

A second reason why Russians do not wish to condemn the Soviet Union is that many remember its economic legacy fondly. The terrors of collectivization – when Stalin forced peasants onto collective farms, causing millions to starve – are now in the distant past and are rarely discussed. Older Russians these days prefer to recall the relative stability of the Brezhnev era, when the economy provided everyone with a basic standard of living. Of course, Brezhnev tolerated the pathologies that led to the Soviet Union’s economic stagnation and eventual collapse. But most Russians remember the positive aspects of Brezhnev’s rule and blame the failings on his successors.

Few of these memories of the Soviet economic legacy, however, have much to do with revolution. The most direct effect of Vladimir Lenin’s rise to power in October 1917 was on Russia’s elite. The tsar was toppled and then shot, along with his family. Russia’s wealth was redistributed. Landowners were chased off their lands, with peasants seizing farms for themselves. The Bolsheviks confiscated businesses without compensation. Many of Russia’s aristocrats fled abroad. Of those that stayed, many were killed. 

This is not the type of revolution that Russia’s elite today wants to contemplate. Polls suggest that most Russians think that their country’s oligarchs made their fortunes illegitimately. Many Russians support heavy taxation, or even the expropriation of oligarch-owned property. As was the case in
1917, a sizeable portion of Russia’s richest people gained their wealth through connections or corruption, rather than by efficient management or entrepreneurship.

The oligarchs who emerged amid Putin’s rise to power – whose businesses profit from selling goods to the government and to state-owned firms at inflated prices – are not all that different from Tsarist-era landlords who inherited vast estates and grew rich exploiting their serfs.

Thus, the toppling of the tsar and the expropriation of aristocrats’ property are uncomfortable themes for Putin and his courtiers. Revolutionary ideas about giving lands to peasants have been de-emphasized, lest Russians today conclude that they, too, are owed something amid government cuts to health and education budgets.

Today’s Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, occasionally talks about the evils of big business. Yet, he still supports the Putin system, and the matter of confiscating oligarchs’ property is far from the top of his agenda. Indeed, Russia’s communists even wobble on the question of remembering Lenin, preferring to celebrate Stalin instead.

Some Russian pundits have pointed out that Lenin imported Western political ideas (Marxism) into Russia, and that he returned to Petrograd in 1917 on a German train, as examples of supposed Western meddling in Russian politics. And they provide excuses to those who feel that the revolution is best not celebrated.

Given all these factors, it is not a surprise that Russia is largely ignoring the 100thanniversary of the revolution. Soviet nostalgia continues, but it has been purged of everything that made the Soviet Union revolutionary.

Russians no longer associate the Soviet Union with Marxism, or with collectivization, or with expropriating the rich. When they look back fondly on the Soviet experience, they remember instead the Brezhnev era, when everything was stagnant but stable. For the Kremlin, idolizing the Brezhnev era is far safer than celebrating 1917. Revolutions are dangerous things, and Putin stands for stability – even if, like Brezhnev, his policies guarantee stagnation, too.

Footnotes

Chris Miller is Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.