100yrs since Red October, Westerners are more into revolutionary nostalgia than Russians

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
100yrs since Red October, Westerners are more into revolutionary nostalgia than Russians
Westerners and Russians have different emotional responses to many elements of Russia’s past, present and future. Probably because most Russians see their homeland as a constantly evolving place and Westerners view it through stereotypes.

The first time I ever visited Russia, it was at the start of winter. No direct flights from Dublin meant a stop in Riga, where I bought a “furry hat” in anticipation of the cold. Stupidly, in my naivety, I thought an example with a hammer and sickle badge on the front would be just the ticket. But the next morning, upon arrival in Moscow, I was immediately advised to remove it, “because you look like an idiot.”

Looking back, aside from the questionable taste in apparel, I cringe at how mutton-headed the move was. But it was an early introduction to a massive paradox, which I didn’t truly grasp for many years. Because it’s very hard to square how Russian street-names and monuments remain mostly Soviet in origin, while locals are so ambivalent and often hostile towards the legacy of the former USSR.

For instance, every Russian city I have visited has either had a Lenin Street, a Lenin Square or a Lenin statue. Most had all three. While most Russians bridle at mention of his name, Stalin isn’t entirely forgotten either, with Sochi visitor booklets pushing his old summer house as a tourist attraction, complete with guided tours.

This Tuesday sees the 100th anniversary of the 1917 “October Revolution” (Russians were on the Julian calendar then). A period where an armed insurrection in St Petersburg (then Petrograd) saw Lenin’s Bolshevik movement overthrow the moderate “provisional government," which had itself replaced Tsar Nicholas II's regime only eight months earlier.

The new USSR installed its own elite, as members of the almost exclusively Orthodox Christian, Tsarist upper class were either executed (as befell Nicholas and his immediate family) or escaped into exile like Alexander Kerensky. Instead, Lenin’s new “Council of People’s Commissars” was multi-ethnic and drawn from across social classes and genders. As a result, Russians such as Vladimir Milyutin served alongside Ukrainians (Pavel Dybenko), Jews (Leon Trotsky) and Georgians (Josef Stalin). Meanwhile, Alexandra Kollontai was a female representative, token or otherwise, at a time when women couldn’t even vote in much of the west.

However, being a member of Lenin’s first government was a perilous business. Because of the 16 original cabinet picks, nine were executed by Stalin and another died in prison. 

Remembering Chaos

And here we have two key reasons why modern Russians aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to commemorate the revolution: the bloodshed it launched and the fact it diminished Russian identity. Despite the western tendency to make the USSR synonymous with Russia, and cast the other republics as victims. A narrative which further ignores how Russians also suffered at the hands of Lenin and Stalin.

And the numbers are staggering. The Russian Civil War - which followed “Red October” - was the most destructive internal conflict in history, with around the deaths of 1.5 million soldiers and some 8 million civilians the result. But, amazingly, the Bolsheviks were only getting started, with either policy failures or forced genocide, or both, creating a disastrous famine that wiped out around 7 million people, most of them in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, in the early 1930s. This followed the similar Povolzhye famine (1921-22), which had seen in the region of 5 million, almost all Russians, starve to death.

Later, in the middle of the 1930s, Stalin launched the Great Purge, in which hundreds of thousands were executed. And we can’t forget the Gulags, where around a million perished from 1934 to 1953. And this doesn’t include the many lives ruined by forced imprisonment in the camps.

Under normal circumstances, Russians would probably have nothing but contempt for the revolution’s legacy. Yet, the country also boasted some huge achievements. The USSR often led the way in women’s rights and quickly became an industrial giant and military and economic superpower. It also created the satellite (Sputnik) and launched the first human being into space. But, more importantly to Russians, the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, a moment many regard as their motherland’s finest hour, given that the Red Army was overwhelmingly drawn from Russia.

Making Sense

And this is the grand emotional bargain Russians have to make as they try to square the circle of a tremendous contradiction. The USSR’s superpower status yielded a sense of pride and the victory over Germany was an accomplishment with existential meaning. Yet, freedoms were restricted, families often ruined, religious belief and individuality crushed and much of Russia’s human capital devastated.

Thus, most Russians are essentially shrugging their shoulders at the anniversary. Even if President Vladimir Putin pointedly chose last week to unveil a memorial commemorating Stalin’s victims and denouncing his repressions.

Of course, Russian hesitancy contrasts with the reaction abroad. Pretty much every western media outlet is covering the landmark and many cultural and academic institutions have staged retrospectives and exhibitions. For example, the British Library spent a large portion of the year promoting its “Hope, Tragedy, Myths” offering.

Ultimately, the October Revolution was a tremendous catastrophe that resulted in the split of a nation, a bloody civil war, mass murder, millions forced into exile and the destruction of much of Russia’s creative and scientific establishment.  However, many Westerners, who benefit from freedoms denied to Soviet citizens, naively romanticize the revolution, seeing it as being about kicking the rich and helping the poor. But the truth is much more complicated.

I am going to leave the last words to a Russian colleague. Because he grew up with the legacy of an event too often given utopian status in the West, while I was raised in a private house, which the Bolsheviks would have confiscated in a heartbeat.

A few weeks ago, I asked him about his feelings toward the revolution and he replied: “One of my great- grandfathers (all Siberian Old Believers and peasants) was executed by an NKVD troika on the suburbs of a Siberian city. And his body was thrown into a mass grave, while the other three were sent to prison for up to 10 years. This was just because they did not like how the area was governed by the new administration who imposed mad taxes and robbed them of their livestock. That’s why I will cry, rather than celebrate, this Tuesday.” And, from what I can see, most of his compatriots feel the same.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.