Tuesday marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but a spokesman described as a “routine working day” for President Vladimir Putin, who evidently wanted to step lightly around the centenary for fear of political repercussions.
“Accused by the opposition of having metamorphosed into a cross between a Soviet-style autocrat and a Tsar and eyeing possible re-election next year, the 65-year-old Russian leader has spent years preaching stability while denouncing uprisings in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East,” Reuters reports.
Reuters also points out that Putin has “cherry-picked parts of Russia’s Soviet past, like its World War Two victory and its success in space,” to build a new heroic political narrative that portrays him as the proud heir of a considerably revamped Joseph Stalin. Judging by the polls, this has gone over fairly well with much of the Russian public. Putin would have little to gain by making a big splash at Russian Revolution anniversary events and inviting critics to recall his days with the KGB.
This is not to say that Putin has avoided the centenary entirely. Reuters recalls his comments to an academic conference last month that the results of the revolution were “ambiguous,” and it would have been better to achieve the positive results without violent upheaval.
“Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?” Putin asked, without dwelling on just how “fractured” many of those lives became.
Reuters judges Putin to be less worried about liberalized opponents aghast at the bloody human toll of the revolution than resurgent Communists looking to build political momentum from the big anniversary. “Capitalism is stumbling from one crisis to another. We are convinced that the sun of socialism will once again rise over Russia and the whole world,” wrote Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in a note to his followers marking the occasion.
Communist nostalgia does not seem to be jelling into a formidable political force just yet, but it is not to be dismissed lightly. CBC News speculates that Vladimir Lenin might be surprised to find Muscovites “have done an effective job at wiping away traces of the long communist era from their city—other than his own tomb in Red Square, of course”:
Brutalist, austere buildings still abound, but their oppressive grey colors have been brightened up by colourful pastels. Mega-malls filled with European chain stores now clutter the suburbs. And in Moscow’s many trendy neighbourhoods, wine bars, gastro pubs and an abundance of coffee shops serve as testimonials to the consumer clout of Russia’s hipster generation.
With Lenin and his Communist Party successors inextricably linked to food shortages, repression and millions of deaths, government-sanctioned celebrations of the revolution’s anniversary have been kept low key.
The CBC article goes on to report that younger Russians are beginning to toy with communism as a solution for “many problems of the poor and working class,” remodeling the ideology into a crusade against state corruption and greedy oligarchy.
“The turning point of the entire 20th century was the 1917 Revolution—something that has brought the world equal rights, women’s right to vote, a set working day and has created a social government that we know today. We still want the same things,” 23-year-old Communist Party member Danill Zemlyanoy said.
One of Zemlyanoy’s friends chimed in to assert that Russia is now “far less free than back in the U.S.S.R.,” which is encouraging proof that America’s youth are not the only ones devoid of historical memory. CBC quotes a survey that asserts over half of Russians now believe the collapse of the Soviet Union was a “bad thing” and they would “welcome a restoration of the socialist system.”
The L.A. Times marked the centenary with a bizarre column that equates communism with public works and the concept of “shared risk and shared wealth,” most strangely suggesting national parks and interstate highways are somehow intellectually tied to the Bolshevik Revolution. Note for anyone confused on the point: Communism is not remotely about the government owning a little property and managing it wisely in the public interest.
The L.A. Times goes on to acknowledge the “anguished screams of the executed, the whimperings of the starving,” and the “remembered betrayals of neighbors and relatives for the sake of the party.” That’s essentially what Putin said, minus the flourishes about screaming and whimpering.
Communism could make a comeback, in Russia and elsewhere, because authoritarianism never stopped flourishing, and because the poisonous idea that communist and socialist tyrants “meant well” was never burned out of academic life, as it should have been—as it was for the fascists, who are correctly given no credit for getting the trains to run on time. Putin stepped lightly around the Bolshevik centenary because he understands his brand of authoritarianism leaves fertile ground for other kinds to grow once again. His system uses just enough “capitalism” to give the communists something to complain about.