A plethora of anniversaries is arriving in Russia. This month marks the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 and the 25th anniversary of the death of Leonid Brezhnev. Next month will see the 15th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Only by understanding that first event, however, can we understand the others.
The October Revolution has always had many critics. The Russian philosopher Ivan Shmelev named it “the great beating of Russia.” Vasily Rozanov called it “The Massacre of Russia.” Countless authors view it as a tragedy that broke the flow of history and destroyed Russia’s best people.
But the October Revolution also has its apologists, for whom it marked the beginning of a new era in history, a breakthrough to freedom from a world of slavery and oppression, a salvation for Russia and Europe, and a source of hope for Asia and Africa. According to this view, there was no conspiracy, but a great social revolution that, by virtue of a powerful internal logic, brought to power workers, peasants, and the Bolshevik party, which represented their will.
For the majority of Russians who grew up in the Soviet system, there is truth in both views, but no place for ultra-radical criticism of the October Revolution and other aspects of socialist life in the 20th century USSR. The revolution is not only history for many people; it is also a part of life and consciousness. Of course, this does not excuse those who refuse to listen to reasoned analysis about our country’s past, but Russians will not accept glib rants.
Studying the Russian Revolution is almost as old as the revolution itself, and has yielded a massive amount of research both at home and abroad. But, even today, we are still far from understanding many important factors, connections, motives, reasons, and consequences in what happened in 1917 and during the first years of Soviet power. Few events in history have generated so many concepts and theories for their explanation and assessment – or so many falsifications, both crude and sophisticated.
Both the Bolsheviks and their opponents were involved in these falsifications, concealing, distorting, and concocting facts and circumstances, whether they referred to the real role of Stalin or Trotsky in the revolution or to the behavior of peasants and Cossacks. Thousands of names fell out of the history, people’s deeds were “passed” to others, and the nature, motives, and activities of parties, groups, national movements, and classes were distorted.
The revolution and its leaders were idolized, and falsified reputations and biographies were created. The real course of events was simplified and “straightened,” with each stage of the revolution made into the natural continuation of the previous one. Nobody talked about the revolution leaders’ mistakes, doubts, hesitations, and ignorance. The most important archives were inaccessible, and some documents were destroyed.
The situation started to change in 1988-1991, when the history of the USSR and the Russian revolutions moved to the center of public attention. The collapse of the USSR and the Communist Party opened new horizons – and almost all archives – for historians. Masses of documents and other sources related to the beginnings of Soviet power became accessible for survey and analysis. Today, no matter what people say of Vladimir Putin’s administration, we are free from political and strict ideological censorship. Although today’s new political reality in Russia is creating its own new myths and falsifications, this has not extended to historians’ work. So the impartial history of the Russian Revolution that has not been written may yet be.
Putin rarely talks about the problems of Russia’s twentieth-century history, once replying to a direct question about his attitude toward the events of 1917 by saying that he considered it to be “the country’s natural reaction to defeat in the First World War.” When he visited the Russian cemetery near Paris – where many central figures of the “White movement” and Russian emigrants are buried – Putin placed wreaths on the graves of Ivan Bunin, a Russian poet, and Vika Obolenskaya, a hero of the French resistance.
Putin also stopped near the common gravestone of generals and officers of the “White” armies. “We are children of the same mother – Russia,” said Putin, “and it’s time for us all to unite.” The remains of Andrey Denikin, a “white” general, have recently been moved to Moscow, and the remains of Vladimir Karpel, another “White” general, to Irkutsk.
A monument to Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who led the White effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks, has been erected in Irkutsk, and a monument to Nicholas II has been built in Moscow. Indeed, the Orthodox Church has consecrated Nicholas II a saint. These are steps toward the unification of a state and nation, and not attempts to gain revenge or break up Russia. Today, good conditions exist for calm and unbiased examination of Russia’s past, from the Revolution of 1917 to the days of stagnation under Brezhnev. It is a moment that historians must seize.