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100 Years of Revolution: travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway in 2017

The Trans Siberian Express, 17th June to 1 July 2017:  my first Golden Eagle trip of the year as Guest Speaker.   I am a sociologist and social historian specialising in  20th century Russian history, so was really excited at the prospect of travelling through Russia in the year of the centenary of the Russian revolution.  Whatever you think of the society which it brought into being, the Revolution – or Revolutions, to be accurate (there were two of them in that year alone) – were indisputably momentous events.  Of course a lot has happened over the last century, and the ‘first socialist country’ has now embraced capitalism with a vengeance.  All the same, the revolutions and their aftermath are a huge part of the country’s history and identity  –  or so I thought.  I called my series of lectures ‘100 Years of Revolution: from Lenin to Putin’, and expected to be updating them constantly during our travels in accordance with how the people we encountered in today’s Russia interpreted their past.

London, my own city, has taken the centenary of the Revolution to heart.  The British Library has been virtually given over to the events of 1917; it has mounted an extensive exhibition explaining the reasons and consequences of the revolutions, and has organised a series of talks, special events  and even courses on various aspects of Soviet history. The Royal Academy is hosting an exhibition on Soviet art of the post-revolutionary years.  The Design Museum has one on Soviet architecture.    Of course we Westerners did not have to live through those times ourselves, and can be swept up in the excitement and passion of the Revolution without having to deal with the blood, chaos  and repression which accompanied it.   We also did not have to put up with the banal inconveniences of the aftermath –  the creation of a society in which housing, consumer goods, labour-saving devices, and so many other things which ease the struggles of daily life remained firmly at the bottom of its list of priorities.  So what did Russians make of their own past?  Was there any sympathy for the ideals of the Revolution?  Was there any nostalgia for the Soviet Union?

Astonishingly, I found scarcely any official mention of what Soviet leaders used to call ‘the greatest event of the 20th century.’  President Putin,  despite describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the major geopolitical  disaster of the 20th century’,[1] seems to have no desire to commemorate the event which brought that country into being.   What about the Russian population?  Would they be equally indifferent?

One of the guests on the Golden Eagle had a personal connection with the events of 1917, and has allowed me to tell his amazing story.  His Russian grandfather was working for a mining company in central Siberia at the time of the Revolution.  A brutal Civil War ensued, in which the Bolsheviks’ Red Army was pitted against the counter-revolutionary White forces, aided by troops from a number of Western countries which, as the young Winston Churchill put it, aimed to ‘bury Bolshevism in its cradle.’  The Russian Civil War has been described as the greatest national catastrophe that Europe had experienced up till then, with between seven and twelve million casualties, mostly civilians.[2] The Russian Far East and Siberia were the stronghold of the White Army, and hence became a major battleground.   Our guest’s grandfather  was in the United States buying mining equipment when he heard that the Bolsheviks were gaining the upper hand and advancing through Siberia.   It was too dangerous for him to return, so he got word to his wife to leave the country with their two small children and meet him in Mongolia.  Against all the odds, this remarkable woman somehow managed to do so;  she endured several months of tortuous travel by raft, steamer, horse-drawn cart and Trans-Siberian railroad, bribing her way across the border into Mongolia.  Determined not to have to start her new life completely from scratch,  she took twenty trunks’ worth of possessions with her!  Her husband could not get into Mongolia but they managed to meet up in China;  then, fearing that the victorious Bolsheviks would press on into China, they put in a successful application to settle in the USA.  That might sound like a happy end to the story –  but in the late 1920s, astonishingly,  her husband accepted a job back in the very Siberian mining town she had fled from.  She stayed in the United States.  So after that treacherous journey to join her husband and start a new life for themselves and their children, she ended up creating that new life by herself.

