One family’s divergent views of the Bolshevik revolution tell a tale of Russia’s complicated past – and present
As the world prepares to mark that seminal moment of the 20th century, perspectives on the consequences and costs to Russia of that earthshaking event are deeply complicated. Such splits are everywhere – in opinion polls, at family dinner tables, in the commentary of guides at history exhibits in the capital.
| MOSCOW AND ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Leonid Medvedko, a Russian historian, was born in 1928 on the winning side of history. His father, after returning from the front lines of World War I, fought victoriously with the Red Army in the Bolshevik Revolution and rose steadily up party ranks. His eldest brother, born the year Lenin died, was named Vilor after the communist revolutionary. It was one of many odd-sounding names of the era: Vilor is the acronym for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, organizer of the revolution.
Leonid, like his father, led a privileged life in the Soviet Union. A journalist and author of several books on the Middle East – and an intelligence adviser to the Soviet military – he traveled widely, developing a sophisticated view of the world and Moscow’s place in it. “Everywhere I traveled in the world, I was treated with respect. I felt myself a person who was representing something outstanding,” says Leonid from his home library in Moscow, which is brimming with his own works and those of friends, poets, and authors, a testament to his life as a member of the Soviet intelligentsia. At age 88, he has the look – and the wild wisps of hair – of a man with much more to say.
Yet as Russia tiptoes toward the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on Nov. 7, his perspective on the consequences and costs to Russia of that earthshaking event is deeply complicated. And the view gets even more tangled and conflicted with each generation of his family.
Such splits are everywhere – in opinion polls, at family dinner tables, in the commentary of guides at history exhibits in the capital. Hence, as the world prepares to mark that seminal moment of the 20th century – the Great October Socialist Revolution, as it was known in Soviet times – the conspicuous silence of the Kremlin about the centenary and reluctance to stage any sort of formal celebration may be understandable.
Two mighty Russian states have collapsed in the past century, leaving vast dislocation in their wakes. These were not mere “regime changes,” but the complete destruction of a nation’s ideology and institutions, and the supplanting – in the first case amid extreme violence – of its former ruling classes and economic system. The second convulsion, the USSR’s traumatic demise in 1991, was followed by a brief and chaotic experiment with democracy that is recalled mainly for the social and economic devastation that accompanied it. Not surprisingly, Russia today finds itself in a state of “blurriness” about the past, with many, like the Medvedkos, in solid agreement only about wanting to see no further upheavals.
This longing for stability goes a long way toward explaining the support for the new version of Russia’s traditional autocratic state created by President Vladimir Putin. It also undergirds public acceptance of the Kremlin’s current contentious relations with the West.
Ultimately, the lack of any official effort to mark the Bolshevik Revolution’s 100th anniversary speaks not only to the unrelieved controversies of the past, but provides clues about the values and ideals of Russia today – and perhaps tomorrow.
“When Putin became president, he presided over a country in a state of turmoil and misery ... and over a society torn by all kinds of differences,” says Maria Lipman, the Moscow-based editor in chief of the journal Counterpoint. “His task to begin with was in calming down passions.... And this is [why] the centennial of the revolution is hard to interpret in terms that would be acceptable to everyone. It in a sense remains divisive to everyone.”
On a recent rainy day in St. Petersburg, tourists mill about the Winter Palace of the State Hermitage Museum, the official residence of czarist rulers from the House of Romanov for nearly three centuries.
In the palace’s Malachite Room, named after the precious stone from the Urals, a simple plaque notes the events that transpired here on Oct. 25, 1917. (The anniversary now falls in November because the Bolsheviks switched to the Gregorian calendar.) The Aurora, a naval cruiser moored on the Neva River nearby, fired a shot that signaled the start of the revolution. Hordes of Bolshevik-led workers and soldiers swarmed into the palace, down the Corridor of Portraits. They seized the building and arrested members of the provisional government, who had taken up residence here after a revolt a few months earlier had forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas II.
