Russian Revolution and Its Centenary: No Longer Politics, Not Yet History

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Alexander Konkov – Rethinking Russia Director 

Russians harness slowly but ride fast

Russian Proverb 

Russia experienced its revolution late in the game. By that time, most Western countries had already gone through coups and industrialization and promptly rejected feudal rules and practices. Most importantly, they had had enough time to resign themselves to their revolutions and their consequences and national scars left by any upheaval had healed. Moreover, countries and peoples are – if not proud – not ashamed of the past events. In terms of historical memory, revolutions are often reconciled with national archetypes.

 “A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants”[1], allegedly said Georges Jacques Danton, a French revolutionary leader and orator, before being decapitated by guillotine, another revolutionary “spin-off”. Only idealists, who tend to watch the events from the sidelines, can visualize velvet or color revolutions. Alas, there are no “democratic” tools of legitimizing those who are here today and gone tomorrow. One has no other option but to resort to euphemisms. It is the revolutionary victors who are not judged. By the way, revolutions do not usually imply legal procedures in their traditional sense. Moreover, any rebellion can be colored only red, which is hardly determined by mere ideological motives.

All revolutions, however well-intentioned or high-minded, tend to employ the same instruments, thus causing suffering both to “insiders” and “outsiders”. Revolutions have much to do with people and their future rather than with a human being and his rights

Revolutions look to the future but what is it like? The dependence of developments on revolutionists’ ideas is quite curious, though not straightforward. Tomorrow always comes but never in the way conceived by revolutionaries. In this context, a vision of the future, however painstaking, and the future itself are completely different matters fitting into the ideal-versus-material dilemma. Are generations to come ready to forgive revolutionary idealists, these involuntary liars? “All revolutions are conceived by idealists, implemented by fanatics, and hijacked by scoundrels”, this phrase – along with the epigraph – is ascribed to Otto von Bismarck but shared by many who have something to do with history. Post-revolutionary future tends to look to a new post-future and have no scruples about enjoying the revolutionary fruits, even if it implies learning through trial and error. Any upheaval teaches descendants a lesson, with any national revolution teaching the world community a lesson. And it is more comfortable to learn from other people’s mistakes.

The first ever revolution which broke out in the 16th century produced an independent Netherlands, which, albeit in a controversial manner, knows how to display its taste for revolution to date. Great Britain continues to honor Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the English Revolution of the 17th century who led the King to the scaffold and plunged the country into bloody confrontation. Cromwell’s death was followed by the Restoration period several months later. With the British monarchy well and alive, nobody challenges Cromwell’s great statue outside the House of Commons in London.

The French Revolution of 1789-1799, a textbook example of romantic aspirations for “Liberté, égalité, fraternité[2] amid the harshest terror campaign, paved the way for Napoleon’s rise to power and triggered large-scale European wars. It is the Revolution of the late 18th century that still underpins the French Republic’s unquestionable and most attractive values.

In its turn, the United States nurtures democratic traditions and principles established by the Founding Fathers, prominent thinkers and figures of the US War of Independence termed “the Revolutionary War” or merely “the Revolution”. American revolutionaries comprised rich slaveholders and aristocrats, whose heirs had to resort to a civil war a hundred years later to decide what freedom and democracy actually denoted. Nevertheless, they are still revered by Americans, while the international community quite predictably turns to the Founding Fathers, US revolutionaries, for their interpretation of democracy, which provided the foundation for democratic models across the globe.

A wave of revolutions swept Europe and the world in the nineteenth century. In many states, the development of the constitutional and legal systems, as well as the economy, has been heavily dependent on the outcome and the implications of the events considered controversial by their contemporaries.

The Russian Revolution broke out in the twentieth century and lasted for a long while. Until recently the plural form of the word was used to describe the developments as it comprised three different waves of mass political and social unrest, including the Revolution of 1905, the February Revolution of 1917 and the October Revolution of 1917. As of now, the Russian Revolution is regarded as a tripartite phenomenon, embracing the February Bourgeois Revolution of 1917, the October Socialist Revolution of 1917, and the civil war of 1917-1922. The advent of the Soviet state in the 1920s and 1930s can also be broadly treated as part of the revolutionary process, culminating in the events on November 7 (October 25, OS), 1917. The day saw the outbreak of the Great October Socialist Revolution, as Soviet historians traditionally called it, or the October Uprising, as it is interpreted nowadays.

The revolutionary events spark much controversy both within Russia and beyond. The search for discrepancies between the idea suggested a century ago and the consequent events, the identification of the events with some idealists, fanatics and scoundrels (as Bismarck famously remarked), and the incessant politicization of various historical episodes related to the events for some immediate reasons are still inherent in the discourse on the Russian Revolution. Against such a background it is impossible to answer the two eternal questions which have tormented the Russian intellectuals – “who is to blame?” and “what is to be done?”

Russia seems to have intuitively learned important lessons from the century-old events. History does tend to repeat itself, thereby leaving no room for eternal suffering and doubt. Russia has reached its limit when it comes to revolutions and will not shed blood for the sake of some image of a better future. On the other hand, the country has learned to mobilize its resources and initiate the necessary changes itself. Regardless of the attitude to Soviet leaders, the latter paved the way for the country’s modern development. Both positive and negative cases made Russians more experienced and flexible in embracing ideas. The unique system of Soviets – representative bodies, which fulfilled both norm-setting, legislative, and administrative, executive, functions, was pervasive. It contributed to “administrative literacy” by introducing  the culture of debating, solving common economic problems and articulating and promoting initiatives. To a certain extent, it created a solid basis for future development, including democratic procedures, local self-government, competition and a frank dialogue on political issues. The rejection of revolutionary transformations in favor of gradual change is attributed to the country’s unique way in the 20th century.

Russia experienced its revolution late in the game. All its foreign partners had already gained the relevant experience, and therefore are still happy to highlight what went wrong in the Russian Revolution. However, Russia has been accustomed to charting its own independent course. It has experimented with democracy, the market economy and information technologies at a relatively late stage. Today its steps also have to withstand a barrage of criticism while policies are evolving and taking shape. History continues to absorb the past, and policies start to look to the future instead. Another hundred years will pass, and, hopefully, the bygones will be bygones and the Russian revolution will finally become part of history.

[1] “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children”.

[2] “Liberty, equality, fraternity”.

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