Our own journey started in Vladivostok,  the Eastern most point of the Trans-Siberian railroad. As a naval city – it is home to the Russian Pacific Fleet – it was closed to foreigners until 1992.  Now it is a popular tourist destination, and not just because of the railway.   A series of natural bays overlooked by mountains, it has been likened both to San Francisco and to Istanbul.  It was spruced up for the Asian Pacific Economic Conference summit which was held in 2012, and a new cable-braced bridge was built for the occasion,  the Zolotoi or Golden Bridge, which  has become the symbol of the city.  It was shrouded in a moody mist the day of our visit, but we enjoyed exploring the city with the help of our delightful local guide,  Olga.  Her family was originally from Belarus, she told us, but the Tsarist government wanted to populate the far-flung regions of Russia and promised free land and housing to migrants, and in the 1880s they took up the offer. The Trans-Siberian railroad was still just a dream at this time, and it took them three years of arduous travel before they found the place they would claim as home. They were pioneers, Olga said, the Russian equivalent of Americans in the Gold Rush.  Asked how the revolution would be marked, she responded with a smile – no, there were no plans to commemorate it.   In any case, that year means nothing in Siberia and the Far East because the Civil War dragged on for longer there; the Bolsheviks only achieved victory in 1922 when the Red Army took Vladivostok.  I asked what people in general thought about those times.   ‘It’s history, nothing more’, she told me.  There have been TV programmes introducing young people to revolutionary leaders, but as nothing more than historical figures.  Yet she did acknowledge a degree of nostalgia for certain periods of Soviet history. The Brezhnev era in particular, which we in the West know as ‘the era of stagnation’, is remembered by former Soviet citizens  as  a time of stability.   Life may have been somewhat colourless, but the essentials were available for free or at low cost, and there was guaranteed full employment.   After the huge upheavals of recent years, that seems increasingly attractive.

Our next stop was Khabarovsk.  Like Vladivostok it is built in a beautiful natural location, straddling three hills and sitting on the junction of two rivers, the Amur and the Ussuri.   Our guide was a young woman in her 20s, who had been born in the last year of the Soviet Union’s existence.  When I asked her about her feelings regarding the Soviet past, at first she seemed surprised; it meant nothing to her generation, she said.  Many people of her age did not even know who Lenin was.    She was not aware of any events being planned in the city.   Yet when I asked if her parents’ generation looked back at the Soviet years with any fondness, she acknowledged, like Olga in Vladivostok, that there was some nostalgia for the Brezhnev era.  Life is hard now, she explained, and people have no-one to rely on but themselves.  Many are fearful for the future.

From  Khabarovsk we were able to made a short, unscheduled  stop in Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia.  In its vast central square this city boasts the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world.   Colin Thubron, in his wonderful book In Siberia, describes it thus:  ‘It was the size of an office.  If I stood on the beard, I calculated, my forehead might touch the nostrils’.[3]  It is now a tourist curiosity rather than a homage to Lenin;  our guide gave us plenty of time to take photos,  but no explanation as to the origins of the sculpture or the significance of the man it portrayed.

After late night border crossings reminiscent of scenes from old spy movies  (stern-faced guards staring for what seemed like an eternity at us and the pictures in our passports to see if they matched),  we were in Mongolia.   The capital, Ulaanbaatar (the name means ‘Red Hero’), has changed beyond recognition in recent years. I first came to Mongolia in 2003, when Ulaanbaatar consisted of a few dusty roads along which sauntered the occasional yak.    Now, thanks to an increase in oil, shale and cashmere production, the capital is an exciting, ultra modern city with huge sky-scrapers and expensive brand-name stores.  But the countryside remains much as it always was.   We drove to the middle of nowhere to visit the tallest equestrian statue in the world (of Ghengis Khan, of course, the local lad made good!), and took the elevator to the horse’s mane, a viewing platform from which we could see a landscape which was virtually unchanged since the time of Ghengis himself.  Then on to the Terelj national park, past herds of grazing yaks and horses.  We  visited a nomadic family’s round tent, or ‘ger’, to hear about the nomadic way of life,  eat dried curd and drink the local tipple, fermented mare’s milk – an acquired taste, we decided!   The horse is an integral part of Mongolian nomadic life, and there was the opportunity to go for a short ride.  Then we were treated to a private display of two of the great Mongolian sports, wrestling and such high-level horsemanship that it came close to trick riding. Lynne Attwood in Mongolia

