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NY Times, Mar. 10 2017
‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
A painting of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, at
a flea market on the outskirts of Moscow. There will be no national
holiday on Sunday, March 12, the date generally recognized as the start
of the uprising. Credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images
MOSCOW — The Kremlin plans to sit out the centenary of the Russian
Never mind that the upheavals of 1917 transformed the country and the
world, abruptly ending the long rule of the czars, ushering in the
Communist era and spawning an ideological confrontation with the West
that still resonates.
There will be no national holiday on Sunday, March 12, the date
generally recognized as the start of the uprising. Nor will there even
be a government-issued official interpretation, like the one mandating
that World War II was a “Great Victory.”
The official reason proffered for ignoring the event is that Russia
remains too divided over the consequences of that fateful year.
The more likely explanation, some Kremlin officials, historians and
other analysts say, is that President Vladimir V. Putin loathes the very
idea of revolution, not to mention the thought of Russians dancing in
the streets to celebrate the overthrow of any ruler. Moreover, 1917
smudges the Kremlin’s version of Russian history as a long, unified
march to greatness, meant to instill a sense of national pride and purpose.
For the record, the Kremlin is sticking to the official line of avoiding
“For one group of people, the revolution was the death knell of Great
Russia — it was ‘Brexit,’ when we stopped our development in Europe,”
said Mikhail Shvydkoy, Mr. Putin’s special representative on cultural
matters, in an interview in the wood-paneled cafe at the Central House
of Writers, a prerevolutionary mansion. “For many other people, the
Soviet past was the best time of their lives.”
Mr. Putin strives to unite the country, he said, whereas “any
festivities on the state level would deepen those divisions.”
Despite the widespread perception that the czar was overthrown in what
the Soviets called the Great October Socialist Revolution, there were
two revolutions in 1917. The February Revolution (now falling in March,
given a different calendar) deposed the czar and replaced him with a
provisional government that introduced liberal reforms like universal
suffrage. Eight months later, Lenin and his marginal Bolshevik faction
engineered a remarkable coup that gave rise to the world’s first
Mr. Putin’s critiques of the revolution contrast markedly with his usual
glowing tributes to Russian history.
“We know well the consequences that these great upheavals can bring,” he
said in his state of the federation speech in December. “Unfortunately,
our country went through many such upheavals and their consequences in
the 20th century.”
At an earlier public forum, after disparaging Lenin, he said, “We didn’t
need the world revolution.”
The president shunted the anniversary off into the realm of academia,
appointing a special committee to organize seminars and the like.
Previously, the official narrative was an essay written by Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn, in which he argued that deep distrust between the court
and the educated elite along with German meddling brought about catastrophe.
The latter fits the Kremlin narrative that Russia has long been besieged
by foreign aggressors and that the West strives to implant friendly
regimes everywhere by sponsoring “color revolutions.” Columnists have
been lumping 1917 among more recent color revolutions in places like
Georgia and Ukraine, naturally listing the United States among the
There is also a damning lack of heroic figures in the revolution. Czar
Nicholas II was deposed and thus weak. Alexander F. Kerensky, the
central figure in the provisional government, proved ineffective. Lenin
fomented appalling bloodshed and destroyed the Russian Orthodox Church,
a pillar of Mr. Putin’s support.
“Vladimir Putin cannot compare himself to Nicholas II, nor to Lenin nor
to Kerensky, because that is not Russian history to be proud of,” said
Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and the author of a best-selling
book, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” which details the inner workings of the
Putin regime. “In terms of 1917, nothing can be used as a propaganda tool.”
In comparison, the Kremlin has turned World War II into the apogee of
In the absence of official spin, other factions are only too happy to
provide some, often referring to current events. At one recent forum,
Vladimir R. Medinsky, the conservative minister of culture, said the
revolution underscored the dangers of letting liberals rule, because
they always put self-interest above Russia.
Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, speaking at the
same event, lambasted those who destroyed the czarist state rather than
Liberals retort that a repressive government ignoring vast income
disparity and curbing basic rights should be worried about history
“The authorities cannot celebrate 1917,” said Nikita Sokolov, a
historian. “Whatever might have happened, the impulse of the revolution
was social justice. A country with such inequality can’t celebrate this.
Also, the authorities think that any revolution is a color revolution.”
For the Communist Party — an ever-weaker link in the loyal opposition —
the establishment of the Soviet Union was a singular achievement. It
plans to celebrate not least with parades in Moscow and elsewhere on
Nov. 7, which in Soviet times was the main national holiday.
Amid the mudslinging, there are efforts to bring the momentous events to
Mr. Zygar, a former editor in chief of the independent TV Rain news
channel, established one of the more ambitious projects, called Project
Excavating a vast trove of historical archives, he and his young staff
compiled a Facebook imitation, chronicling 1917, in Russian and English.
It uses snippets from the diaries of hundreds of mostly prominent
Russians of that epoch to create a snapshot of every single day,
including the weather.
On March 8, for example, as the St. Petersburg bread riots gathered
steam, there is Nicholas II lamenting that his children have the
measles. Others focused on the mushrooming chaos. Mikhail Rodzianko, the
head of the Duma, or Parliament, wrote, “Something was broken today, and
the state machine derailed.”
On March 15, the day of his abdication, the czar wrote, “All around
there is treason, cowardice and deceit.” The next day he mentioned
reading a book about Julius Caesar, then avoided political references
until April, Mr. Zygar noted.
If the emperor was phlegmatic, scores of others are more stimulating. It
was the era of Russian giants in literature, ballet, painting, music and
movies — people like Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei
Eisenstein, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Kazimir Malevich. Political figures
such as Lenin, Maxim Gorky and Leon Trotsky weigh in often.
“Almost all the most famous Russians known in the world happened to live
at that time,” said Mr. Zygar, who was first inspired to write a history
of the epoch called “The Empire Must Die,” and then dreamed up the
website to try to reach a wider audience.
Many historians and others note that Russia lives with a certain
ambivalence toward 1917. Although many perceive it as having wrecked the
country, its symbols are still enmeshed in the fabric of daily life.
At a recent forum, Leonid Reshetnikov, a historian and retired
lieutenant general in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, described
trying to explain to his granddaughter why the city of Yekaterinburg had
a church dedicated to the czar and his family, who were canonized by the
church, as well as a monument to Lenin, the man who ordered them shot there.
“We live in historical schizophrenia, with these monuments to Lenin, to
all of them,” he said, going on to denounce any street protesters as
“How do we explain to young people that they must not be
revolutionaries, that they must be loyal citizens — yes, fight for
Russia, wish it well, but under no circumstances plot, overthrow, march,
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.
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