What can and can’t be said about the Russian revolution

Written by Maria Lipman | Published on: November 7, 2017
In Russia today, there’s little consensus on the events of a century ago. But can you have national reconciliation without truth about the Russian Empire’s revolutions?


"Second Congress of the Communist International" (1924) by Isaak Brodsky. (c) Wolfgang Kumm/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In the Soviet period, the October Revolution played the role of foundation myth, but the Russian authorities today prefer to talk about it less: the commemoration of these century-old events is a reminder that no empire lasts forever.

oDR spoke to Maria Lipman, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Washington-based journal Counterpoint, about whether Russia can achieve unity without confronting the truth about 1917.

What kind of truth about 1917 are the Russian authorities trying to pass over today? What is it and why do we need it now, in 2017?
Maria Lipman: This isn’t an easy question: how is national memory created, and in particular, a memory of the Bolshevik or as it was called in the Soviet period, the Great October Revolution? Several conflicting discourses around this landmark event co-exist in Russia today.

The Communist Party of The Russian Federation, for example, hasn’t moved an inch from its traditional position, continuing to glorify the revolution, Lenin and Stalin. It still sees the Soviet era as a time of magnificent achievements, the liberation of work and people, the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrial one, and so on. Its main emphasis continues to be on achievements in all spheres.

“This anniversary and its commemoration will also pass, and with them the need to say something about the Revolution”

Then there is the very different perspective of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which is a very important institution: in terms of public trust it comes in at fourth place, after the president, the FSB and the army. The ROC regards the October Revolution as an unmitigated tragedy: for it, 1917 was the starting date for its persecution, the repression of believers and murder of Russia’s first “new martyrs”, Orthodox priests who were executed. The ROC has also canonised Russia’s last Tsar, Nicolas II, and his family as “new martyrs”.


Icon depicting the Martyrdom of Metropolitan St Kirill Smirnov of Kazan the New Martyr (1863-1937).

At the same time, today’s Federal Security Service (FSB) sees itself as the proud successor of the Soviet security police bodies known successively as the Cheka, NKVD and KGB. Its officers even call themselves Chekists [from Cheka], proud of their predecessors who executed the Tsar. These various visions of the past are so contradictory, it feels as if they can’t exist side-by-side. So it’s impossible to give a single, definitive answer to the question of what the February and October Revolutions mean to Russia today. Opacity, uncertainty, prevarication — this is the approach to history, the controversial moments of history, that the Russian government, presidential administration, the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin have chosen. We don’t speak about to avoid exacerbating the contradictions, we tolerate a very broad spectrum of views among those who are loyal to the authorities and prepared to support them on important issues.

But then 2017, the 100th anniversary, came around. You need to talk about it somehow. Putin is not a big fan of the early Bolsheviks. He has admitted this two or three times in passing, as something of slight importance. The Bolsheviks came to power because of the weakness of the Tsarist state; they were instrumental in its downfall, a fact that flies in the face of Putin’s perception of the crucial importance of strong state in Russia. But politically, Putin needs the support of both the communists and the ROC.

On the eve of the centenary, it was essential to come up with some statement about the Revolution. The political experts expected Putin to say something at his annual Address to the Federal Assembly at the end of 2016, but he again expressed himself very equivocally, talking about the importance of national reconciliation and unity, although he did remark that the Russian people needed an honest and profound analysis of the Revolution. He has spoken of “reconciliation” on numerous occasions, going back to an article published under his name at the end of 1999, entitled “Russia at the turn of the Millennium”. But at the very end of this October Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, announced that the Kremlin was not planning any events connected with the anniversary and added that he didn’t even know “what we actually have to celebrate”.

I am not going to respond to the question of why Russia needs to remember the October Revolution. I don’t feel entitled to give Russians any advice on anything.

But the actual question we asked was a little different: what truth about the revolution has still not been revealed? What truths are being silenced, avoided?
ML: We’re lacking truth of any kind. It’s not a question of a definitive truth, Truth with a capital letter. It just seems odd and wrong that neither the Russian government, nor society, has any common narrative, whatever that might be, about this supreme event of the 20th century. An event that turned not only Russia, but in some senses the entire world, upside down. In the Soviet period, the “truth” consisted of the fact that the revolution was the central event of Russia’s national history and the beginning of Soviet statehood. We had our foundation myth — the October Revolution, our founding father in Lenin, our pantheon of historical heroes and a date, 7 November, for our main national holiday.

