100 Years since the Russian Revolution: Putin and the Lingering Shadow of Communism

Source: Gordon McBane

Exactly one hundred years ago, the seizing of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg marked the beginning of the end of the Tsarist Empire. The Soviet Union was built on the ruins of civil war, and with it emerged a political system that costs the lives of an estimated 100 million people worldwide: Communism. Gordon McBane on Russia’s understanding of history under Vladimir Putin and the conclusions to be drawn by its European neighbours.

“Ulyanovsk has created too many revolutionaries!”[1]

If you believe the statement of the historian Valeri Periflow, it is said to have been exclaimed by no one less than Vladimir Putin, whilst a curator led him through an inconspicuous house in Ukjanovsk, a town at the Volga River. A hundred years ago, however, this place was still called Simbirsk and had nothing in common with today’s city. It was a poor village of barren wooden huts inhabited by peasants, sturgeon fishermen, human traffickers and other workers. Today over 600,000 people live there, but the main attraction that pulls in tourists from all over the world is one particular house; as it did once to the President of the Russian Federation. For none other than Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in this house, the man whom world history knows as Lenin.[2]

Putin’s quote that the city had produced too many revolutionaries is indicative of Russia’s dealings with its Soviet heritage. The Kremlin-Chief can do without rebellions of his people. Yes, the Russian Revolution celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but Moscow almost managed to ignore this historic date. No state acts or international events were organized by the Kremlin, which is unusual given the fact that it is common practice with occasions of round commemoration such as the landing of the Allies on D-Day in 2014, the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 or the recent celebrations for the 500th Reformation Day in Wittenberg. There was not much of a national commemoration except a few special exhibitions in historical museums and a few protest rallies by the Communists on the Red Square in Moscow. The question remains, whether they were intended to serve as a warning of the past or historical romanticization: How can one explain this contradiction?

The case Ukraine

Now, one could assume that this date was dealt with so reluctantly, because the Revolution in 1917 with all its consequences does give no cause for celebration. The ideals of communism have undoubtedly failed, as a result of which the Soviet Union has almost exclusively been linked to negative events: Stalinist terror, an all-policing and injustice state, scarcity economy, ethnic conflicts and deportations in a multi-ethnic empire, corruption and black markets, as well as stagnation and mass poverty. To this day, the Gulag stands as a tragic symbol of the once daring experiment called communism, which until November 7, 1917 was regarded as a pure utopia, but eventually fascinated so many people in the 20th century around the globe, that at the height of communist expansion, a third of the world’s population was controlled directly or indirectly by Moscow. All this has not been forgotten in Russia. And you don’t have to be a special historian to suspect that most Russians still sprout a spark of longing when they think back to the erstwhile superpower. In addition to any criticism, so it seems, the crimes of this state are always a little relativized with epic stories like the successful transformation of the once agrarian Tsarist Empire into a highly developed industrial state as well as the victory against the Third Reich in World War II or the conquest of Space by cosmonauts. But since then policies have caught up with this red nostalgia.

There has been a military conflict on the European continent since the Kosovo War. In February 2014, armed militias from Russia invaded the east of Ukraine, occupying parts of the country like the Crimean peninsula – all supported by the Kremlin. Russia is still searching for a new identity and so does Europe in the current climate of crisis, which prevents it from acting more aggressively against the new Slavic nationalism. Only fragmentary ideas emerge for a new EDC (European Defense Community), a so-called European army, which would act as a deterrent at border areas across the EU and thus especially in the immediate vicinity of Russia. Concepts of a European general staff and a system where, for example Spaniards could serve on request or specific suitability in the Bundeswehr or Dutchs in the Forces Armées Françaises, seem as daring as the Bolshevik visions hundreds of years ago. But at a time when Brussels is drowning by Brexit negotiations, separatism and the Greek crisis, as well as electoral successes by populists, it seems remarkable that Russia has not yet taken advantage of this weakness and made further territorial gains. A recent study by the German Army came to the conclusion that even a collapse of the EU could no longer be ruled out in the event of a conflict.[3] It is not the Europeans, but the NATO that still seems to intimidate the Kremlin. However, the current US-President Trump is calling this military alliance outdated. He has never made a secret of wanting to strengthen the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Maybe that’s why the investigations into the so-called Russia Scandal are still dominating the headlines in America.[4] Has Donald Trump even received support from the Kremlin Palace to get into the White House? It will be all the more important for Brussels to develop a pan-European defense system. In Russia’s case, the EU doesn’t need to be afraid of a renaissance of communism, as the great country is shaken by a wave of nationalism. Although Putin has repeatedly denied that Russia is involved in the occupation of Ukraine, the motivations of his government are obvious.

