Putin’s Russia: Revolution, What Revolution?

Yuri Maltsev/Reuters

A woman holding a placard that reads, “Stalin is our father, homeland is our mother, Soviet power is our sister and our friend,” at a rally to mark the Russian Revolution’s centenary, Vladivostok, Russia, November 7, 2017

Imagine France canceling Bastille Day. Or America demoting the Fourth of July and celebrating British monarchs instead. That sounds fantastical, even in our “post-truth” West. Yet in Russia, this is how Vladimir Putin is trying to refashion the country’s history. The leader who once lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” deems the October Revolution itself, the USSR’s foundational event, no cause for celebration. Today, November 7, the official birthday of the USSR, is no longer part of Russia’s holiday canon.

National holidays tell a story of a nation. Every Soviet person born before 1985—more than half of Russia’s population of 144 million people—knew that on November 7 (in the old, Julian calendar, October 25) an armed insurrection led by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party overthrew the “bourgeois” Provisional Government and transferred power to the Soviets in the name of the people. On that date, we were told, the “bloody tyranny” of the tsars had fallen, and the clock of world history had been reset to zero. We, the Soviet people, were the beneficiaries of mankind’s century-long quest for freedom, justice, and communion.

This major event required major celebration. For some three generations, the “October Holidays” were one of the three pillars around which the country’s collective life revolved, followed by the New Year and May Day holidays. November 7, “The Red Day of the Calendar,” meant two days off work or school, a mass demonstration of labor collectives, streets closed to traffic, military bands, red balloons tied to everything from rocket carriers to strollers, carnations, giant portraits of party leaders on wheels. There were floats shaped as the revolutionary cruiser Aurora, which had fired upon the Winter Palace to signal the start of the insurrection, and as the steam train that brought Lenin to Petrograd in April 1917.

A mass demonstration of solidarity was an essential part of the ritual. Women carried flowers. Men struggled under the weight of heavy banners proclaiming, “Long Live Proletarian Revolution!” and “The Communist Party is the Brain, Honor, and Consciousness of Our Epoch.” Somewhere, a megaphone blasted, “Greetings to the laborers of the First of May District!” “Long live our Soviet youth, the loyal followers of the Lenin’s cause!” Endless hurrahs rolled through the crowd, intensifying as you approached the raised platforms holding city officials, and organizers urged, “Louder, louder.” Your mother held your hand, and a lucky boy ahead waived at the onlookers from his father’s shoulders. Two hours later, you’d be dressed in your best clothes at the festive table that was piled with food typically unavailable the rest of the year, listening to adult jokes while champagne bottles were uncorked with pops as loud as Aurora’s salvos. “To the Holiday!”

Then came perestroika and glasnost. Things started to shift. The people’s triumph over the bourgeoisie and capitalism, it turned out, had come at a steep price. Every newspaper article about the gulag, every documentary about a demolished church, every novel by a previously banned writer, chipped away at our collective understanding of Soviet history and of ourselves. Idol after idol in our proletarian pantheon came crashing down. Lenin, the man “more alive than all the living,” held out longer, but in the end, he fell, too. Nothing built on a lie, they say, ends well. 

What to do with a foundational holiday when the foundation is gone? Do you continue to celebrate a day that signaled terror campaigns against your compatriots? But if you scrap the celebrations altogether, does that mean that your grandparents made their sacrifices for nothing? In the final years of the USSR, as people sat at festive tables laid with the same foods they now had to buy at astronomic prices, part of the economic “shock therapy” supposedly paving the way to capitalist bounty, an era of confusion settled in. When the USSR finally collapsed over the summer of 1991 and the Communist Party was banned, the official celebrations of the Revolution ceased. Some still flocked to city squares with red flags they’d procured on their own.

In 1992, nearly a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, “October holidays” became “The October Holiday,” with only November 7 celebrated. Later, a federal law enacted by President Boris Yeltsin designated that date as “The Day of the October Revolution of 1917,” dropping “great” and “socialist” from the former definition. In this new age of privatization, little was great and nothing was socialist.

The 1990s was, at least, a time of open and honest debate about the past, uncovering parts of our common history that had been buried under layers of propaganda. Everything was questioned—on TV, in the newspapers, in the classrooms, at the tram stations. Was the October Revolution a mass uprising or a coup? Who were the Whites, those villains of the old revolutionary movies? Did Lenin really choose Stalin as his successor? Even our current leaders we could discuss—openly, not in a whisper. We could laugh at them, too: a political satire titled Dolls commanded TV audiences in the millions. For all the economic chaos, Yeltsin’s were years of freedom.  


