The ambivalent Russian soul

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Vladimir Ilich Lenin

A century was not enough for Russia to absorb not only the effects, but the reasons for the 1917 Revolution. Both Russian society and government still lack a consensus on whether it was one of the greatest tragedies, or an idealistic and utopian leap forward that made Russia one of the two great superpowers of the 20th century. In the absence of a clear interpretation of what happened in 1917, today’s Kremlin is quietly avoiding the subject.

There were no keynote speeches by President Vladimir Putin and no official celebrations in Russian cities. The Russian Communist Party organized a series of low-key symbolic events in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Many leading Russian museums hosted exhibitions, trying to give an aesthetic interpretation of revolutionary events, but little has been done to formulate a strong message about what these events mean today. The official holiday celebrated on November 4th, commemorates the 1612 uprising against the Polish invasion, a celebration invented by the Kremlin in 2005 precisely to shift public attention away from the still controversial Revolution.

Today’s Russia lives in a permanent state of schizophrenia – or at least profound irrationality. Monuments to both victims of mass Soviet purges as well as to their main vehicle, Joseph Stalin, are installed across the country. Some slices of Russian society see Tzar Nicholas II (the last Russian monarch) as a cult figure, organizing religious processions with icons. bearing his image. Some see Stalin as a sacred leader of Russia, using icons to depict him as well. Russians  line up to buy new phones designed in America and then stand in lines for hours to kiss a sacred Orthodox relic. The embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the revolution’s leader, is still lying in a mausoleum in the middle of the Red Square, the country’s most iconic public space.

The Kremlin is observing these developments from above, unwilling to wholeheartedly back or oppose any of them. For Putin, the main task is to make sure no mainstream alternative is formed that can counter his personal rule or the wealth and power of his inner circle. The state of ideological and mental disarray is beneficial to him, as it makes the wider public indifferent to politics. The average Russian does not give importance to politics today as it appears too confusing and detached from reality.

This situation is different from Russian political life before 1917 when there were several strong political parties with clear platforms and wide public support. They represented various groups of Russian society – intelligentsia, nobility, working classes and peasants. Still, it ended up in a revolution because the supreme government was too rigid, unskillful and arrogant. Today’s Kremlin is also inflexible and it is unclear how it hopes to avoid a similar outcome.

In terms of historical interpretations, the Kremlin aims to derive its legitimacy from Russia’s thousand-year history, with all its controversies and strife. Symbols that emerged as opposing each other – for instance the Red Army and the White Guard – are mixed together in one cocktail and accepted as “our common past”. The Kremlin hopes for a certain synthesis, a reconciliation between various opposing sides, to take place.

It is unclear, however, what will be the ideology that will unite all Russians. So far, the Kremlin offers only a very abstract sense of patriotism and national glory. Soviet victory in the Second World War against the Germans is seen as the main national feat and reason for celebration. Russia itself is regarded as a bulwark of traditional and true values that is opposed to Western perversity. The fact that the country’’s ongoing fight against the West is largely financed by Europe’s insatiable demand for Siberian oil and gas is deliberately overlooked.

Today’s Russia is a market economy and the country’s elite is clearly enjoying the lifestyle of upper-class European bourgeoisie – in some cases, of the super-rich – in a country where the average monthly salary is 636 dollars. There is an entrenched elite on the top, with many of its representatives genuinely believing that they are “the new nobility” that rescued Russia from disintegration at the end of 1990s. The state-run propaganda machine is working hard at making sure this message is firmly entrenched among the Russian people.

In this framework, history ended for the Kremlin the minute Putin arrived. Russia’s past is a mixture of contradictions, but today’s Russia has found a balance and will gradually develop without any upheavals, at least according to Kremlin ideologists. Putin is firmly against any revolutions, especially in Russia’s vicinity and believes they were instigated from abroad. Many still believe that the 1917 Revolution was also a German plot to kick Russia out of the war (World War I, in which it could have tilted the balance together with US intervention).

The truth is, however, that widespread injustice, corruption and rigidity are what turned Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and many others into radical revolutionaries. In Marxism, they saw a quick, easy and inevitable solution to these issues. For Lenin, resolving them justified the most extreme means, including violence. Therefore, today it is more important to look at what led to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and see how the country can avoid the same fate in the future. It is clear, however, that this process will force the Russian elite to see many striking similarities with the current state of Russian society, which does not really want to look into the mirror.  

Technically, today’s Russia was built in the early 1990s in the denial of the October Revolution and communism. The country embraced everything Western at the time, but this period did not last long. Torn by internal strife and painful economic transition, Russian society saluted Putin’s arrival to the Kremlin, which brought stability and order, but also installed a very reactionary and inflexible system that suppresses internal conflicts, instead of resolving them. One day, they could explode all at once, just as they did in 1917, which may finally turn this day into a true celebration of the Russian Revolution.