The centennial of the Russian Revolution could present an occasion for reflection in Russia. Instead, the historian Karl Schlögel writes, the national mood is one of bewilderment and indifference.
November 7, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, used to be the most important holiday on the Soviet calendar — bigger than May Day and even the May 9 Victory Day. The anniversary brought parades, choruses and fireworks. Yet, now, on the 100th anniversary, there is no such festive mood. Whereas exhibitions and conferences on the revolution have taken place in a number of countries around the world, the mood in Russia is one of bewilderment and indifference. The idea of staging a re-enactment of "The Storming of the Winter Palace" in St. Petersburg, for instance, was rejected.
Why the silence on the 100th anniversary of an event that was celebrated as the founding act of the Soviet Union and a historical turning point for almost a century? And why has Russia celebrated an utterly different holiday around the anniversary since 2005? Unity Day, November 4, commemorates a popular uprising that expelled the Poles from Moscow in 1612, marking the end of the Time of Troubles and the beginning of Romanov dynasty rule.
Karl Schlögel is a German historian and publisher focused on the history of Russian modernism and Stalinism. Before he retired in 2013, he was a professor for East European history at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder.
A look back over the years reveals that every epoch has had its own view of the Russian Revolution. In 1927, for the 10th anniversary, the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein produced images of the storming of the Winter Palace that had little to do with the realities of history. Leon Trotsky, one of the heroes of the revolution, had already become prone to retouching, and thus revising, the history. The 20th anniversary celebrations in 1937 coincided with Josef Stalin's Great Purge, during which prominent leaders of the old guard were imprisoned and executed. The parade that took place on Red Square in 1941 demonstrated that Russia would resist the Nazi German invasion.
After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1957, the cult of personality surrounding Josef Stalin gave way to talk of a return to "true Leninism." The leaders of friendly nations traveled to Moscow for the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1967. From that moment on, November 7 became a proper holiday: Workers were given the day off, and it was celebrated with a fairlike atmosphere, detached from major political influence. In 1987 — after the beginning of Glasnost and Perestroika — discussions about a radical reassessment of the Russian Revolution and its effects began. Such heretofore taboo figures as the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin suddenly reappeared; works that had been prohibited for decades were published and circulated widely.
Just another day?
Interest in the holiday, which was ultimately only observed as such by a shrinking number of Communist Party members, waned in the 1990s. It seems that people were more preoccupied with coming to grips with the problems inherent in post-Soviet society than they were with the revolutionary ideals.
One would think that growing social inequality, violence and instability — both in Russia and abroad — would provide an opportunity to contemplate the reasons for such problems, as well as what might serve to alleviate them. Invoking unity against an external enemy and its agents within was not enough to save the czarist empire from the weight of the first World War. Neither will it offer any useful perspective in today's post-Soviet Russia. Everyone knows that the obstacles that impede modernization are to be found at home and not abroad. The reconstruction of the empire in the form of the USSR in 1922, for instance, so overburdened the multiethnic country at the time that it was unable to develop as a modern nation of self-confident citizens for decades.
The only things that President Vladimir Putin has learned from the failings of the Russian Empire seem to be fear of change and a willingness to maintain order at any price. But that is far too little learned at a time in which the country can only be modernized with its citizens, not without — or even against — them and the institutions that are so necessary to bring about that modernization.