In 1996, November 7 changed once more, becoming “The Day of Accord and Reconciliation.” The following year, President Yeltsin, himself a former Communist Party official, called for atonement and forgiveness during the overdue burial of Tsar Nicholas and his family (they’d been murdered in 1918, just two months before “The Day of the Proletarian Revolution” was instituted).  

Then, in 2000, came President Putin. Of the many changes that Russians, longing for prosperity, chose not to notice was that in 2004 Putin abolished “The Day of National Accord and Reconciliation” and replaced it with “National Unity Day,” on November 4. Dolls was already off the air by then. Surreptitiously, and with little adverse reaction, Russia was ridding itself of its historic legacy.

The choice of November 4 was not random. The new holiday is tied to an episode of seventeenth-century Russian history that signified the end of the Times of Trouble, a fifteen-year period of political crises, famines, and foreign interventions that followed the demise of the Rurik dynasty in 1598. In early November 1612, a volunteer army chased Polish-Lithuanian occupiers out of Moscow. Three months later, a new tsar was appointed. It was then, said Patriarch Alexei in 2004, that the “Russian citizens of many confessions and nationalities overcame division, a powerful enemy and led the country to the stable civil peace.” Also, according to the Orthodox Church canon, November 4 had been celebrated before the Revolution as “The Day of the Kazan Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos,” with special liturgies and religious processions.

In promoting this little-known episode of the distant past as a major national holiday, the now perpetual President Putin has a clear purpose: to legitimize his right to rule. Merging an anniversary of tsarist restoration with an old religious holiday sends the message that his is the sacred power of an anointed autocrat. Russia is no longer a country forged in the crucible of revolution; it is the land of the tsars and the Orthodox Church. Straightforward historical parallels are drawn: the Times of Trouble are the Yeltsin years, the “evil Nineties,” as the state media now routinely referred to them; the heroic “people’s army of all confessions” are modern-day Russians longing for order after chaos; the savior tsar is Vladimir Putin. 

All of this would be laughable, an absurdity in the style of the satirical writers of Dolls, had it not been for one thing: it worked. Having lived through the collapse of two ideologies, tsarist and communist, Russia has been a post-truth society for decades. In such a society, as long as there is an explanation, no matter how far-fetched, people will believe it. The majority of Russians, weary of official holidays, shrugged and accepted the new “National Unity Day” as an opportunity to enjoy their long-sanctioned toasts a few days earlier. People could afford to be cynical in an economy awash with petro-dollars.

This year, however, has presented a new challenge—the centenary of an event so fanatically celebrated for most of the twentieth century is hard to ignore completely. So President Putin urged Russians not to “politicize” the Revolution. “It is not allowed,” he said, “to speculate on tragedies that touched every family in Russia, for political interests.” Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, urged respect for “heroes on both sides.” Sergey Naryshkin, a close friend of President Putin and the director of the newly-created Russian Historical Society, which was charged with organizing commemorative events, concurred. “Let us remember justly and dispassionately the victors and the victims, each of which had their own truth.” 

Justice is a wishful concept in evaluating events with millions of victims, especially at a moment when Stalin, their executioner, is touted once more as a “great leader.” Yet Russia is no stranger to “Potemkin villages,” where colorful facades skillfully cover an absence of real structures. Just as the Kremlin pretends that Russia’s politics involve free elections and that its economy boasts a bustling manufacturing sector, it pretends to commemorate the Revolution.

Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Fireworks exploding over the Aurora cruiser, which fired the first shot of the Russian Revolution, during celebrations for the Revolution’s centenary, St. Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2017

An imitation can only work if there is some truth mixed in. In the centenary commemorations, there is no want of period details. At the Central Museum of Modern History, formerly the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow, a hunter for historical curios can marvel at a porthole from the Aurora or at the rifles that dispatched the tsar and his family in 1918. The “Energy of the Dream” exhibition at the Museum of State History celebrates the development of hygiene among peasants and workers, with the slogans “Don’t Spit on the Floor” and “Fight Flies.” There was not much energy at the press conference for the opening.  


In St. Petersburg, commemorations include a digital extravaganza titled “The Storming of the Winter Palace” and army ensembles dancing in front of the Aurora. “Don’t take things too seriously,” advises a member of the St. Petersburg celebration committee. “Revolution can be a tourist brand of sorts.”