A Great-Russian Union, but without Soviets please!

On the one hand, the government is driven by the fear of the constant approach of NATO to Russia’s border. Not only former allies of the Warsaw Pact such as Poland are now members of NATO, but also the Baltic States, which were still an integral part of the USSR and the socialist homeland until 1991. For many Russians this may seem like a hostile occupation of former territories. And the rocket belt within the missile defence system installed by the US in the eastern part of Poland wouldn’t have fuelled worried minds beyond in Russia insignificantly.

On the other hand, Russia feels betrayed by the West after the end of the Cold War and wishes to get back to being the former superpower it used to be. Putin has been cited several times stating that he saw the break-up of the Soviet Union as a political disaster. He is not alone. And quite pragmatically, this multi-ethnic red empire could never have gone down so quietly. Even in 1990, when the Soviet Union experienced its worst crisis and was facing huge reforms, in an official referendum on March 17th, 1991, 76 percent of the Soviet population spoke in favor of a constituency of the USSR. The negative votes were accounted to the Baltic States and Georgia – but Belarus and Ukraine still wanted to join Moscow. Nevertheless, due to the military coup on the 18th of August 1991 and the catastrophic situation in the country, the Union was dissolved between the leaders of these three countries on December 8th. The rest of the Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, had practically broken away, because the politicians wanted to leave the sinking ship in time and secure their sinecures.[5] The example of modern China, however, shows how a Soviet Union could have been salvaged in the 21st century. For as much as the Soviets loved their Union at the time as a powerful confederation of multi-national states, they were all fed up with communism. Exactly this attitude is still expressed by the majority of the population today: A Great-Russian Union, but without Soviets please!

The Legend of an All-Russian Nation

The people of the USSR combined more than just the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks – even beyond the time of the Tsars. Because at least in Russia, every schoolchild knows the term “Rus”, the invocation of the trinity of the Russian people: It is a cultural legend, the cohesion of the Great Russians (today: Russian Federation), White Russians (today: Belarus) and Little Russians (today: Ukraine) from the fog of past conjures, similar to the Teutonic tribes from Germany or the the Gauls from France to represent a red line in the interpretation of national history and identity of the countries. Kiev is considered by many nationalists as the source of Russian culture[6] and even Putin once openly said that at least Ukrainians and Russians belong to the same group of people.[7] But the bubble of Rus bursted with the downfall of the Red Empire. Although the Putin government is certainly not trying to re-enact this myth, the idea of an All-Russian nation plays a major role and explains why so many Russians find it difficult to dismiss the USSR as a dark chapter, because the dream of Rus is closely integrated with the culture of the country. Influential organizations such as the Russian Orthodox Church openly advocate a “Russian world” and even tentatively speak about the need for a reunification of the “three Russian people”.[8]

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that the majority of Russians consider the annexation of the Crimea as a historical conclusion – a necessary revisit to political mistakes made in the past. It should not be forgotten that Belarus is very friendly to Russia; Minsk, which is isolated from other countries, depends on Moscow’s support if the regime wants to survive. And Ukraine’s position is divided. One half of the population wants a free country that is anchored to the EU, the other half wants to move back to the strong side of his big brother. Instead of becoming part of the Western alliance it would like to face the West as an independent competitor on an equal level.

Nevertheless, even in the Soviet Union, things did not always run smoothly with national identity, it has always been bubbling in this gigantic empire. Therefore, the Communist leadership re-introduced the spirit of the victory of World War II (or as they call it: Great Patriotic War) from 1965 onwards. Unlike during post-war period, the interpretation of this myth was not applicable to Josef Stalin, but to all people – regardless of nationality, religion or gender. Every man and woman had helped to successfully defend the country and Europe against the Nazis. The military parades on the Red Square in May soon matched the celebrations for the Russian Revolution in November, gaining increasing popularity – the victory in World War II was far less ideologically charged and included all orders of society. Since 1967, 13 cities have been declared as heroes’ cities, which particularly distinguished themselves during the Second World War in regards to their defence. These include cities in Ukraine and Belarus, whose commemorative plaques can still be seen on the Kremlin wall in the heart of Moscow. The cult around World War II became quickly part of everyday life through propaganda. Many wedding couples are still planting flowers at the grave of the “unknown soldier”. Nevertheless, the communist rulers failed to establish themselves as an indispensable part of this victory. Their regime has disappeared, there are no more parades for the Russian Revolution. But marches on the Day of Victory still do exist today, captivating the majority of Russians.[9] A macabre highlight is the recent deployment of the theme park “Patriot” near Moscow, run by the Russian Ministry of Defense, where visitors, dressed as soldiers of the Red Army, can storm once again a reconstructed German Parliament, the Reichstag – like their grandfathers did in the Great Patriotic War.[10]

