On Revolution Centenary, Perplexed Russians Ask, ‘Who Am I To Judge?’

File Photo of Revolutionaries Marching in Moscow in 1917, adapted from image at state.gov

(Article ©2017 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Tom Balmforth, Robert Coalson – ST. PETERSBURG/MOSCOW – Nov. 5, 2017 – also appeared at rferl.org/a/anniversary-bolshevik-revolution-100-lenin-assessment/28836011.html)

The small museum in St. Petersburg located in the apartment where Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin lived in the months before the October 1917 Bolshevik coup was inexplicably closed one recent weekday afternoon.

A small, elderly woman was stubbornly ringing the bell, trying to get in. Asked about her opinion of the revolution that changed the history of her country, rocked the world, and shaped her entire life, she seemed lost for words.

“Oh, I don’t know,” the woman told RFE/RL. “I don’t know what to say. Fifty-fifty, as they say. God only knows. If we’d had a monarchy, then maybe we would have lived differently. It’s hard to say now. But it happened. That’s it. It happened.”

As the November 7 centennial arrives — the revolution happened in late October under the calendar Russia used at the time, but in early November according to the calendar most of the world used — Russians seem curiously uncertain about what to make of the 100-year-old events. And they are getting precious little help from the state, which strictly controls national media and which seems determined to let the historic date pass with as little fanfare as possible.

“Twenty-five years ago, it seemed this date would be marked as the centennial of, of course, a huge tragedy,” historian Nikolai Svanidze said. “Now it is not being observed at all because the authorities have not reached a consensus on how to mark it.

“For the authorities today, any revolution is a bad thing. Any revolution is a threat. Now that word is never used without the [negative] adjective ‘colored,'” he added, referring to the Kremlin’s shorthand label for what it sees as Western-inspired uprisings in the former Soviet Union.

After decades of Soviet propaganda followed by the revelations of the glasnost period and the 1990s, and the inexorable rehabilitation of many aspects of the Soviet Union under President Vladimir Putin, today’s Russians find themselves inundated by deeply conflicting views of 1917 that are difficult to reconcile.

In an October 19 speech to the Valdai discussion club, an annual Kremlin-backed forum for foreign and Russian policy analysts, Putin noted that the 1917 revolution, in which a small group of Bolshevik revolutionaries overthrew the Provisional Government that came to power after the monarchy was deposed in February 1917, produced “complex results” in which “the negative and — it must be acknowledged — positive consequences were extremely tightly intertwined.”

It was an “obvious fact,” he said, that 1917 “provided a powerful stimulus for the transformation of the entire world” and that “many of the achievements of the West in the 20th century were a response to the challenges presented by the Soviet Union.” Among those achievements, Putin listed raising living standards, the formation of a powerful middle class, social and labor reforms, and improvements in education and human rights.

Historian Svanidze offers a starkly contrasting assessment of the revolution’s global and national impact.

“On the one hand, without the October coup in Russia, it is possible that there may never have been Italian fascism or, most likely, German Nazism,” he said. “Rather, they would have existed, but they would not have come to power, most likely, and so, one could argue, there most likely wouldn’t have been a World War II or the Soviet portion of that conflict, the Great Patriotic War. In this regard, it is hard to overestimate the negative consequences of October 1917.”

“I won’t go into the other horrors in our own country, from the Holodomor (the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine) to extrajudicial executions and repressions,” Svanidze added. “There were positives for the entire world along the lines of, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ We were fated to play the tremendous historical role of the man who goes out first with a stick to see if the ice is thick enough to cross. He falls through, but he saves the others. God knows we didn’t intend to save anyone, but that’s the way it turned out.”

Opinion polls in Russia regularly find society deeply split in its view of the 1917 revolution. A poll by the independent Levada Center in April found that 48 percent viewed the events either favorably or somewhat favorably, while 31 percent viewed them negatively or somewhat negatively.

For Levada Center sociologist Aleksei Levinson, another question in the poll might be more revealing. In an interview published on October 31, he noted that only 12 percent of Russians said they would have sided with the Bolsheviks if they had been alive at the time. Thirty-three percent of respondents said they “would have just tried to survive without participating in the events.”