“The government is solving a purely political problem — to avoid further public conflicts and therefore minimise the risk to itself”

Of course, we can’t remain at Soviet positions. The Soviet period is inseparably linked to the Revolution that spawned it. It was a period of totalitarianism, when the people had one unalterable truth dictated to them from “above”. For Putin, revolution is unacceptable. He is an anti-revolutionary leader: the idea that a popular uprising might overthrow the government is an absolutely unthinkable historical construct, exacerbated by the recent “colour” revolutions which he believes were inspired by the west. To contend, however, that the revolution was a manifestation of evil, a catastrophe, as the ROC sees it, is also impossible, because you then have to decide how to view the rest of the Soviet period, the “good”, acceptable USSR. If you start to formulate all this clearly, you leave yourself very little room for manoeuvre. This is why Putin, the current regime, has one option — not to articulate anything.

Then there’s another question that hasn’t been answered: what do you so with the pre-Soviet period? You can’t, after all, claim that pre-revolutionary Russia was a great place and should have stayed the way it was. You can’t pretend that the Revolution happened out of the blue: Russia had an archaic regime that didn’t want to reform itself. The Revolution came to a head because the system didn’t align with society’s needs for development. And in any case, today’s Russians are the descendents of Soviet Russia, not pre-revolutionary Russia. They were annihilated, and any who survived had to flee abroad.


The chairman of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, hands out orders during a meeting of the jubilee committee on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Moscow, Russia. (c) Emile Alain Ducke/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

So I don’t know what kind of truth is needed here. Objectively, it’s a problem that cannot be solved. We could probably, however, talk about how these questions need to be addressed as part of a nationwide discussion. That way we could come to a relative consensus on how to talk about this subject. But we only have two known points of view on this — the communist and the Orthodox. There are probably a whole range of other viewpoints between these two, but they don’t fit together. Meanwhile, the government is solving a purely political problem — to avoid further public conflicts and therefore minimise the risk to itself.

This anniversary and its commemoration will also pass, and with them the need to say something about the Revolution. In the future, we won’t have to talk about it again. But the problem is that the future development of the country will depend on it having stable foundations. We’re developing, but into who? Like a country that has overcome communism? No, that’s not working for some reason. There was an attempt in the early 1990s, but nothing came of it. Or are we a country that has re-united with its Soviet past? That isn’t happening either. There is still a certain lack of definition in our very nation building project: are we an empire or a civic nation? This is not the only reason why Russia has developmental problems, but it is an important one.

Of course, as an individual, a person with my own ideas about the Russia in which I live and the Soviet Union in which I used to live, I would like society to come to at least some kind of consensus on condemning Communist terror. Today, it seems that the authorities are talking about this: this year has seen the opening of a monument to victims of the Great Terror at Butovo, outside Moscow, where mass shootings took place in 1937-8. Another monument, created on the order of Putin himself, was unveiled on Moscow’s Andrei Sakharov Avenue on 30 October, the memorial day for victims of political repression. The president was present at the unveiling and spoke again of overcoming the national split, reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. But this memorial, this immortalisation is much more modest in scope.

“What 'mutual forgiveness' are we talking about, when nothing is being said about executioners and the reasons for this mass national self-destruction”

But what “mutual forgiveness” are we talking about, when nothing is being said about executioners and the reasons for this mass national self-destruction, and when FSB officers call themselves Chekists and occupy the same building on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, where the cellars were used for shooting innocent people. The government tells the public that they may mourn the victims of the Terror, but shouldn’t discuss what happened and why the Soviet people spent decades in self-destruction. Instead, we are invited to “draw a line” under it all.

The case of Yury Dmitryev, the Gulag historian arrested on spurious pornographic charges, is interesting in this context: it shows that whenever someone tries to initiate a discussion on this subject — not even reopen one but start from scratch — they are immediately stopped. We open a monument to the repressed with one hand, and imprison Dmitriyev with the other.
ML: With one hand and the other — this is exactly what I think is important to recognise. I don’t know how we can get round it in today’s Russia, with today’s government and the history of Putin’s presidency, not to mention his own past as a KGB operative and his perception of what a state should be. But what you just said seems to sum it up. One hand does one thing. The other does another. At the same time. And both hands belong, of course, to the administration, the ruling circle or government loyalists. And given that both Vladimir Zyuganov, the head of the Russian Communist Party and the ROC hierarchy are loyalists in their own way, it means that totally incompatible views can co-exist under the umbrella of loyalty.

We should perhaps think about why Yury Dmitriyev became a victim: the government, after all, is sanctioning the preservation and immortalisation of the memory of victims of repression, at least up to a certain point. And especially now, with the erection of the monument on Sakharov Avenue, it’s as though the authorities themselves are preserving it.

