Essay History

The Thorny Memory of the Russian Revolution

by Korine Amacher , 3 July 2017
translated by Catherine Guesde
with the support of Florence Gould Foundation

During the Soviet era, October 1917 was the central political and cultural reference. One hundred years later, Russian society is still deeply divided over its past. Will the centenary of the Revolution be the great moment of national reconciliation the Russian power wants it to be?

Presented as the culmination of history but also as the beginning of a new era, October 1917 was the central political and cultural reference of the Soviet era. Only the Victory of World War II managed not to supersede the “Great October Socialist Revolution”, but to compete with it in terms of its importance. November 7—the day the Bolsheviks took power—nevertheless remained the most important official holiday.

The slow desacralization of October 1917

Since the collapse of USSR in December 1991, the perspective on October 1917 has radically changed. However, the desacralization of the October Revolution was not as brutal as is often thought. The process was already noticeable during perestroika (1985-1991).

Of course, Gorbachev—like a large portion of the Soviet intelligentsia— still considers October 1917 to be a “glorious” event “unparalleled in force of impact on mankind’s development” and he advocates a return to Lenin’s principles. [1] If the Revolution went astray, it is, according to him, because of the mistakes made during the Stalin era. The November 7 festivities still continue on Red Square. As early as 1987, however, the great parade takes place in a new climate of joy and hope in political change. In fact, Lenin is at that time already being timidly but surely desacralized. The plays by Mikhaïl Shatrov, who depicts Lenin being beset by doubt and hesitation at the end of his life, [2] attest to this. The invincible hero has turned back into a human being. And a human being can make mistakes, and be criticized.

In 1989, as the Eastern Bloc is disintegrating, the October Revolution becomes more and more criticized. The discovery of the extent of repression and of the millions of victims of Stalinism, and the publication of previously censored texts—namely Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago—result in the collapse of Lenin’s reputation. In Lenin in Zurich, a text by Solzhenitsyn that Soviet citizens discovered in 1989, Lenin is depicted as a selfish, unscrupulous man. As for the writer Vladimir Soloukhin, his text Reading Lenin (1989) accuses the Bolshevik leader of genocide against his own people in the name of October 1917. [3]

Until 1990, the commemorations take place every year in an unchanged ritual. However, the festivities of the Revolution have become the sheer mirror of the crisis faced by the Soviet regime: in 1989, an alternative demonstration takes place in Moscow, while Soviet flags are burned in Armenia and Georgia where the parade was canceled. The 72nd anniversary of the Revolution presents the whole world with the image of a USSR in crisis with some republics on the edge of revolt. In 1990, several Soviet cities and republics, namely the Baltic republics, refuse to commemorate the October Revolution. In Moscow, two parades take place simultaneously. The traditional parade is held on Red Square, where SS-25 mobile missiles with a range of 10,000 kilometers are deployed, as if to reassure the Soviets of the defense capabilities of their country and show the West that the USSR is still a world power. At the same time, a protest parade brings together all the malcontents in the streets of the capital.

The Revolution on trial

There is no parade in Moscow on November 7 1991—that is, even before the demise of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia, no longer wants it. As soon as the USSR is dissolved, post-Soviet Russia enters the era of liberalism and of reforms. It is a time to denounce the “Stalinist totalitarianism” that supposedly arose from the October Revolution. In 1993, the first textbooks of Russian history are published. They often present the Revolution as the event that interrupted the natural development of a Russia firmly engaged in an era of reforms at the beginning of the 20th century. The Bolsheviks are said to have won only because of the lack of insight and political boldness of other political leaders. Moreover, the events are no longer described as a Revolution, but as a coup d’état carried out by a small group of isolated but nevertheless organized and disciplined individuals. [4]

During a few years, countless works of popularization of history and films are released, promoting the idealized version of a pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia led by Romanovs suddenly adorned with all virtues. The Russia That We’ve Lost, title of the film by Stanislav Govorukhin (1992), is the epitome of this period where the Romanov dynasty, the Russian Empire, and orthodoxy are idealized— an idealization that goes hand in hand with the demonization of Lenin and of the Revolution. Some settle their account with the one they perceived as a prophet not so long ago: in his biography of Lenin, quickly translated into several languages, the historian Dmitri Volkogonov, who describes himself as a “former Stalinist who has painfully turned to the absolute rejection of Bolshevik totalitarianism” depicts a “malevolent and perfidious” Lenin whose Jewish and German origins explain his contempt for the Russians: “He would have been willing to give half European Russia to the Germans without hesitation, provided he could remain in power!” [5]. Volkogonov may well be criticized by historians who blame him for his factual errors as well as for the way he distances himself from historical truth, his works are in tune with the time and meet a huge success with the Russian public. [6]

