A few years ago, I noticed a change in the way I saw the city of Moscow. I had emigrated from there with my family when I was little, and when I first started going back as a college student in the 1990s, I saw an old European city buried under a layer of crude Soviet architecture. This was a function of how I saw the Soviet Union—negatively—and also of how little I knew of Europe. But it seemed to me that if you just gave the crumbling old European-style buildings a paint job, and either knocked down or ignored the Soviet ones, you would end up with a pretty OK place.
In the two decades since then, the city has changed. The old pastel-colored buildings in the city’s center, built by the hereditary aristocracy in the early nineteenth century, after the defeat of Napoleon, and by the city’s emergent merchant class in the century’s second half, really did get a paint job, and some of the old Soviet buildings really did get neglected, and in many cases torn down. Walking down certain streets in the center of town, you could, if you squinted, get the impression that you were in some generic European capital, rather than the former capital of the world revolution.
But by this point I had traveled in Europe a little bit, and understood its history better, and I had a slightly more nuanced view of the Soviet Union. And what I began to notice was the remarkable Soviet cultural heritage that was being neglected—a heritage more interesting than some lime-green buildings that could have appeared just as well in Paris. Now I found myself stumbling on Constructivist masterpieces—Melnikov House, Narkomfin, the Zuev Workers’ Club—on out-of-the-way streets, and in poor repair. Instead of a repressed Western city peeking out from under the rubble of socialism, I began to see a socialist city peeking out from the bacchanalia of a resurgent and increasingly authoritarian capitalism.
I found myself thinking about this minor phenomenon when asked about the legacy of 1917 because one’s answer to the question of what the Bolshevik Revolution has left us depends so much on your perspective—on what you’re looking for, and what you see when it appears.
It’s tempting to say that in the post-Soviet space, 1917 is basically forgotten. The signal historical event is instead the Second World War. It is around the symbols and affiliations of the war that political passions, often of the worst kind, are most frequently aroused, whether in the debate over the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (or UPA)—freedom fighters, according to Ukrainian nationalists; Nazi collaborators, according to Soviet historiography; a bit of both, according to modern historians—or the ugly argument over memorialization of the Soviet war dead in a place like Estonia, where the victory of the Red Army was not experienced in 1945 and afterward as an unalloyed good. The Russian historian Alexei Miller has argued that the “memory wars” as they are now being played out in Europe are the result of the accession to the European Union of the former Warsaw Pact countries. The successful postwar European project, Miller says, was largely built on a consensus around the Holocaust: that it was the worst thing that could possibly happen; that it was a crime of which no European country was entirely innocent; and that it was something everyone could pledge to prevent from ever happening again. The entry into mainstream European institutions of the Warsaw Pact and even more so the former Soviet republics has exploded that consensus, because these countries bring with them a memory of victimization, at the hands of Soviet power, that is stronger than the memory of their guilt. In the historical sphere they have sought above all (and largely successfully) to equate the two tyrannies, Nazi and Soviet. And this in turn has led to tensions not only with Russia, but with Russian or Russian-oriented minority populations in the Baltic states, Moldova, and of course Ukraine.
The October Revolution is not at the center of historical debates in this space; neither is it, increasingly, the paradigmatic revolution. There are so many other, more recent revolutions to choose from. For one thing, there are the events leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when a wide range of people across the entire empire came out into the streets to demand change, and actually got it (in many cases, more change than they could handle). More recently still, there have been the “color” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, all the result of popular protests in response to attempted electoral theft. The Russian political scientist Dmitri Furman even developed a theory of these revolutions, arguing that the standard post-Soviet political system—pseudo or “imitation” democracy, as he called it—was most obviously revealed to be a fraud, and therefore experienced its most acute moment of danger, during election season. Stolen elections also gave the often fractious, disorganized opposition in these places a cause to rally around. Even the famously dysfunctional Russian opposition was able to get together to mount its most impressive ever challenge to the Putin regime just after numerous individuals documented blatant, widespread electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. Furman hypothesized that pseudo-democracies would either have to become genuine democracies or dispense with the trappings of democracy altogether.
The Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 broke from this pattern. It appeared, on its surface, to be a replay of the Orange Revolution of a decade earlier: the main standoff took place in the exact same square in the center of Kiev as the previous revolution; many of its animating issues (Russia vs. the West, Ukrainian nationalism versus Soviet-style “internationalism”) were identical; and the chief antagonist of the protests, Viktor Yanukovych, was the exact same person. But there were, in fact, important differences. The main one was that the protest was unconnected to an election (Yanukovych had won his election in 2010 fair and square). It was also essentially leaderless—the parliamentary opposition that attached itself to the protests was unpopular—and because there was no electoral fraud to protest, the issues that animated it were more diffuse: a Western orientation; an end to corruption (in particular that of Yanukovych and his family); “dignity.” In all these ways the Maidan revolution was much more like the revolutions in Arab countries known collectively as the Arab Spring than it was like the color revolutions that had preceded it in the post-Soviet space. And, like the Arab Spring revolutions, it has not been able to consolidate its gains.
If the central historical argument animating the post-Soviet countries is about the Second World War, and the Bolshevik Revolution is no longer the model against which all revolutions are measured, nonetheless 1917 crops up here and there. Again, in Ukraine, it was statues of Lenin that became, during and after the Maidan revolution, a symbol of Russian power, and were therefore the victims of a nationwide toppling, the “Leninopad.” Over 1,300 statues were destroyed in the course of two and a half years, first more or less spontaneously, then as a result of the “decommunization” law passed by the Ukrainian parliament in 2015. This was mostly a rejection of Russian imperialism, and Lenin was not an inapt target: the author of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was also the man who resurrected the Russian empire by force of arms in the wake of its collapse in 1917 and renamed it the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Lenin’s—and Stalin’s—later work in the 1920s to create indigenous national cultures and traditions—not to mention political institutions and borders—is of course ignored. And again, fairly enough, given that this indigenization process was followed in the 1930s by the brutal repression and annihilation of the native intelligentsias.
It was the perceived threat to the Lenin statue in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, which rallied at least some part of the populace to the streets to defend him. Interestingly, in the case of Donetsk, Lenin meant more than just “Russia,” though he meant that, too: some supporters of the anti-Maidan, as they called it, wanted to return more to the Soviet Union than they did to Russia. For them Lenin meant something more like “Lenin”—the founder of a state that, for all its terrible flaws, guaranteed to its residents, at least in the 1960s and ’70s, a certain stability, social cohesion, and promise of a better future. None of these things were, to their minds, present in post-Soviet Ukraine. It is one of the many tragedies of the war that these people’s legitimate grievances and desperate hopes became once again the plaything of cynical politicians on all sides.
Amazingly, or not so amazingly, the October Revolution was also on the minds of some of the founders of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. The author of that sad state’s declaration of independence, Boris Litvinov, was a longtime local Communist. For him, the independence of Donetsk was not a cynical attempt by Moscow to maintain a lever of influence over Kiev, but an opportunity to return to the ideals of October. He enjoyed regaling visiting journalists with tales of how he printed up the ballots for Donetsk’s hasty independence referendum in a top-secret location. He reminded them that the Soviet Union, too, had to wait for years before it was diplomatically acknowledged by the capitalist powers. He knew just what he was doing when he wrote the new statelet’s declaration of independence. Even though at that point Kiev still controlled the local military and police, by declaring a separate sovereign state, he was creating a classic dual power situation. Once dual power is asserted, anything can happen. Litvinov, of course, is no longer anywhere near the levers of power in Donetsk.
In Russia itself, the legacy of the October Revolution is the most forgotten, the most ignored, and the most paradoxical of all.
For the current regime, it is practically the one historical event they do not wish to claim as part of the rich tapestry of Russian history. Putin has been a fervent devotee of the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet military might, émigré existentialist philosophers, and the occasional tsar. Popular culture has been equally promiscuous: figures as disparate as Genghis Khan, fictional seventeenth-century Ukrainian Cossack Taras Bulba, leader of the White armies Admiral Kolchak, the T-34 tank, 1950s hipsters, and most controversially Stalin have all been featured as admirable or at least sympathetic figures in the Russian movies and television shows of the past decade.
