Putin’s Russia

October Revolution remembered

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. What is left of its legacy?

A couple takes selfie with portraits of the last Russian Tsar, Nikolas II, and founder of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin (R) displayed on a steamship, during the Museum Night in, Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia November 5 2017. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Unlike certain leaders, Vladimir Putin is often better known for actions over words: racing Renaults, razing Chechnya, diving for prepackaged treasure, invading Crimea.

Yet one line in particular has stuck with those who still yearn for the Cold War: his quip in April 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”

His nostalgia should not come as a surprise; he was, after all, a career officer in the KGB, an organization descended directly from the Cheka and NKVD, the entities best remembered for winning the Russian Civil War for the Reds, creating the vast Gulag system, and deporting entire ethnicities to the Siberian tundra.

It was what came six months later, in October 2005, that proved far more revealing: the exhumation, repatriation, rehabilitation, and state reburial of General Anton Denikin, military leader of the Whites during the Russian Civil War, to the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow at the behest of President Putin.

Such contradictions are par for the course in post-Soviet Russia, where individuals, not to mention statesmen, must sort through the wreckage of the past and decide at their peril what is worth keeping.

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution,’ never has that decision been harder.

To be sure, a gradual process of ‘desovietization’ was already underway in President Yeltsin’s time.
On November 7, 1996, the ‘Great October anniversary,’ and the second most important Soviet holiday of the year after New Year’s Day—Christmas not then on offer—was quietly renamed the ‘Day of Accord and Reconciliation.’ In 2004, Putin replaced it altogether with Unity Day (November 4).

So how is Russia to commemorate Great October today?

As one-time Soviet diplomat to Ankara and Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov put it last week, “What’s the point of celebrating?”

But Vlad the Career KGB’er had already presaged that sentiment four years earlier. “Too often in our national history, instead of an opposition to the government, we faced opposition to Russia itself,” Putin lamented in 2013. “And we know how that ends: with the destruction of the state itself.”

The point, as the New Yorker’s Masha Lipman succinctly put it, is that in Putin’s conservative estimate, November 7 did more to destroy an old system—whose three pillars of orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism are now much more than in vogue—than build one anew.

As such, apart from the standard military march to commemorate the role ‘November 7’ played as a rallying call during WWII, no official celebrations are being held in Moscow this afternoon.

The grass is always redder

Oddly, it’s the West that appears more interested in dwelling upon the big day.

In the sole Russia Today op-ed to mention the anniversary, the pro-government English-language mouthpiece simply wrote: “100 years since Red October, Westerners are more into revolutionary nostalgia than Russians.”

The Moscow Times went one step further in its coverage: “The Secret of the October Revolution Revealed: Lenin Was a Mushroom.”

Citing a quirky researcher’s inquiries from the early 1990s, the article quotes a purported letter from Lenin to his old chum Georgy Plekhanov, the founding father of Russian Marxism, as evidence: “Yesterday I ate my fill of mushrooms and I felt marvelous.”

What’s more, the researcher reminded his generous and conspiratorial listeners, Lenin spelled backwards is ‘ninel,’ a French dish made of mushrooms.

Point taken. But if the Russians, for understandable reasons, are not taking the most momentous day of the 20th century too seriously, who in the former Soviet realm is?

Only three years ago on November 7, 2014, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev congratulated the Kyrgyz people on the 97th anniversary of the October Revolution.

“Under Soviet rule,” he told a cheering public, “Kyrgyzstan, along with other peoples, was given opportunities for the development of its economy and social infrastructure. Our country turned from a backward, illiterate agricultural country into an educated republic with developed industry.”

Nonetheless, Belarus is the only other former Soviet republic in which November 7 remains a national holiday.

Getting by with a little help from my friends

Not surprisingly, however, some of the Russian Federation’s closest ties today still spring from Soviet-made alliances forged at least in part by ideological common ground: its ongoing support of Bashar al Assad is the single biggest example, but others of renewing old Soviet friendships abound.

This time, however, they spring from commercial, industrial, technological, and geopolitical rather than ideological ties.

In 2014, for example, after years of renewed Russian charm offensives—including helping Angola launch its first telecommunications satellite, Angosat1—Angolan Minister of Foreign Affairs Georges Chikoti strongly backed the Russian invasion of Crimea.

And the Crimean ricochet didn’t end there. Ironically, the US-led sanctions regime against Russia indirectly bolstered Moscow’s ties across Africa and Asia, markets into which it energetically moved to make up for lost arms sales after 2014.

For example, while private Russian firms have pulled out of Africa in the wake of collapsing commodity prices, the state-owned industrial titan Rostec went ahead with building a USD4 billion oil refinery in Uganda, another old Soviet ally.

The company, which also owns the major arms exporter Rosoboronexport, told Reuters: “Apart from proceeds from the project itself, building the crude oil refinery (in Uganda) opens markets for products of all Rostec’s companies and Russian companies as a whole.”

That ties that unbind

Closer to home, however, hardly anyone else from the former Soviet Union is celebrating Lenin’s seizure of power today.

On the contrary. Kazakhstan, far and away the largest country to succeed from the USSR, is only moving further away from Russian influence.

On March 1, 2016, it celebrated a new national holiday, ‘Day of Gratitude,’ to commemorate the country’s multicultural heritage and the (forced) generosity of the Kazakh people in accepting millions of ethnically cleansed minorities forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan under Stalin, including but not limited to at least 800,000 Germans, 100,000 Poles, and 550,000 Caucasians among them.

Taking this logic one step further, barely two weeks ago Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared the country was switching from Cyrillic to Latin script, no easy feat in an era of mass literacy.

Taken together then, Russia is holding its own in the vast geopolitical vacuum left by the ghost of the Soviet Union across Asian and Africa. Closer to home, however, its cultural legacy is less enduring outside of longstanding partners such as Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan.

100 years after Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the only ones truly commemorating the coming and going of the 20th century’s most momentous day are the Americans.

As the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once said, “For one to be free there must be at least two… Some can be free only insofar as there is a form of dependence they can aspire to escape.”