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From Lenin to Putin: 100 years on from the Russian Revolution

Image credit: Amy Allcock (Flickr: Creative Commons)

7 November 2017 marked the centenary anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Revolution of 7 November 1917 changed the world for decades to follow. To just name one example, the Revolution was a major contributing factor to the spread of communism to countries such as China, North Korea and Cuba.

Although some Russians and non-Russians alike (mainly communist supporters and left-wing activists) commemorated the centenary of the Revolution, the Russian government stayed almost silent on the matter. This may be perplexing to many outside Russia for whom the history of the Russian Revolution forms such an integral part of major changes in European and world politics in the second half of the century.

From the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was already a very unhappy place for many people, with a large peasant population and growing industrial working class that struggled to get by from day-to-day. The first stage of the Revolution occurred in February 1917, which lead to the establishment of the Provisional Government, aimed at weakening the power of the Tsar.

A period of great unrest followed the February Revolution, and the First World War did nothing to improve the climate with Russia miserably losing on all fronts. Meanwhile, The Bolsheviks (the socialist party led by Vladimir Lenin) had been fighting for more control in the Government. They took advantage of the public’s disdain of the Provisional Government’s continued engagement in the war, and very quickly gained massive support at home.

On 7 November 1917, the Bolsheviks successfully (albeit violently) overthrew the Provisional Government and gained control of the country. A bloody civil war followed, which eventually ended in Bolshevik victory and marked the birth of communist Russia.

For many Russians, this was the Revolution they had been waiting for. It was out with the old, and in with the new. However, what many failed to foresee was that Lenin would mimic many of the autocratic and cruel methods of ruling used by his emperor predecessors, and which would later be adopted by his successor Joseph Stalin.

It’s at this point in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution that world politics would change forever. The life changing events that followed the Revolution span 74 years, beginning with the creation of the Soviet Union, the Second World War, the Cold War and taking us all the way through to fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These events illustrate just how powerful the Revolution was in altering the balance of power in the 20th century and its impact on individuals’ lives across the globe.

Surprisingly for those removed from Russia, major news outlets gave little, if any, attention to the centenary. This is a greater reflection of the indifference to the Revolution in Russia, rather than of a lack of interest abroad. Unlike the French and American Revolutions that continue to influence modern day France and America, the worldwide elation that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 symbolically erased the 1917 Revolution from Russian history, making the memories from the events of that year largely irrelevant to the modern Russian psyche. This may be one explanation for the apparent disinterest towards the Revolution amongst Russians, particularly by its government.

Moreover, Putin would be well aware of the large number of critics of his regime, both domestic and abroad, and celebrating the Revolution risks being interpreted as condoning violent overthrows of the state. Of course, France and America celebrate their respective revolutions, with no such connotations attached to the festivities. Such thinking highlights Putin’s own insecurities about the legitimacy of his governance and the nature of his regime.

It’s understandable that many Russians would feel uncomfortable about “celebrating” the 1917 Revolution. The reasons are not dissimilar to the German memory of Nazi Germany. As the Germans have demonstrated, however, there is a significant difference between “celebrating” and “commemorating”. Putin’s disinterest in nationally acknowledging the Revolution speaks to the weaknesses in his control and governance, rather than to the event’s significance in shaping Russia’s modern history.

Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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