Remembering 1917? The centenary of the Russian Revolution


November 7th 2017 marks 100 years since the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (St Petersburg), ushering in nearly 75 years of communist rule, the establishment of the world’s first communist state and ultimately, the creation of the USSR in 1922. The October Revolution was the second revolution the country had experienced in 1917, following the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in February, and triggered a five-year civil war, the beginning of the Red Terror, as well as Russia’s withdrawal from WW1 and the subsequent ceding of territory to Germany. During the Soviet era, the anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ was marked by a two-day national holiday, with large public demonstrations and military parades across the country. These extensive commemorations ceased with the dissolution of the USSR and November 7th became the Day of Accord and Conciliation, replaced in 2005 with a new national holiday, National Unity Day, celebrated on November 4th to mark an uprising in 1612 against the Polish occupation of Moscow.

There is little national unity over how to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. For contemporary Russia, the centenary of the October Revolution is a contentious issue and has divided popular opinion, raising questions as to whether the event should be commemorated and if so, how. Russians continue to be divided in their assessment of 1917 and the Soviet legacy. A Levada Centre survey in March 2017 revealed that 48 per cent of Russians viewed the October Revolution as a positive event, compared to 31 per cent who saw it as a negative event and 21 per cent who had no firm opinion. Whilst there is recognition that November 7th is a very significant date in the country’s history, there is no consensus about how to mark it, reflecting ongoing struggles about how to define the country’s post-Soviet identity and unease with its past. The Russian Federation spent a considerable amount of time during the 1990s trying to erase memories of its Soviet past, changing the names of cities (for example, Leningrad to St Petersburg, Gorky to Nizhny Novgorod) and removing statues of communist movement leaders such as Lenin – some have questioned why the country would want to mark an event that brought the Soviet state into existence and is considered by many to be a national tragedy.

Attitudes to the events of 1917 have been shifting over the past two decades and opinions are divided. In October 1990, 67 per cent of Russians identified Lenin as the Revolution-era figure they liked the most, compared with only 26 per cent in March 2017.  Assessments of Stalin and Nicholas II have also shifted markedly: in October 1990 only 8 per cent had a positive view of Stalin, compared with 24 per cent in 2017, while Tsar Nicholas II was liked by only 4 per cent in 1990 and 16 per cent in 2017. Support for Nicholas II has been rising steadily over recent years. He and his family were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 and earlier this year thousands of pilgrims marked the anniversary of their execution with a 13-mile walk to the spot where they were killed near Ekaterinburg. This resurgence in admiration for the last tsar has been highlighted further by the controversy sparked by a newly released film about his premarital affair with a ballet dancer. The director of Matilda faced violent threats and cinemas in several Russian cities refused to screen the film because of safety fears, following protests by Orthodox activists who describe the film as blasphemous.

Reflecting this public uncertainty and division, the Russian authorities have taken a very cautious approach towards the commemoration of the centenary. The official line is that while the historical lessons of 1917 must be learnt, revolution is not the best way to foster stability and national unity. Putin has recently argued for evolution, not revolution, which he believes is ‘always the result of an accountability deficit’:

As we turn to the lessons of a century ago, namely, the Russian Revolution of 1917, we see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are intertwined. Let us ask ourselves: was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives.

The Russian leadership is deeply troubled by revolutions and any challenge to regime stability, and is therefore keen to avoid any suggestion that it is glorifying regime change by commemorating the events of 1917. The threat posed to Russia from ‘coloured revolutions’, perceived to be sponsored by external forces, is an enduring theme in Russian security discourse, most recently in the writings of the Russian CGS, General Valery Gerasimov. The creation of a Russian ‘National Guard’ last year to combat subversive activity reflects regime concerns about the need to maintain stability and order. English-language Russian media have used the centenary as an opportunity to counter Western narratives about the potential for instability in Russia, running articles with titles such as ‘Why there will be no revolution in Russia’ and ‘A hundred years on, the age of revolution is over’. Publicly commemorating the overthrow of not one, but two, regimes in 1917 is deeply problematic for a state that is so focused on maintaining the impression of stability and continuity.

Image: The Bolshevik, oil on canvas, 1920, by Boris Kustodiev (The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), via Wikimedia.

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