100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolutions: No narrative – no commemoration?

By Inga Chelyadina | 4 November 2017

To quote this document: Inga Chelyadina, “100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolutions: No narrative – no commemoration?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 4 November 2017, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1993, displayed on 24 March 2023

(This article is part of the dossier 'Collective Memory in Europe'.)

One hundred years later, what does Russia think about the events that took place in February and October 1917? Is there a shared attitude towards such figures as Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin?  The narrative of the overthrow of the monarchy, which paved the way for the communist regime after having executed the Imperial family remains to be identified. Most importantly, the absence of a single narrative carried out through education, culture, government positions, and the absence of celebrations might be caused by the fear of the government to commemorate any events that led to changes in the political regime.

Russian attitudes are quite ambiguous toward the Revolution. The Levada Center (Russia’s reputable pollster) conducted two separate surveys in 2017 concerning public opinion towards February and October Revolutions. In the first survey regarding the events of February-March 1917, 32% (majority) of respondents stated that they never thought of Russian Tsar Nicholas II having abdicated the throne and its significance for Russia, whereas 23% claimed that they agree with the positive and negative consequences of the fall of the monarchy balancing each other out. When replying to the question about the meaning of the February Revolution, 45% answered that it was in itself meaningless and was only the first preliminary step towards the October Revolution. The second survey, which concerned the October Revolution, gave the following results: 48% of participants think that the events played a positive or mostly a positive role in Russia's history; 31% of the respondents had a very or mostly negative view, and 21% considered it difficult to pass judgment. According to Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a Russian political analyst, the year 1917 is the most inconvenient year for Russian history in terms discussion and comprehension under modern circumstances. It is argued that the absence of a shared position is also strongly linked to the ill-defined attitude of the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin.

Remembering the events of 1917-1918

In 1917, two Revolutions completely changed the Russian Empire. Multiple causes, such as World War I (army was badly led and poorly equipped, severe winters); the country facing virtual economic collapse; Russia’s weakness; workers strike led to the following events. In February 1917, the Tsarist monarchy collapsed, after which the Provisional Government was established. Eight months later, in October, Lenin and his Bolshevik faction engineered a coup d’état that gave rise to the communist state. Nearly immediately, Lenin announced that the new regime would end the war, abolish all private land ownership, and would create a system for workers' control of factories. The Imperial family and their servants were imprisoned and moved to Tobolsk (Siberia) and then to Ekaterinburg (Ural), where they were executed by the Ural Regional Soviet, by command of Vladimir Lenin in July 1918.

The Revolution was a titanic shaking of the Russian society and values. It opened a period of civil war, liberties and repressions. Therefore, and following decades of ideological re-writing of history during the Soviet period – including erasing key figures like Trotsky from public history –, the Russian society is today divided over the heritage and the signification of the Revolution, as an analysis of textbooks, cultural production and religious establishment shows. Finally, the oblivion of 1917 endorsed by Putin is a proof of the difficulty to unite Russians and the political elites around a common interpretation.

A single narrative in education?

Education is an important mediator of collective memory. In 2013, Vladimir Putin proposed to publish a textbook of Russian history, which would be written “in a clear and comprehensible Russian (…) and not bring any internal contradictions or imply any double sense”, be clear and avoid any ideological hues. Finally, in 2015, three publishing houses (‘Prosveshcheniye’, ‘Drofa’ and ‘Russkoye Slovo’ – traditional publishing houses for school books) published three different works. Their content does not differ a lot, as all three follow the ‘historical-cultural standard’ established by the Ministry of Education. These textbooks were used for the first time in 2016-2017.

In the new textbooks there are very few changes concerning the 1917 Revolution; however, an important change is the terminology: February and October (Bolshevik) Revolutions are now occasionally united into one concept of the ‘Great Russian Revolution of 1917’, which might make allusions to the ‘Great French Revolution’ as it is addressed in Russia.

One of the textbooks (History of Russia, 20th century – beginning of 21st century, Part 1: 1914-1945, ed. Rousskoye Slovo, 2017) which is used for teaching in the 10th grade of high school, proposes an in-depth teaching approach. It provides very little information on Lenin, his name is called around a dozen times in the chapter on the 1917 Revolutions. However, Lenin is presented as a positive actor, even as a hero, and one of the principal actors of the Revolution. 

The term ‘Great Russian Revolution of 1917’ is used here and this event is compared in importance "worldwide" to the "Great French Revolution" of 1789. The accent is put on the fact that the provisional government was on the road to establishing a Republic.

The other textbook analyzed is History of Russia, beginning of the 20th century – beginning of 21st century, ed. Drofa, 2016. This textbook does not use the notion of the ‘Great Russian Revolution of 2017’ and insists on the label of a ‘revolutionary period from February to October 1917’. The word ‘revolution’ is hardly ever used and when it is, it rather serves to describe the political situation (‘revolutionary events’) than to provide an ideological description to these events. Lenin is presented as a historical character as the others. Only a few paragraphs concentrate on his actions that contributed to the events of 1917. A lot of them are indeed considered as mistakes. A biographical note of him is not included. This textbook seems to emphasize the unity of the Russian people, all social strata confused, facing the Tsar.
In both history books, the Independence of Ukraine (March 1917- April 1918, December 1918 - October 1920) before becoming the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is presented as a negative event. The Revolutions of 1917 are presented as a globally positive event.