As for the anniversary of October, only a handful of nostalgic Communists celebrate it every November 7. Ironically, these men and women—many of whom have been left behind by liberal reforms—who march through the streets brandishing portraits of Lenin and of Stalin, are seen as conservatives who refuse the freedom and democracy so often promised by the liberal regime.

The return of authoritarian figures

For the vast majority of the Russian population, the positive results of the liberal reforms are slow to come. In the mid-1990s, Russia is plunged into a deep social and economic crisis that reaches its peak in 1998. The idealized vision of a czarist Russia firmly engaged on the path of Western progress is no longer trusted. From 1998, Russian bookshops display openly monarchist textbooks alongside the more liberal ones. These books present the revolutionaries—from the most moderate to the most radical ones—as the enemies within, traitors to the fatherland, fanatics who in 1917 destroyed czarism by terror and crime. The October Revolution is seen as a symbol of utmost crime. [7] However, while these textbooks express a rejection of the liberal ideology, which has been dominant since the early 1990’s, they also show the return of authoritarian figures, Czarists or Soviets. Surveys conducted during these years show that Stalin’s image within Russian society clearly improves, especially as Vladimir Putin comes to power in 2000. [8]

As the latter states in 2003 , history textbooks should provide the students with a sense of pride in their country. Slowly, the major strands of the Stalinist policy are more and more openly presented in a positive way. This trend reaches its peak between 2007 and 2009. As a part of an important project to develop new educational standards at the federal level, 20th and early 21st-century history textbooks attempt to assemble the different moments in the history of USSR into a consistent whole. This history is depicted as tragic but imbued with grandeur: state violence, repression, and the famine of 1932-1933 are presented as a consequence of what the authors of the textbooks call the “forced modernization”—which allegedly won the victory against Nazi Germany. The Stalinist era is described as a time of sacrifice, but above all of grandeur, achievement and glory. The post-Stalin years are depicted as a period of slow weakening of the country, caused by the mistakes of political leaders, who, with Gorbachev, are held responsible for the fall of the USSR. [9] When in 2009, an inscription in honor of Stalin is restored in the Kurskaya metro station in Moscow, many observers, in Russia and elsewhere, consider that the Russian power is in the process of officially rehabilitating Stalin.

The “Great Russian Revolution”

If the past is no longer to be depicted in a negative way—so that the Russian schoolboy can be proud of his country—, and if the different aspects of Russian history, Czarist and Soviet, are to be reintegrated in a coherent whole, how then should the Russian Revolution be spoken of? How should it be explained to children, those future Russian citizens? The history textbooks published in 2007 indicate an answer, as they attempt to untangle what is, for the Russian power, the painful knot of revolutionary processes: the Revolutions of February and October and the Civil War are combined in one “Great Russian Revolution”, with the intention expressed by the authors to place the latter at the same level as the “Great French Revolution”. Indeed, because of its historical and universal importance, “only the French Revolution [...] finds its place alongside the Bolshevik Revolution”.

In this perspective, the fall of Czarism in February 1917 represents the first stage of a “unique revolutionary process” which includes the taking of power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. The February Revolution was the “spontaneous response of the people” to the crisis of the Russian state system. It was the consequence of the “inability” of the ruling class to “maintain Russia in a position that lives up to its history and its potential”. The military failures and economic hardships during the First World War are evidence of this. Under these conditions, the abdication of Nicholas II was inevitable, and so was the seizure of power of the Bolsheviks, who will later set up a “power more effective than the one that was destroyed”. The “authoritarian centralization”— seen as a guarantee of the power of the Russian state—is completed by Stalin. The tragic dimension of the civil war is underlined, but the schoolbooks also insist on the fact that Russia emerged from this “great tragedy” even stronger than before, as it became USSR. In this framework, it is no longer necessary to point out the guilty, nor to emphasize the divergences in political views. The “Whites” as the “Reds” fought for a strong Russia: an imperial one for the Whites, a Soviet one for the Reds. [10]