“Wondering, reflecting on why it all happened — that’s not a question the Orthodox Church will ask. The Kremlin can rely on it not to. Here the task is to have victims without executioners”

This is the tendency now: the government “authorises” the ROC to be responsible for preserving the memory of victims of repression. This is very convenient: in the first place, because the Church is loyal to the government and in the second, because weeping for and mourning the dead is a basic function of the church. But wondering, reflecting on why it all happened — that’s not a question the church will ask. The Kremlin can rely on it not to. Here the task is to have victims without executioners.

Talking about the people who carried out the executions — who they were, why it happened, why the country plunged into the nightmare and horror of self-destruction — is a question that is practically never asked. The Putin administration has made it clear that no one can cast any doubt on government of any kind, whether Imperial, Soviet, Bolshevik or any later form — whatever government is in power, is sacrosanct and mustn’t be undermined in any way.


For many years, local historian Yuri Dmitriyev researched mass executions and Soviet crimes in the northern region of Karelia. Photo courtesy of Natalia Shkurenok. All rights reserved.

The Dmitryev case is horrendous, and I really hope that he will somehow be freed. But what happened to him, doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone engaged in similar activities will inevitably be arrested and end up behind bars. And it’s important to recognise this as well. The Moscow-based International Memory Society is still functioning, although in difficult circumstances, and another public initiative, The Last Address, is also continuing to preserve the memory of those shot by Stalin’s gunmen.

But why do we, a century after the Revolution, still need a universal, coherent historical narrative? In the Soviet Union it was, of course, very universal and very coherent, but that didn’t stop it falling apart in an instant. As sociologist Alexei Yurchak puts it: “Everything was forever, until it was no more”. It turns out that a coherent narrative doesn’t guarantee effective government and stability. Perhaps it isn’t necessary after all?
As for the Soviet Union, it was indeed a rigid ideological system, especially at the beginning. One step to the left or the right of the “only true theory” and you were a renegade. There was one only true theory, and this was not just a figure of speech or a joke: that was its name and it was the essential basis for everything, be it scientific research, the evaluation of artistic works or discussion of international politics. Every student of every university in the Soviet Union, whether they studied the Humanities or anything else, attended classes in Marxism-Leninism, Historical Materialism, Dialectical Materialism and so on. Marxism-Leninism was seen as the only real philosophy — everything else was mere bourgeois sophistry.

This system was incredibly rigid and could only last as long as the state was based on mass terror. As soon as they “loosened the strings” a little, this ideological discipline broke down. Out of the inertia of fear and subordination to a horrendous regime, people continued to use the right words — and not just when criticising someone at a meeting. Anyone writing a dissertation had to include references to the Marxist-Leninist classics, but this gradually turned into an absolutely empty husk — everyone knew that it was pure dross, a repetition of hackneyed phrases totally devoid of content. The entire, vast country regurgitated these clichés as often as was necessary, without believing them or even thinking about them. Yurchak writes perceptively that many people didn’t even think of this as hypocrisy or double standards: it was just what they had always done without thinking.

A trailer for a new Russian TV serial on the life of Leon Trotsky.
So when the Soviet system began to creak as a result of Gorbachev’s Perestroika (don’t forget that change began from the top), when the husk finally collapsed, people barely noticed the disappearance of the ideology. The vast majority of the population didn’t see any point in it anyway. So when a new Russian Constitution was introduced in 1993, two years after the collapse of the USSR, it went without saying that that it wouldn’t contain any obligatory national ideology. This was easily accepted, as people were fed up to the teeth with all the meaningless drivel they had been repeating for so long without believing in it or giving a damn about it.

Today, the era of big ideologies is past. North Korea, I think, is the last country to embody a single idea that is for everyone, explains everything, permits no doubts and is based on governmental violence, so that anyone who wavers from the true faith faces severe punishment.
National unity is nonetheless a very important goal for the state. What does it mean when someone says, “I am the citizen of this country”? There has to be something to unite people, whether they live in Germany, France, Russia, China or wherever. We can say that language unites them, or a constitution — but there has to be some idea of living in a particular country. This is a loose concept today, but in the absence of a “big idea” it’s crucial to have something that unites people — some perception of our country, its history and what we want as a nation — do we want to be part of Europe, for example?

