from Russia with bias

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One of my great-grandfathers, who was a revolutionary soldier in Petrograd in the autumn of 1917, doesn’t mention what became known as October revolution at all in his memoirs written 50 years later on request of the Pskov history museum. He refers to the “storming of Winter Palace” only once, in the context of punishing soldiers who had looted the palace’s wine cellars. That’s pretty much how it felt for most contemporaries – not the “ten days that shook the world”, as lionised by American journalist John Reed, but merely an episode in the ensuing collapse of the empire.

The Provisional Government, toppled by Lenin and Trotsky in the October coup d’etat, was supposed to hand over its power to the elected Constituent Assembly. The elections began, despite Bolshevik takeover of government buildings in Petrograd, on November 12 (old style) and dragged on for another two months due to logistical difficulties. When polls closed, the Bolsheviks were soundly defeated by the moderate peasants’ Socialist Revolutionary Party. Together with its Ukrainian outfit, the SR gained 48.1% of the vote against 24% received by the Bolsheviks.

The Constituent Assembly convened on January 5, 1918 (old style) at Petrograd’s Tavrichesky palace, surrounded on Lenin’s orders by pro-Bolshevik Latvian riflemen and Lithuanian guardsmen regiments. After a heated session that dragged on into the early morning, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the assembly dissolved and – in a truly Orwellian move – denounced legitimate representatives of country’s citizens as “enemies of the people”.

Of course in reality it were the Bolsheviks who pitted them against the majority of Russians and specifically their largest group, the peasants (who overwhelmingly voted for the SR). It is only through unthinkable terror and with the crucial help of non-indigenous fighters that they managed to suppress the resistance – the greatest resistance any nation ever offered to Communism – during the subsequent civil war and multiple peasant uprisings thereafter.

In modern terms, the force that took over Russia by the end of the civil war in 1921 was an international terrorist network that had strong resemblance to the present days ISIS. It was a fanatical religious movement (even though it officially denied religion) with its own pantheon of gods and heroes, holy books, stone idols and even a sacred mummy that still occupies a granite temple in the Red Square designed by architect who in his young years fancied himself as an adept of ancient Egyptian religion. As in any theocracy (say, today’s Iran), it had the ideologues, the high priests of Marxism, on top of the hierarchy and political, economic and military administrators below them.

It was an expansionist movement that strove to spread its Communist caliphate all around the world. But by no means it was an empire in the old sense of the word, because the brunt of its genocidal policies fell on the presumed imperial masters – ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. As in the case of ISIS, outsiders from the periphery of the old Russian empire and the rest of the world (Latvian riflemen, Hungarian POWs, Chinese leftists) played a critical role in suppressing indigenous population in core areas of what is now known as Russian Federation.

But – as in the case of ISIS – its greatest appeal for destitute people robbed of their meagre possessions and dignity by suicidally selfish imperialist elites in the three years years of World War I was its egalitarianism, its denial of old class hierarchy and ethnoreligious tribalism, which people rightly regarded as the cause of their misfortune. They saw the beauty in the fact that a Russian worker (like my grandfather), a Jewish intellectual (like the man who converted him into Bolshevism – Lev Trotsky), or a Latvian officer (like his Red Army commander Janis Fabricius) could stand together and create a new of community of people based on equality and justice.

My other great grandfathers – a Polish church choir conductor; a Russian doctor who, with his Latvian wife, clung to a German-speaking religious community; a Russian railway worker who fled Bolshevik-inflicted artificial famine in Ryazan region – hardly shared his idealism. In his memoirs, he admits to his own naiveté. He chose the Bolshevik side after listening to a single speech by Trotsky (a brilliant orator), which was followed by a presentation delivered by the inarticulate future chairman of the Constituent Assembly, Mikhail Chernov of SR party.

But when I read about his adventures as a peasant boy desperate to get any job at all paid by food rather than money from the age of ten, a young worker in St Petersburg who did 12-hour shifts for meagre payment and risked his life every time unions went on strike with demands to improve conditions, a soldier in a senselessly brutal war under the command of sadistic officers who enjoyed beating and humiliating their subordinates – I begin to wonder, which side I’d choose in his place, despite my deeply entrenched anti-Communism.

It was the elites’ total disregard for human life and dignity that that had pushed people across their pain barrier, whereby the bloodiest of catastrophes began to look better than their current existence. It no longer mattered for millions whether they live or die – they were essentially driven to suicide.

