Why Putin Underplayed the Centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution

Earlier this month Russia marked the 100th anniversary of the day Vladimir Lenin and his small band of  Bolshevik revolutionaries successfully staged an armed insurrection in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), overthrowing the weak provisional government that came to power when the Tsar abdicated power months earlier. Within a year the Romanov dynasty was destroyed, Tsar Nicholas II and his family executed, and Russian society irreparably altered. Imperial Russia was dead, and a classless, rapidly-industrializing utopian experiment rose in its place.

In Russia, November 7th was marked with a massive military parade in the Red Square, not to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution but instead to reenact a WWII Soviet military parade that preceded the Battle of Moscow. On November 7th, 1941, Soviet troops marched from the Kremlin directly to the front lines on the city’s outskirts, making a defiant stand against the German invaders which had almost conquered the Soviet capital. By choosing to commemorate this parade and make little mention of the very revolution that brought the Soviet Union into existence, Vladimir Putin walked a narrow line between romanticizing a revolutionary movement and honoring the powerful Soviet state for which he and many other Russians feel nostalgic.

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Russian soldiers march in WWII-era Soviet uniforms on November 7th, 2016 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the historical military parade that preceded Hitler’s defeat in the Battle of Moscow. 

In the 21st century alone, “color revolutions” have removed unpopular leaders from multiple former-Soviet states, including the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2005 Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan that same year. Putin, who is paranoid of that trend continuing in Russia, couldn’t possibly express support a holiday that Russians call “Red October”, essentially the “mother of all color revolutions.” To the contrary, in a speech he gave in October, Putin lamented the revolution’s “cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives.”

On the other hand, Putin couldn’t outright condemn the Bolshevik Revolution, especially when the Russian Communist Party, one of the country’s two most popular opposition parties, held a rally in Moscow to commemorate the occasion.

Rather, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution has brought to light the echoes of the Soviet era which have haunted the Russian Federation since it declared its independence in 1991.  In the early-1990s, under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia began a process of ‘de-Sovietification’ that was never completed. In 1991, the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB’s predecessor, the Cheka, was removed from Moscow and Leningrad was renamed to its imperial title, Saint Petersburg.

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Lenin agitates a group of protesters as Leon Trotsky flanks the podium on the right. 

However, Soviet and Leninist iconography remain omnipresent in modern Russia. The Moscow metro system has stations named after Lenin and the October Revolution and most cities have statues of Lenin in their main squares. Perhaps the most fitting example of Russia’s inability to come to terms with its past is Lenin himself — visitors to Moscow can observe Lenin’s embalmed body enshrined in a marble mausoleum outside the walls of the Kremlin, only a stone’s throw away from ГУМ (GUM), a lavish and extravagant mall boasting only the most expensive designer brands. The hammer and sickle emblem remains attached to many of Russia’s buildings, including the Foreign Ministry and Moscow State University, the country’s premier institution of higher education.

The Russian population itself is split on this issue as well. When asked in an Ekho Moskvy radio survey if they supported the February Revolution which removed the Tsar from power, 53% said they would not and 47% said that they would. To clarify, the February Revolution (which actually occurred in March because Imperial Russia was still using the Julian Calendar) was when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was established. It wasn’t until months later that Lenin and his radicals successfully led a coup against the provisional government in the October Revolution (which actually occurred in November).

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Protesters in Kharkiv, Ukraine topple a statue of Lenin in 2014. 

Putin faced a difficult dilemma when deciding how to approach the occasion. In a country which has only partially come to terms with its past, especially the horrific human cost of the gulags and purges under Stalin, the Russian president couldn’t express support for the armed overthrow of the Russian government, something he fears might one day come for him. On the other hand, Nicholas II was an ineffectual leader who suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and got his country bogged down in a brutal war of attrition with the Central Powers in World War I. Putin, who has prided himself on bringing stability to post-Soviet Russia, would be ill-advised to align himself with such a figure in Russian history.

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In one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, a soldier raises the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin after Soviet forces took the city in 1945. Vladimir Putin has called the victory over Nazi Germany “the greatest achievement of the 20th century.”

Rather, Putin’s handling of the anniversary is emblematic of his approach to Russia’s history writ large. By choosing to commemorate the military parade that preceded the Battle of Moscow that dealt Hitler his first major defeat of World War II, Putin decided to emphasize one of the few events from the Soviet era which can unify all Russians in their shared patriotism and highlight one of the Soviet Union’s accomplishments as a strong, unified state. During his long tenure as Russia’s leader, Putin has established a near-cult like obsession with the Soviet Union’s victory of Nazi Germany, calling it the greatest achievement of the 20th century. 

And so, the anniversary of one of the defining moments of the 20th century passed relatively unnoticed in a country whose population is largely divided on how to approach its tumultuous past and by a president uneager to romanticize what was essentially a violent coup to overthrow a government considered to be corrupt and ineffectual.

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