Russia struggles with legacy of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution

Vladimir Isachenkov
Associated Press

They played key roles in Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which triggered a civil war that killed millions, devastated the country and redrew its borders. A century later, their descendants say these historic wounds have not healed.

 

As Russia approaches the centennial of the uprising, it has struggled to come to terms with the legacy of those who remade the nation. The Kremlin is avoiding any official commemoration of the anniversary, tip-toeing around the event that remains polarizing for many and could draw unwelcome parallels to the present.

 

Alexis Rodzianko, whose great-grandfather was speaker of the pre-revolutionary Russian parliament and pushed Czar Nicholas II to abdicate but later regretted it, sees the revolution as a calamity that threw Russia backward.

 

“Any evolutionary development would have been better than what happened,” Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, told The Associated Press. “The main lesson I certainly would hope is that Russia never tries that again.”

 

He said the revolution and the civil war, combined with the devastation of World War II and the overall legacy of the Soviet system, eroded Russia’s potential and left its economy a fraction of what it could have been.

 

A similar view is held by Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-connected lawmaker whose grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov, played an important role in staging the Bolshevik power grab on Nov. 7, 1917, and served as a member of the Communist leadership for four decades.

 

Nikonov describes the revolution as “one of the greatest tragedies of Russian history.”

 

The anniversary is a tricky moment for President Vladimir Putin.

 

While he has been critical of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, Putin can’t denounce the event that gave birth to the Soviet Union and is still revered by many of his supporters. But Putin, a KGB veteran, disdains any popular uprisings, and he certainly wouldn’t praise the revolution, which destroyed the Russian empire.

 

“The last thing the Kremlin needs is another revolution. The last thing Russia needs is another revolution,” Rodzianko said. “And celebrating the revolution saying: ‘Hey, what a great thing!’ is a little bit encouraging what they don’t want, and so they are definitely confused.”

 

He believes the befuddled attitude to the anniversary reflects a national trauma that still hurts.

 

“To me, it’s a sign that people aren’t quite over it. For Russia, it’s a wound that is far from healed,” he said.

 

The Kremlin has blamed the U.S. for helping to oust some unpopular rulers in former Soviet nations and for instigating Arab Spring democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Putin has also accused Washington of encouraging big demonstrations against him in Moscow in 2011-2012.

 

Nikonov echoes Putin’s claims of outside meddling.

 

“Our Western friends are spending a lot of money on all sort of organizations, which are working to undermine the Russian government,” he said.

 

The government’s low-key treatment of the centennial reflects deep divisions in Russia over the revolution, said Nikonov, who chairs a committee on education and science in the Kremlin-controlled lower house of parliament.

 

A nationwide poll last month by the research company VTsIOM showed opinions over the revolution split almost evenly, with 46 percent saying it served interests of the majority and the same number responding that only a few benefited; the rest were undecided. The poll of 1,800 people had a margin of error of no more than 2.5 percentage points.

 

During Soviet times, Nov. 7 was known as Revolution Day and featured grand military parades and demonstrations on Red Square. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia stopped celebrating it, although the Communists still marked it.

 

“There is no way you can celebrate the revolution so that the majority of the public would support that,” Nikonov said. “There is no common interpretation of history of the revolution, and I don’t think it’s possible in any foreseeable future. So I think the best way for the government in that situation is just keep a low profile.”

 

Vyacheslav Molotov remained a steadfast believer in the Communist cause until his 1986 death in Moscow at age 96. Nikonov, his grandson, believes the revolution denied Russia a victory in World War I.

 

“At the beginning of the year, Russia was one of the great powers with perfect chances of winning the war in a matter of months,” he said. “Then the government was destroyed. By the end of the year, Russia wasn’t a power, it was incapable of anything.”

 

Nikonov insists the current political system can meet any challenges, adding: “I don’t think that Russia faces any dangers to its stability now.”

 

Putin has famously described the 1991 Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” but he also has deplored the 1917 revolution. This ambivalence is rooted in his desire to tap the achievements of both the czarist and the Soviet empires as part of restoring Russia’s international clout and prestige.

 

“He will not celebrate this event,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “It couldn’t be used for the legitimization of Putin, because he’s a counterrevolutionary. For him, Lenin disrupted a great empire.”

 

Putin uses the symbols of various eras to burnish national glory. He has restored the Soviet-style national anthem and kept the imperial tricolor flag and double-headed eagle coat-of-arms.

 

He has ignored demands to remove Lenin’s embalmed body from its Red Square mausoleum for burial. But he also has encouraged the steady growth of power and influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative elements in society. Monuments and shrines to Nicholas II, who has been glorified as a saint, have sprouted across Russia, although they are still far outnumbered by statues and memorials to Lenin.

 

Rodzianko said his great-grandfather, Mikhail Rodzianko, quickly regretted pushing the czar to abdicate.

 

“He always tortured himself,” he said. “‘Could I have done anything else to prevent this?’ was the phrase that I heard he apparently used.”

 

Days after the monarchy fell in February 1917, the Duma speaker found himself sidelined as too conservative for the new provisional government. When that liberal entity was swept away by the Bolsheviks, he joined the White movement in the civil war against the Reds, then left Russia after its defeat. Mikhail Rodzianko died in Belgrade in 1924.

 

While Rodzianko’s great-grandfather fought for the White cause, Nikonov’s grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov, was Lenin’s right-hand man throughout Russia’s revolution and civil war.

 

Molotov later became No. 2 to Josef Stalin, serving as his prime minister and then foreign minister in the 1930s-1940s. He fell from favor in Stalin’s last years; in 1949, his wife was arrested and sent to the Gulag.

 

“My grandmother was arrested under the accusation of being the head of a Jewish conspiracy in the Soviet Union,” Nikonov said. “They had to divorce, and that was the only chance for them to survive. Because one of the reasons she was arrested was to prepare the next trial against Molotov, and he knew that pretty well.”

 

After Stalin died in 1953, Molotov won her quick release from prison.

 

Molotov’s predecessor as Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, also played a key role in the revolution and spearheaded the Bolsheviks’ first contacts with Britain in 1918. Litvinov was foreign minister in the 1930s and ambassador to Washington during World War II before his death in Moscow in 1951.

 

His grandson, Pavel, became a dissident and was one of seven people who protested the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in a Red Square demonstration that earned him five years in Siberia. He then left for the United States, where he has lived since then.

 

Pavel Litvinov said in an interview in New York that his grandfather “tried to create a better life for the Russian people and probably the whole world,” and believed in Lenin but was disillusioned under Stalin.

 

Pavel’s son, Dima, joined Greenpeace and spent more than two months in jail in 2013 for a protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic.

 

“I think it’s a family tradition to challenge authorities and to fight for the right thing,” Dima Litvinov said in Stockholm, where he lives. “There is a sort of a link, a similarity. We’re fighting against injustice, and if that means we have to question and challenge authorities — well, that’s what we do.”

 

Dima Litvinov said his great-grandfather “would be horrified by the extreme nationalism and religious intolerance that is going up in Russia.”

 

“I think he would want to challenge and oppose all of these things,” he said.

 

Dima Litvinov said Russia now faces some of the same problems that led to the 1917 revolution.

 

“Russia, in a way, hasn’t moved on,” he said. “People feel detached from the ability to affect their fate and the government. The authorities like it that way.”

 

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