hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Vladimir Putin and the October Revolution

“We must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn towards those who disagree with us".

Vladimir Illjitsj Lenin 

Alphen, Netherlands. 24 October. Born in war Russia’s October 1917 Revolution was a cataclysm.  Like many such events it took some time before its ‘clysm’ became truly ‘cata’, but cataclysm it was.  On 25 October, 1917 (actually 7 November because Russia at the time used the Julian not the Gregorian calendar – ho hum!) Vladimir Illjitsj Lenin led an armed insurrection in what was then Petrograd (St Petersberg).  In the ensuing years the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) first descended into chaos before it was eventually forged in the Russian mind by the Nazi assault and the ensuring Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945 in which up to 23 million Russians were killed.  And yet, President Putin seems distinctly ambivalent about marking the anniversary of an event that for all its undoubted brutality transformed Russia for a time into a genuine superpower. Why?

President Putin, like Marshal Josef Stalin before him, merges Russian history and politics into a vision of Mother Russia that he personifies.  Part tsar, part nationalist, part revolutionary, part devout son of the Orthodox Russian church, part marshal Putin appeals to Russian nostalgia, taking bits of Russian history here, rejecting bits of history there.  Putin’s embrace of the Soviet era is a case in point. He has restored some of Soviet state’s key security structures, such as the massive Ministry of State Security as a purposeful recreation of its Soviet forebear. Defence Minister Shoigu deliberately likens Moscow’s National Centre for Defence Management to the old Soviet Stavka, the General Staff which once commanded the Red Army. President Putin has also reinstated the massive Victory Day military parades in Red Square, complete with allusions to the past when Marshal Stalin took the salute.

There are even proposals to restore the giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, or ‘Iron Felix’ as it was known, to Lubyanka Square. In 1991 with the fall of the USSR it was torn down as a symbol of oppression. Dzershinsky was variously director of the feared Cheka and NKVD, secret police forces that were also forerunners to the equally feared KGB, and the increasingly feared FSB.  Dzerzhinsky was complicit in the murder of tens if not hundreds of thousands of political opponents, He once said that, “We represent in ourselves organised terror, this must be said very clearly…the Red Terror involves the terrorisation, arrests and extermination of the enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles”. 
The light embrace of Dzerzhinsky says a lot about Vladimir Putin’s view of the events of ‘October’ 1917. Under no circumstances does he wish to re-awaken any revolutionary zeal in the Russian people. Rather, he prefers to cherry pick those parts of Soviet history that suggest order, patriotism and expansionism. Putin also seeks to exploit a nostalgic and misplaced sense amongst many Russians that the Soviet Union was somehow 'great' simply because it intimidated Russia’s neighbours.
President Putin’s very partial use of Russian history is not confined to the Soviet era.  He has reached back at moments of rhetorical flourish to Alexander Nevsky, the thirteenth century ‘Grand Prince of Vladimir’ who many Russians romantically see as the founder of the Russian state and scourge of Germans, Swedes and other ‘western’ invaders. Putin also cites Peter the Great, the seventeenth century ruler of the then Russian empire who transformed Russia into a major European power.  Peter the Great also reveals Vladimir Putin’s very parochial use of history. One reason for the success of Tsar Peter was his extensive administrative reform of the Russian state.  President Putin can be accused of many things but he is certainly no reformist, unless concentrating ever more power on himself can be described as ‘reform’.  
Vladimir Putin will not be making a big song and dance about the centennial of the October Revolution, but nor will he disrespect it.  Rather, he will endeavour to corral those bits of Russia’s revolution that reinforce his rule, and ignore the rest.  This is because Vladimir Putin is the very natural Russian successor to those Russian leaders who over decades distanced the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from Marxist-Leninism, and in time Russia from communism.  This is much the same process that is now taking place in China with the elevation this week of the political thought of President Xi into the Chinese constitution, alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is simply yet another of those metaphors beloved of former Soviet leaders to mark the abandonment of ideology in favour of authority.

Like a host of late Soviet leaders Putinism masks Russia’s economic decline and chronic social problems by promoting a cult of personality and assertive nationalism to help the regime stay in power by whatever means.  As communism lost its way and the USSR failed this is not far different from the methods employed by a series of Soviet leaders Stalin, Malenkov, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, and over time all with declining effect.

Putin’s Russia is no dictatorship of the proletariat.  Indeed, if Vladimir Illjitsj Lenin was not glued in he might be well be spinning in his Moscow tomb. You see Putin;s use of history also reveals the paradox of Vladimir Putin. A reformed Russia could in time be transformed into the Great Power President Putin craves Russia to be, but one lesson of Russian history is that Russian leaders rarely survive such reforms. 

There is an old Soviet joke. Stalin, Krushchev and Brezhnev are stuck in a failed train in the middle of nowhere. Stalin says, “Shoot the drivers!”  Krushchev says, “No, no Comrade Tovarich Stalin. The problem is structural. I will prepare a five year plan”.  “Five year plan?” asks Brezhnev. “Simply close the curtains and let’s pretend we are moving”.  Vladimir Putin is certainly moving Russia but even he does not know where, and to what eventual fate.

Julian Lindley-French

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