Our young Mongolian guide was the most unashamedly positive person I talked to about the years of Soviet power. Mongolia was never actually part of the Soviet Union but was its first ‘satellite state’;  Mongolians welcomed the Bolsheviks because they were the best hope against colonisation by the Chinese.  They shared with Soviet citizens some of the most appalling features of Soviet power, most notably the Stalinist repression of the late 1930s, aimed primarily at intellectuals and Buddhist religious leaders and claiming more than 20,000 lives.[4] Yet our guide told me that the Soviets provided a big boost to Mongolia in terms of education and health care and that he,  for one, was grateful.  He was too young to have any direct experience of those times, but his knowledge was extensive, and when he found out that I was a specialist on Soviet history he wanted to know all about my own experiences and impressions of the Soviet Union.  After the Russian guides’ apparent lack of interest in their own past, this was as refreshing to me as it was surprising.

From Mongolia we returned to Buryatia and visited an Old Believer community.  The Old Believers were religious dissenters who, in the 17th century, had refused to accept reforms imposed on the Orthodox church by Nikon, patriarch of Moscow.  The reforms were an attempt to correct mistakes in the translation of religious texts which had been used in Russia since it embraced Orthodoxy in the year 988.  Nikon decided that Russian Orthodoxy should follow more exactly the practices of the Greek church.[5]  The dissenters had, as Thubron explains, ‘adhered to several … minute liturgical forms strange to the Greek Orthodox, but which had become obscurely precious’.  This included crossing themselves with two extended fingers instead of the three used in the Greek church.  These seem to us to be trivial things to die for, Thubron continues, but clearly not to them: ‘far into the eighteenth century the Old Believers were persecuted as heretics, maimed, burnt at the stake. Some sliced off their index fingers to avoid signing the three-fingered cross…’  Some Old Believers were exiled to Siberia, where they continue to this day to live out their version of Orthodoxy.  This is a very family centred life, and families with eight or more children are not uncommon. Yet the Old Believers are not ascetics.  The ones we visited knew how to enjoy themselves, and to look after guests;  they entertained us with an hilarious show  in their community centre, and provided a delicious meal washed down with beer, wine and vodka.  Alas, the day was so packed with activities and experiences that I had no opportunity to quiz them about their views on the revolution and the Soviet Union.  However, given the Soviet antipathy to religion, I cannot imagine that these people, who had kept their faith alive at considerable cost throughout  the decades of official atheism, would have had any positive feelings about the regime.

On to Lake Baikal.  This was my third visit to this lake, but its beauty never fails to astound me.  My cabin was on the side of the train which overlooked the lake, and I woke up to such magnificent views that I had trouble dragging myself away for breakfast.  We passed a number of tents erected at the lake’s edge –  how wonderful to take an early morning dip in these bracing waters.

And, indeed, some of us did.  Our first stop along the lake was at Polovina, the ‘half-way station’, where there was an easy walk down to the shore.  A number of us braved the water, though the snow had not long melted from the hills bordering the lake.  As we emerged, shivering, we were greeted by waiters with two types of vodka to warm us up. Never mind that it was 9.30 a.m. – as the old joke goes, it was surely 6.00 p.m. somewhere in the world!

Then onto Port Baikal and a ferry to Listvyanka village, where some of us hiked up to Chersky Mount to a magnificent look-out point over the lake, where we could even see our train in its parking place.   This perfect day ended with a barbecue on the banks of the lake where we sampled omul, a delicious fish unique to Baikal.

Our next stop was Irkutsk, home town of our Golden Eagle train manager, Anna.  She switched hats and became our local guide, showing us round her own city.  Her emphasis was on how people had lived through various periods of history.  One of our stops was a visit to an apartment in the centre of town. It was the home of Tatyana, who had been a dentist back in Soviet times, married to a fairly senior Communist Party member.   Their three room apartment was in a block dating from the Stalin era; while there was a totally inadequate housing programme at that time, the apartments which were built were relatively luxurious, with high ceilings and spacious rooms.  Urban housing was all state-owned in those days and distributed through people’s place of work, and Tatyana’s family had been allotted the apartment just after the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets referred to their period of involvement, from 1941 to 1945) .   The family now owned the apartment because of the ‘privatisation’ programme initiated in the late Gorbachev era and completed under Putin.  Tatyana was a keen cook and had taught Russian cookery in South Korea for six months – we discovered for ourselves how good she was when we sampled her exquisite apple pie.

