The centennial of the Russian revolutionary events of 1917 is presenting the Kremlin with a difficult dilemma. Vladimir Putin’s regime simply cannot ignore one of key points of Russian history, and yet it seems to be struggling to fit the story of 1917’s political upheaval into its preferred historical narrative, which puts a premium on stability.
One saying goes that revolutions are started by politicians, but it is historians who end them. Myths often shroud revolutions, and it is left to historians to peel away the layers of fable to expose facts that can disturb long-held assumptions. This was the case with the French Revolution: Francois Furet, an outstanding 20th-century French historian, challenged revolutionary myths in a series of highly influential books, and famously liked to proclaim that “the French Revolution is over.” It also holds true for the American Revolution. The understanding of the American rebellion against King George III has undergone a vast shift in the past 50 years, thanks to historians like Bernard Bailyn, who famously recast the revolution not only as a war for home rule, but also one over who should rule at home.
In present-day Russia, however, historians are not in the lead when it comes to interpreting the past. It is Russia’s political and security elite that is in charge of elaborating a “correct” interpretation of history.
According to Russian media reports, Putin’s Kremlin considers the question of how the 1917 centennial is observed to be a matter of national security. Late last year, media outlets reported that experts on the scientific committee at Russia’s Security Council discussed the centennial, and determined that the government needed to take steps to control the narratives, driven by a belief that outside forces were intent on intentionally distorting the revolutionary era, as well as other important periods of Russian history. The committee reportedly concluded that historical memory becomes an object of “deliberate destructive actions on the part of foreign government agencies and international organizations which seek to pursue their geopolitical interests through conducting the anti-Russian policy.”
Besides the Russian revolutions of 1917, the Security Council’s experts identified several other significant historical themes as vulnerable to falsification and in need of protection. These are the nationalities policy of the Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union; the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany; the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; and the Soviet reaction to the political crises in the GDR, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other former East bloc countries.
It is eminently telling that the Russian General Staff drafted the key presentation at the Security Council’s session on the national security implications of the manipulation of history. Remarkably, speaking in late January at the first meeting of the Jubilee Committee for the preparation of the 100th anniversary of the Great Russian Revolution, Vitaly Tretyakov, a conservative political commentator, bluntly suggested that Russia’s national interests would be better served if historians were sidelined in the process of appraising the sociopolitical outcomes of 1917. It would be “unwise and unfair,” he contended, to give historians a free hand in shaping public attitudes towards the revolution. Tretyakov cited two reasons to support his argument: “First, for the most part today, as always, historians are ideologically biased. … And second, they are not political thinkers.”
Whatever the shortcomings of professional historians, Russian authorities appear to be at a particular loss when it comes to marking the centennial of the Bolshevik Coup in November 1917 (October under the old style). Prior to that event’s 90th anniversary, the Kremlin opted for a seemingly “simple” solution: in 2004, it swapped an old revolutionary holiday on November 7 for a newly invented nationalist one on November 4 – National Unity Day, which commemorated the expulsion of Polish occupation forces from Moscow in 1612.
Curiously, this decision coincided with the publication of a book, titled Sociosophy of Revolution, by Igor P. Smirnov, a Russian literary scholar based in Germany. In his study, Smirnov offered a highly unorthodox interpretation of False Dmitry’s reign and the Time of Troubles, contending that it was Russia’s first revolution. It is unlikely that the Smirnov study had any impact on the Kremlin’s politics of memory, but the routing of the Poles, and the establishment of an autocracy in the form of the Romanov dynasty’s 300-year rule obviously seemed like a good thing to celebrate.
However, the new holiday idea proved to be highly unpopular, and the Kremlin, unnerved by “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, shifted its approach in a clear attempt to bring subversive revolutionary ideology into public disfavor. On February 27, 2007, the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Reflections on the February Revolution. For Solzhenitsyn, a conservative-monarchist, February 1917 was nothing more than a ruinous prelude to the catastrophic October. So his essay (originally penned in the early 1980s) unambiguously cursed the entire revolutionary period and mourned the loss of stability, sovereignty and the statehood of “historic Russia.”
Ten years on, political upheavals in the world, including Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising, seem to indicate that the specter of revolution cannot be ignored. At the same time, Russian leaders do not have a clear message to convey. A sign of this confusion is a recent article written by Sergei Mironov, a Putin ally in the State Duma.
Mironov’s essay, titled February – a Harbinger of October and published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, seems to demonstrate the Kremlin’s growing “poverty of philosophy.” It is a disjointed assembly of contradictory theses. Mironov acknowledges the February Revolution’s positive achievements, including the establishment of a republican form of government and the recognition of political rights. But he also bemoans the downfall of tsarism, claiming the February Revolution caused the erosion of traditional Russian values. “Power lost its sacredness” in 1917, he also laments. He goes on to add, referring to the chaos that accompanied the Soviet collapse, that “the same devastating effect of the spiritual and ideological crisis we observed in the 1990s.”
The chief lesson Mironov draws in his analysis of 1917 is that Russia requires a strong hand at the helm of state. “Russia is not a country that can afford to have a weak power, led by such a weak-willed ruler like Nicholas II,” he wrote. “It is a great boon for all of us that in the current difficult times the country is ruled by such a strong personality as President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin.”
Mironov’s conclusion fails to take into account an important fact: as 1917 (and 1991) showed, autocratic regimes may be outwardly strong, but can be inwardly brittle, and can therefore collapse with startling speed. Autocracy tends not to supply enough glue to keep the social fabric together during times of economic and political stress. “Rus’ has faded away within two days. At most, within three,” the Russian writer Vasily Rozanov incredulously noted in 1917.
The divergence between the image of the Russian Empire’s greatness and its ingloriously swift demise should raise uncomfortable questions for those who support a new form of autocracy in Russia. The history of the 20th century shows that autocracies and authoritarianism can be more brittle and more susceptible to sudden breaks than other systems that allow for broader public participation.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.