Today marks the centennial of the start of upheaval in Petrograd – events now known to history as the February Revolution – which forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate and paved the way for an experiment in Communism that lasted over 74 years.
Russia’s present-day leader, Vladimir Putin, would love nothing more than to be seen as the heir to the power and glory of the halcyon days of the Romanov dynasty that was toppled back in 1917. Yet, the system that Putin presides over, in its shape and form, is more of an outgrowth of Soviet Communism than a link to Russia’s tsarist tradition.
This dichotomy is the primary reason why Kremlin ideologues find themselves in an awkward position these days: in the historian Mark Edele’s words, the tumultuous events of 1917 “can neither be fully embraced, nor fully disowned” by today’s Kremlin.
Putin clearly has a love-hate relationship with Bolshevism. On the one hand, he has stated that he is no great fan of Lenin and his followers. He has described the Bolsheviks as traitors who sabotaged Russia’s war effort in World War I – something that ultimately led to Russia’s “losing to the losing side.” He has likewise heaped scorn on their domestic and economic policies, and characterized Lenin’s nationalities policy as a time bomb that detonated in 1991, causing the Soviet Union’s collapse.
At the same time, Putin has remarked that he “very much liked, and still likes communist and socialist ideas.” Moreover, Putin is proud of his membership in the Communist Party, as well as his 20 year service in the KGB – an agency that was, he once said, seemingly with pride, “the successor organization to the Cheka” and widely known as “the Party’s armed unit.”
The contradictory views held by Putin are not just the result of cognitive dissonance. The Kremlin’s ambivalence about the revolutions of 1917 stems from ambiguity relating to Russia’s post-Soviet identity.
In terms of cultural identification, Putin’s Russia yearns to reconnect to the lost world of the Romanov dynasty. The Russian Orthodox Church has canonized Nicholas II, and Putin now stages pomp-and-circumstance rituals that clearly strive to evoke a sense of tsarist-era grandeur. But there is no escaping the fact that in purely legal terms, the present-day Russian Federation is a direct successor of the Soviet regime. The reality is that the Bolshevik decree of November 22, 1917, abolishing all laws of the Russian Empire, retains its validity. That decree erased centuries of tradition from Russia’s legal memory.
The way post-Soviet Russia handled the issue of property rights underscores the strength of the Soviet legacy. Russia’s economic relations today rest upon the decision made following the Soviet collapse in 1991 to recognize the legality of Soviet notions of property, i.e. that land, structures and enterprises belonged to the state, not individuals. It was then easy for all such “state” property to be privatized, as if it had previously never belonged to anyone. The privatization that occurred in the 1990s, then, ignored the rights of tsarist-era owners who had seen their property arbitrarily expropriated by the Bolsheviks.
The decision to not offer redress for the Bolsheviks’ “nationalization” of property continues to have adverse ramifications today in that it abets an atmosphere of lawlessness and insecurity when it comes to property rights. A dynamic economy cannot be constructed unless property rights are secure and uniformly applied.
Notwithstanding the Putin administration’s occasional criticism of past totalitarian practices, the Communist era of Russian history has yet to receive a comprehensive moral and historical assessment. The Communist regime’s many crimes have never been repudiated and condemned, and, as a result, no acts of national atonement have occurred. One could even argue that the process of the Russian nation’s moral revival has not yet begun.
Such a perspective was held by Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of the leading “architects” of perestroika, the reform drive in the late 1980s that aimed to make Soviet-style Communism more efficient, but which ultimately sowed the seeds of the system’s demise. Not long before his death in 2005, Yakovlev was interviewed by Jonathan Brent, who at that time was the editorial director of Yale University Press and founder of the “Annals of Communism” series.
“In conversation,” Brent wrote in his 2008 book Inside the Stalin Archives, “Yakovlev always returned to the fact that Russia was never fully de-Sovietized. There was no Nuremberg trial, no general accounting, no public reconciliation between victims and victimizers, no restoration of property, or adequate compensation to the many millions whose lives were permanently damaged or destroyed by [Lenin’s and] Stalin’s ‘utopia.’”
“Instead the country drifted… into indifference and forgetfulness, hardly knowing whether it wanted freedom or not – hardly remembering freedom at all,” Brent added.
The Russian leadership’s ambiguous stance toward the revolutions of 1917 is also a byproduct of its inability to formulate an inspiring vision for the future. What is present-day Russia’s social ideal? Where is it heading? Some segments of the Russian political elite style themselves as supporters of conservative ideas. But conservatism presupposes respect for institutions. Others say they are the champions of a political system that is led by the wise and strong “national leader.” But an ideology built upon a charismatic leader demands a grand vision.
Ultimately, post-Soviet Russia is not a country that holds institutions in high esteem; nor is it the home of big ideas. Incapable of generating a compelling vision for Russia’s future, the country’s leadership is mainly concerned simply with perpetuating its own power.
As a result, Russian claims to Great Power status, as well as the Kremlin’s domestic emphasis on centralized authority and the preservation of stability above all else, are built upon an eclectic historical foundation, developed from a mish-mash of the Soviet and tsarist past.
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm, Sweden.