1917/2017 Symposium Keynote Address: Boris Kolonitskii, “100 Years Later: Memories of the Revolution in Contemporary Russia”

On Thursday, November 2, five days before the grand jubilee of the Bolshevik coup, in Soviet times known as The Great October Revolution, Professor Boris Kolonitskii of European University at Saint Petersburg delivered a lecture opening the two day 1917-2017 Fall Symposium. The talk entitled “100 Years Later: Memories of the Revolution in Contemporary Russia” concentrated on the problems of commemoration of the Revolution after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people’s opinions about the event and the ways the government tries to accommodate for the habit of having an official day-off in November. Professor Kolonitskii is Doctor of Science in History and Head Research Fellow at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His main research interests include the history of the Russian revolution of 1917, World War I, the history of the Russian intelligentsia and historical memory.

Professor Kolonitskii began his address with a story: Last year while in Germany, he was repeatedly asked about the plans and prospects of commemorating the 1917 anniversary. As Russia is a country with an unpredictable past, and at this moment the past is defined in St. Petersburg’s eternal rivalry with Moscow, he was bound to compose a sort of a historical forecast, predicting the events that may occur in 2017 due to significance of the date. The lecture consisted of this forecast seen from the point of its fulfillment.

The anniversary, according to Professor Kolonitskii, is not as much a date to celebrate or commemorate, as it is a resource with certain limitations. One of the most important limitations is that the anniversary cannot be monopolized. In other words, the commemoration of the October revolution does not solely “belong” to the Bolsheviks, as the revolution concerned many antagonistic forces: SR’s, anarchists, different internationalists, etc. And they also wanted to preserve the authority of October, so they participated in part in the sacralization of October performed by the Bolsheviks. However, many of the forces who invested in October were openly anti-Bolshevik. For example, Antonov – the leader of Tambov anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1920-1921 – was a hero of October, who did a lot to establish Soviet power. There is a similar situation is with Kronstadt of 1921, whose leaders termed it “the third revolution,” counting the February one as the first and October as the second. The memory of October acted as a resource of legitimization for different political actors, not just for the Bolsheviks. And to some extent it continued later, so the Bolshevik celebration of October created a political space for many political actors other than the Bolsheviks.

The memory of October was used during perestroika, which was legitimized through its depiction as a continuation of October. However, very soon the myth of October was used by the opponents of the Communist Party. Thus, the Bolshevik slogan “all power to the soviets” was used to attack the communist monopoly, implying that the party should share the power it monopolized. The events celebrating the revolution created a public space for the anticommunist forces to boost their agenda as well, and to refer to particular parts of the myth of October, e.g. Yeltsin delivered his speech in Saint Petersburg (consciously or unconsciously) parodying Lenin’s famous speech from the top of armored car by getting on the top of the tank.

Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, October lost its official legitimization as the main holiday of the state. However, the habit of having a day-off in the beginning of November was still quite strong. According to Professor Kolonitskii, that made the authorities face the necessity to reimagine the celebration by attributing it to a different cause. He avoided entertaining the thought that the November 7th holiday could have been abolished altogether, although the fact that it does not look like a possibility seems emblematic. So, dealing with the necessity to find a justification for a holiday in the beginning of November, the Russian government came up with several things. First, in 1996, a year before the 80th anniversary of the revolution, November 7th was declared a day of agreement and conciliation. Since nobody understood what it actually meant and how to organize it, the very style of the celebration and its elements were very Soviet. In 2004, the authorities decided to change politics, possibly under the influence of the first Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Another turning point in Russian history, namely the Time of Troubles, was brought about. This time in history was very important for Russian patriotic myth, because it was the time when the Romanov dynasty was established. This myth was already used by Stalin in 1939 by launching the movie devoted to Minin and Pozharskii, leaders of Russian militia who liberated Kremlin from Polish invaders. The choice of the date may also be buttressed by the other force on the political scene: the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1981 Nikolas II, the last tsar of the Romanov dynasty, was canonized. In 2000 his family was canonized too, thus supporting various conspiracy theories about the revolution being made by “Russia’s enemies,” who destroyed one of the most important part of the Russian patriotic myth, Russian monarchy. Ironically, the restoration of this memory was timed to coincide (and replace) the commemoration of the event that undermined its mythical meaning, the understanding of autocracy as the very basis of Russian nationality. The decision to commemorate the Kremlin’s liberation on November 4th was not buttressed by academic calculations, but the date was close enough to November 7th without coinciding with it, so the Soviet sacralization was transposed to the reemerging national one.

