The many people writing about the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution this year usually have to pause early in their work to explain why the February Revolution was in March and the October Revolution in November. The reason is simple — Russia was on a different calendar at the time — but that nagging inconsistency offers a foretaste of the extraordinary degree to which perspective shapes the facts, myths and political narratives of an upheaval that continues to shape history today.
In the White Russian emigrant world into which I was born, the Russian Revolution was a horrible cataclysm that destroyed our Holy Russia and installed a demonic, murderous regime. Many families had a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall, often the one by Valentin Serov, alongside the icons and a faded photo of the old manor house. The old men, many of them veterans of the blood bath that was World War I, often lapsed into “what ifs” — what if the czar had not abdicated, what if the Guards had arrived on time, what if. … Other émigrés, like the old exiled socialists in New York, argued endlessly over what the Duma, the provisional government or the Mensheviks should have done differently.
In the Soviet Union, where I arrived in 1980 as a reporter, these debates were officially closed and to raise them risked a visit to the KGB. The February Revolution, in which the monarchy gave way to the provisional government, was considered a “democratic bourgeois” sideshow to the Great October Socialist Revolution that opened the way for a “new era in the history of humanity.” The October Revolution, Nov. 7 (Oct. 25 in the Julian calendar), the day on which the provisional government was overthrown, was the national holiday, marked with military displays on the Red Square under massive portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Now that the new era in the history of humanity is over, the masters in the Kremlin have a problem. As The Times’ Neil MacFarquhar reported from Moscow, neither the February nor the October Revolution fits comfortably into President Vladimir Putin’s view of himself or Russian history. Popular uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia have made him wary of any revolution, and neither the ouster of the Orthodox czar in February nor the victory of Lenin in October fit into Putin’s preferred narrative of continuous Russian greatness and importance. It’s not easy rewriting history to create a new Russian identity out of the contradictory narratives of czarism, Bolshevism and the post-communist travails.
But then no nation that has experienced revolution can ever cease poring over its causes, myths and lessons. Not even America. I was drafted into the Army in the late 1960s, at the peak of the anti-war and social movements. Basic training included propaganda films, and one was about the American Revolution. Alongside the standard stories of minutemen, freedom and democracy, the film made a point of arguing that the Loyalists were also good people and that revolution is not always good. Most of my fellow trainees slept through the film, but it did demonstrate the way national histories require massaging even in mature democracies.
The great events of history, however, have a way of defying ideological manipulation. The Soviets’ version of revolutionary history ended up in the same dustbin of history to which they had relegated their opponents. And much as Putin would like to play down the revolution, he cannot stop Russians from continuing to explore an event whose consequences still reverberate around the world. Mikhail Zygar, a former editor-in-chief of the independent TV Rain news channels in Russia, for one, is recreating the events of 1917 day by day in Facebook-style updates, through snippets from diaries and archival materials he and his staff have scoured. To the many Russians following his project, the book is not closed.
— Serge Schmemann writes for the International Herald Tribune.