History can seem a splendid weapon—until it bites back, as the Kremlin is now experiencing in the centenary year of Russia’s 1917 revolutions.
of the change between old and new calendars, the February revolution
actually began on what we now call 7 March, while the October
revolution took place in modern November.
But the historiographical difficulties dwarf the chronological ones. 1917 is clearly important; Russia’s education minister, Vladimir Mendinsky, called it the most important historical event since the resurrection of Christ. A great parade is planned. But what exactly is modern Russia commemorating?
Is it the downfall of the Romanov dynasty? An end to the bloodbath of the First World War? The brief six-month experiment in political freedom under Alexander Kerensky? Or the triumph of the ruthless and unscrupulous Lenin and Trotsky, and the seven decades of communist rule that followed?
Each of these is problematic. If you rejoice over the downfall of the Romanovs, you are also implicitly acknowledging that their recipe of autocracy, nationalism and orthodoxy was a dead-end. It hampered Russia from becoming a modern, industrialized country with a strong middle class and independent institutions. That would sound all too familiar to many latter-day Russians chafing under the stagnant and heavy-handed Putin regime.
Kerensky is problematic too. He and his reformist colleagues can be criticized for ineffectiveness, or dismissed as mere palace putschists. But if you criticize their ideas, you are implicitly supporting their rivals.
The Bolsheviks are particularly hard to praise. Outsiders might focus on their bloodthirstiness. But for the people running Russia it’s everything else. Their economic thinking was disastrous, and also highly egalitarian and puritanical—tricky in a country run by the ultra-rich who are notorious for their sybaritic lifestyle. The communists persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church (now the Putin regime’s ideological bastion). They also believed in giving language rights to ethnic minorities (highly subversive from a modern Russian viewpoint).
One answer would be to approach 1917 in a neutral frame of mind, as a historical upheaval that deserves study and reflection, rather than lashings of glory or guilt. That is the way most European countries regard their long-ago traumatic events: the Reformation, for example. The point is not to work out who was right, but to try to understand what happened and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.
If the Kremlin’s historocrats try that, they will create another series of problems. If you treat 1917 as a subject of neutral study, then why not the Great Terror, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the creation of the Soviet empire after 1945, or the failure to de-Stalinize after the dictator died?
The answers to those questions run, inconveniently, right up to the Kremlin’s door. They might even be followed by questions about the links between the Soviet KGB and the modern Russian security services, about what happened to the Communist Party’s slush funds after 1991, and who staged the apartment-block bombings of 1999 which so conveniently terrified the Russian population and helped the previously unknown Putin become the country’s most popular politician within months.
Perhaps the easiest answer will be to blame the whole thing on foreigners. That is the line taken in a recent piece in Komsomolskaya pravda, which argues that Lenin, Trotsky and the others were mere tools of mischievous and meddlesome foreign (German and British) spymasters. That lacks logic, but it does chime with the general approach of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, portraying Russia as a fortress besieged by malicious and mendacious enemies. Meanwhile, on 7 March, I’ll be raising a glass to brave, doomed Kerensky.