To commemorate Minin and Pozharsky’s feat, November 4th was called “the day of national unity,” which is sometimes interpreted as the “day of the all people of Russian Federation.” There could be a different motivations for changing one day to the other, but the problem stays the same: the authorities did not know what to do with this memory. It was clear from the very beginning that the idea was not viable; November 7th was the resource of the Communist Party, it could not be used by other political groups. However, the traditional day-off had to be dealt with, and the authorities gave this day to right-wing organizations, which became the main challenge for the authorities before the crisis of 2008. Being to a certain extent limited by their previous actions and previous statement, the authorities were bound by the celebration of the anniversary in 2007, which was used for conservative purposes. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn’s article on the revolution was republished. This article contained an anti-revolutionary and anti-intelligentsia message and blamed everyone, but most of all Russian intellectuals. However, all this was not imposed by the authorities. In contemporary Russia, there is an anti-revolutionary consensus, i.e. nobody wants a new revolution. This consensus has nothing to do with appreciation of the existing system, it is a mere rejection of the resource.

Another important anniversary is connected with the monument to the heroes of World War I (pictured above). At the opening of the monument on August 1st, 2014, President Putin delivered a speech glorifying the soldiers and explaining why the Russians lost the war. As a main cause for the defeat, he mentioned some unidentified traitors. From his less official speeches one can infer that he was talking about the revolutionaries and Lenin in particular, whom Putin unreasonably disrespects, despite the fact that Bolsheviks managed to do several important things: win the Civil war, create a federation, and build an empire that existed for an impressively long time. However, this romanticized view on World War I had strong support “from below.” Thus, there were popular initiatives, connected with reenactments of the war, often supported by the relatives of the soldiers who fought there and fans of white army.

In the year 2015, Medinskii, Russian Minister of Culture, who pretended to be a Russian supreme patriotic priest (i.e. he saw his goal as training Russians in patriotism) came up with the idea of national conciliation. This idea is reminiscent of President Yeltsin’s proposal in the 1990s, which offered heirs of Russian White Army emigrants reconciliation with the heirs of the Red Army. As a symbol of this reconciliation, Medinskii suggested the erection of a monument in Crimea, which did not get a lot of popular support from both the Soviet-nostalgic population of Crimea, who did not want to reconcile with Whites’ descendants, as well as other parts of society. Among other things, the legend of the Civil war as a war between the Whites and the Reds is universally disregarded, as for most Russians it is evident that there were many more forces than two. Moreover, there was a war of the Reds against the Reds, as exemplified in the beginning of the lecture with two rebellions of pro-communist forces.

However unreasonable it may be, the idea has some popular support, coming from local administrations and civil societies. There already are some monuments of this kind in Saint Petersburg, Krasnodar, and Novocherkassk. However, there conciliation is one of those things everybody talks about, but nobody actually wants. On the eve of the anniversary, the talks of the conciliation once again took the scene. In December 2016 the president Putin gave a speech appealing for conciliation for one united Russia. But the country is divided, and fact that there could not be any conciliation is proven by practical actions, mainly the acts of vandalism against the monuments to political figures. Thus, there is a monument to Nicolas II, which was erected in 1996, exploded in 1997 and re-erected in 2000. There were also a lot of monuments to Lenin or Russian tsars which were destroyed or vandalized. Another example is the Russian march, an anti-communist event where White general Vrangel and the leader of the Tambov uprising Antonov were brought together on the poster as a united anti-communist symbol.

The heterogeneity of the country regarding the opinion of the revolution is reflected in the polls, but also in the one of the explicit demonstrations of the politics of memory, namely the monuments. Thus, in Kirov there was a monument to Dzerzhinskii, erected in 2017 by the local KGB veterans. In Cheliabinsk, the monument to Stolypin was installed, and in Surgut an illegal one to Stalin was erected. The monuments which were already erected raised a lot of discussion. Monuments to Lenin in Ukraine were demolished, but in Russia some people want to keep the monuments just for the reasons that the monuments should not be crushed. The recent events in Charlottesville concerning the confederate monument are somewhat analogous.

Nevertheless, the anniversary as a resource is underused in Russia. People avoid referring to the Russian revolution in their protests against authorities. The revolution is depicted as a potential threat, and visual resemblance between Naval’nyi and Kerenskii (no matter how accurate) is used against the leader of the opposition who can open the way to radical forces. Instead of the anniversary, the most popular discussion in Russia concerned the film Matilda, which tells the story of the affair between Nicolas II and the Polish ballerina Matilda. The film provoked the “anti-Matilda movement” led by Natalia Poklonskaia, who treats Nicolas II like a saint and sees the movie as blasphemy. Discussions about the film “Matilda” exemplify how the 1917 revolution is largely unmentioned in political discussions. Nobody wants to appeal to, or to repeat the revolution. Russia has overfulfilled its plan for revolutions.

Marija Fedjanina is a PhD student in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research interest include Russian modernism and European avant-garde, postmodern literature and its relation to critical theory.

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