Global Affairs

Spectre of Red Revolution haunts Russia to this day

How the Bolshevik Revolution unfolded 100 years ago shows there is nothing inevitable about ruptures in history


LONDON • Had the Soviet Union still existed, tomorrow would have been its grandest moment, the day in which the self-proclaimed "Workers' State" would have celebrated with huge military parades and "popular demonstrations" the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution which heralded the birth of the world's first communist state.

As it happens, Russia is holding this week both a grand military display and a lot of other festivities. Yet none of these is directly connected to that "Great Red Revolution" a century ago; instead, the festivities in Moscow are designed to mark National Unity Day, a holiday which Russian President Vladimir Putin invented out of nowhere a few years ago, precisely in order to divert the attention of ordinary Russians from that old communist takeover.

Few anniversaries illustrate Russia's historic predicament better than this episode; this is a country desperate to forget its bloody past, yet somehow never able to do so. But then, neither has the rest of the world. For although nobody who was alive a century ago is still with us today, the Bolshevik Revolution which unfolded in November 1917 still haunts us to this day.

Counterfactual history - the attempt to guess what might have happened if things turned out differently - is a popular pastime. But ultimately, this is an intellectual game rather than a science.

Still, history counterfactuals do serve a scientific purpose: they help us measure the sheer magnitude of a past event. And judging by this yardstick, there is no question that the "Red Revolution" of a century ago was of monumental significance, a historic rupture which literally "shook the world", as John Reed, the American journalist who wrote the first Western eyewitness account of that event, rightly named it.

Without that revolution, it is possible that World War I would have ended differently, and World War II would have never happened. Without that Red Revolution, it is likely that we would not have had the Cold War, that China would not have turned communist, North Korea would not have existed, and Europe would have been a very different continent.

And without that November revolution, it is certain that tens of millions of ordinary human beings would have not ended their lives starved, shot or confined to other indescribable forms of torture, either because they dared hope for a different existence, or sometimes for no reason at all apart from the fact that some Soviet communist official had an officially imposed daily quota of executions to fulfil.


But there are many other conclusions which can be drawn from that episode, with greater benefit to the handling of similar episodes today.

The first is that there is nothing inevitable about the eruption of a revolution, and no predictable pattern either. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Russian state and the inability or unwillingness of its emperors to implement real reform have been obvious since at least the early 19th century, if not earlier.

Counterfactual history - the attempt to guess what might have happened if things turned out differently - is a popular pastime. But ultimately, this is an intellectual game rather than a science.

Still, history counterfactuals do serve a scientific purpose: they help us measure the sheer magnitude of a past event.

Yet somehow, the ramshackle Russian empire continued to stagger on, and most of those who went on to overthrow the imperial regime assumed that Russia would continue to do so for much longer. A mere seven weeks before he ended up in Russia at the head of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, told a dejected gathering of socialists in Switzerland - where he was living as a refugee from the empire's secret agents - that "old people like me won't see the coming of the revolution; you, the younger ones, may do so".

Why revolutions erupt at particular moments is always something easily explainable after the event, but neither preordained nor inevitable; Lenin's own Soviet Union went out of existence in a similarly sudden and surprising puff of smoke in 1991, with no warning.

Revolutions are also vulnerable to being "stolen" by others, for they are seldom the popular events they are depicted to be. The real Russian revolution which ended the reign of Czar Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor, was not the communist one we recall today, but a mildly socialist one led by Russian politicians who wanted their nation to end up resembling today's prosperous Western states, not the autocratic parallel universe which the Soviet Union ultimately became. But those politicians were no match for the ruthless Lenin who simply usurped their power.

And although the images we have in our minds today about the Bolshevik Revolution are those of crowds storming imperial palaces, all such images are absolute fakes - early example of today's "fake news" phenomenon, movie clips fabricated by Soviet propagandists in an effort to give their seizure of power a resemblance to a mass movement. In reality, this was a palace coup, perpetrated by the most extreme and most bloodthirsty of all Russian revolutionaries.

Nor was ideology the crucially significant element it was claimed to be. Karl Marx, the father of communism, dismissed Russia as an irrelevance, as too backward to be "ripe" for communism. Lenin turned Marx's ideology upside down by claiming that Russia was the "weakest link" in a capitalist system and that, therefore, its revolution represented communism, a self-serving argument intended to justify his seizure of power.

Lenin did proceed to implement Marx's ideas in Russia, and the Soviet Union - just like today's Venezuela - ultimately proved why Marx's ideology could not have any other end but disaster. Yet had it not been for the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany (in itself an event which came about only because the Nazis turned against the Soviets who used to be their allies), communism would not have spread anywhere else in Europe. And the countries where communism was more home-grown - China or Yugoslavia, for instance - were also the first to distance themselves from the Soviet Union.

Lenin's brand of communism destroyed one system of inequalities only to replace it with another that was arguably more cruel and capricious than the one which operated in Russia's imperial days. As a joke making the rounds in the Soviet Union used to put it, "while capitalism in the West represents the exploitation of men by men, in the USSR, the reality is the reverse".

And ideology offered no immunity from nationalism. Notwithstanding its claims to "racial brotherhood", the Soviet Union remained the old Russian empire writ large - a country in which ethnic Russians ruled, and Russification of other ethnic groups was elevated to state policy.

In essence, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as the country was officially known, was a state whose very name included a falsehood in every word: it was not a union, it was not ruled by Soviets (councils), it was not socialist in the way Marx envisaged, and it was hardly a republic in the traditional sense. That's what usually happens to revolutions; they change far less than initially assumed.

But the spectre of that Red Revolution continues to haunt Russia. President Putin is on record as rejecting Lenin's actions, which he finds abhorrent. Yet Lenin's waxy corpse with its unnatural ginger hair still lies pickled in its glass coffin in the centre of Russia's capital; nobody has the courage to take it away for a proper burial.

Lenin and Stalin's terror is over, but most of the country's intelligence officers are proud to call themselves "Chekists", after the acronym of the communist regime's feared security services. Communism has gone, but the hammer and sickle still adorn some public buildings and are still part of the logo of Aeroflot, Russia's flag carrier airline. And, for the first time in decades, 56 per cent of ordinary Russians surveyed in a recent poll claimed that Lenin's contribution to Russia was "largely positive".

It wasn't, as President Putin himself acknowledges. Mr Putin does not grieve for the old Soviet Union; instead, he mourns Russia's imperial greatness, a destiny which he wants to restore. But his problem is that this restoration cannot be implemented without validating much of what has happened during the days of the Soviet Union.

So, while many around the world will try this week to mark the Bolshevik Revolution's anniversary without really recalling its details, the Russians will pretend not to notice the anniversary, while pondering on every twist of that drama which disfigured their country for ever.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Spectre of Red Revolution haunts Russia to this day'. Subscribe