Alongside this effort to rebrand the Revolution, the symbols of the ancien régime that the proletarian radicals once fought against have been craftily revived. Back in 2014, the four-hundred-year anniversary of the Romanov dynasty was celebrated with lavish exhibitions, TV documentaries, and an imperial ball at the Kremlin. School history books have been revised to recast Romanov rule in positive terms: Peter the Great as a noble reformer, Catherine the Great as an enlightened empress, Alexander III as a fierce fighter against domestic terrorism, and Nicholas II as a martyr of the “revolutionary plague.” Such drastic reversals of historical narrative in a country that spent most of the twentieth century demonizing its former imperial rulers as “bloody tyrants” was bound to scramble ideological circuits for some.

For a good part of 2017, the anemic national discourse about the Revolution was dominated by the controversy surrounding the movie Matilda, a historical blockbuster about a love affair between Nicholas II and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. Scheduled for release a fortnight before the revolutionary anniversary, and sponsored in part by the Ministry of Culture, the movie became the object of a crusade by Natalia Poklonskaya, a deputy of the Russian Duma from the recently annexed Crimea. A former criminal prosecutor, Poklonskaya saw blasphemy in assigning “dirty passions” to the “holy martyr” Nicholas, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. She urged her constituents to join in the fight. When she wasn’t delivering impassioned speeches in the Duma, she collected petitions to ban the movie.

Movie theater owners received death threats. In September, two cars belonging to the firm representing the movie were set on fire in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, “the cradle of the Revolution,” thousands joined a religious procession formally dedicated to the transfer of the holy relics of Alexander Nevsky, a medieval Russian prince, and turned it into a demonstration against Matilda. The banners people carried had an uncanny Soviet ring: “The Honor of the Sovereign is the Honor of the People!” Instead of Communist Party symbols, there were icons and portraits of Nicholas.

Poklonskaya is hardly a product of the Soviet Union. She was eleven when the USSR collapsed; her values are truly post-Soviet, with an emphasis on religion and respect for autocracy. Earlier this year, she proclaimed the miracle of Nicholas’s statue weeping tears of myrrh in Crimea. “This is how the sovereign,” said Poklonskaya, “guards his country a hundred years after the Revolution. He died for us, and for Russia to be stronger.”

Framed like this, the spiritual superiority of the Russian people, tirelessly invoked as a counterweight to the “godless and corrupt” liberal West, reeks of obscurantism stoked to support the imperial revival. The religious renaissance of the 1990s has been hijacked in the service of swapping one authoritarian ideology for another. Out went the relics of communism, with its mass demonstrations and portraits of Lenin; in came the relics of the Orthodox Church, with its miracles and icons. In the new lyrics of the national anthem, still sung to the old Soviet tune, “The unbreakable union of free republics” becomes “Russia, our sacred dominion.” President Putin, who once served in the KGB, the Soviet organization tasked with surveillance of churches and religious leaders, stands next to the Patriarch for Christmas and Easter services, as the tsars of old did.

Nationalism rooted in religious concepts is not new for Russia. Nearly two centuries ago, Nicolas I responded to the European revolutions with a domestic triad of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” That reactionary ideology helped to make tsarist Russia “the prison house of nations,” as the Russian empire was known. Nicholas’s conservative mantra was the state’s official ideology until 1917, when the February Revolution dispensed with it, along with the autocracy. After the October Revolution, the nations of the former empire gained, at least in theory, the right to self-determination. Not surprisingly, every nation wanted to separate from the old dominion. In that brief window of opportunity during the Revolution’s early days and before communism restored Moscow’s iron rule, a few of the former imperial provinces—Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states—succeeded in gaining independence.

In the twenty-first century, Vladimir Putin has singled out Lenin’s original policy of granting nations self-determination as “an atomic bomb” planted under the USSR. Adopting a new patriotism that extols Russia’s “unique path,” Putin often echoes the ideas of Alexander Dugin, the notorious leader of the so-called Eurasian movement, which sees Russia as the head of a great empire founded on ultra-conservative values and Orthodox Christianity.

But world history cannot be changed by fiat. Whether Putin likes it or not, November 7, the day of Lenin’s revolution, will remain a major day in history marking a moment when the world was made anew. That moment expressed the hope of bringing justice and freedom to “the hungry and the slaves,” and challenging “the power of capital.” It also brought about totalitarianism, wars, campaigns of terror, prisons, famines, gulags. And it ultimately led to the cold war, casting a long shadow of potential nuclear annihilation.

Without confronting this tragic legacy, Russians can neither understand their revolutionary past, nor meaningfully commemorate it. The great sweeping of Russian history under the rug, this replacing of one set of lies with another, cannot work. It is only a matter of time before things blow up again.  

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