It was a tragic event for Russia and its citizens, but we can’t rewrite history. We need to draw lessons from it.”
— Lyudmila Panova, St. Petersburg pediatrician
“Public opinion’s position on the revolution is up in the air,” Levinson said. “In reality, it is a position of declining to make a judgment.”

To be sure, many Russians feel the importance of coming to terms with 1917.

“It was a tragic event for Russia and its citizens, but we can’t rewrite history,” said Lyudmila Panova, 59, a pediatrician from St. Petersburg. “We need to draw lessons from it.”

However, in conversations with Russians, one often hears an abdication of assessment.

“It’s our history, for good or for bad,” said Natasha, a 50-year-old factory worker from Kamchatka on vacation in St. Petersburg in October. “It’s not going anywhere. We grew up with it.”

“I think there were positive moments and negative ones,” her husband, Igor, agreed.

In Moscow, 19-year-old Andrei, an activist with the Komsomol, the modern successor to the Leninist youth organization founded during the peak of revolutionary enthusiasm in 1922, also struggles to express his views.

“You can accept it as history, as a fact that happened,” he said. “What’s more, we’re not the generation that lived in the Soviet Union. We don’t know firsthand what it was like. Now we can just reflect about the country in which we live.

“We can talk about what is happening now because we are alive and we feel it with the fibers of our soul,” he added. “But we can’t talk of that time because we didn’t feel it and we didn’t live it. That’s my opinion.”

His fellow Komsomol member Dasha argued that “history is too subjective at the moment.”

“History is rewritten and rewritten again in the crudest ways,” she said. “Therefore, it is very difficult to dig to the truth and understand what is truth and what is an ideological bandage and what is just a barefaced lie.”

Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says these attitudes are determined partly by a lack of understanding about what happened and a lack of interest in the topic. But a more important factor is the absence of a real public discussion of the revolution with serious alternative interpretations. The unwillingness to express a view is a way of not contradicting the government’s generally positive view of the revolution, since negative interpretations are rarely aired in schools or on state media.

“If there were a real discussion with alternative points of view that people could join in on, even people who don’t really understand the topic would at least have heard something,” Volkov said. “If there were such a discussion with various views, you would see more varied answers and fewer people declining to respond.

“You can’t say [the state media] are completely silent, but they definitely have put the topic off to the side,” he added. “I think there is much more interest in this anniversary abroad than here in Russia.”

Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov sees the reluctance to assess the 1917 events as a manifestation of a Russian social type that he calls “Soviet Man.” In an essay published in 2016, Gudkov argues that lack of opportunity and constantly emerging threats to his own life and the lives of those close to him throughout the Soviet period produced a social type that “more than anything else was concerned with physical survival.”

Although specialists expected this type to disappear after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gudkov argues that this hasn’t been the case.

“This type of person is a little less noticeable in relatively good times when incomes are rising and there is relative relaxation of public discussion, less falsification of elections, and a rest from military adventurism and patriotic militarism and from campaigns against various internal and external enemies,” Gudkov wrote. “On the other hand, they come to the fore in times of economic, political, and social crises.

“As authoritarianism and the sterilization of political pluralism in Russia has increased, this type has come to the forefront,” he concluded.

Levada research indicates that while just 35 to 40 percent of the Russian population has “concentrated features” of the Soviet type, a full 80 percent of the population demonstrates at least some of those features, which include “characteristic behaviors, life strategies, and identity elements.”

“The emergence of this human type in the forefront can be seen as a symptom of society’s stagnation or even of its increasing degradation,” he wrote.

However, Grigory Yudin, a sociologist with the Higher School of Economics, sees an emerging countertrend among more educated Russians. His research among journalists, activists, educators, and the like finds more and more of them turning to what he calls “second memory” in an effort to come to grips with the Soviet legacy.

In opposition to the “first” or state-dominated memory featured in the state media and official textbooks, Yudin says that today’s Russia is seeing a “boom” in interest in understanding Russian history through the prism of one’s own local experience.

“Among these people, a strong demand has emerged to remember the history of their own families, to remember the history of their own cities and regions,” he said. “They want to know what happened to their ancestors, their relatives, and to honor their memory. Remembering has become fashionable today and, on the other hand, not remembering or ignoring the memory of one’s ancestors is looked down upon.”

With reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Mikhail Sokolov and Sergei Medvedev