The omnipresence of the Revolution

Even if historians are now increasingly using the expression “Great Russian Revolution”, [11]which is found in the new history textbooks published at the end of 2016, this does not mean that the interpretation of the Revolutionary events is the same for all. This expression allows to emphasize the importance of the Russian Revolution for Russia and for the world. It also helps include the events of October in a broader Revolutionary process. This, historians have been meaning to do since the Soviet version of October 1917—which involved a heavy silence on the “bourgeois” Revolution of February—is no longer promoted. In reality, the Revolution is still a polarizing issue in today’s Russia. For some, namely the Communists, it remains the “Great Socialist Revolution of October”. Every November 7, nostalgic Communists march through the streets of Moscow led by Gennady Zyuganov—head of the Russian Communist Party—, brandishing portraits of Lenin and Stalin. For the Russian liberals, on the other hand, October was a coup d’état. On November 7 2016 Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the Russian liberal party Yabloko, laid flowers and a plaque in front of the building of the Ministry of Defense in honor “of the defenders of democracy and of the Constituent Assembly”. These men, he explained, resisted the Bolsheviks—who had just dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 because they had not obtained a majority of votes—arms in hand.

Statue of Lenin, Moscow

As for the Russian authorities, they speak of it in antirevolutionary terms. Any attempt to question the authority of the state is immediately demonized by the government, who suspects that the dissenting forces of revolution are at work in every act of political opposition, in every social protest. The “color revolutions” of 2003 in Georgia and of 2004 in Ukraine, the protests of the years 2011-2012 in Russia, and above all the antigovernment demonstrations in Ukraine in 2014—which toppled Viktor Yanukovytch from power—are still alive in their memories.

As early as in 1996, the holiday on November 7 was renamed “Day of Accord and Reconciliation”. In 2004 it even loses its character of public holiday. A year later, in November 2005, November 4 is declared a public holiday and named “Day of Unity” in memory of the end of foreign—especially Polish and Lithuanian—interventions in Muscovite Russia in 1612. This event marked the end of a tumultuous historical period called “the Time of Troubles” in Russia; it was followed by the advent of the Romanov dynasty. The suppression of the celebrations of the October Revolution thus testifies to the desire of the government to remove the Revolution from public space and to replace it with a historical event that can reconciliate the different parts of Russian society.

This was a real challenge, since the Revolution remains omnipresent in the Russian landscape, primarily in Moscow: Lenin still rests in his mausoleum on Red Square, and he will probably stay there. The fear that removing Lenin from his mausoleum in order to bury him elsewhere will cause more controversy and polemics than letting him there is too strong. In Moscow, many streets still bear names related to the Revolution or its actors: Krupskaya street (named after Lenin’s wife), Maria Ulyanova (Lenin’s mother) street, Dmitri Ulyanov (Lenin’s brother) street, or the 60th Anniversary of October Revolution avenue. The same is true of metro stations, even the most central ones: in the first place there is October station, in front of which stands a monumental statue of Lenin, and which is also the starting point of the famous Lenin avenue—one of the main arteries of Moscow, that stretches in a straight line over 13 kilometers—; then there is the Lenin Library station, inside which Lenin solemnly watches the underground users passing before him; the Revolution Square Metro lastly, located in front of the Red Square, and ornamented with 76 bronze sculptures symbolizing the new Soviet world.

How should the Revolution be commemorated?

Should the Revolution then be commemorated? And if yes, how? For the Russian authorities, the question is more complex than it seems. Indeed, how can they commemorate an event that stands against all they promote, that is: stability, tradition, authority, respect of the state? In January 2016, during a government meeting, Vladimir Putin declared: “We didn’t need the world revolution”. But is it possible to ignore a Revolution that, as John Reed famously said, “shook the world”? During the fall of 2017, there will be countless symposia and round-table debates, documentaries and publications dedicated to the Revolution. This will also be the case in Russia, where many centennial events will take place in the scientific and academic world.