Gorbachev is the most unpopular president in Russian history

Therefore many citizens of the Russian Federation and people from outside find it difficult to title the dictator Josef Stalin a mass murderer and monster. In recent years, according to the historian Pawel Gnilorybow, 70 new monuments of the tyrant have popped up around the country.[11] At the same time, the proportion of those, who condemn systematic mass murder as crime and genocide have steadily declined in recent decades: in 2000, 58 percent of respondents still condemned the Stalinist terror, just 53 percent in 2007 and only 41 percent this year. So more than half of all Russians see the regime as less critical.[12] Stalin does not experience the same condemnation as Hitler does in Germany, but he is placed in row with Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. All powerful rulers of Russia, who have reformed the country on the backs of the population – to express it very diplomatically. And even Lenin gains sympathy with this nationalist (rather than communist) interpretation. A survey of the Lewada Center found out, that 53 percent of respondents said that the revolutionist from Simbirsk would have had a positive impact on Russian history – the highest level since analysis began in 2006. In contrast: Mikhail Gorbachev, last president of the USSR and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, who brought freedom and democracy to the country, is with 66 percent considered to be the least popular leader in Russian history.[13] The positive treatment of Lenin reflects the fate of his birthplace Simbirsk, which was renamed in Ulyanovsk just after his death in 1924. Unlike in former large cities such as Leningrad or Stalingrad, a renaming to the time before the communist legend formation did not happen.

With all this appreciation for the heroization of the past, Putin doesn’t need to worry about the people sparking a revolution. In recent elections for the Russian Parliament, the Duma, his party was able to extend its already strong position even further. But Russia is facing a dangerous future. The opportunity to use the short window of time after the end of the Cold War to integrate the colossus on the eastern border of Europe with the Western alliance has been missed. Politicians and historians will argue for a long time about which side is to blame. But unlike in Europe, where the many voices of scattered regionalism withhold any possible actions, Moscow is already putting the mouthpiece of a mighty megaphone to its lips. The battle cry is: Forward into the past!

[1] Vgl.: Vgl.: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (26.10.2017), S.4

[2] Vgl.: GEO Epoche: Die Russische Revolution (20.01.2017), S.67

[3] Vgl.: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-studie-haelt-zerfall-der-europaeischen-union-fuer-denkbar-a-1176367.html

[4] Vgl.: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/opinion/manafort-indictment-mueller-papadopoulos.html

[5] Vgl.: Vgl.: Bundesagentur für politische Bildung: Sowjetunion (II) 1953 – 1991, S. 21 und Altricher, Helmut: Kleine Geschichte der Sowjetunion, S. 241

[6] Vgl.: GEO Epoche: Die Russische Revolution (20.01.2017), S. 121

[7] Vgl.: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/11480864/Vladimir-Putin-praises-Russian-patriotism-and-claims-Ukrainians-and-Russians-are-one.html

[8] Vgl.: http://www.materik.ru/upload/iblock/fe9/fe994cfb101b5073f35c748b5cbfdb41.pdf

[9] Vgl.: http://www.bpb.de/apuz/30847/die-kommunistische-partei-in-der-sowjetunion-und-in-russland?p=all

[10] Vgl.: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/russland-militaer-erlebnispark-patriot-in-kubinka-a-1039741.html

[11] Vgl.: http://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/stalins-kult-und-lenins-grab-wie-russland-seine-eigene.979.de.html?dram%3Aarticle_id=385375

[12] Vgl.: https://www.levada.ru/en/2017/09/26/great-terror/

[13] Vgl.: https://www.welt.de/geschichte/article116418633/Gorbatschow-ist-noch-unbeliebter-als-Stalin.html


Gordon McBane
Gordon McBane
Gordon McBane is a native Scot, who grew up in the Rhineland. As a German-British, he represents the ideals of a European Federal State. After graduating from High School and travelling southeast Asia, he succesfully passed his trading or commercial apprenticeship until 2012. He completed studies of social sciences in 2015 at Heinrich-Heine-University. To focus on media communications and market analysis, McBane did various internships in public affairs at the German Parliament in Berlin and the European Parliament in Brussels. He early worked as a journalist, inter alia as editor for the Westdeutsche Zeitung, freelance broadcaster for ZDF and abstractor for press for the University of Dusseldorf to finance his studies. Since April 2016, McBane works as a PR-Consultant at Westend Medien, but still as freelance journalist and author, too.