The Russian Revolution 1917: Celebration and Commemoration in Russia Over the Century

By Anna Chandrakanthan

The Russian Revolution, now marking its centenary year, undoubtedly left a mark on twentieth-century history, and its impact is still felt in the present day. With the fall of Tsarist autocratic rule, and the subsequent rise of Bolshevik communism, the events of 1917 shaped Russians’ domestic life, political outlook, and arguably most significantly, their global affairs. However, its relevance in the modern world has become a contentious issue, Putin’s Russia aligning itself with the Soviet Union, a nation built upon the success of the revolution, while rejecting the very idea of revolution and the instability that comes from it. Due to this, the question of whether the Russian Revolution should be remembered and, if so, how to go about this, is one to be strongly debated, not least because of the political relevance it has in today’s world.

 

In recent years, the Russian state has taken attention away from revolutionary ideas. Most notably this has involved replacing ‘The Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution’ and ‘The Day of Accord and Conciliation’ in the post-Soviet period. In its place, Unity Day, celebrated on 4th November, was established by Putin and the Kremlin government to remember the events of 1612. A celebration of a mass Russian uprising against Polish occupational forces, it appears that Putin has made a concerted effort to move focus away from the revolution’s civil conflict, towards a broader belief in Russia’s global superiority and international power. Despite this, Russia’s Unity Day, only created in 2005, has faced much backlash, with anti-nationalist and anti-Putin marches taking place in 2016. Furthermore, the context of Unity Day is unknown to much of the population, to this day only fifty-four percent of the Russian public know what the meaning of the event is.[1] Even more detrimental to Putin’s attempts, while only five per cent of people believe the day to officially be the ‘October Revolution Day’, twelve per cent of the population intended on using Unity Day to celebrate the revolution, as opposed to the much earlier Russian uprising in 1612.[2] While twelve per cent appears to be a fairly low number, Yeltsin’s earlier change of ‘The Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution’ to ‘The Day of Accord and Conciliation’ in the 1990s was an initial attempt towards devaluing the Russian Revolution and demoting its importance in Russian society. As a result, despite a quarter century of attempted devaluation, the commemoration of the Russian Revolution is ongoing, even against the apparent wishes of President Putin.

 

The value placed on the Russian Revolution and its enduring legacy, despite governmental attempts to side-line the event, is highlighted when looking at earlier celebrations of the event during the Soviet period. A video of the celebrations in 1967 under Leonid Brezhnev shows the huge number of people attending the Red Square parade, also showcasing the various weapons used during the revolutionary period.[3] In the same year, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was unveiled, argued to be a symbol of the ‘Myth of Great Patriotic War’ in which propaganda encouraged the public to engage with national communist pride.[4] These can both be taken as signs of a widespread acceptance of the revolution’s ‘brilliance’ and beneficial legacy to the Soviet people. However, fast-forward to the modern-day, a mere fifty years later, and governmental attitudes towards the event have completely changed. In place of the many memorials put up for Lenin and Stalin across Russia’s territory, 2016 saw the unveiling of a 17-metre-high statue of Prince Vladimir, ruler of the Kievan Rus in the tenth century. Known for converting the Slav population to Orthodox Christianity, a religion practised by the majority of Russians today, Putin’s intentions were to encourage patriotic ideals and prevent any iconography which could be understood as revolutionary.[5] As can be seen in the above examples, the dichotomy between these two celebratory days is stark, the fact that a sizeable number of people still commemorate the 1917 Russian Revolution over the 1612 uprising is a testament to the importance and significance of the events of 1917.

 

Now in 2017, the question over whether the revolution should be celebrated has been discussed by many, both historians and journalists alike. Putin’s Russia aims to establish the country’s history in as positive a light as possible, ignoring the catastrophic events of the Soviet Union, particularly those under Stalin, including the Great Purge and use of gulags. Despite this, the knowledge that the Russian Revolution has remained significant in the country’s history makes writing off the event all the more difficult. It is already clear that Putin does not wish to commemorate the February Revolution, an event which brought about the short-lived democratic Provisional Government, the anniversary of which has already passed.[6] With the short eight months of democracy hailing a liberal government unseen by Russia ever since, the current state of affairs in the country lean much more towards an autocracy. With this mind, it could be argued that Putin’s apparent ignorance of the February Revolution is primarily to forget this time of liberalism, rather than the general argument that his avoidance of instability has led to a lack of commemoration. With Putin’s nationalist beliefs, strong enforcement of unity, and great intolerance to opposition, the commemoration of the October Revolution in October will likely take place in a fashion that will do more to enforce ideals of patriotism and nationhood, than to take note of the power of a revolutionary force.

 

[1] Anonymous, ‘National unity day: only half of Russians know what it is, poll shows’, The Moscow Times, November 3rd 2014 https://themoscowtimes.com/news/national-unity-day-only-half-of-russians-know-what-it-is-poll-shows-40996 (last accessed 5 March 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] 50th anniversary of Russian revolution 1967, British Pathé, http://www.britishpathe.com/video/50th-anniversary-of-russian-revolution-1 (last accessed 5 March 2017).

[4] Natasha Danilova, The politics of war commemoration in the UK and Russia (New York, 2015), p. 141.

[5] Tom Balmforth, ‘Russia marks National Unity Day with rival rallies’, Radio Free Europe, 4th November 2016 http://www.rferl.org/a/russia-unity-day/28096663.html (last accessed 7 March 2017).

[6] Shaun Walker, ‘Tragedy or triumph? Russians agonise over how to mark 1917 revolutions’, The Guardian, 17th December 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/17/russia-1917-revolutions-legacy-lenin-putin (last accessed 6 March 2017).

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