By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Since late 2016, questions have raised about the way Putin’s Russia can, or cannot, mark the dual centenaries of the February and October revolutions. The need for caution is all too obvious. The history of the Revolution “that shocked the world” has never been simply a matter for historians – in the West, just as in the communist world.
In the USSR, successive versions reflected the evolution of the Soviet Communist Party. In the West, the history of the Russian revolution was influenced by the ideological position of authors, and above all their seduction by, or repulsion towards, this so-called ‘proletarian revolution’.
After the collapse of the USSR, Russia embarked on the business of trying to square the circle – that is to say integrating different parts and personages of the Soviet past while rejecting the communist model. In was easier for the other post-Soviet republics, which simply decided that their communist past had been a period of “occupation” by Moscow, brushing aside the role of their own nationals and pretending to be new virgin nations.
In fact, the “official” story began to unravel with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, which paved the way for questioning the past, the nature of the Soviet system, and the events which led to its domination of power. Suddenly the images of Lenin’s addressing crowds of workers and peasants-soldiers gave way to those of the butchered imperial family and of the victims of the cruelty of Stalin. Historians began to publish new books and write prominently in the press.
Sadly they were joined by opportunists and amateurs mostly interested in publishing “all kinds of “revelations” and scandals as long as they contradicted the official versions. This led to a mental confusion among the population and a schism among liberals. It also coincided with a period of “affairism” regarding the archives that would extend into the early nineties, when everything became up for sale. Foreign correspondents were regularly contacted by people ready to sell them archives compromising one or other of their nationals. Foreign libraries acquired for a song tons of archives belonging the Party, the KGB, the armed forces and others.
After Gorbachev, presidents Yeltsin and Putin both viewed the communist past through the lenses of political pragmatism.
Yeltsin, the former provincial party official, wanted to leave his mark on the new Russia, to keep liberals on his side, and to prevent the return of the Communist Party through the votes. Putin, the former KGB colonel from Saint Petersburg, wanted to build a bridge joining all the past Russias, creating a sense of national unity which he continues to see, as the hallmark of his regime and the legitimation of his foreign policy.
Both men perceived the power of symbols. In 1991, a decree of Boris Yeltsin revived the white-blue-red flag and the double-headed eagle coat-of-arms that existed before 1917, and replaced the Soviet national anthem with Mikhail Glinka’s wordless “Patriotic Song”. He also carried out a vast operation to rid streets, cities and metro stations of Soviet names.
However, Yeltsin stopped short of two moves: he left the embalmed body of Lenin resting in his Red Square Mausoleum and kept intact the 7 November holiday October Revolution but without celebrations (only it would to be called the Day of Accord and Reconciliation) .
Vladimir Putin benefited of a certain level of reconciliation but insisted on unity of all Russians, around an appropriation of all aspects of the past.
In their attempts to embrace the “all Russian past”, both Yeltsin and Putin met controversies. The debate about emblems reignited when, a few months after Putin’s first election, the Duma adopted his draft on Russia’s state symbols. The Duma confirmed Yelstin’s decision on reviving pre-revolutionary colours and the state coat-of-arms; but the national anthem went back to the music of the Soviet one, with new lyrics. And, as a concession to Soviet feeling, and to the horror of liberals, the Soviet red flag became the official banner of the Russian state and armed forces.
In 2005, Putin entirely scrapped the 7 November holiday and replaced it by a new one – People’s Unity Day, on 4 November – supposed to commemorate the 1612 liberation of Moscow, which had been occupied by the Poles during the “time of troubles”. This choice is still a charade for the majority of the population, and paradoxically the Day of Unity has been turned into a rallying point for fringe groups carrying anything from diverse slogans and pictures, to religious banners, pictures of Stalin and red flags.
The confusion reflects that of the vast majority of Russians, and of president Putin, towards the past. Nostalgia is probably the most shared feeling, more for sentimental than for political reasons. Hence an official move to appropriate parts of both the Tsarist and the Soviet past in the creation of a new Russian feeling of belonging.
President Putin’s origin, as a citizen of the former imperial capital and well as a soldier, plays a role as well as his rapprochement with the Orthodox Church. But at the same time he has remained essentially the man who, in November 2000, on the last day of his visit to France by made a special visit to the Russian cemetery in Sainte Genevieve des Bois, where speaking to journalists, he recalled that many countries had “gone through periods of trial in their histories. We, too, must rally around our Motherland now,” he said. A month later, he brushed aside criticism of the restoration of the words of the Soviet anthem, by saying that “if we decide that the symbols of previous eras, included the Soviet, mustn’t be used at all, then we will have to admit that our fathers’ and mothers’ lives were useless and meaningless, that they lived in vain. Neither in my head nor my heart can I do that.”
This makes celebration of the revolutions of 1917 politically touchy. After all, February 1917 meant a radical move for “regime change” with violence in the streets and November 1917 the defeat of a majority and its replacement by a minority headed by charismatic leaders. And this was followed by a huge territorial loss under the Brest-Litovsk treaty, foreign intervention, and a cruel civil war lasting up to 1922. All are taboos for Putin.
Which is why the anniversary cannot be ignored by a regime that favours a fusion of all Russia’s pasts into a new Russia. And why any celebrations are fraught with political pitfalls a year before new presidential elections.