100 Years Since the October Revolution
Russia's Unloved Anniversary
Even revolutionaries have moments of doubt. Take Vladimir Ulyanov, a Russian emigré in Zurich during World War I whose nom de guerre was Lenin. We old ones, he said in a speech to Swiss socialists in 1917, might not experience the coming revolution. But you young Swiss, you will fight and win! It was January and Ullyanov-Lenin didn't yet know that the czar would fall a mere seven weeks later. And that he himself would take the czar's place by the end of the year.
Or take Sergei Udaltsov, who is sitting in a Moscow café 100 years later, wearing the uniform of the professional revolutionary: black jacket with a shaved head. Udaltsov, who's great-grandfather was a close companion of Lenin's, is the leader of the radical left. Together with Alexei Navalny, he led the protests against Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012, going on to spend four-and-a-half years under house arrest and in jail as a result. He says the people are tired, the politicians are clueless and a change of government is likely. But if everything falls apart, who will profit? Isn't it more likely to be the right than the left?
This year, Russia is celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. One hundred years ago in March, the czarist monarchy was toppled. One hundred years ago in November, Vladimir Lenin and his followers grabbed power. It was, so to speak, two revolutions in one. And Nov. 7, 1917 - or October 25, according to the old calendar - went down in history as the October Revolution, as the birth of the first socialist state, a triumph of a new order.
"Celebration" is the wrong word for this anniversary. What is there to celebrate when so much blood was spilled? It is perhaps better to say: Russia is marking the anniversary. But that's not quite right either. Because Russia is hardly paying any mind at all to the most consequential event of the 20th century, one that changed the entire world. Russia's leadership is extremely uncomfortable with the anniversary; it has a kind of revolution-phobia.
To this day, Lenin remains on display in a glass coffin in Moscow - a small man in a suit with a red beard, his waxen right hand balled into a fist. But in truth, the Kremlin has a problem with the revolution. Nobody, said Vladimir Putin in December just before the anniversary year began, should use the historical tragedy "for political aims" or "pull the strife and hatred, injuries and rancor of the past into our current time." It sounded like a warning: Keep your hands away from history!
What's strange, though, is that the revolution is essentially omnipresent in Putin's Russia. It is a ghost that the Kremlin needs, but also fears. Ever since a peaceful change of power through elections became largely inconceivable, Russian leadership began seeing every anti-Putin rally as a call to launch a violent revolt, driven by forces outside of the country. That's not because it has any real reason to be afraid - the opposition is too weak for that - but because Putin's power rests on protest remaining invisible. And the Kremlin has taken cautious note of the pro-Western revolutions that have taken place in its neighborhood: from the Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2004 to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
A Leadership Opposed to Revolutions
"Fear has big eyes," according to a Russian proverb. To those full of fear, every street protest is a "color revolution" and every "color revolution" is a repeat of 1917. "We are the opposite of revolution," is the central doctrine of Putinism. A quarter of a century after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the revolution is once again, paradoxically, at the center of the Russian leadership's thinking.
That's what makes the anniversary so difficult. Those in power have no option but to look into the mirror of the past and search for a reflection of themselves. Do they resemble the leadership of the Czarist empire, which was toppled to the cheers of the populace? Or perhaps the democrats of the so-called Provisional Government, which only lasted half-a-year between the February and October Revolutions? Or do they see themselves as being similar to Lenin and his comrades, who set up a brutal dictatorship?
Putin and the country's leadership are opposed to revolutions, but they can't simply reject the October Revolution. The Russia of today, after all, is its offspring. It may be a capitalist society of consumers in which solidarity is scarcer, but freedom more abundant, than during the Soviet era. But the Soviet experience is deep inside. It is a country in which members of the intelligence service still call themselves "Chekists," after Lenin's bloody secret police, except that they now pray to the murdered Czar Nicholas II.
If you want to tell the story of the revolution as the Kremlin sees it today, you need to start with Pyotr Stolypin, the most capable of the Czars' prime ministers. Vladimir Putin had a monument to Stolypin erected in front of his seat of government when he was prime minister - and forced all of his cabinet members to donate one month of their salaries to fund it. There isn't a single functionary in the Kremlin party who hasn't once quoted the famous words Stolypin uttered to the opposition in 1907: "You want great upheaval, we want a great Russia!" It is a comfortable response to any protest.
Putin sees in Stolypin a kind of authoritarian modernizer who is misunderstood by the democrats, someone who wanted evolution instead of revolution - and a strong state. In other words: In Stolypin, Putin likes to see himself.
Historical Footage of Lenin (Silent)
In 1906, Stolypin became the prime minister of a country that was both weak and strong. It was the largest country in the world, with population growing by 2 million people per year, of which 80 percent were peasants. It had the world's largest standing army and a rapidly growing industry, but the army had to constantly maintain order inside of the country and half of the industrial sector belonged to foreigners. It had a secret police that infiltrated all revolutionary groups but also the world's most dangerous terrorists, who killed or injured 17,000 people over the course of two decades. It was home to the oldest dynasty in Europe but had an outdated political system.
In 1905, a year before Stolypin took office, Russia went through its first revolution - a precursor to 1917. Unrest and general strikes had broken out, exacerbated by the war the country lost against Japan. The Czar gave in, and introduced a parliament - which Stolypin again quickly dissolved. But the prime minister also tried to give the Czarist system a new social base, with free farmers instead of the traditional village communes. It was an attempt at authoritarian modernization.