We had lunch that day at a dacha, or country house,  a short distance from Irkutsk.  Our hosts had a large plot of land on which they kept goats and chickens and grew their own vegetables, and our lunch consisted almost entirely of food they had produced themselves.  We ate round one large wooden table, with conversation flowing as freely as the wine and vodka.  We could have been characters in a Chekhov play.

Returning to the city, we went back in time to the 19th century, visiting the  Volkonsky family’s wooden mansion.  Prince Sergei Volkonsky was one of the ‘Decembrists’,  120 army officers who had been executed or exiled to Siberia after an attempted uprising against Nicholas I in December 1825.  Volkonsky’s wife, Maria, was one of fourteen women who followed their husbands into exile, abandoning forever their old lives –  and in her case even their infant child.  Volkonsky was sentenced to hard labour in the mines near Irkutsk.  After his release he was still not allowed to return to St Petersburg, so set up home in Irkutsk.  This beautiful mansion became a cultural hub due to the efforts of Maria, who was particularly fond of putting on musical soirees for fellow exiles.  We were treated to a concert ourselves, in a room lit by candles, performed by musicians dressed in period outfits;  we were plunged back into those pre-revolutionary times, when Russia was a hot bed of radical ideas and stood on the brink of those momentous events which are now being largely ignored.

What does this city think of the revolution?  As is the case in Siberia in general, the street names have not changed since the collapse of communism, and still honour socialist heroes;     the main thoroughfares of Irkutsk are called Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street.  Anna told us that the governor of the region is a member of the Communist Party, which is a major force and political influence in the region. What did she herself think of the Soviet years?  She gave us a talk on this subject one afternoon on the train.  She remembered her childhood with considerable fondness; there were good and bad features of those times, she explained, but for children in particular there was much that was good.   They always had something to do: after-school activities put on by the school or by the ‘communist youth’ organisations, and summer camps during the long school holidays which all children could go to regardless of their parent’s financial position.  That is not the case now.  Like many of the Russians I spoke to, she described the immediate post-Soviet years, when Boris Yeltsin was in power, as a particularly appalling period in Russian history, a ‘time of troubles’, when society was in a state of complete breakdown and people had no idea if they would even survive.  This was one of the reasons for Putin’s popularity; there  was a widespread feeling that stability was more important than democracy, and that only Putin could provide it.  His popularity has grown even more since Russia reclaimed Crimea.  It was given to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954, but Russians always felt it to be rightfully theirs, and its annexation – so reviled by the West –  has mass support in Russia.  The Communist Party inevitably has a more positive view of the Soviet days than parties which have embraced capitalism, and Anna thought there might be some kind of commemoration of the revolution.  All the same, she has heard nothing in the local media about any plans to do so.

On to Novosibirsk, our last stop in Siberia. Our guide, another Olga, was the offspring of a migrant family, like her namesake in Vladivostok.  Her family had come from Ukraine in the late 19th century, lured by the offer of a free plot of land.  They settled not far from Novosibirsk where there was already a settlement of fellow Ukrainians.