In reality, the title of a roundtable event organized in May 2015 under the aegis of the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky (“the Centenary of the Great Russian Revolution: Judgment in the Name of Consolidation”) gives a glimpse of what the official discourse will be like during the commemorations. As Vladimir Medinsky explains, these events will have to promote the continuity of the historical development of Russia—from the Russian Empire to the USSR and the Russian Federation—while condemning revolutionary terror and underlining the fact that it is never good to rely on foreign assistance to solve internal problems—which, in today’s Russia, sounds like a warning. And finally, it will be less important to mention the discrepancies between the ideologies of the Red and the Whites, and to point out the guilty than to emphasize the fact that both sides—who were opposed in every way in 1917—wanted the “prosperity of Russia and a better life on earth”.

The consolidation of Russian society and the reconciliation of its members are, again, the underlying idea when Vladimir Putin invites the highly official Russian Historical Society to form a committee in order to organize the commemorations of the Revolution. As Sergei Narychkin—Chairman of the State Duma of Russia from 2011 to 2016, and also president of the Russian Historical Society—noted, the anniversary of the Revolution “should not be used as the occasion to organize solemn events”; it should not be “celebrated”. The focus will above all be on “reflecting on the events that took place a hundred years ago and learning from them”, the main lesson being “the value of unity and of solidarity among citizens, the ability of society to find compromises at the most difficult turning points in history, in order to avoid a radical divide in society taking the form of a civil war”.

During the commemorations of the Revolution, the Russian authorities will then be anxious to “draw lessons” from the events of 1917. In this, they will benefit from the support of the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow who, on December 30 2016, declared that the commemoration of the centennial of the 1917 events should not be spoken of in terms of “celebrations”: “the thing is not to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the tragedy, but to remember this date consciously”.

The commemorations of the events of 1917 must trigger “deep reflection and sincere prayers” so that such “mistakes” will not be repeated today.

If the way the Russian authorities intend to use the centenary of the Revolution—commemorate to reconcile, and to obtain buy-in—is already being criticized in Russia, [12] today’s Russian society nevertheless remains divided over its past, whether it be Lenin and the Revolution, Stalin or Gorbachev. In this sense, the centenary of the Revolution will be a sensitive moment, and the authorities in Moscow, who are calling for a moment of national reconciliation, are aware of it. However, by asking the Russian Historical Society to organize the commemorations of the centenary, the Russian government also shows that it agrees to delegate some responsabilities and to collaborate with the community of historians.

The analysis of the long list of events—exhibitions, publications, conferences, roundtable debates, research projects, memorial events, films, documentaries—which were approved by the organizing committee of the centenary of the Revolution suggests that, if it can not reconcile a Russian society that is deeply divided today, the year 2017 will enrich our perspective on the 1917 Revolution. At the very least, these commemorations will allow us to refine our understanding of the position of Russian society regarding the Revolution and its actors.

by Korine Amacher, 3 July 2017

To quote this article :

Korine Amacher, « The Thorny Memory of the Russian Revolution », Books and Ideas , 3 July 2017. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Mikhaïl Gorbachev, Perestroïka. New Thinking for Our Country and the World. Harper & Row, 1987.

[2Mikhaïl Shatrov, Onward… onward… onward!, 1988 (in Russian).

[3Vladimir Soloukhin, Reading Lenin, Frankfurt am Main, Possev-Verlag, 1989 (in Russian).

[4Korine Amacher, « Héros ou ennemis de la patrie ? Les révolutionnaires russes du XIXe siècle dans les manuels d’histoire de la Russie », in K. Amacher, L. Heller (dir.), Le retour des héros : la reconstitution des mythologies nationales à l’heure du postcommunisme, Louvain-la-Neuve, Academia Bruylant, 2009.

[5Dimitri Volkogonov, Lenin. A New Biography. Free Press, 2013.

[6Korine Amacher, « Révolutions et révolutionnaires en Russie. Entre rejet et obsession », Revue d’études comparatives est-ouest, 45/2, 2014.

[7Korine Amacher, « Héros ou ennemis de la patrie ? », quoted above.

[9Korine Amacher, « Les manuels d’histoire dans la Russie postsoviétique : visions multiples et nouvelles tendances », Le cartable de Clio, Revue suisse sur les didactiques de l’histoire, n° 9, 2009.

[10Korine Amacher, « Révolutions et révolutionnaires en Russie », quoted above.

[11Alexandre Choubine, The Great Russian Revolution: from February to October 1917, Moscou, Rodina Media, 2014 (in Russian).

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