Vicken Cheterian

The lost magic of the revolutionary idea

The centennial of the Russian Revolution did not cause much agitation: there is no pump, celebration, nor new debates. Few television documentaries, newspaper retrospectives, or art exhibitions lazily marked the occasion. Yet, there is a generalized indifference towards one of the greatest events that shaped the 20th century which says much about contemporary ambiguities towards not only the Russian revolution of October 1917, but towards revolution as a paradigm of change in general. 

This indifference to the first proletarian revolution is underlined by the attitude of the Russia authorities, but not limited to that. The ruling cast in Moscow is deeply perplexed towards the Russian Revolution of 1917: The Russian President Vladimir Putin decided not to give a big party to the centennial, revealing how the current master of the Kremlin despises revolutions and revolutionaries. It reflects the shock that the Russian elite endured during the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the fear that their newly acquired wealth and stability could be overthrown by social movements supported by the West, just like in neighbouring Ukraine. Putin wants to create a sense of national identity where the key words are unity and stability, where the agitation and furore of a revolution has no place. 

Both the birth and the death of the Soviet Union seem to traumatize the current rulers of Russia. Their ambiguity is best expressed in Russia itself, where the old debate whether to burry Lenin’s corps exposed in a mausoleum on the Red Square, resurfaced again. After nearly a century did we already burry Lenin’s ideas before even giving his decomposing body to the earth?

The “revolutionary paradigm” has dominated the imagination of European and later global intelligentsia even before 1917. It started with the French Revolution of 1789, when, intellectuals craving for change and end of autocratic rules romanticized the idea of the “revolution” as the act through which a people earned its liberty. With the French Revolution and its ideas of individual freedom and equality came economic development, making a few West European nations develop rapidly, and become models of political organization (parliamentary democracies) and economic progress (industrial capitalism). 

For many nations suffering under the double weight of oppressive and arbitrary rulers and backward economic system and mass poverty, the revolution was seen the way to deliverance. Yet, there were many ways to imagine the revolution, one of which was through constitutional order and establishing a republic. The Iranian Revolution of 1906, the Young Turk military coup of 1908, and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 were all done in the name of the “constitution”. In Russia another idea of revolution took form that would become hegemonic in the 20th century: that of a class revolution in the name of not only political equality, but also economic progress and the establishment of a classless society. The only problem for the Russian Revolutionaries was that their country was the most backward economically in Europe, while the theories of Karl Marx that they borrowed was thought for developed industrial societies where a strong and organized working class existed. It was not the case of Russia where urbanization was below 15% when the 1917 revolution erupted, and only one third of the total population were literate. 

The Russian Social-Democrats would have endless debates about the nature of the coming revolution. Yet, it was the fall of the Romanov dynasty after 300 years in power, as a result of the devastation losses during the First World War, that resolved the situation; the best organized and the most radical group would come to power: the Bolsheviks!  

The outcome of the revolutions did not correspond to what the revolutionaries had imagined while in opposition: The French Revolution led to the reign of terror and Napoleonic Wars, the Persian Revolution produced the Pahlavi Dynasty, the Young Turks committed the first modern genocide less than a decade after they took power. The Russian Revolution also produced its share of brutality: the civil war with its four million casualties, the forced collectivization that led more millions to die of hunger in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan, the Moscow trials of 1938 and the mass killings of that devastated the intelligentsia and urban middle classes, including many Bolshevik militants. Those crimes, that for long time Moscow apologists denied are no more contested. Yet, Stalin’s legacy is defended for its rapid industrialization in the 1920’s and 30’s that enabled the Soviet Union to fight Nazi invasion. Even this “achievement” is questioned after the collapse of the USSR and its de-industrialization in the 1990’s.  

For five decades the Russian Revolution continued to inspire, in spite of Stalinism. Nations fighting against colonialism adopted it. New revolutions inspired by the promise of socialism were victorious in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola and elsewhere. It was in 1968 when Soviet tanks that were sent to Prague to repress a local initiative to experiment “socialism with a human face” that marks the rupture. After Prague revolutions would not be the same again. Polish workers mobilizing around Solidarnosc chose Catholicism, and revolutionaries in Iran chose Islam as the new ideologies of revolutionary change. The paradigm of revolutions built on the idea of equality and progress was crushed with the suppression of Prague Spring.

Since the 1990’s the idea of what revolution could mean has been destabilized. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later without bloodshed. Could revolutions be peaceful events, radical change of political system under mass mobilization of the citizens? What is clear is that populations living under “communist” systems did not want a new ideology for radical change; rather, they wanted to be “normal” just like their European neighbours in the west. The wave of “colour revolutions” that followed, starting from Serbia in October 2000, in Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004 and Kyrgyzstan 2005 again led to regime change but with no violence. A new era of democratic revolutions seemed to have started. 

But then came the Arab revolts if 2011. While in its first months they gave the impression to be continuation of the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe – remember the “twitter revolution” or “facebook revolution” vehicle by the media? – but soon the Middle East and North Africa plunged into a bloodbath while the old regimes continued to cling on to their hegemonic power.  

A century after the Bolshevik revolutions, the way we look at revolutions might have changed, ideologies that once mobilized millions of people have lost their sparkle, but the fact remains that revolutionary explosions continue to be recurrent nevertheless.