But Lenin and the Bolsheviks are out of bounds. They appear sometimes late at night on the quasi-fantastic “history” shows on pro-Kremlin NTV as German agents or secret Freemasons or not-so-secret Jews. The word “revolution” itself is practically taboo—except as something to be avoided at all costs. Here 1917 and 1991 are made synonymous, which is actually a neat trick. How can it be doubted that all revolutions are bad if chaos and hunger followed in the wake of both the initial revolution and the revolution meant to undo that revolution? Best to avoid revolution entirely and not, in the words of pro-regime protesters, “rock the boat.”
That Lenin is depicted as a quasi-satanic villain while Stalin is the ambiguous but basically sympathetic leader of Soviet victory in the Second World War seems to be the result of a two-fold process. First, the Second World War was the last time Russia was unequivocally on the right side of history; the current regime has therefore found it convenient, and even sometimes necessary, to keep reminding people of the fact that, many decades ago, Baltic and Ukrainian nationalists allied themselves with the Nazis. (Stalin’s pre-1941 alliance with the Nazis is, naturally, not often mentioned.) But it is also a reflection of the Putin regime’s powerful and at times desperate fear of revolution, whether of the kind that twice shook Ukraine in the past decade or the kind that Russia saw in 1990–91. Revolution is not an abstract concept in this part of the world. Stalin’s relatively undistinguished role in the events of October 1917, which haunted him during his own life, has finally, a hundred years later, come in very handy.
For the tiny independent Russian left, the October Revolution is not exactly an unambiguous aid to thought. On the one hand, it has given them a historical memory of great success. But it has also saddled them with all the crimes committed in the name of that revolution, of which they are as well aware as anyone. For the most part, our colleagues on the Russian left have been undertaking the work of updating their knowledge of anti-capitalist struggle as it looks in the modern world (and not how it looked from the USSR in the 1970s, say); they have also sought to rehabilitate those aspects of Soviet life that they deem worthy—its selflessness, idealism, and rough equality.
One of the constant arguments has been over the historical memory of the Gulag. It has been a memory largely kept alive by anti-communist liberals, rather than leftists, even though, as the leftist poet, activist, and small publisher Kirill Medvedev once wrote, “Please don’t talk to me about your ‘historical experience’ of Soviet oppression: it’s not your experience, it’s the experience of Mayakovsky (a Bolshevik), of Shalamov (a Trotskyist), of Mandelstam (a Socialist Revolutionary), of others.” It’s important to Russian leftists that 1917 happened in the very place where they live and work and organize; they hold the (roughly speaking) Trotskyist position that the revolution itself was a step forward, though Stalinism was a step back. At the same time they know that the political situation is now very different; you can only learn so much from a hundred-year-old political event in what was then a completely different country. The appearance of a Russian Bernie Sanders, or indeed of another Lenin, is for the moment difficult to imagine.
The current landscape of opposition politics is dominated by the singularly modern figure of Alexei Navalny. A former corporate lawyer, Navalny made his name online as a pro-capitalist, anti-immigration critic of the Putin regime; he has since modulated his nationalism and now focuses instead on the regime’s corruption. He has been a brilliant user of blogs and social media, and his YouTube videos exposing corruption in Putin’s inner circle garner millions of views. The regime has briefly arrested him numerous times but has not had the nerve to keep him imprisoned. (Instead, his brother Oleg is serving a three-and-a-half year sentence on what are transparently false charges.) Now Navalny is running for president in 2018. Even if he makes it onto the ballot (unlikely), and is allowed to campaign unmolested (impossible), and the votes are counted fairly (inconceivable), without access to the central television channels he has no chance of winning. But what will happen then? It will, in any case, be interesting, and that it will have much in common with 1917 is unlikely.
For the foreseeable future, the country’s left-revolutionary history, in which demands for the end to political tyranny were coupled with demands for an end to economic tyranny, will remain, like Moscow’s utopian revolutionary architecture, neglected—whether biding its time or receding forever into the past, it’s too early to tell.
Keith Gessen is a professor of journalism at Columbia University; his piece on Victor Serge and the aftermath of the October Revolution appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Dissent.