In the decades that followed, the Soviet caliphate predictably began acquiring features of a normal nation state, built around the artficial (though not entirely unsuccessful) concept of multiethnic Soviet nation, which still has its adepts in places like Belarus or East Ukraine. In 1991, the utopian state finally broke up into a bunch of ethnocracies, most of which saw a quick degradation from backward clientelist democracies into authoritarian oligarchies with patronage, venal offices and other features of not even pre-1917 Russia, but the Russian empire prior to progressive court and local government reforms conducted by tsar Alexander II in the middle of the 19th century. Ukraine remained the last redoubt of multicultural modernity in the ex-USSR until the Russian aggression pushed it towards ethnocratic archaism thinly disguised with pro-Western rhetoric.

Apart from the huge trauma that defines political culture in the region (particularly in Russia – with its rogue teenager political behaviour) the events of 1917 are only relevant today in the sense how modern politicians and ideologues exploit them to mobilise their support base.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin touts stability as the main achievement of his political era and therefore pictures himself as a counter-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik, while dubbing his political opponents from the liberal camp as neo-Bolsheviks keen on unleashing another revolution. But he has to be be very careful with that rhetoric given that his ageing, less educated and low-income support base feels nostalgic for the Soviet past.

So his denouncement of Bolshevism is limited to the revolution itself and partly to Stalin’s terror, which he half-heartedly condemns. He is considerably more positive about Soviet nation-building effort, which was centred around World War II victory cult forged by Brezhnev-era ideologues. He has revived and upgraded that cult, having married it with some American import – Christian fundamentalism, aggressively manipulative infotainment and even biker gang culture. In this paradigm, Lenin emerges as an unquestionable villain, while Stalin is a controversial figure who – yes – killed many people, but led the country to win the World War II.

In other East European nation states, the ruling (outwardly or discretely) nationalist coalitions continuously refer to the Bolshevik legacy with the aim of enhancing the cult of national victimhood, which remains a central feature of nation-building mythology across the region. That involves whitewashing own history (so that all heroes were indigenous and all villains were foreign), flatly denying their ancestors’ contribution to both totalitarian regimes and blaming own failures on large neighbours, primarily Russia.

This took grotesque forms during and after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, when far-right groups like Svoboda and Patriot of Ukraine led the nationwide effort to destroy Communist idols, even though Communism ended peacefully more than two decades earlier and Yanukovych regime was anything but Communist. On the contrary, with its deeply rooted patronage and corruption, it displayed key features of oligarchic right-wing regimes that spurred violent left-wing uprisings in various parts of the world throughout the 20th century.

In the West, the reference to Bolsheviks is often used by right-wing commentators in relation to Putin’s regime, even though anyone who has lived through both Putin’s and Soviet years can testify that the two hardly compare in any aspect of life, except their repressive nature. But the comparison allows right-wingers to paint Russia as an alien non-Western power, while ignoring the capitalist nature of Putin’s regime, which is strikingly more similar to corrupt dictatorships the US supported in South America during the Cold War than to Soviet totalitarianism, where corruption was neither a driving force for nor even a major feature. It also helps to create an illusion that Russian nationalism (and associated irredentism) is of radically different nature than its equivalents in other East European countries.

In the most bizarre recent example, Anne Applebaum (whom I highly respect) went as far as suggesting that far-right movements currently supported by the Kremlin in Europe in fact stem from Bolshevism. The reality of course is that the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban or the “ayatollah” of Poland’s ruling conservatives, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, all hail from the right-wing camp of the anti-Communist movement. The fact that they emulate Putin’s policies (and, in Organ’s case seek rapprochement with the Kremlin) is only natural since Putin’s regime is also a product of neocon-influenced oligarchs and spin doctors, centred around Boris Berezovsky, who sought to forge a Russian version of Pinochet in the late 1990s.

To be fair, I’ve myself used the word Bolshevik in the reference to Trump’s majoritarianism in this blog – simply because this is what Bolshevism literally means in Russian language.

All in all, there is little in the events of 1917 that directly applies to 21st century politics. But there is an often overlooked legacy of Soviet revolution in the form of successful European social democracies that wouldn’t simply develop, if not for the threat posed by the Soviet Communists and the influence they had on workers’ movement in various countries, especially France and Italy. Had the Russian imperial government and moderate socialists been more prone to negotiations and compromise, they could have achieved a similar result leaving both left- and right-wing radicals in the graveyard of history.

Written by fullofbias

November 12, 2017 at 10:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized