Russia’s Communists, dwindling in numbers and sidelined by the authorities, on Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, the uprising led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party in 1917, that led to the creation of the Soviet Union and commenced the spread of Communism around the world.
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A few thousand people marched through the center of Moscow, carrying large portraits of Lenin and waving red flags, moving toward the Kremlin and Red Square, off which they held a small rally.
It was one of the few major public events commemorating the centenary, which the Kremlin indicated it wants to be low-key. The Bolshevik’s seizure of power was arguably the 20th century’s defining event, fundamentally altering societies around the world and setting up the century’s central clash, the Cold War. But 100 years on, Russia's current authorities made clear they consider it now peripheral for the country.
"The revolution is modern Russia’s birth certificate, but Russia does not like what it says,” Maksim Trudolyubov, a political commentator wrote in the newspaper, The Moscow Times.
Over the nights 6 and 7 (Oct. 25 and 26 in Russia’s pre-revolutionary calendar) in 1917, soldiers and sailors loyal to the Bolsheviks seized strategic points in Saint Petersburg. Around 2 a.m., they stormed the Winter Palace, the huge ice-green, colonnaded building that stretches along the city’s river. Tsar Nicholas II, whose palace it had been, had already been toppled by an uprising in February. He had been replaced by the so-called Provisional Government, a group of liberal ministers, who had spent the last few months desperately trying to restore order in the country exhausted by World War I.
The Bolsheviks entered the palace from the square. Unlike in later Soviet depictions, they faced almost no resistance -- most of the defenders had fled -- after it was shelled from the fortress across the river. Coming through the palace’s tunnel-line corridors, they found the Provisional Government holed up in a dining room off the tsar’s former living quarters and arrested them.
The same day, Lenin declared the Bolsheviks now held power. Within months, they would establish a dictatorship and unleash a savage civil war. Rapid progress in education and industrialization would follow, but it was accompanied by bloody repression climaxing under Stalin.
For 70 years, the Soviet Union celebrated Lenin’s seizure of power as an almost religious holiday, with massive parades. His body remains embalmed in state on Red Square. But it has become an inconvenient event for the Kremlin. Engaged in quashing challenges to its own increasingly authoritarian rule, celebrations of revolution are not appealing. At the same time, current President Vladimir Putin has turned to the Soviet Union as the model for his Russia, making it difficult to ignore its founding event.
“It’s puts Putin in a bind,” said Shield Fitzpatrick, a well-known historian of the revolution and professor emerita at the University of Chicago.
The solution has been to say nothing. In December, Putin declared discussion of the revolution should be left to professional historians. Last week he told the Valdai conference, he hoped the centenary can “draw a line under” the divisions provoked by the revolution. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters last month the Kremlin saw no reason to mark the occasion. Proposals that Lenin should be removed from Red Square have been dismissed.
Tuesday's march underlined the Kremlin's disinterest. The Communists chanted "revolution" as they marched toward the Kremlin, but were channeled tightly between police and wire barriers. Where even a few years ago the march had been allotted Moscow's main street, now they were squeezed by police onto its pavements. Some of the older Communist marchers rattled the barriers, yelling furiously at police that they had once walked there.
The Kremlin is not alone in its attitude -- recent polls show many Russians are deeply ambivalent about the revolution. A poll in October by the Russian Academy of Science showed only 6 percent of Russians feel the revolution is something to be proud of. Some point to the repression that it led to under Stalin, but many seem more troubled by the revolution as a proof of Russia’s weakness at the time.
The result has been muted commemorations, left largely to the Communists, who have hosted a week of events. But even they have often skirted the uprising itself. The party of revolution has grown old too. In Saint Petersburg, it dutifully hosted a conference of “left forces.” At the Tauride Palace, where Lenin established the party, delegations from socialist groups one after another lamented the left’s troubled prospects.
"Maybe Lenin will wake up," Adrian Larsen Steinboe, a Norwegian delegate, told an ABC News reporter wryly.
Russia’s Communist Party has recently sought to rebrand itself to attract younger members. Part of that involves printing posters showing Marx and Lenin as hipsters. In one, a raffish Lenin in a long red scarf and holding a laptop, looks at the Winter Palace and asks, “Will we take it?” Another shows a picture of a red flag flying over the Kremlin walls with the plaintive date, “201?”
Mostly though, the party has turned toward nostalgia, not for revolutionary upheaval, but for the post-war glory days of the Soviet Union, when many party members were young. At a commemorative concert in Saint Petersburg on Friday, a crowd, mostly in their late sixties, sang along to Soviet-era swing. There were chants of “Lenin lives.” An emcee, also in his sixties, harangued the crowd about the marvels of a first apartment given by the government. “Oh speak of that, speak of that,” he cried, “of the bath!”
Amid the official quiet, Russia’s state media and some cultural institutions have offered hints at how citizens ought to perceive the revolution. Russian state television has aired documentaries suggesting the country’s revolutions were largely foreign-funded plots, a favorite idea of the Kremlin in the present day. Russia 24, the state news channel, ran a program titled “100 Years of the Revolution — A Snare for Russia,” suggesting the 1905 revolution, and by extension 1917, was a conspiracy of American bankers and Japanese generals.
The Kremlin under Putin is a history enthusiast -- its avoidance of the revolution itself is notable given how eagerly it makes use of history elsewhere. It has focused recently on building a single continuum of what it considers Russian greatness, from the tsarist empire to the present day, bridged by Stalin.
Putin’s state’s preferred lineage, Trudolyubov said, is Russia’s pre-revolutionary empire. He noted that several of Russia’s key ministries have begun dating their founding to tsarist-era bodies instead of their Soviet forebears.
The now dispossessed Communists who finished Tuesday's rally put on brave face to ABC News. One man, Aleksey Maksimov, standing in a long gray Stalinist coat and white gloves, and holding a red banner, declaimed, "Communism will not be defeated, it will necessarily come,"he said. "I just can't tell you which year that will exactly."