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Russian army officers take the oath of allegiance to the Revolution, 1917. Everett Historical/shutterstock

Friday essay: Putin, memory wars and the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution

One hundred years ago, the Romanov dynasty fell in the February Revolution of 1917. This centenary haunts Russia’s current government. “In the Kremlin,” wrote journalist Ben Judah in his important analysis of Vladimir Putin’s “Fragile Empire”, “they have nightmares about Nicholas II”.

In the middle of a terrible war with Germany, a revolutionary crisis had started in late February (according to the Julian calendar then in force in Russia). The Tsar, under pressure from the street, the parliamentary opposition, his own ministers, and the army command, abdicated on 2 March. A Provisional Government of liberals and moderate socialists took over the affairs of state and the war effort.

A stamp depicting Nicholas II, circa 1913. Shutterstock

Eventually, the revolution radicalized in the Red October. Historians continue to debate if this uprising of the Bolshevik party was a “revolution” or a “coup.” The former interpretation stresses the fact that Lenin’s party had significant support among the working class, in particular among workers and soldiers of the capital, Petrograd (today St Petersburg).

The takeover of power was relatively unbloody, with only few victims initially. And Bolshevik slogans (land to the peasants, peace to the soldiers, and political power to the working class), were popular far beyond the immediate constituency of the party. At the same time, the Bolsheviks had little support among the peasantry, still the overwhelming majority of the population. The uprising was not spontaneous like its February equivalent, but planned by a small group of conspirators around Lenin. And once in power, the Bolsheviks built a one-party dictatorship, which quickly alienated even many of its initial followers. Lenin’s government had to fight armed resistance in what soon escalated into a complex but devastating civil war.

Postage stamp marking the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. shutterstock

Together, the two revolutions of 1917 led to military defeat, the destruction of the state, and disintegration of the empire. Many non-Russian regions broke away, often forming precursors to nation states which would only come into their own after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nicholas II would not survive the incredibly brutal civil and international wars of succession that followed in 1918-22: the Bolsheviks executed him together with his family in 1918.

These high-profile executions were only the most prominent examples of the “Red Terror” Lenin unleashed to frighten his many enemies into submission. Members of the former upper classes, clergy, nationalists fighting for the independence of non-Russian successor states, and real or presumed defenders of the old regime (“Whites”) were singled out for imprisonment or execution.

In the end, by 1922, the Bolsheviks had won this many sided war, presiding over an exhausted and mutilated country set back for decades by the destruction of war, revolution, and civil war. Eventually, under the brutal leadership of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union would win the Second World War in Europe and establish itself as one of the two Superpowers to rule the world during the Cold War.

Putin’s dilemma

Putin’s government faces a dilemma regarding this past. The Revolution can neither be fully embraced nor fully disowned. Revolutions are anathema to Putin, who does not want to be swept away by a successful uprising similar to the Ukrainian Euromaidan in 2013-14. At the same time, Russia both legally and ideologically claims to be the successor state to the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union’s founding event happens to be a revolution. The centenary cannot be simply ignored.

History, in Putin’s Russia, is not a mere academic pursuit. It is part of what La Trobe political scientist Robert Horvath calls “preventive counter revolution”: an attempt to nip in the bud any potential for a popular uprising. The past which Putin and his Minister of Culture, the maverick historian Vladimir Medinsky, most frequently deploy to this end is the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky inspecting a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, last September. Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters

As I argue in an article forthcoming in the journal History & Memory, their self-confident, patriotic rendering of the Soviet Second World War serves as ideological glue attaching the population to the government.

Could one do the same with the Revolution: write it into a positive history of contemporary Russia? It would be possible to embrace the February revolution as a legitimate, potentially democratic uprising, which also freed the nations of the empire from imperial control: a decolonizing as well as democratizing event. The Bolshevik revolution could then become an illegitimate coup bringing a criminal regime to power, which re-erected by force of arms the old empire under a new guise.

Such a narrative de-legitimizes much of the Soviet period, while celebrating the breakdown of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states in 1991 as the historical fulfillment of the promises of February 1917.

Such a version of the past finds few enthusiasts in today’s Russia. As historian Geoffrey Hosking has written, most formerly Soviet peoples experienced 1991

as national liberation. For Russians, however, who had lived in all republics and thought of the Soviet Union as ‘their’ country, it was deprivation.

This perception “still rankles today” and “underlies the current Ukrainian crisis.”


Nostalgia for the good old Soviet times is better served by a different version of this past: the February revolution as treason. In such an alternative narrative, liberals and other elites were stabbing the legitimate government in the back at times of war. Imperial breakdown and defeat in war followed.

The Bolshevik revolution, then, was the start of a re-building of the state and the re-gathering of the empire. According to this way of telling the story, the Bolsheviks were state builders who fixed what others had broken. The Soviet Union was the legitimate successor of the Romanov empire and the 1991 breakdown a geopolitical catastrophe, another setback for “Russian statehood”.

Bolshevik parade in St. Petersberg, 1917. Everett Historical

This second narrative implies a neo-imperialist stance guaranteed to alienate Ukrainians or Latvians, or any other non-Russian successor nations to the Soviet Union. It will also prove unpopular with a significant minority of Russians at home and abroad: monarchists and those who embrace the anti-Bolshevik “White” movement as their historical ancestry. Hence, the government performs something of a fudging act: “reconciliation”.

“Reconciliation” implies that the warring sides in revolution and civil war can be remembered as parts of a positive history of the fatherland. This move requires reducing the revolutionary process to a “Russian” event.

Russian Revolution poster, 1918-20: ‘The Russians say, Above Moscow is the Kremlin, and above the Kremlin are only the Stars.’ Everett Historical/shutterstock

Rather than multi-national wars of succession to the Romanov empire, what happened in the period 1917-1922 becomes a struggle between “White” and “Red” Russians. Ukrainian, Polish, Baltic, or Central Asian actors are either ignored, assigned to the one or the other side in this conflict, or declared pawns of foreign interventionists. Popular resistance to both Whites and Reds by Russian rebels in peasantry, army, and working class is waved away as an inconvenient complication.

Attempting to construct such a narrative has kept Putin’s history warrior Medinsky busy. In 2013, he stated that it was “meaningless” to decide which party of the civil war was “right” or who was “guilty.”

A Russian monarchist displaying a portrait of Nicholas II. Dima Korotayev/Reuters

Instead, one needed to understand that both Reds and Whites “loved Russia.” Both sides had their own truth and were ready to die for it. “We have to approach this with respect,” he added. Monuments to Whites had the same legitimacy as monuments to Reds. They were both needed.

In 2015 Medinsky built on this beginning in a lecture to students of the elite Moscow State Institute for International Relations. We have two versions of what he said, both distributed through semi-official websites. Different in some details, they both make an attempt to come to terms with this revolution by taking a philosophical view of events.

Both Reds and Whites, Medinsky stated, were subjects of the same historical moment of catastrophic breakdown of “Russian statehood in the Romanov version” which led to a time of “troubles” . He lined up the Whites with the February revolution on the one end and liberal post-1991 Russia on the other – a breathtaking simplification, but a useful one, as we shall see.

The historical role of the Reds is central in Medinsky’s account. Independent of their own radical socialist motivations, they ended up re-building Russian statehood (and implicitly, the Russian empire). It was “the logic of history” which worked through the Bolsheviks, and led to the re-creation of “the united Russian state, which they started to call USSR.”

Women (and men) of the Red Army. rosaluxemburg/flickr

Thus, the real victor of the revolutionary upheavals was

a third force, which did not participate in the civil war: historical Russia, the same Russia which existed for a thousand years before the revolution and which will continue to exist in the future.

So far, so sophisticated: By declaring “Russia” the real subject of history and the human beings who fought over it the mere executors of a higher will they did not know themselves, Medinsky seems to have found a way out of the polarizing interpretations of the revolution.

Upon closer inspection, however, his is just a well-camouflaged version of the second interpretation outlined above: February as destruction, October as re-creation, the Bolsheviks the virtuous state builders implicitly linked to the current government. Medinsky’s fusion of the Whites with post-1991 liberalism is instructive. While the Bolsheviks re-built the Russian state in 1918-22, the liberals triggered, in 1991, the “destruction of the united historical-cultural and economic space… the breakdown of the Soviet Union.”