One can argue that although the debates around the Russian Revolutions of 1917 are still ones of the most controversial subjects in Russian history, they are much less discussed than, for example the ones around the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).

A clash of culture and church

Another strong basis for the creation of a collective memory can be culture. However, it is not easy to show a specific interpretation of events in a country where a common narrative does not exist. 

One of the biggest scandals of 2017 in Russia was the release of the historical film ‘Matilda’, directed by Alexei Uchitel. The movie, set to be released on the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, explores the love of tsar Nicholas II for ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya before he came to the throne, and includes erotic scenes. The slogan of the movie is: ‘Love that changed Russia’. 

Right after the release of the official trailer opposition started to raise. First, in August, petrol bombs were thrown at a Saint Petersburg building housing Uchitel's studio. In September, two cars were torched outside the Moscow office of a lawyer acting for the director of the film. Facebook posts containing photos of burnt-out cars and notes were left at the scene saying "Burn for Matilda". Later on, a man was arrested in Yekaterinburg after crashing a jeep into a cinema. The attack was linked, according to officials, to Matilda.

As Nicholas II was canonized in 2000 by the Orthodox Church, many people saw the exposé of his love affair as an insult and the vandalistic acts are linked to this fact. Though the Russian Orthodox Church neither give any official statements concerning ‘Matilda’, nor demands the prohibition of the movie, its representatives stated that ‘it is built on falsification’ and ‘the film can hurt the feelings of a lot of people’. Today, the church is acquiring more and more influence in Russia, which, in theory, would lead to a more negative public opinion of the Revolution (which led to execution of Nicholas II and his family). However, in practice it is very different. (As evidenced by the Levada Centre poll from 2017).

However, what made the film much more scandalous is the reaction of Natalia Poklonskaya – Deputy of the State Duma of Russia (from Putin’s Party ‘United Russia’) from Crimea and ex-Prosecutor of the Republic of Crimea. She first took the case to the General Prosecutor in 2016 which led to the controversy uprising, as she proved to be very persistent in her actions, filing 43 complaints against the film (they were rejected each time). She also used personal accounts on social media to express her opposing views, accusing, for example, German actor Lars Eidinger, who plays Nicholas II in the film, of Satanism. She even wrote a 39-page report denouncing the film and bringing a claim, among others, that the love affair in the movie could not have taken place as Matilda was, in the opinion of the the MP, too ugly to have attracted Nicholas II. The MP also received wide support from different public figures, including Ramzan Kadyrov (Head of Chechen Republic) and the Head of the public council of Russia's culture ministry.

In spite of the efforts, finally in August, the film was approved for release in Russia. On Monday, 23rd of October, the movie premiered in Saint Petersburg's Marinski Theatre. Its official release had been postponed three times. Such a great opposition to this film could indeed mean the restoration of the memory of the ‘Great Imperial Russia’. However, the official position of the government is very unclear. In the love story of the Tsar, the nexus of the Revolution is to be found: The church defends a saint as well as a conservative view on the Tsarist regime, liberals defend a man and leftists defend the people. When asked about ‘Matilda’, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not get involved in this discussion. Then, what is the official government’s position concerning the events of 1917?

Putin’s perspective - the reason for the absence of commemorations?

Both 1917, which started with the overthrow of the Tsarist power in February and ended with the capture of powers by the Bolsheviks in October, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are identified as negative events in the history of the country by Vladimir Putin. According to him, Lenin as the leader of the Bolsheviks’ movement has destroyed the empire and placed an ‘atomic bomb’ under Russia, that led to an explosion seventy years later, creating, as he calls it, ‘the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. 

Why such negative perspective of these events? First of all, according to Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and the author of a best-selling book, ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’, which details the inner workings of the Putin government, Vladimir Putin just cannot compare himself to either Nicholas II, or to Lenin, because that is not the part of Russian history to be proud of. In terms of 1917, nothing can be used as a propaganda tool. Secondly, in both cases the forces that overthrew the ruling regime took the power from their leaders, which in itself is a threat to the idea of a political stability. According to Martin Kragh (Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University), that is the main reason why in January 2017 Kremlin staff received strict instructions to devote minimal time to the remembrance of the Russian Revolution, which was so important during the Soviet era.

The narrative of this period remains very ambiguous. School, culture and government do not form a certain narrative, but try to make it more obscure. As explained by Orlando Figes, author of ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991’: “For collective memory to operate properly, as it does in free societies, you need a framework – a narrative of your society’s history. In Russia, that narrative has never been allowed to exist independently; collective memory has always been suppressed by Soviet ‘official memory”.

In contrast, Russia bases its collective memory on another event – the victory in the Great Patriotic war. Twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Victory Day (9th of May) is still a public holiday and Russians take pride in their triumph. This victory is indeed the touchstone of the modern Russian identity. It represents a rare episode of national unity in a 20th century scarred by Revolutions, civil war, dictatorship, state-directed terror, man-made famine and other extraordinary hardships. This anniversary was full of meaning for the people, communists or not.

“One can not celebrate the 100th anniversary of a revolution by ignoring it” stated Anatoliy Vishnevskiy, Russian demographer and economist. However, the reason for such celebration is clear – the fear of Putin to officially approve of any kind of overthrow of state power could become lethal for the current government under the circumstances of growing opposition and political instability.

I infinitely thank Anna Chtorkh for her help with the analyses of textbooks of Russian history.