One of our first things Olga showed us was a recently unveiled statue of Alexander III, the Tsar who had launched the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad. My understanding was that Alexander III  was the most oppressive of the Romanov Tsars, which is why the famous film-maker Sergei Eisenstein depicted the crowd, in the opening scenes of October, pulling apart a statue not of Nicholas II, who was on the throne at the time of the Revolution, but of  Alexander III, using him as a symbol of the worst features of Imperialism.  Yet Olga talked about Alexander III in glowing terms, as the Tsar who had presided over a period of economic growth and social stability.  Yes, he had been repressive, but this was inevitable because his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated by a terrorist group in 1881. The strong hand of his successor ensured that there was no more terrorism  –  until it was unleashed by the 1917 Revolution.  I suggested that Alexander III had controlled the population by means of unacceptably draconian measures,  and pointed out that he did not destroy terrorism since the same group which had killed his father also attempted to assassinate him.  Furthermore, this group included Lenin’s older brother, Alexander Ulyanov,  who was put to death for the crime, and this is thought to have radicalised Lenin and hence contributed to the Revolution.  Olga countered by saying that the attempt on Alexander III’s life had been foiled because of the strict control he exerted over society, and that the Revolution came about at least in part because of the weakness of  Nicholas II. I asked what she thought about Lenin, expecting a wholly negative response, but she told me Lenin had been a genius;  she applauded his flexibility and his ability to adapt his plans to fit the requirements of the day.  In particular she thought his introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1920, which revived some aspects of private enterprise in an effort to repair the war-torn economy, had been a wise move.  The NEP was brought to an end by Stalin in 1928.   So what might have happened if  Lenin had not died in his prime in January 1924, paving the way for Stalin’s rise to power?  Ah, Olga said, that is the big historical question.  We talked about the Civil War which followed the Revolution; both sides had their positive aspects,  she said, with both wanting the best for the country, though they had very different ideas about to achieve this.  That was not always the case with today’s politicians.  However,  she was a committed Putin supporter; she saw him as the only hope for stability in Russia.

We left Siberia and moved  to the Urals and to Ekaterinburg, which straddles the divide between Europe and Asia.  This is a lovely city, green and pleasant, with a dazzling lake, fountains and river at his heart. Its beauty will always be overshadowed by the events of 17 July 1918, however.  This was the day on which Nicholas II was executed, along with his family and their servants, in the basement of the house of the military engineer Nikolai Nikolaievich Ipatiev, which had been their final prison.   It is not certain who actually gave the orders, but the reason is clear:  the Whites were advancing, and it was feared that when they  arrived in the city they would free the family and use them as figureheads to galvanise the counter-revolutionary movement.

The Ipatiev house was torn down in 1977 on the instructions of Boris Yeltsin, who at that time was the governor of the city.  A church has been built on the site, with a museum in the basement  (a low-ceilinged room intended to resemble the one in which the family died) which traces their lives and tragic deaths.  In a small building nearby, also owned by the church, there was an exhibition about the Revolution.  As one would expect, it did not provide an entirely objective view of events.  For example, information boards gave figures indicating that Russia had a thriving economy the year before the Bolshevik takeover, and compared them with those of 1918.   A number of us expressed surprise.  In 1916 Russia was in the midst of the first World War, which was going very badly;  indeed, the revolution was prompted by an acute shortage of food in the capital.   So how could the economy be doing well?   Almost all of the information in this emotionally charged exhibition was in Russian; it was clearly aimed at providing an anti-Soviet view of history for domestic visitors, not foreign tourists.

The last Tsar and his family have, somewhat controversially,  been sainted by the Orthodox Church.  Ekaterinburg  also has a more secular but equally controversial ‘saint’ – Boris Yeltsin.  While Yeltsin is generally perceived to have brought about the most terrible period in Russia’s recent history, the city has felt the need to commemorate its former governor with a large memorial centre,  a sculpture and a street name – none of which, significantly, we visited.[1]  Our guide did say that the decision to honour the man who brought such chaos to Russia has met with considerable resistance – but he is, she argued,  a significant part of the city’s history, and that had to be acknowledged.

The same could be said about Lenin and the city where we made our next stop  – Kazan.  As the capital of Tatarstan,  Kazan’s population is almost equally divided  between Russians and Tatar Moslems –   who seem to be living in peace and harmony.    It was a glorious summer’s day;  the city was awash with flower displays, open-air cafes, and people just hanging out enjoying the sunshine. We did too, with a wonderful lunch on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city’s unique Kremlin, which includes both an Orthodox Church and a mosque.   Lenin enrolled in the law faculty in Kazan University in August 1884, but was expelled only four months later for his involvement in a demonstration protesting against Tsar Alexander III’s repressive reign.  Those brief months were enough to get him a statue overlooking the University.  This is the only statue in Russia depicting him as a young man; in all of the others, including Kazan’s other Lenin statue on Freedom Square, he is in his 50s, the leader of the new Soviet state.  With Lenin’s strong association with the city, surely he and his revolution would be commemorated here?  Not so. The former Lenin Museum now houses an exhibition which honours the city’s millennium, which took place in 2005.  The Soviet years are squeezed into a few information boards while the rest of the museum is devoted to the more distant past, mainly depicting Tatars in national dress fighting heroic battles on horseback.  Our guide, herself a Tatar, told me that Lenin’s mother had family connections with a small town some 30 km outside of Kazan, ‘and there, they still remember Lenin’.  But in Kazan, those two Lenin statues seem to be unwanted relics of a time most people would prefer to forget.

