A century ago, a small, radical group of Communists took to the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg), then capital of the Russian empire. Fiercely loyal to their leader, the newly returned Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Bolsheviks initially seized power in a matter of days before consolidating their rule over all Russia over the next few years in spectacularly brutal fashion . For nearly 75 years afterwards, the progeny of the Bolshevik revolt, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) variously created hatred, inspiration and terror worldwide as it quickly became one of the foremost great powers of the 20th century, spreading the ideologies of Marx and Lenin worldwide and then spectacularly crumbled into nothingness in the late 1980’s.
Given the momentous nature of the events of October 1917, it might be logically assumed that commemoration and, perhaps, celebration of the revolution would occur throughout Russia. Modern political reality, however, dictates otherwise. In the surreal modern Russia of Vladimir Putin, who has revived the symbols and, more importantly, restored the reputation of Tsarism, the revolution is seen as the veritable elephant in the room – a disturbing time to be hidden away, lest the echoes of a century ago lead to new stirrings of revolution today.
For today’s Russia, where the great Tsars and Stalin alike are venerated and held up as the epitomes of Russian leadership; where empire, both of the Tsarist and Soviet sort, are looked at with a bitter sense of nostalgia; and where the reputation of the current leadership rests on a foundation of Russian imperial nationalism, the idealism of 1917 is something to be feared. Putin’s Russia has thrived on a toxic blend of cynicism, nationalism and a blanket ignorance of truth, now exported to the West. This combination, combined with a stagnant economy and stark inequalities between the Moscow elite and the rest of Russia, has inevitably led to rising socioeconomic tensions within the vast federation. To distract from these tensions, Putin and his allies have embarked on a grand mission to restore Russia to great power status, invading and annexing the Crimea, dismembering eastern Ukraine and using social media to disrupt Western elections and assault the foundations of public trust in the liberal West.
The events of October 1917 were, ultimately, immeasurably destructive to those unfortunate enough to live within the borders of the Soviet empire. And yet, the idealism of that October, and, more precisely, the prior February, when moderate, liberal democratic revolutionaries overthrew the last Tsar, Nicholas II, ushered in an all too brief a ray of freedom and democracy into Russia’s otherwise grim history of totalitarianism and authoritarianism of varying levels of brutality. In its all too short rule, between the months of February and October of 1917, the provisional government, last led by Vladimir Kerensky, introduced and held reasonably free and fair elections, guaranteed freedoms of speech and expression, separated church from state and began popular rural land reforms, all while maintaining an open, pro-Western stance in the realm of foreign affairs. Never since has Russia been so open, so forward-looking and so amenable to Western values of democracy and liberalism as during those seven months. It is imperative, both for the good of Russia and that of the wider world, that the spirit of idealism so cruelly and quickly extinguished by Bolshevism is rekindled today. Should it not be, Russia and the world will be condemned to a never ending incidence of confrontation, cynicism and authoritarianism.