The February Revolution
Hated by liberals and unloved by the Czars, Stolypin was murdered in Kiev in 1911 by terrorists. But even he wouldn't have been able to prevent the revolution, historian Orlando Figes argues. Figes claims that, like Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformer was worn down by the attempt to negotiate between the old elites and the radical opposition.
World War I began three years after Stolypin's death, and another three years later, the Czarist empire collapsed like a house of cards.
It began on the International Women's Day on February 23, according to the old calendar. In the capital of Petrograd - the name of Saint Petersburg had been changed at the start of the war because it sounded too German - women protested against bread shortages. Unlike Germany, which was starving because of the naval blockade, Russia had enough food, but it was poorly distributed. The long war required good organization, and in this, agrarian Russia was inferior to the modern industrialized countries.
In addition, trust in the Czar and his government had eroded. Rumors were circulating that he was actually allied with the Germans, that his German wife had been the lover of the miracle healer Rasputin and that food-supply problems had been created on purpose.
As the Czar was soon forced to realize, these forms of unrest couldn't be suppressed with troops. The military refused to obey orders and both the parliament and the generals began pushing the Czar to step down.
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"Slept long and deeply," Nicholas II wrote in his diary on the morning after his abdication. It seemed as though he shared the people's relief that he was no longer in power. From that point on, he spent time with his five children, shoveled snow in the garden and read Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the streets of Petrograd, a boistrous mob celebrated: Czarist emblems were torn down, strangers hugged one another and honking cars filled with armed men drove down Nevsky Prospect. People tacked red bands onto their coats and ran through the streets, looted and chased police officers. That's no revolution, novelist Maxim Gorki claimed, it's chaos. By the end of the February Revolution, hundreds of Petrograd residents were dead. They were buried on the Field of Mars, where they lie between cubical granite stones engraved with triumphant slogans: "Your seeds are ripening to a harvest for all people on Earth."
One hundred years later, a new revolution is gathering at the graves of the old one. It's not, of course, a real revolution, but it is a group of people protesting, which is quite a lot for Russia in 2017. It is early October, a chilly time of year when darkness falls quickly on the Neva River. Young Saint Petersburg residents warm themselves at the eternal flame for the victims of the February Revolution. They are supporters of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, though the fact that they are standing at the memorial for the Revolution is largely by chance. Indeed, some don't even know what it commemorates. It just so happens that the Field of Mars is the most popular place for demonstrations in Saint Petersburg.
Navalny is currently trying to introduce himself across the country as a candidate for the presidential election in March - which is absurd given that only the Kremlin decides who gets to be on the ballot. But Navalny simply pretends that it's a possibility - and that's enough for the authorities to take him seriously.
Particuarly on this early October day and in this city. It is Putin's 65th birthday, and St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown - which is why Navalny selected this time and place. And the authorities, as it happens, are treating the protest like lèse majesté - when it comes to this kind of thing, Russia is once again like a monarchy. Because of the Saint Petersburg demonstration, they imprisoned Navalny, banned the rally, warned students to stay away and closed the Field of Mars for construction work.
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Polina Kostyleva would like to have been at the demonstration. After all, the delicate-looking 40-year-old economist is its organizer, though the term organizer is a bit too innocuous in Putin's Russia, where the opposition must again work as conspiratorially as the revolutionaries did in the Czarist era, constantly wary of the police and the intelligence services. Kostyleva spent the night away from home so that the police wouldn't pick her up in the middle of the night, and she only communicates via the encrypted Telegram messaging app. That afternoon, she could be found sitting in the campaign office while helpers hectically try to keep 500 red balloons with the Navalny logo from the police. It's enough to make a person wonder: Is this a children's birthday party or a revolution?
'One Needs to Take Responsibility'
But the balloons and the red Navalny signs are important to Kostyleva. She wants political discussions instead of revolution and public fights for power instead of secret ones - that's what the balloons represent. "For me, the lesson of 1917 is that one needs to take responsibility," she says. "The Czar back then didn't want it, and the parties didn't want it either. And then the Bolsheviks saw the power lying on the floor and they simply took it." If decent people don't grab power, it will fall into the hands of the indecent. Such is the worldview of many protesters: Navalny or Putin. Decent or indecent. Us or them.
Kostyleva has hardly walked out into the street to drive to the protest before she is stopped by the police. She will spend the next six hours at a police station, which is where the balloons end up too. At least the cardboard signs make it onto the Field of Mars, with the leaderless crowd waving them in front of the cameras before moving towards Nevsky Prospect.
The mood becomes more raucous. On narrow sidewalks, even 2,000-3,000 people look like a lot - and the chants, a "happy birthday!" for Putin or "You can't arrest everyone" - echo loudly off the surrounding buildings.
The police arrest dozens of protestors and the march fizzles out, leaving a handful of people demonstrating outside the Galeria shopping mall with a few of the more passionate protesters wanting to spend the night in front of the Winter Palace. Ultimately, the march has descended into youths blowing off steam. And Kostyleva, who is at the end of her tether after thisi day, is no longer sure if the whole thing was a success or a failure.