Nobody’s Revolution: The Russian State and the Fight for Memory
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Alexander Baunov

А journalist, publicist, philologist, and a former diplomat. He is the editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru.

In Russia, there is no particularly tense strife between supporters and opponents of the hundred-year-old revolution. But there is competition among the ruling political establishment and the oppositional intelligentsia on the topic of political repression. The regime is fighting back against the opposition’s monopoly on the right to represent the victims and name the state as the executioners’ successor.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is being discussed so little on its centenary in Russia that there is speculation abroad that it’s being hidden from the public, because they don’t know how to commemorate it. And indeed, how can it be commemorated, when Russian people are hiding it from themselves?

The problem is that the Bolshevik Revolution does not have a simple, unifying story, like the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II or its conquest of space. The revolution doesn’t unite, but it doesn’t really divide, either. There is no demand for hate, or reconciliation, or even remorse.

The authorities would like to definitively condemn the revolution, but they can’t. In their dictionary, the word “revolution” is obscene. It represents the destruction of stability, order, and the state, and embodies dreaded regime change. Yet the revolution also gave Russia universal education, workers’ rights, and gender and racial equality. Post-revolutionary Russia was victorious in war and a pioneer in space, and the modern Russian regime continues that legacy, alongside those of pre-revolutionary Russia and her medieval predecessors.

The opposition-minded intelligentsia has an even tougher time reckoning with the revolution. Their modern indignation at sovereign autocracy, lack of civil rights, backwardness of political institutions, and censorship echoes the complaints of the revolutionaries almost word for word. 

As they curse the backwardness and isolation of Russia, however, even the most selective critics cannot overlook the fact that the utopian and repressive Soviet state was also founded by the opposition of its day, and ended up being the only successor to the liberal, democratic tradition of Russian opposition to czarism.

The ordinary public also lacks any clarity. On one hand, the revolution was carried out in the name of justice: to take plundered property and return it to the people, who would support this program even now. On the other hand, it destroyed a great nation, in which they say a working person lived better than under communism.

There are no signs of any demand for widespread national repentance. There is demand, however, for repentance from those who were at fault and their successors.

The intelligentsia demands repentance from the state for the repression (and from the public for approving of it). The state wants to see repentance from the intelligentsia for supporting political extremists. The people want repentance because their lives are hard, because they were lied to first by one side and then by the other, and because they never did become the owners of national wealth.

In the West—where the view is that Putin is a product of Soviet repressive organs and reinstated the Soviet national anthem, regrets the fall of the USSR, and wants to restore its might by acting like a global revolutionary and inviting everyone to join Russia’s revolt against world order—people expected anniversary celebrations and were puzzled when none occurred. At the same time, they proclaim the birth of a new czar.

The recent opening in central Moscow of a memorial to victims of political repression—a square paved with stones from Soviet labor camps and inscribed with the camps’ names—doesn’t fit into the intelligentsia’s picture of the KGB-controlled state. It would be more logical to expect the return of the statue of Soviet secret police founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky, to Lubyanka Square in front of the KGB (now FSB) headquarters.

Judging by the opening date of October 30, the state connects the unveiling of the memorial not to the anniversary of 1937, when the Great Terror was underway, but to the anniversary of the revolution, indicating that one followed from the other. In doing so, it is encroaching on territory that the oppositional intelligentsia usually considers its own: mourning for the victims and condemning the executioners. 

Opponents of the regime would like to link it to images of Stalinist repression, while the state, by unveiling a monument to the victims of Soviet camps on the anniversary of the revolution, is trying to link repressions with revolt against the regime. The goal of the opposition is to concentrate guilt on the state; the goal of the state is to apportion it equally to everyone, including the opposition. The regime is fighting back against the opposition’s monopoly on the right to represent the victims and name the state as the executioners’ successor. 

Feeling that they are being pushed out of familiar ground, the opposition and the most uncompromising members of the intelligentsia reject the new monument. Some, citing aesthetic or political reasons, refuse to accept it as the long-awaited monument to victims of political violence. 

A group of Soviet-era dissidents wrote an open letter: Don’t accept the monument until we build our own. Yet by being erected by the children of the KGB, it is much closer to an act of, if not penance, then at least reflection, than if it had been erected by those who defeated Soviet rule in 1991, fresh from their victory.

The other side to a state memorial to victims of repression is that the state gets to cut in and create a conceptual distance between those persecuted then and now. The fact that the state itself is erecting the monument to those unfairly repressed in the past should point people to the convenient thought that those being repressed now aren’t so innocent.

The arrest and criminal case against Yury Dmitriyev, the Karelian gulag grave hunter and founder of a public monument to those executed in Karelia’s Medvezhyegorsk woods, and the persistent difficulty in finding victims’ records in the special services archives completely contradict this attempt to shift from the state-as-executioner mode. But with the new Moscow monument, these begin to look more like excesses of local cruelty and bureaucratic cowardice. 

Aside from revolution—which is more likely to increase rather than end repression—problems like these are most easily solved with a signal from the top. And the building of a state monument and its inauguration by the head of Russia’s political regime is one such signal. The only problem is that signals sent by the current state are often contradictory, so a crafty perpetrator is always able to find one that suits their needs.

Only from afar can it seem that by erecting a monument to the victims of repression (and, earlier, by building a church to New Martyrs near the Lubyanka FSB headquarters) the state and church are trying to coalesce with the discordant intelligentsia. At most, they are trying to maintain a familiar balance between the supporters and opponents of the Soviet period, marked by omnipotent authorities and forced order. But by erecting this monument (not to mention the church), the modern Russian state doesn’t win much in the relationship with its implacable critics: if anything, it’s the reverse. It does, however, gain a tactical win in the eyes of the common folk, the majority of the population.

By taking away the opposition’s monopoly on the remembrance of victims and destroying the link between those accused of past crimes and the current opposition and protest movement, the Russian regime may weaken the accusatory abilities of its opponents. On the other hand, it makes the topic of repression itself less controversial, less connected to a certain social group and the holders of particular views. It gives a chance for the memory of the dead to be distributed equally among everyone.

The majority can now condemn the state, Stalinist, revolutionary crimes without feeling that they are moving into the oppositional camp. This will make the condemnation of repression less fierce and more toothless, but also more widespread and irrevocable. For the victims of repression and for Russia’s political future, that might not be so bad.