The Bolshevik uprising triggered three years of civil war between the Red Army and the pro-monarchy Whites. Nine million people died in the upheaval, mostly of starvation and disease. The Reds’ victory led to the formation of the Soviet Union, whose aim was to modernize, educate, and industrialize what had been the most backward and agrarian country in Europe, under the rubric of revolutionary socialist principles.
The following decades were tumultuous, punctuated by bloody political purges and mass famine caused by the collectivization of agriculture. Yet the country did undergo a fundamental transformation.
“The revolution in the short term made people literate,” says Lev Lurye, a historian and teacher in St. Petersburg. “It created socialized medicine for everyone.... They forced all Russians to read Tolstoy and Chekhov. Putin himself was a kid from a working-class family. Before the revolution, he wouldn’t have had any chance of becoming president of the Russian Federation.”
In 1917, fully 85 percent of the people of Russia were rural peasants. By 1991, some 80 percent of Soviet citizens lived in cities, were universally literate, and enjoyed Western levels of higher education and professionalization. The Soviet Union had borne the brunt of defeating Nazi Germany in World War II, had put the first man in space, and was globally acknowledged as a military and scientific superpower.
Many residents remain proud of those achievements, which form the foundations of modern Russia. But others harbor profound doubts over the horrific price the country paid in its forced march to modernization, and the lasting political, economic, and other restrictions imposed on the country in the name of communism.
Surprisingly, Lenin’s reputation has been burnished by time. Thousands still line up each year to pay homage to the founder of the USSR, whose embalmed remains, bathed in red light, lie in a granite mausoleum next to the Kremlin wall. Some 56 percent of Russians today regard his role in history as “positive,” according to a survey by the Levada Center, a research firm, compared with 40 percent a decade ago. Joseph Stalin has seen a bump in popularity, too.
Yet neither is considered the “founding father” today. The anniversary of the revolution, once a cause for national celebration, has been replaced by a holiday commemorating a popular uprising against Polish occupation forces in 1612. At the same time, the 300-year Romanov Dynasty that ruled Russia until 1917, once shunned in the national consciousness, has enjoyed a revival. Under Mr. Putin, historians have tried to weave the country’s history into a seamless narrative stressing “1,000 years of continuity.”
The hope is to transcend ongoing divisions over monarchy, faith, and communism. That effort has been aided by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been returning to its traditional role as handmaiden to the Russian state since being freed from subservience to Communist Party rule.
“I think we do have a feeling of continuity in understanding different periods of our history,” says Vsevolod Chaplin, a Russian Orthodox priest and former spokesman for the church.
The Kremlin, in turn, has greatly helped the church. It has handed back thousands of former church properties that had been nationalized in Soviet times. For Putin, the church – the single enduring institution of Russian history – fills an ideological void left by the collapse of communism and legitimacy by association. It evokes a kind of “utopia of the past,” says Lev Gudkov, director of Levada.
Olga Medvedko, the only daughter of Leonid and his wife, Elena Kalinnikova, was born the year after Stalin died, in 1954. Because her parents were both scholars, she led an advantaged life. She and her brother traveled outside the Soviet Union to the Middle East with them. It was a time of great expectation: Receding were the decades of Stalinist terror and just beginning was Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw” in the 1950s and early ’60s, when repression and censorship were relaxed.
It was also a time when family secrets were revealed. Olga learned as a student that her grandmother’s brother, the artist Nikolai Zagrekov, was living in exile in Berlin, while her other brother Boris, a circus acrobat, had been accused by Soviet intelligence of being a spy because of his ties to Nikolai. Boris was imprisoned in a gulag and spent 20 years in forced labor.
Today Olga, a university professor of English, reflects on the stark differences between her childhood and that of her father. “My father was brought up with this bright idea of communism. They absolutely believed in that,” she says. “The revolution – I see it as the greatest tragedy of my country, because the whole country – its history, its development, its culture, everything – could have been absolutely different, and much, much more successful.”
