Russian Revolution turns 100, Soviet Union collapse turns 25

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There was no official commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution last year.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, asked, “What is there to celebrate?”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians participated on Vkontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) in Project 1917, which was created by independent journalist Mikhail Zygar. Every day of the year, people read the observations of those who lived through the events of the Russian Revolution a century ago. The content came from diaries and other historical documents converted into social media posts. For example, on an August day, Czar Nicholas II posted a status update about going on a pleasant walk and reading some Sherlock Holmes.

The focus of the project was on ordinary people, not those in power. Zygar said, “This project is against the stereotype that Russia’s destiny is to be a dictatorship, that Russia’s destiny is to be an empire. No, that’s not true. We had a lot of people who were fighting for Russia’s democracy and freedom, and we can be proud of that as well.”

The project was not allowed on the traditional media. Zygar said, “Those in power are quite conservative, they consider television to be the method to control minds. … We don’t have any quality newspapers, we don’t have any normal TV channels. All the independent journalism is on the internet. All the investigations, all the real news, all the really important issues are discussed there.” Now Putin is repressing the internet.

Russian-American scholar Keith Gessen says the 1917 revolution is almost the only historical event that the regime doesn’t celebrate as part of Russian history. He says, “Putin has been a fervent devotee of the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet military might, émigré existentialist philosophers and the occasional tsar. Popular culture has been equally promiscuous: figures as disparate as Genghis Khan, fictional 17th-century Ukrainian Cossack Taras Bulba, leader of the (counter revolutionary) White armies Admiral Kolchak, the T-34 tank, 1950s hipsters and most controversially Stalin have all been featured as admirable or at least sympathetic figures in the Russian movies and television shows of the past decade.”

“But,” Gessen says, “Lenin and the Bolsheviks are out of bounds. They appear sometimes late at night on the quasi-fantastic ‘history’ shows on pro-Kremlin NTV as German agents or secret Freemasons or not-so-secret Jews.”

There was another recent anniversary that was ignored. Twenty-five years ago last Christmas, the Soviet Union dissolved. The country had consisted of 15 republics, which became separate nation-states in 1991. The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, wanted a transition to something like a Scandinavian social democracy. But President Boris Yeltsin of the newly created Russian Federation rapidly carried out “shock therapy” privatization. This provoked an economic depression that would be much worse than what was experienced by Americans in the 1930s.

The sudden and peaceful collapse of the Soviet regime was rather unprecedented and a shock to many observers across the globe. Why did it happen? In their book Revolution from Above, economist David Kotz and Moscow-based journalist Fred Weir argue: “The Soviet system had been dispatched, not by economic collapse combined with a popular uprising, but by its own ruling class in pursuit of its own perceived interests.” The party-state elite found that the Soviet system provided a less privileged life for them than a transition to capitalism. Kotz and Weir cite a study of the ideology of a sample of the Moscow elite in June 1991, which found that 76.7 percent had come to favor capitalism while only 12.3 percent supported democratic socialism and another 9.6 percent had a communist or nationalist ideology.

In his book Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions, political scientist Steven Solnick says that bureaucrats began engaging in massive insubordination by seizing the governmental resources they were supposed to be managing: “Soviet institutions were victimized by the organizational equivalent of a colossal ‘bank run,’ in which local officials rushed to claim their assets before the bureaucratic doors shut for good.” His conclusion is based upon a close study of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), the system of job assignments for university graduates and military conscription.

Meanwhile, the Bush and Clinton administrations in the 1990s played an important role in encouraging the brutal privatization of Russia’s economy. In 1996, the Clinton administration aided Yeltsin when he was running for re-election. The cover of the July 16 issue of Time magazine featured a cartoon of a smiling Yeltsin waving a little American flag with the headline. “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

That was a different time. Today many American conservatives, including the president, are big Putin fans. The Christian right admires Putin’s staunch opposition to gay marriage and his alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. Neo-Nazis marched in this country chanting, “Russia is our friend.” They are excited that Putin supports European far-right parties with fascist origins.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.