Going back to the idea of truth: perhaps this would not be a question of creating some kind of coherent narrative, but of admitting that we don’t have one: recognising the existence of different points of view, agreeing about what we disagree on and bringing the idea that there is an enormous range of issues on which we have no consensus out into the public arena. Perhaps this realisation might even lead to a common sense of the truth.
ML: We still do need some kind of consensus if we are to develop as a country. It’s important to recognise the existence of conflict within our society, both because of our history and where we are and what we are now: if we can resolve some of our discord through the concept of a “loyalty umbrella” we can then achieve “reconciliation” and “stability” and lower the risks for our government.

Putin has often returned to the theme of “reconciliation”. In 2012, at the start of his third presidential term, he talked about a civil war in people’s heads; in other words, he is well aware of the serious divisions in our society, and he has chosen his own way of dealing with them. From the start, when he first became president, he adopted a policy of ambiguity and equivocation, drawing a veil over the issues that divide Russians. Does someone want to discuss difficult questions and issues that might potentially divide the Russian public? Let them discuss them, but at a local level: don’t let them arouse or stir up the people. This proviso is essential, if existing divisions are not to get in the way of Putin’s ruling the country as he wishes.

“Putin adopted a policy of ambiguity and equivocation, drawing a veil over the issues that divide”

Putin’s top priority is control — everything else, however crucial, is of secondary importance. He has had frequent opportunities to confirm that this is the case. For him, control is more important than development. This applies to both the ideological sphere and political decision-making: the decision to appoint regional governors rather than have them locally elected, for example. Why is he doing that? The idea is to increase his control. So control is increasing, but whether this is leading to better and more effective government is another question.

In some ways he’s reviving Nicholas II’s approach to governance...
ML: But Nicholas II, unlike Putin, was a weak ruler who couldn’t control anything. And it’s a completely different country now.

Of course. But the question is whether the current government can learn anything from the events of a century ago.
ML: I think the most important lesson learned by Putin was about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gorbachev years, and this lesson was more immediate because by that time he was a mature and serious adult, with his own opinions, who had long since decided on his chosen career. What did Gorbachev do when he came to power and realised that his country’s economy was in dire straits? He loosened the strings; he couldn’t give people a higher standard of living but he gave them some freedom, and they pretty quickly grabbed a bit more. And he lost the country as a result, not to mention his presidential post, although he was fortunate and didn’t lose his life. So the lesson is: if your country is in trouble, don’t loosen the strings: on the contrary, clench your fist even tighter.

It is a principle with Putin — and one formulated very succinctly, deftly and conceptually in his 1999 article “Russia at the turn of the Millennium” — that in Russia the most important organising principle is state power. This doesn’t apply in all countries: not everyone has a need for such a powerful centralised system of government, but for Russia, there is no alternative. And that power, strength and might must never be allowed to weaken. This is the criticism Putin throws at the Bolsheviks. He hasn’t made a big deal of it but he has talked about it and in particular about Russia withdrawing from the First World War in 1917. It was, he contends, unforgivable to admit defeat. Russia had a chance to be among the victors: but the Brest-Litovsk peace represented a surrender of positions and a voluntary admittance of defeat in a world war.


December 2016: Vladimir Putin delivers the Annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. Source: Kremlin.ru.

For Putin, any weakening of the state is unthinkable, and its head must do his utmost to strengthen it. I think that for Putin, this is the lesson of both the Revolution and the collapse of the USSR. And if we accept that his principle requires the state to be strong, no matter what (and here, strength doesn’t mean the same as effective government, but control over every other institution, individual and so on), then we must concur that he is successful in his attempts. This is his top priority, allowing him to maintain internal stability and a respected role in the global arena. There is a remark by Putin quoted in the “Russia, my History” permanent exhibition at the VDNKh exhibition centre in Moscow. 

“Too often in our national history we have encountered opposition to Russia itself, rather than opposition to its government… And we know how that ends — with the dismantling of the state itself.”

For Putin, this is evidently an important truth: it is out of the question that someone should emerge “from below” with their own idea about how badly the current authorities govern, and how they could do better. Whoever “they” might be — a peasant uprising, the Decembrists, the “People’s Will” or the Bolsheviks — it will inevitably end in disaster. Also, this kind of movement is almost always inspired by events in other countries: our enemies, who wish to weaken us.

This is evidently how Putin views the revolution. This is why Putin avoids even talking about it and cannot admit in any way that those who rose up in 1917, who led a 300-year old empire to its end, were right.

Maria Lipman is a Russian political analyst and commentator. She is editor of Counterpoint, an online journal published by Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (George Washington University), and is currently a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Russian and East European Institute, Global and International Studies, Indiana University (Bloomington).

Courtesy: Open Democracy