This is a common critique, made by Russian thinkers and Western historians alike. Whatever the successes of the Soviet Union, its clash with the West – its self-imposed isolation from much of the world politically, economically, and culturally – weakened the country and eventually contributed to its demise. Some suggest that Russia’s current cold-war-like standoff with the West is a direct consequence of persistent Soviet thinking and the failure to integrate with Europe.
Yet supporters of the revolution say that ignores real 20th-century traumas, such as the rise of Hitler in Germany. They argue that it was only the rapid, forced industrialization under Stalin that enabled the USSR to repel the Nazi invasion, and insist that the West has always been, and continues to be, hostile to Russia.
“I would wake up and think, ‘what should I feed my children today?’ Shops were empty,” she recalls.
Political tumult endured, too. In late 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the target of a brief coup attempt by Communist hard-liners rebelling against his political reforms. The revolt failed in three short days, with the help of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who organized popular resistance to the rebellion. Mr. Yeltsin would stay on as president of what became the Russian Federation, overseeing a difficult and ultimately disastrous transition from a planned economy to greater privatization.
Using presidential decrees, he awarded the crown jewels of the Soviet economy – such as oil companies – to oligarchs who seemed more interested in plundering than developing the assets. Russia’s gross domestic product shrank by 50 percent in the 1990s, life expectancy plummeted, and millions of ordinary people were reduced to living off their dacha gardens. In 1998, Russia’s financial system crashed. “I’m not afraid of anything today because I survived those years,” says Olga.
The stage was set for the arrival of a strong ruler. Someone like an ex-KGB agent with a black belt in judo.
On a Sunday morning at her Mosow apartment, Olga makes Russian pie, a crispy pastry filled with vegetables. Her grown daughter, Natasha, is coming to help with the archives of her great-uncle Nikolai, the artist, about whom Olga has written a book. Her son is a successful businessman, part of the new Russia that has changed dramatically in two generations. Olga now feels stable, and if her views on the revolution diverge from those of her father, they dovetail on one other point – that Putin is the right leader for Russia today.
“Putin is criticized in the West because of his leadership, because he is different than what you have. But your history is your history and our history is our history,” she says. “I don’t want any more revolutions. I want only evolution....”
Russia’s political system has evolved over the past two decades. While it differs today in many ways from the Soviet one, it remains far from a thriving democracy. The Kremlin allows more than a dozen political parties to participate in elections, although only four “systemic” ones typically make it through the web of bureaucratic restrictions to take seats in the lower house of parliament (State Duma). The range of political debate in parliament and the media is far greater than was ever permitted in the Soviet Union.
Yet in some ways the results resemble the days of ham-fisted commissars. The vast expanse of Russia is ruled from Moscow by a largely unaccountable bureaucracy, and one undisputed leader – Putin – sits atop the state, wielding near-absolute power.
One important difference from Soviet times appears to be the uneasy tolerance of independent Kremlin opponents, such as Alexei Navalny, the Russian lawyer and political activist. Though he is under house arrest, Mr. Navalny still is able to mount an effective, internet-based anti-corruption campaign and, through use of social media, periodically inspire protests.
On the eve of one such demonstration in St. Petersburg, Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a local historian and writer, sits in a trendy restaurant in the former imperial capital, feeling cynical about how much Russia has really changed. A harsh critic of Putin, he believes the president’s biggest opposition figure is actually a farce, stage-
managed by the Kremlin itself, to give society a place to channel tensions without actually threatening authoritarian rule.
In fact, after 17 years in power, Putin has returned Russia to essentially a one-party state, in which political loyalty is prized the way it was in the nomenklatura system of the Soviet Union, says Nikolay Petrov, a political science professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. Political monopoly is prioritized over economic gain, he says, and so far society accepts this trade-off.
A poll last year by Levada showed that 27 percent of respondents said they do not care what kind of government Russia has as long as they themselves are doing well. Two-thirds of Russians agreed that Russia needs democracy. But 55 percent said they believed the country requires a special form of democratic government, taking into account Russian “peculiarities.” Only 13 percent thought that Western countries were an example to be followed.
