Ahead of the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Rethinking Russia think-tank presents different viewpoints on the events. This is the essay by Anatoly Torkunov, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Rector of Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and Chairperson of the Organizing Committee for the celebration.
Not uncommonly, debate about history revolves around our present rather than the past. When studied from the historical perspective, the present suggests possible future trajectories.
The violent break in continuity occurred 100 years ago, with the revolution bringing about civilizational transformation in Russia. Or so it seemed to those who planned and started the revolution aspiring to create a new order. The social and political order was forcibly changed, with the state system fully recast. The revolution gave legitimacy to the new authorities and the new state. A peculiar civilizational pattern – the Soviet one – began to take shape. Some historians and political scientists see the Soviet civilization as a modified Russian civilization. It existed as long as seven decades…
For decades, scholars and the public perceived the developments of 1917-1921 as two separate events. They distinguished between the February, or bourgeois-democratic, Revolution and the October, or socialist, Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. Nowadays they are generally viewed as stages of the same revolutionary process, which radicalized to the extreme for a number of reasons. The revolution is rooted in the peculiar nature of the Russian civilization, which is typified by community-centeredness, a desire to catch up with Europe and be its part on an equal footing and at the same time by a constant fear of excessive Westernization.
The Soviet Union celebrated the anniversary of the October Revolution as a public holiday which was accompanied by well-engineered widespread jubilation. The last solemn and joyful celebration of the kind was organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Revolution. Later, amid revelations and criticisms of the October Revolution, which became particularly harsh and bitter in the 1990s, there emerged a growing desire of the people to dissociate themselves from the Soviet era.
Those years saw another hard break in continuity. The country followed the path of root-and-branch transformation for the second time over the century. Russia witnessed the birth pangs of a new democratic state, which required a new historical identity and political legitimacy. So, in the end, the people’s historical memory twice became subject to sea-change in the 20th century. Russian society had to repeatedly reconsider its historical experience, which brought about markedly different assessments of the Revolution.
Since the early 2000s, negative attitudes towards the past have become gradually sidelined to create space for a feeling of nostalgia with the Soviet times. A significant part of our population seems to have been reflecting on Russia’s thousand-plus-year old history, its ups and downs, and the vital necessity to thoroughly study and comprehend the past rather than pointlessly dismiss it. This period has emphasized the relevance of the public dialogue, with Russian society increasingly seeking to tie together the once broken threads of Russian history.
However, numerous myths about the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Soviet past still pervade society shaping public opinion. Such fictitious stories, including political ones, naturally become elements of historical memory. At the same time, a strong emphasis on polarizing myths often causes concern. “Proponents” of the Red, White, or other forces engaging in the Revolution and warfare remain irreconcilable. Meanwhile, one needs to remember that the 1917-1921 developments witnessed the participation of various revolutionary and counterrevolutionary movements, with some forces being impossible to categorize in revolutionary terms.
Each of those political movements produced its heroes and antiheroes. Helping the general public to pass objective judgments on “who-is-who” matters related to the Revolution and the Civil War constitutes a challenging task for historians. Actually, Russia’s modern society finds it really difficult to tolerate its own history. It oscillates between a triumphant perspective on past events and self-deprecating or self-effacing views focusing on their darker side. Russia appears to have fallen out of “linear, or progressive” history.
As common sense suggests, we should not shun our past or use it as an intimidation weapon. It is high time we engaged in a dialogue with our history and started learning lessons. It is vital to boldly accept the truth about the past and draw the conclusions which could contribute to our steady development.