Russian history and realities in 2017

ZOiS Spotlight 26/2017 by Jan C. Behrends (11 October 2017)

No friend of revolutions: President Putin seeks to avoid mass protests as in 1917, depicted in the painting "The Bolshevik" by Boris Kustodiev (1920).

Vladimir Putin does not believe in revolutions. The Russian leader has chosen stability, legitimacy, and sovereignty as key concepts of his rule. He does, however, care deeply about Russian history and believes his country is destined for greatness. During his reign, Putin has defined himself and his regime as the guarantors of stability and legitimacy in the post-Soviet space. The tension between the concepts of revolution and stability constitutes, in a nutshell, the dilemma the Kremlin faces in 2017. How can Moscow celebrate the centenary of an event that is seen as an embarrassment?

A white power

Today’s Russia is a white power: Putin’s relationship to revolutionary change is a twenty-first-century version of Tsar Nicholas I’s policies. In the nineteenth century, this reactionary on the throne served as Europe’s guardian against political upheaval. In his time, Nicholas I was determined to struggle against any form of progressive politics. He founded the okhrana, Imperial Russia’s secret police. Putin’s admiration for the Tsarist Empire is as well-known as his contempt for the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Thus, the current Russian leadership will host no extensive celebrations for the revolutionary jubilee in October. The Kremlin has long decided that the Great Fatherland War is the Soviet tradition best suited to legitimise the current regime. It is at the core of Russian history politics today. Victory is easier to embrace than revolution.

The October revolution is no longer part of the great historical narrative that the Russian media presents to its citizens. It does not fit into the story about a strong state, because the official discourse emphasises continuity over rupture. Looking back, what is striking is the continuity of autocracy—before and after 1917. The latest expression of this narrative is the gallery of leaders recently opened in Moscow consisting of Soviet autocrats, starting with Lenin and continuing with Stalin all the way to the post-Soviet era. The media has scandalised the fact that Stalin has once again received recognition as a great statesman (and rightly so). But the actual message to Russians is broader: whoever rules, the gallery of leaders insists, represents the Russian state that has persisted and will continue to persist. For the current rulers, it is convenient that this perspective serves to ‘normalise’ Stalinism as yet another—triumphant—incarnation of Russian statehood.

The lessons of history

Aside from the official discourse, there are certainly ‘lessons from October’ for the Russian elite today that are obvious but less talked about. The last emperor, Nicholas II, made numerous mistakes throughout his reign that Putin and his entourage are keen to avoid. The first and biggest blunder—repeated twice by Russia’s last monarch—was to fight (and lose) unnecessary wars. The Romanov Empire would probably have lasted much longer if it had not gone to war with Japan in 1905 and with Germany and Austria in 1914. It collapsed under the stress of war. Putin, for his part, reacted in 2014 and retracted from the grandiose Novorossiya project launched in the Russian spring after the annexation of Crimea. He realised that conquering another ten provinces of Ukraine would mean all-out war. The Russian president understood that such a scenario involved great risks, and he therefore settled for half of two Ukrainian provinces he managed to capture.

The second lesson the Kremlin has learnt is to pay close attention to the public mood—even, and especially, in a country that is not a democracy. Imperial Russia suffered from a disconnect with both the elite (especially the intelligentsia) and the people (the narod, or peasantry). The Kremlin today spends much time and effort constantly building and rebuilding a popular base for the regime. It is highly sophisticated in its use of polling and the mass media. This connects to the third lesson of the revolution that post-Soviet Russia has embraced: give the people something to be proud of. Through its use of the mass media and the educational system, the Kremlin spreads the word about the exceptionalism of Russian culture while at the same time vilifying liberal values and the West.

The last thing Putin’s Russia has learnt from the breakdown of 1917 is to strictly control the opposition. During times of crisis such as 1905 and 1917, Tsarist Russia lost control of the public realm and had to make concessions to both its liberal and its radical opponents. This made the legitimate power look weak. It also provided the opposition with room for political manoeuvre and enabled Russian society to organise itself, to build competing parties, and eventually even to arm itself. The breakdown of autocracy, the dissolution of the state, and the beginning of civil war followed. Looking back at the protests of 2011 and the following legislation and repression of dissent, one can observe the determination of today’s Kremlin to crush any form of organised opposition before it gathers momentum.

Common fears

In today’s Russia, the history of the October revolution is safely hidden behind an official narrative of continuous state power ("gosudarstvennost'") and imperial ambition ("derzhavnost'"). The Kremlin has learnt some of the lessons that 1917 may offer today’s autocracy. Yet the ruling elite still has one great commonality with both Nicholas I and the last tsar, Nicholas II: fear that its rule may be seen as illegitimate. In what is perhaps its specifically Russian form, this fear manifests itself as a deep-rooted angst that the state might once again fail and that an insurrection of the people will destroy civil order. Anxiety about descent into chaos and distrust of the citizens by the elite are among the lasting legacies of revolution and civil war in Russia. The emphasis on stability is to mask the frailty of autocracy.


Historian Jan C. Behrends is reasearch associate at the Centre for Contemporary History and teaches at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. His research focuses on the modern history of Eastern Europe with an emphasis on modern dictatorship, urban history and violence. In February 2017, he co-edited the volume „100 Jahre Roter Oktober. Zur Weltgeschichte der Russischen Revolution“.