It appears to be this negative assessment of the Whites that has kept Vladimir Putin from fully embracing his Minister of Culture’s historical scheme. The President accepted reconciliation but rejected Medinsky’s supporting interpretation of events.

A divisive event for Russians

Putin’s reluctance could be seen as careful tactics in a historiographical minefield. The history of the revolution is much more divisive among Russians than the history of World War II.

As University of Sydney historian Sheila Fitzpatrick points out in a forthcoming essay, the “real problem” of the centenary for Putin’s government is the lack of consensus about the meaning of this event among the population of Russia.

Despite all its authoritarianism, the Putin regime is very alert to popular opinion, and given the divisiveness of the memory of 1917-22, the best possible solution is to fudge the issue. In his annual speech to Parliament on 1 December 2016, the President refused to take sides, asking his compatriots to let sleeping dogs lie. The “lessons of history” were needed:

first of all for reconciliation, for the strengthening of the social, political, and civil harmony we have achieved today. It is not permissible to drag the schisms, malice, insults and bitterness of the past into our contemporary life, to speculate on the tragedies which have engulfed practically every family in Russia, in order to advance one’s own political or other interests. It does not matter on what side of the barricades our ancestors found themselves. Let us remember: we are a united people, we are one people, and we have only one Russia.

Vladimir Putin at his end of year press conference last December: an independent actor in a complex political game. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Putin’s position on the revolution, however, might be rooted in more than just tactics. During a meeting of the All-Russian People’s Front (an organization uniting the ruling party with selected pro-government NGOs), the President was asked for his opinion about Lenin, the Bolshevik leader during the Revolution and civil war, who led the Soviet Union until his death in 1924.

The question does not appear to have been scripted: it was so rambling that Putin needed to ask for clarification, and his answer was no less convoluted. It seemed improvised, ambiguous and contradictory.

First, the President recalled his past membership in the Communist Party and that he “liked and still like[s] communist and socialist ideas.” He listed the successes of the planned economy, most importantly the victory over Nazism in World War II.

At the same time he mentioned mass repressions under the Soviets. Did the children of the Tsar really have to be executed? Or the Romanovs’ family doctor? Why did the Soviets kill clergymen? And what about the role of the Bolsheviks in disorganizing the front in World War I? The revolution, in effect, made Russia lose the war to the losing side (Germany had to capitulate less than a year after the Bolsheviks signed a punishing peace treaty), “a unique event in history.” Clearly, the Bolsheviks’ role was not all positive.

Vladimir Lenin, at his desk, circa 1920. Everett historical/shutterstock

Putin kept his most biting comments to the end of his monologue. By creating the Soviet Union as a federation made up of republics with the formal right to secession, Lenin (against the advice of Stalin) planted “a mine under the building of our state:” in 1991, the Soviet Union would break down along the borders of the republics. Ultimately, then, Lenin was responsible not only for the defeat of the Romanov empire in World War I, but also for the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1991 – hardly a positive evaluation.

These rambling remarks stand in sharp contrast to Putin’s well developed and unambiguous line on World War II as well as Medinsky’s sophisticated pro-Bolshevik dialectics. It appears that the President, like the country as a whole, is much more confused about what to make of the revolution. The President has much more time for the Whites than his Minister of Culture. In the memory wars, as elsewhere, he is an independent actor in a complex political game.

There is another interpretation of the dissonances between Medinsky and Putin, however. What better way to unify the country over this contentious past than to give slightly different emphases to the reconciliation message?

Effectively, the President appeals to monarchists and White forces while his Minister of Culture caters to Red nostalgia.

We shall see throughout the centenary year, if this division of labour continues or if the one or the other line will prevail. The first test will be if and how the anniversary of the February Revolution will be commemorated; the second will be what public events will mark October. By the time of writing, it is unclear what these events will look like. It will be fascinating to watch.

La Trobe University’s Ideas & Society Program will host a conversation between historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s leading historians of the Soviet Union, and Mark Edele on February 23 at 6:15 pm. Their conversation will concern the role the Russian Revolution of 1917 played in shaping the history of the 20th century. It will be live streamed here

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