This marks a remarkable turn from the immediate post-Soviet era, when many Russians looked to the West as an ideal to be copied. More than anything, it reflects a fundamental gap between the political consciousness of Russians and Americans.
Mr. Kotsyubinsky notes that in the US, a president gains legitimacy through elections. In Russia, it’s the president’s top-down control that validates the election result. He says many view Putin’s ability to hold onto power for 17 years through essentially faux elections as a power to respect. “Americans think other people are just like themselves,” he says. “We are not Latin Americans, or Eastern Europeans. We are Russians.”
Putin’s foreign-policy ventures garner widespread support, too. Since he annexed the mainly Russian-populated Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014, the implicit rift between Russia and the West has become explicit. The US and European Union have slapped sanctions on Russia, diplomatic ties have deteriorated, and it has become common to speak of a new cold war.
Many in the West regard Russia’s actions as signs of a newly aggressive Moscow seeking to restore the Soviet Empire and drive wedges in Western unity. But Russians view the moves in Ukraine not as neo-
imperialism, but as the rightful return of a traditionally Russian territory to the motherland. Putin’s popularity hasn’t fallen below 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea.
Olga, for instance, refuses to even use the word “annexation.” Like her, many Russians see NATO expansion into the former Soviet sphere over the past two decades, right up to the borders of Russia, as evidence of Western aggression.
Similarly, Moscow’s involvement in Syria commands the support of many Russians as well. They agree with the Kremlin that it is necessary to fight Islamist terrorism beyond Russia’s borders, and accept claims that it helps counter US-backed “regime change” operations in the Middle East.
These foreign-policy ventures, as well as Western complaints about Moscow’s cybersecurity intrusions, benefit Putin in one other way: They deflect attention from the hardship that has come with international sanctions and the implosion of world oil prices.
“Here, American and Western media play a positive role for Putin, calling him the biggest threat in any election, that Putin can decide the fate of American, of German, of French elections,” says Mr. Petrov. “Not only [are they] telling us Russia is great again but, look, everyone takes Russia seriously.”
Still, for all of Putin’s support and the resurgence of Russian pride, many educated middle-class Russians remain frustrated – particularly over the lack of genuinely competitive political choices in the country.
In 2011, Natasha, Olga’s daughter, was one of thousands who poured into the streets for mass demonstrations against official corruption and electoral fraud. Her parents worried she would lose her job. “People were so angry,” says Natasha, a 32-year-old freelance journalist.
Today, six years later, Natasha doesn’t attend rallies anymore. “The problem is not Putin. It’s the regime itself,” she says. “In Europe and in the US, people think that the problem is Putin and he is just pure evil. Right now it’s not about just one person – it’s about the regime and the authorities who stand behind it who don’t want to have a dialogue with ordinary people.”
Natasha sits in her mother’s living room, where Nikolai’s paintings hang on the walls. She doesn’t mind that the authorities aren’t celebrating the anniversary of the revolution. “I wouldn’t be happy to see posters of Lenin and Stalin hanging in the streets,” she says, adding that returning to the Soviet era would be a “nightmare.”
But she is still dissatisfied with her political choices in 2017. The opposition has failed to convince her that they’ll shepherd the country any better than Putin has, or that society is ready for the change.
“The problem is that we talk a lot, and people can’t unite,” she says.
“I think that we are very immature in a way, still,” she adds. “We love to complain – and then to do nothing.”
Back in his home library, her grandfather harbors his own sense of ambivalence, though for different reasons. Looking back on the centenary, he sees 100 years of conflict for Russia that ultimately gave more to the West than to Russia itself. Governments around the world handed rights to workers and took other liberalizing steps to avoid a repeat of Russia’s revolution at home.
“We involved ourselves in this eternal war,” he says. “So that’s why society in general, we have an antimilitary attitude.”
Indeed, if the West views Putin as an aggressor who could spark an unwanted war, he’s viewed at home as the man who can keep conflict in check. Still, Leonid sees old hostilities resurfacing. “Now it is starting,” he says. “A second round of the cold war.” ρ