Thursday, 7 November 2013

October revolution: good to commemorate, not to celebate

Today’s the 96th anniversary of the October Revolution, as you might expect since it’s the seventh of November. 

It’s a measure of just how deep ran the refusal of Tsarist Russia to reform, that nearly two centuries even after conservative Britain, it had failed to align its calendar with the Gregorian version used by the rest of the world. It therefore regarded the day of the revolution as the 25th of October. 

Since the word ‘Tsar’ is derived from ‘Caesar’, I suppose it might seem appropriate that they stuck with the Julian calendar, called after the Julius who made the word ‘Caesar’ synonymous with imperial power.

The revolution was fought on a slogan of ‘bread, land and peace.’ In the middle of the First World War which Russia was well on the way to losing, and losing big, these were three things that the regime couldn’t provide. Lenin, always quick with the ingenious, even devious, stratagem felt this made the slogan revolutionary: if the regime couldn’t meet a demand agitating the whole people, they would bring it down.

The reasoning sounds plausible, except that for the next eighty years the new regime wasn’t particularly good at delivering bread or land, and didn’t manage peace all that well either. On the contrary, what it chiefly accomplished was to wipe out a great many more people than even Nazi Germany (but then, to be fair, the Soviet Union did have seven times longer) and to create a wonderfully privileged über-class, the ‘Nomenklatura’ of named senior Communist Party executives who enjoyed lives of luxury while the rest of the population queued for basic commodities.

Vladimir Lenin.
Inspiring, perhaps, but what did he actually deliver?
To picture what the Nomenklatura was like, just think of leaders of the similarly named Communist Party in China, or bankers and Fortune 500 executives in the West.

So the October Revolution led to no sunlit uplands or the achievement of any ideals. On the contrary, it degenerated into brutality and sordid corruption.

The result was that the end of regime was greeted with a new burst of joy when it followed the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Once again, optimism abounded amid worldwide celebration.

Russia seldom seems to be out the news these days. Run with an iron fist by Vladimir Putin, it attracts a lot of attention. For instance, for the kind of friends it likes to pick, such as President of Assad in Syria, a key Russian ally even when he gasses his own people.

Meanwhile, we follow with appalled fascination the tale of the Bolshoi ballet dancer, in court accused of throwing acid into the director’s face. That’s hardly the kind of ethereal beauty once tends to associate with that particular art form.

Elsewhere in the Moscow court system, nearly eighteen months after the street protests against Vladimir Putin’s contentious re-election as president, some of the rank and file – not the leaders – have at last been brought to trial. Long periods in remand, small hope of fair treatment, and the targeting of ordinary protesters is a sharp way of making clear that getting involved in any kind of protest against the regime is bad for your health in today’s Russia.

Meanwhile Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot singer condemned to hard labour for having offended right-thinking Putinites and the Orthodox faithful by a protest inside a Moscow church, has disappeared from sight and is now believed to be on her way to a prison even more remote from family and friends and above all far from any media attention. Four time zones and 2000 miles from Moscow, deep in Siberia, her treatment feels like nothing so much as the kind of exile the Tsars liked to inflict on anyone with the temerity to oppose their rule.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Victim of the latest Vladimir, Putin's reincarnation of the Tsars
Ninety-six years after the Russian Revolution and twenty-four from the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems that progress has been limited and glowing expectations dashed. A chastening thought as we remember those stirring events in Petrograd all those years ago. They’re worth a brief commemoration, but not, I think, a glass raised in celebration. 

After all, Russia continues to present an image that is always fascinating, occasionally even entertaining, but noble or edifying? Not so much.


Awoogamuffin said...

Oh the tragedy! Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is far too cute to be sent to a Siberian gulag

David Beeson said...

My sentiment exactly. Though is it over the top to sympathise with her for anything but her cuteness?