Statue of a young Lenin in Kazan
The statue of a young Lenin in Kazan

For those who still have some nostalgia for the Soviet era, or want their children to know how their parents and grandparents lived, there are two small museums in Kazan dealing with the Soviet past – the Museum of Soviet Life and the Museum of Happy Childhood.   Many of the exhibits, I was told, were donated by people who had grown up under Soviet rule and had some nostalgia for the certainties of those times.  Visitors to the museum, however, seemed amused and a little horrified at the limitations of people’s lives in that era.  Nobody, it seems  – especially those enjoying refreshing beers in flower-adorned cafe gardens – would want to return to it.

We lost the glorious weather when we arrived in Moscow:  we were greeted by  dark, brooding skies and, later that afternoon, a thunderstorm so violent that it featured on  English news channels.  The tour of the city proceeded regardless, but thankfully much of it was indoors – the Armory Museum in the Kremlin, the Moscow metro.  The group did manage to explore Red Square before the rain descended.  While the street names which once commemorated revolutionary figures in Moscow have long gone, the man himself still lies here, embalmed, in his mausoleum.  There  is also no shortage of Lenin memorabilia in the city:  plaques appear on walls,  now tucked between luxury shops selling the  fruits of capitalism, which declare that Lenin worked in an office in this or that building, or addressed the crowds from this or that balcony.  Surely this city has to acknowledge the revolution?   Indeed there is an exhibition on the Revolution in the Museum of Contemporary History, which I visited when I was last in Moscow;   it  seemed determined not to take  sides but to present the Revolution just as historical fact.  Lyuba, our Moscow guide, told me she was not aware of any other commemorations being planned:  ‘We’ve moved on’, she explained.  Two members of our Golden Eagle group decided to visit Lenin next morning;  the mausoleum did not open until 10.00 a.m, but they went there an hour early to beat what they assumed would be an enormous line. They need not have bothered –   the lines are longer these days to get into Moscow’s night clubs.

A Lenin plaque in Moscow
This plaque on a building in Moscow declares that Lenin took part in a number of different demonstrations in 1918 and 1919 from the balcony of that building.

I found time for a coffee with my friend Natasha.  She has a daughter of twenty who has been very much involved in the demonstrations organised by Russia’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. One of his big concerns is corruption, especially on the part of the political elite, and many young people share his anger;  they are also enraged by the enormous disparities in wealth, both  between people and regions (a recent report claims that the richest 10 per cent of the Russian population owns 87 per cent of  the country’s wealth).[6]  Natasha  assured me that people of her daughter’s generation are very much aware that this year is the centenary of the Revolution – and some of them have suggested, only partly in jest,  that the best way to mark it would be to have another one.  Far from representing stability, Natasha told me that Putin is seen as a divisive figure by many people, with friends and family members falling out irrevocably over whether or not he is good for the country. Navalny also has his faults, she said, but he is the only opposition leader the country can muster at the moment.

So this wonderful Golden Eagle tour came to an end, and I returned to London.  As I was mulling over this article, I came across another interesting event at the British Library:  this was a talk on the very subject of my article,  ‘Perceptions of the Revolution in Russia Today.’  I went along. The panel consisted of five specialists on Russia, from both Russia and from the UK.   These are the main points I took from the session.

