Doing the Russian Revolution Justice

by | 12 Apr 2017

The centenary of the 1917 revolution can be seen as a diversion from the trauma still fresh and experienced by every living Russian except the youngest.

Drawing by a child eyewitness of the events in Moscow, November 1917

The Russian revolution of 1917 indelibly marked the course of the 20th century. Its centenary comes into a world once again seized with turmoil, and its import is far from settled, most importantly, in Russia itself. The stakes for Russian society are high: successful appropriation of mutually incompatible narratives about the past will allow Russia a viable future, indeed without it we may struggle to talk meaningfully about ‘Russian society’ at all.

The Western coverage of the centenary of the February revolution has been, with few exceptions, faintly disapproving and dismissed the government’s approach as deliberately low key. It correctly registers the Russian society’s ambivalence about this period in the nation’s history, but, true to form, proceeds to make it all about ‘Putin’ and his sinister wishes to hush up the memory of the event which may, allegedly, present a challenge to his own grip on power.  This rather quaint personalisation fails to appreciate the extent to which society’s attitudes limit the government’s range of responses. One author, remarkably, blames the government for the lack of a ‘government-issued official interpretation, like the one mandating that World War II was a ‘Great Victory’. This spectacularly fails to understand both the ingrained cynicism towards official interpretations in a country which for many decades saw nothing else, and the place the Great Victory has in the Russian collective psyche, which needs no mandating.

In fact, the soul-searching going on in the Russian public space over the revolution is bordering on obsessive. First and foremost, society has to come to terms with the revolution as a phenomenon, not even in terms of ideas that animated it, but as a mode of human existence. And as such, no discussion about the revolution in Russia can be abstracted from its unimaginable human toll. The pile of corpses that the vision of a better future produced is a silent witness to any attempt to understand the meaning of the events back then and those of the present day. Whether we speak of the enthusiastic crowds in Petrograd of 1917, or about the young students who were marching in the streets on the last weekend of March 2017, the image of mass death is never far away. This inevitable juxtaposition reflects the bafflement of a people who, time and again, saw the original aspirations lead to unforeseen and unwelcome results and experienced the full revolutionary cycle – from Bastille to the inevitable Thermidor. ‘The animated crowds in Petrograd did not know what would happen next – but we do’, as one commentator wrote and many more would repeat.

That we know and, more importantly, bear the consequences, imposes a moral duty on society to fully fathom the meaning of its loss. Until then, it simply cannot move to the point where any street protest can be seen other than a harbinger of a new catastrophe, where respective merits of social formations can be reasonably discussed and where various projects of the future, not confined to the same old struggle between the reds and the whites, monarchists and bolsheviks, can be envisaged without horror as their constant companion. A ‘government-issued official interpretation’ is clearly useless and even harmful. Until recently the only permissible interpretation was the government-mandated one – where some corpses ‘deserved it’, some were revered as heroes and yet others were simply erased from memory. It is for this reason that society never really processed the human cost of the murderous violence of either the state or of the revolutionary crowd.

This processing of the loss is vital in the construction of a narrative which would allow the Russian society to move on. Any historical interpretation is to an extent a fiction, yet, as Paul Ricoeur once said, in the construction of a narrative, you ‘have to return to a body count. You have to accurately count the corpses…’ The accuracy is not only what makes our narratives credible, but what ultimately validates or condemns the fiction, of the past or of the future. The very presence of these bodies in the collective consciousness is in itself a moral achievement, an important sign of change in the make-up of a nation long, and somewhat unfairly, accused of the indifference to the price it paid for progress. This personalist trend in collective memory is also evident elsewhere: in the grassroots movement to commemorate all those who died in WWII, something that the state has sought but been so far unable to appropriate for its own ends, or in the memory of the victims of Stalin’s repression. The intimate generational connection with the past is what now gives meaning to history, not the pronouncements of the Great Leaders.

The keyword that emerges from the official pronouncements is that of ‘reconciliation’, and a painstaking appropriation of history is vital for that. However, it is not just about coming to a consensus interpretation of the past; making it solely about the events of the century ago is misleading. Despite the extent to which the old political fantasies still play out in the Russian public space, the people through whom these fantasies continue their battle are – for the most part – the children of the late Soviet Union. And it is with reference to quite another ‘revolution’  that the task of reconciliation must be understood: to the one of 1991, which not only ushered in the collapse of the USSR but thoroughly put into doubt the first revolution, and invalidated every life led in the state it had created. Without 1991, we would not have been in as much of a tizzy over what to do with 1917. Seeing it as a temporary aberration, subsequently corrected, would justify the brutal neo-liberal experiment of the 90s, which was hailed in the West as the dawn of freedom and democracy and added to Russia’s pile of corpses those who could not ‘adjust to the free market’. The calls to reconciliation should in this case be seen for what they are: cynical demands that the victims of plundering should reconcile with the plunderers, without any recompense. On the other hand, seeing value in the Soviet period of Russian history (with corpses and all) would then condemn the wanton destruction of the USSR, however real its shortcomings might have been, as a bout of collective madness. Both courses are fraught with difficulty, further division and likely further bloodshed, which Russia can ill afford.

Thus, the centenary of the 1917 revolution can be seen as a diversion from the trauma still fresh and experienced by every living Russian except the youngest. At the same time, its celebration provides a good opportunity for Russia to recover itself, to cease being confined, if only in its own self-perception, to a single historical moment. Whatever may be the motivations of the government in toning down its own part in the celebrations, this leaves other actors free to explore the different facets of this history: to get away from the tired dichotomy between command Communism and autocracy (some say that in the Russian case the difference is vanishingly small), or to explore the indigenous projects of political reconstruction that abounded in the pre-Bolshevik era, without being forced to choose between one or the other version of the past or be stuck with the inglorious present midway between them. For all of this to be possible, there needs to be not so much a consensus of ideas, unachievable anyway, but a measure of civic peace, of a sense of a community. However, such a community is not created on the barricades. If anything, it is killed there, to be replaced by something that may look quite like it, but is not.

