Russian matryoshka dolls decorated with portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Vladimir Putin © Reuters
On November 7, the Communist party of the Russian Federation will celebrate the centenary of the 1917 revolution with a festive march and a gala reception. But President Vladimir Putin will be absent from the procession, and the evening event will take place at the Renaissance Moscow Monarch Centre, a nondescript conference hotel far from the Kremlin.
For Mr Putin, removing himself so far from a momentous historical anniversary is out of character — under his presidency, history has become an ever more important ideological tool for strengthening national unity and rallying public support.
Over the past decade, “Russia has taken to a cult of the past,” says Gennady Bordyugov, a historian and senior official at the Association of Researchers of Russian Society, which monitors public sentiment about the revolution.
Indeed, Mr Putin has marked the victory over Nazi Germany with ever more pomp including massive military parades on Red Square, speeches emphasising the role of the Soviet Union over western powers in defeating Hitler and invoking pride in the people’s strength and sacrifices in the second world war.
On the president’s instructions, a broad range of history textbooks with widely diverging interpretations of events such as the revolution were replaced with just a few, based on a standardised interpretation.
Last year, Mr Putin argued that Russia’s recent economic weakness — partly triggered by western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea — was insignificant in the grand sweep òf history.
“The country may lag behind in some respects, but it has a thousand-year history, and Russia will not trade its sovereignty for anything,” he said.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, says the Kremlin’s heavy use of history has been convenient in legitimising Mr Putin’s regime. “The elites and pro-Putin majority identify with that and identify with the help of the past ‘who we are and where we come from’.”
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been seeking answers to those questions. For many other former Soviet republics, many of them dominated by ethnic groups other than Russians, gaining independence in itself was a strong basis for national identity. But in the minds of many citizens of the Russian Federation, the day their country became independent they lost more than they gained — an empire, global power status, a state in which for decades they had been taught to take pride.
“That’s why history politics has become so important: What’s needed is clear heroes that inspire people, narratives that can help with reconciliation in society,” says Mr Kolesnikov. “The 1917 revolution is useless for that because the frontlines that played a role then are irrelevant today.”
Mr Putin himself has made his ambivalent attitude to the October Revolution very clear.
“We see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and positive consequences of those events are intertwined,” he said last week. On the one hand, he argued that gradual, evolutionary development would have served Russia much better than the upheaval of 1917 with its “ruin of statehood and the ruthless destruction of millions of human lives”.
Mr Putin’s abhorrence of the turmoil of 1917 reflects a broader anxiety over revolutionary ferment that has shaped his outlook. He prides himself in having returned Russia to stability after the turbulent 1990s. For more than a decade, he has railed against the overthrow of regimes whether in Ukraine, Egypt or Syria, readily seeing them as western plots that might one day extend to Russia itself.
But then he credited the Soviet Union with raising living standards, creating a powerful middle class, reforming the labour market and boosting human rights, and claimed it had helped in advancing these positive developments in the west as well.
Mr Putin’s conflicted attitude towards the Soviet Union has long puzzled western observers. In 2005, he memorably called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. The phrase was misread by many in the west as praise of the USSR, but was more a reflection of the trauma a majority in the Russian public feels, and a warning of the risks created by the crumbling of a global power.
The Russian president’s view of the revolution’s protagonists is equally ambivalent. On the one hand, he blamed Lenin himself for the Soviet Union’s eventual demise, saying that the revolutionary leader had put a “time bomb” under the state he founded by drawing borders along ethnic lines, He called Lenin a traitor for starting a civil war when Russia was already fighting external enemy in the First World War.
But Mr Putin has also defended dictator Josef Stalin for making a pact with Nazi Germany, and fiercely criticised neighbouring states for removing monuments glorifying the Soviet army or Lenin.
Fresh research conducted on the eve of the revolution’s centennial shows that with this seemingly contradictory stance, the Russian president stands firmly among the mainstream.
A poll by the pro-Kremlin Russia Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) conducted last year found that 45 per cent believe that the October Revolution represented the will of the Russian people, while 43 per cent disagreed. In 1990, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, 36 per cent had agreed and 37 per cent disagreed.
“The civil war is long over, but the discussion about it is not,” says VCIOM general director Valery Fyodorov. “The proportion of people who don’t know how to answer has shrunk, showing that people understand more about the revolution than they used to. But the rift is as deep as ever.”