Putin Resurrects Russian Revisionism
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia. On Nov. 7, 1917 (October 25 on the calendar Russia used back then), the Bolsheviks led an armed revolution to depose Czar Nicholas ii. This revolution, in combination with other uprisings, overthrew the regime and established Russia as a Communist state.
In 1917, Russians were starving at home and losing on the battlefields. German armies were advancing into the Russian homeland, and the czar’s soldiers were rife with discontent. Russia was essentially still a feudal state in the 20th century, lagging far behind in economic development. It was fertile ground for ideologies like communism that preached disruption and change. Vladimir Lenin would rise up to lead the revolution and bring Russia “better days.”
This was a pivotal moment in world history. The balance of power would thenceforth be disrupted by an anti-Western government. Russia, a century later, is still a menace to world peace.
Lenin led a successful revolution, signed a peace agreement with Germany, and promised utopia to the millions of serfs freed from the corrupt czar. However, utopia never came. Lenin proceeded to build one of the most corrupt and violent regimes in world history. His successor, Joseph Stalin, probably murdered close to 150 million of his own people in senseless purges. Any high idealism was lost in a personal crusade for power and a relentless pursuit to tear down the capitalist system of the West. Instead of bringing freedom to serfs, it brought them a different sort of oppression.
However, many Russians do not share this view. Russia is continually at war with its own history. Perhaps no other nation has had its history altered so much from generation to generation. Its leaders always struggle to paint their image in the light of a glorious Russian past, often glossing over key, violent details. At this 100-year anniversary, it is no different. In an article from Project Syndicate, Andrei Kolesnikov pointed out how this battle is heating up:
Russia is locked in a battle between official history (the story of the state) and counter-history (the story of civil society and the memories of the people). With the centenary of the October Revolution this year, the clash will move to the center of public life.
President Vladimir Putin is the embodiment of nostalgia not so much for Soviet times as for that period’s sacralization of the state, which enabled the government to use, in modern parlance, “fake news” to advance its own ends. In fact, the October Revolution is remembered with no small amount of ambivalence and trepidation. Just the word “revolution” is abhorrent to modern Russian elites, tending as it does to be preceded by the epithets “orange” or “color”—the bête noire for Putin’s regime. At the same time, the revolution was an important moment in Russia’s history, and thus a source of national identity.
The Communist Party has no part in the current government in Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s main power base is actually not the Communists, but rather the Christian conservatives. This is ironic, since Vladimir Putin was a member of the Soviet Union’s secret police, the kgb. Putin’s struggle is to paint Russia’s Communist past as a positive force without undermining his support in the country. Thus, Putin does not glorify communism, but instead Russian imperialism. Kolesnikov continued:
Given the revolution’s historical importance, the Kremlin cannot avoid commemorating it. But rather than pursue the needed reconciliation of adversaries—the reds and the whites—the regime will probably take a side, in order to spin the story to its own benefit. That spin is likely to be imperial.
According to the empire narrative, Vladimir Lenin was an evil genius who disrupted the Russian empire at a moment when it was flourishing and brimming with spirituality. Joseph Stalin then rebuilt the empire ostensibly on the foundation of Marxism-Leninism, but really on the foundation of traditional Russian conservative values.
Russian history has a large preponderance of autocratic, iron-willed leaders who expanded the power and prestige at the expense of their own people. Despite the terrible sacrifices made by the Russian people, they ended up with a society that exalts power over progress. Thus, tyrants are painted as saviors, rather than oppressors. This is the historical narrative of Vladimir Putin. The article continued:
In this interpretation, ice ages in Russia’s history—periods when cold-blooded leaders ruled with an iron fist—were good for the country. Thaws—periods of democratization and modernization—were bad, characterized by disruption and violence. All allusions by the Putin regime to the Stalinist era must reinforce Putin’s own image as a modern benevolent dictator, capable of restoring Russia’s global influence and bringing it prosperity.
This discourse has driven some local authorities to build monuments to Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, while the federal authorities have ceremoniously erected a monument to Vladimir the Great, who brought Orthodoxy to Kievan Rus. How fortuitous that he even shares a name with today’s president.
This historical revisionism is a key pillar for Putin’s hold on power. Despite poor economic performance, his approval ratings remain high. It is this empire narrative that Putin has used to justify his illegal and aggressive annexes of Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In the history written by Putin’s hand, Joseph Stalin is the ultimate Russian leader, expanding Russia’s power and defying American policy abroad.
Those Russians who seek to remember the true history of Lenin, Stalin and the October Revolution are imprisoned and silenced. Putin is winning the war of revisionism in Russia. More and more people believe the empire narrative, since it is being taught in public school systems and inspires national pride in the achievements of the country. However, Putin is not the first Russian leader to employ history to his advantage. Lenin is infamous for airbrushing prominent opponents out of photographs and removing their government records; effectively erasing a human being from existence. How Putin remembers the centenary of the October Revolution should be a clear sign to the West that Putin is a man who will do anything to stay in power and resurrect the ussr, even if it means rewriting the past.
Nonetheless, the centenary will offer Putin an opportunity to strengthen his preferred narrative: that Russia, which has always been greatest under powerful national leaders, is now returning to greatness, thanks to the power Putin himself has consolidated. This is history, Russian-style: a past made serviceable for present purposes.
How Putin views history should be a warning to America and the West about what kind of man he is. It is sickening that anyone would glorify Stalin and use his record to justify his own consolidation of power. Stalin made many deals with the West, even worked closely with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, but he ended up being one of the worst mass murderers in history. The October Revolution changed Russia and the world. Putin is revising the past to make the future even more unstable.
Putin wants to write the next chapter in his empire narrative, the most glorious chapter in Russian history. This will also become the bloodiest chapter in mankind’s history. To learn more about what the future holds for Putin, read our free booklet The Prophesied ‘Prince of Russia.’