Neither can such a community be created by governmental pronouncements. Hannah Arendt, among others, noted the atomisation of the society that the Soviet rule paradoxically produced. The reason for that she found in the destruction of the traditional ties and forms of life and more or less forcible induction into the state-mandated forms of collective life, rather than in the Western-type pattern of individualisation. People were not atomised because they were forced to be alone, but because they were forced to be together.  However, the question remains how much of that is due to the repressive practices of Stalinism and how much to the weakness in the Marxist theory itself, which, as MacIntyre suggests, has a secret core of ‘radical individualism’ and thus fails to explain on what basis the individuals, liberated from all bourgeois affinities and shackles, will enter joyful association with each other. Be that as it may, it is no wonder that once the idea lost its hold and the repressive apparatus collapsed, what was left became an easy prey to the untrammelled, wild capitalism. Socialism left a social desert behind.

Understandably, the West will take its own lessons from the Russian revolution. Whether or not they will be the lessons it genuinely needs to take, or whether it can in some way help the Russian reflection, will depend on its ability to abandon its orientalising ways. The October revolution was arguably Russia’s most radical Westernising moment since Peter the Great. It is ironic, therefore, that it resulted in the most definitive separation of the country from the West, giving the latter the opportunity to orientalise it even further, but also to misrecognise its own intellectual ownership of the ideas that drove and shaped the revolution. Russia has thus provided the West with a perfect cautionary tale: segments of the Western opinion condemned it for the very fact of the revolution, while others – for ‘doing it wrong’. This enabled the West to engage in some myth-making about itself (e.g. about the moral superiority of the free market system) and not to confront its own dark side. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote in this very blog, without the credible alternative the Western capitalism could not and would not provide for the well-being of the large majority. Now that the USSR is no longer around, we witness the reversal of capitalism to type, with ‘selective grace’ in its social and economic manifestations returning with a vengeance.

The media coverage referred to above, however, betrays hints of a different and much less introspective discourse. By linking the centenary to the potential unhappiness of the public with the government of today it suggests, slyly, that nothing short of Revolution 2.0 will suffice to celebrate in style. However, the true revolutionary preconditions, even if we suppose they exist, do not include the West’s irritation with the Russian government. Moreover, the average Russian observer cannot distinguish between Western regime change efforts around the world and the mainstream Western public opinion’s support of one uprising after another as the dawn of freedom. The observer may or may not be wrong in seeing these as two sides of the same imperialist coin: the use of regime change by revolutionary means as an instrument of domination in an attempt to make the non-Western world more convenient or more palatable, or both. However self-serving the Russian government’s concerns about ‘regime change’ may be, there is enough uncomfortable truth in them, even if it comes from the messenger whom it has become legitimate and even praiseworthy to shoot.

As for the celebrations of the centenary in Russia, they will, no doubt, happen: public bodies, schools, political parties and others have already announced their plans, ranging from the respectable to the fascinating to the bizarre. We will also undoubtedly witness more historical analogies with the tumultuous times of 1917. Yet historical analogies are dangerous not because history repeats itself, but because they are made to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when applied to what is clearly a singular historical moment, which is calling for a response fit to it, and from a society that is astute and capable enough to give such a response and, if necessary, to hold its own against any power. This society should be allowed to grow in peace.

Tatiana Hansbury is a PhD candidate, Birkbeck Law School


  1. Marx thought change only possible through capitalism. In his view before serious, definitive change there will be the ultracapitalist situation of one or a few owners of everything, the others being the rest of disowners. The disowners would in progress and to fulfill history (Voltaire, Herder, Hegel) disown the owner(s). Capitalism going on pretty far is necessary in his theory, that’s why bankers always have loved it, only afraid of not being in the top 20, before the always postponed total revolution. He also wrote (very inconsistent) about what to do in the meantime, not being banker and maybe for the understandable non-marxists too. I don’t think radical individualism was a secret core, read f.i. Camus’ the Rebel (L’Homme révolté) for more origins (but not all).

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful contribution, Tanya. However, what is most interesting for me is the way in which the Kremlin, Putin especially, anathematises Lenin, precisely because of Lenin’s war against “Great-Russian chauvinism”, see the paperback re-publication “O natsionalnoi gordosti velikorossov” (On the national pride of Great Russians) Azbuka-Klassikov, 2010 – and Lenin’s theory and practice, after WWI, of the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. “Lenin’s Last Struggle” (Moshe Lewin, Monthly Review Press, 1989) recounts Lenin’s advocacy of independence for Georgia and Stalin’s fierce opposition. Putin has consistently denounced Lenin as responsible for the demise of both the Russian Empire and the USSR, and see Putin has been followed for example by General Reshetnikov, of the SVR (Russian MI6) and now RISI (the SVR think-tank),, who accuses Lenin of lacing an atomic bomb under the Empire and USSR, and asserts, as do many in the Kremin, that Ukraine has no right to exist, and was created by Russia’s enemies to be anti-Russian. Stalin is presented as a great tsar, a worthy heir to Ivan IV , Pyotr I, Yekaterina II and Aleksandr III, and Russia’s state media are full of a complete rehabilitation of Nikolai II.


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