Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lenin, Putin, and The Centenary of The Revolution

"We don't need a weakened government but a strong government that would take responsibility for the rights of the individual and care for the society as a whole." - Vladimir Putin

"Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics, freedom for slave owners." - Vladimir Lenin

The Centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution will be extremely awkward for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. On the one hand, the Kremlin has restored so many Soviet symbols and institutions that it can hardly ignore the foundation myth of the Soviet Union. On the other, Mr. Putin intensely dislikes revolutions, particularly ones that overthrow authoritarian, imperial regimes. Moreover, worldwide commentary on the Father of the Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, not least in a spate of new biographies, will invite reflections on his modern day namesake. In 2017, expect to see Mr. Putin perform intellectual somersaults to square Lenin’s anti-imperialist drive with his own ambitions to restore imperial order.

Lenin's legacy has had its ups and downs since the late Soviet Era. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev and his supporters, many of whom were the children of old Bolsheviks purged by Stalin, carried out their liberal reforms under the slogans of returning to Leninist principles. Mr. Gorbachev, in common with other Soviet leaders, derived his legitimacy from the founder of the Bolshevik state. Like gods, they would walk through Lenin’s mausoleum, like the Underworld, and climb on top of it, akin to Mt. Olympus. From there, they would observe military parades and marches by mortals carrying their portraits, or icons. By contrast, Boris Yeltsin presided over the disintegration of the Soviet Union and rejected the communist regime as a matter of principle and politics. Even when his popularity plunged, public rejection of the communist era ensured his re-election.

However, Mr. Putin makes little distinction between Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia. “What was the Soviet Union?” Mr. Putin asked; in 2011, “It is essentially the same Russia, only called differently.” Following his dream of rebuilding state power and retaining control over the Ukraine and Belarus, the main constituent parts of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin has ignored Lenin and rehabilitated Stalin. For him, the difference between them was their attitude towards the Russian state and its imperial inheritance.

In Mr. Putin’s version of history, Stalin returned to the idea of empire, fanned Russian nationalism, and flirted with the church. Whereas, in reality, Lenin led a struggle against imperial Russia and rejected its Orthodox faith. Stalin consolidated the country’s resources and restored patriotic feeling, which helped lead the Soviet Union to a victory in World War II that then, served as the main legitimizing event of the current state. Stalin’s oppression of Russia’s peasantry, clergy, and intelligentsia are left out of this narrative.

Yet, unwilling to stir discontent and lose votes among older communists, Mr. Putin has left the Bolshevik Revolution in peace and left Lenin in his mausoleum. To deal with the contradiction between the historical worship of Lenin and Mr. Putin’s disavowal of any revolution, nowadays, the Kremlin drapes the mausoleum in Red Army banners during military parades. However, the Centenary of the Revolution is far too big an event to just cover up. In early 2016, a teacher from southern Russia’s Astrakhan region asked Mr. Putin how best to interpret the Bolshevik Revolution for his students, “Your position is very important to us.” Mr. Putin’s reply, who was not just a Communist Party member, but also an officer of the KGB, called it “the shield and sword of the party.” He commented that like many, he never destroyed his party membership card. He further stated, “I liked and still like the communist and socialist idea.” His main disagreement with Lenin concerned Lenin’s organization of Russia as a union of ethnic republics with the right to self-determination. By giving them the right to exit the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin said, Lenin “planted an atomic bomb” underneath Russia’s foundations.

Mr. Putin sees himself as someone who can restore Russia’s historic lands, a new Czar, of sorts. In a recent Kremlin ceremony Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran politician with a fine grasp of which way the wind is blowing, recited imperial Russia’s anthem, “God Save the Czar,” to Mr. Putin. However, Mr. Putin’s regime, which has turned Russia into a centralized state, from the loose federation of the 1990s, is no more capable of resolving the country’s growing economic and political contradictions than were the Czars. Russia, today, is as ripe for reform as it was under Nicholas II, in 1917. Mr. Putin hopes that by marrying the Soviet Union with Russia's imperial past, he can preserve the nucleus of the Russian Empire and avoid the fate of the monarchy. Yet, as the economy stagnates and Mr. Putin’s megalomania worsens, the ghosts of the Bolshevik Revolution are getting restless. Lenin might just allow himself a smile.

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