Mikhail Zygor is a  writer, film-maker and founder of an independent Russian news channel called Dozhd (Rain). He also runs an Internet website, Project 1917, which aims to raise awareness amongst young Russians about the events of that year and to encourage them to think about their country’s history.  Born in 1981,  he is too young to have had much experience of the Soviet Union himself – though he informed us that he had been a member of the Young Pioneers, the communist youth movement for children.    However, people of his parents’ generation had been  ‘poisoned’ by the annual celebration of the revolution;  after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union they no longer wanted even to talk about it, let alone celebrate it. The old Soviet mantra ‘Lenin is always with us’ is no longer true – Lenin is now well and truly dead.

Boris Akunin (real name Grigory Chkhartishvili) is best known as the author of a series of unusual and very funny detective stories set in  19th century Russia.  He argued that the political establishment does not want to commemorate the revolution in any official way because they fear  ‘waking up the devil’ – is there a chance that it might happen again?

Mary Dejevsky, writer and broadcaster, was for many years the Independent newspaper’s correspondent in Moscow. She is now a member of the influential Valdai Discussion Group,  established in  2004 to, as its own website puts it, ‘promote dialogue between Russia and the international intellectual elite’.[7] Dejevsky  drew a comparison between the Russian and French Revolutions. The latter, despite its bloody aftermath, is still celebrated every year on Bastille Day, because many of its ideals still hold sway. That is not the case with the Russian revolution.

While the Revolution is ignored, there remains a huge need to commemorate the Second World War. Many of the Golden Eagle clients had expressed surprise at the number of memorials commemorating World War II;  and Victory Day, held on 9 May, is a major event in the Russian calendar. There is an obvious reason for this difference in attitude towards the events of 1945 and 1917.   As Akunin explained, the former still represents victory –  the latter, defeat.

When the audience was invited to ask questions and offer comments, I told of Natasha’s daughter and her friends’ involvement in the protest movement and their interest in the Revolution.  Arkady Ostrovsky, Russia and East European editor of the Economist and author of a prize-winning book The Invention of Russia – the Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War (2015), seemed  dismissive.  Protest  is a ‘fashion’ for young people, he said;  ‘It is cool to get picked up by the police if you are 16 or 17 years old’.   Zygov said that many young people like to refer to themselves as communists but he is doubtful that they really know what it means;  they have probably not even heard  of Gennady Zyuganov,  leader of the Russian Communist Party.  But Ostrovsky did concede that young people are impatient for change, and that if there is a change of power in Russia, it will not come about through constitutional means.

In conclusion, I was left feeling that Russia is in a state of confusion  about its present as well as its past.  Whenever  I thought there was  a consensus around a particular issue, this was challenged by the next person I talked to.  Putin represents that all-important stability to some  – but to others he is a divisive figure who is pitting friends and family against each other.   The Revolution failed and is not to be commemorated – but it created a society for which there is now some nostalgia.  Young people are ignorant about the revolution and need to be encouraged to think more about it – yet they are also very vocal members of the protest movement and see links between this and their country’s revolutionary past.   There is one thing we can be sure of.  In the old days, a common understanding of Soviet society, its aims and its achievements, was promoted by the Communist Party; it was possible to ask the question ‘what do Russians think about this or that’ and get a reasonably accurate answer, at least of the majority position.  Now the old Soviet ‘obshchestvennost’, or shared opinion, has disappeared and  people’s views differ in accordance with social class, education, generation, gender, region of the country – and their own individual experiences and convictions.

 

Lynne Attwood.

 

[1] Golden Eagle does now offer an option of visiting the Yeltsin centre.

[1] This famous quotation came in his 2005 state of the nation address. See Katie Sanders, ‘Did Vladimir Putin call the breakup of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”?’,  6 March 2014, Punditfact.com, accessed 19 July 2017.

[2] Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, Pegasus, 2007.

[3] Colin Thubron, In Siberia, Kindle version, 2008.

[4] Szalontai Balszs, ‘The Dynamic of Repression: The Global Impact of the Stalinist Model, 1944-1953’,  Mongolian Journal of International Affairs, no 10 2003.

[5] See Britannica.com for more information on the Old Believers.

[6] Shaun Walker, ‘Mind the Wealth Gap’, The Guardian newspaper’s tabloid section,  25 April 2017.

[7] See Valdaiclub.com.

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