Sailors of the Imperial Russian Navy with a sign proclaiming "Death to the Bourgeois!" in 1917
Over the last century, Russia has suffered two revolutions followed by two counter-revolutions, and not surprisingly, its current leaders have found it difficult to come up with a formula that recognizes that reality without subverting the messages of evolutionary change that they want to send to the Russian people today.
In 1917, there was a real revolution in February, in which the tsar abdicated and the parliament took power. The failures of that revolution to restore order led to the Bolshevik counter-revolution in October, whose fall-out was to suppress the freedoms — individual and collective — the first revolution had proclaimed and to restore the empire.
- Lenin during his few years in office put in place the institutional arrangements,
- Then Stalin exploited them over decades to construct a horrific totalitarian regime to throw the country back even further than it was before the tsar’s abdication.
Seventy-four years later, Russia had another genuine revolution, in August 1991, during which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed and in the ensuing weeks the USSR disintegrated with the three Baltic countries recovering the de facto independence that they had never lost de jure and the 11 non-Russian union republics gained their independence.
But once again Russia suffered a counter-revolution and one that in many ways resembles counter-revolution begun in October 1917. In place of the ousted Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin simultaneously talked about freedom and democracy but suppressed opposition in Moscow and in Chechnya and put in place the arrangements his successor has exploited.
Indeed, Yeltsin even named the man who has taken the second counter-revolution to its current depths, Vladimir Putin, thus going Lenin one better who openly questioned whether Stalin, in fact his creation, had the right kind of personality to head what the Bolshevik leader thought was still a revolutionary regime.
Not surprisingly, given these parallels, Putin has been anything but eager to promote a genuine commemoration of what happened in 1917, because the real revolutionaries were in February and they overthrew the tsarist regime which he likes to view as a matrix for his own rule and the Bolsheviks were for all their revolutionary slogans de facto counter-revolutionaries.
An increasing number of Russians have understood this problem – see, for example, Vladimir Annishchenkov’s essay, “On the Centenary of the October Counter-Revolution” (in Russian) on the Russkaya liniya portal. But most haven’t, because the regime has convinced most that those who call themselves revolutionaries really are.
On this anniversary of the first Russian counter-revolution, at a time when the second Russian counter-revolution is going full speed ahead, it is important not to fall into the same trap and to recognize that reality and also the difficulties that Russians and so many others have in recognizing, admitting, and taking it into account.
- The October Revolution: what it means for Ukrainians
- UK exhibition on 1917 Revolution puts Ukraine’s Leninfall in the spotlight
- The Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 and why it matters for historians of the Russian revolution(s)
- The revolution looming in Russia will be more like 1917 than like 1991, Pastukhov says
- ‘Alternatives to revolution in Putin’s Russia are not elections but more wars,’ Eidman says
- Apocalyptic Russian nationalist utopias of today parallel their pre-1917 antecedents
- Russia’s ‘special path’ is ‘modernization via catastrophe,’ historian Sergey Medvedev says