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11/07/2017 10:21 AM

100 Years Since the October Revolution

Russia's Unloved Anniversary

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It has been 100 years since the October Revolution that heralded the Bolshevik takeover of Russia and changed the world. Yet today, Russians have mixed feelings about the centenary and approach it with care.

Even revolutionaries have moments of doubt. Take Vladimir Ulyanov, a Russian emigré in Zurich during World War I whose nom de guerre was Lenin. We old ones, he said in a speech to Swiss socialists in 1917, might not experience the coming revolution. But you young Swiss, you will fight and win! It was January and Ullyanov-Lenin didn't yet know that the czar would fall a mere seven weeks later. And that he himself would take the czar's place by the end of the year.

Or take Sergei Udaltsov, who is sitting in a Moscow café 100 years later, wearing the uniform of the professional revolutionary: black jacket with a shaved head. Udaltsov, who's great-grandfather was a close companion of Lenin's, is the leader of the radical left. Together with Alexei Navalny, he led the protests against Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012, going on to spend four-and-a-half years under house arrest and in jail as a result. He says the people are tired, the politicians are clueless and a change of government is likely. But if everything falls apart, who will profit? Isn't it more likely to be the right than the left?

This year, Russia is celebrating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. One hundred years ago in March, the czarist monarchy was toppled. One hundred years ago in November, Vladimir Lenin and his followers grabbed power. It was, so to speak, two revolutions in one. And Nov. 7, 1917 - or October 25, according to the old calendar - went down in history as the October Revolution, as the birth of the first socialist state, a triumph of a new order.

"Celebration" is the wrong word for this anniversary. What is there to celebrate when so much blood was spilled? It is perhaps better to say: Russia is marking the anniversary. But that's not quite right either. Because Russia is hardly paying any mind at all to the most consequential event of the 20th century, one that changed the entire world. Russia's leadership is extremely uncomfortable with the anniversary; it has a kind of revolution-phobia.

To this day, Lenin remains on display in a glass coffin in Moscow - a small man in a suit with a red beard, his waxen right hand balled into a fist. But in truth, the Kremlin has a problem with the revolution. Nobody, said Vladimir Putin in December just before the anniversary year began, should use the historical tragedy "for political aims" or "pull the strife and hatred, injuries and rancor of the past into our current time." It sounded like a warning: Keep your hands away from history!

What's strange, though, is that the revolution is essentially omnipresent in Putin's Russia. It is a ghost that the Kremlin needs, but also fears. Ever since a peaceful change of power through elections became largely inconceivable, Russian leadership began seeing every anti-Putin rally as a call to launch a violent revolt, driven by forces outside of the country. That's not because it has any real reason to be afraid - the opposition is too weak for that - but because Putin's power rests on protest remaining invisible. And the Kremlin has taken cautious note of the pro-Western revolutions that have taken place in its neighborhood: from the Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2004 to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

A Leadership Opposed to Revolutions

"Fear has big eyes," according to a Russian proverb. To those full of fear, every street protest is a "color revolution" and every "color revolution" is a repeat of 1917. "We are the opposite of revolution," is the central doctrine of Putinism. A quarter of a century after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the revolution is once again, paradoxically, at the center of the Russian leadership's thinking.

That's what makes the anniversary so difficult. Those in power have no option but to look into the mirror of the past and search for a reflection of themselves. Do they resemble the leadership of the Czarist empire, which was toppled to the cheers of the populace? Or perhaps the democrats of the so-called Provisional Government, which only lasted half-a-year between the February and October Revolutions? Or do they see themselves as being similar to Lenin and his comrades, who set up a brutal dictatorship?

Putin and the country's leadership are opposed to revolutions, but they can't simply reject the October Revolution. The Russia of today, after all, is its offspring. It may be a capitalist society of consumers in which solidarity is scarcer, but freedom more abundant, than during the Soviet era. But the Soviet experience is deep inside. It is a country in which members of the intelligence service still call themselves "Chekists," after Lenin's bloody secret police, except that they now pray to the murdered Czar Nicholas II.

If you want to tell the story of the revolution as the Kremlin sees it today, you need to start with Pyotr Stolypin, the most capable of the Czars' prime ministers. Vladimir Putin had a monument to Stolypin erected in front of his seat of government when he was prime minister - and forced all of his cabinet members to donate one month of their salaries to fund it. There isn't a single functionary in the Kremlin party who hasn't once quoted the famous words Stolypin uttered to the opposition in 1907: "You want great upheaval, we want a great Russia!" It is a comfortable response to any protest.

Putin sees in Stolypin a kind of authoritarian modernizer who is misunderstood by the democrats, someone who wanted evolution instead of revolution - and a strong state. In other words: In Stolypin, Putin likes to see himself.

Historical Footage of Lenin (Silent)

In 1906, Stolypin became the prime minister of a country that was both weak and strong. It was the largest country in the world, with population growing by 2 million people per year, of which 80 percent were peasants. It had the world's largest standing army and a rapidly growing industry, but the army had to constantly maintain order inside of the country and half of the industrial sector belonged to foreigners. It had a secret police that infiltrated all revolutionary groups but also the world's most dangerous terrorists, who killed or injured 17,000 people over the course of two decades. It was home to the oldest dynasty in Europe but had an outdated political system.

In 1905, a year before Stolypin took office, Russia went through its first revolution - a precursor to 1917. Unrest and general strikes had broken out, exacerbated by the war the country lost against Japan. The Czar gave in, and introduced a parliament - which Stolypin again quickly dissolved. But the prime minister also tried to give the Czarist system a new social base, with free farmers instead of the traditional village communes. It was an attempt at authoritarian modernization.

The February Revolution

Hated by liberals and unloved by the Czars, Stolypin was murdered in Kiev in 1911 by terrorists. But even he wouldn't have been able to prevent the revolution, historian Orlando Figes argues. Figes claims that, like Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformer was worn down by the attempt to negotiate between the old elites and the radical opposition.

World War I began three years after Stolypin's death, and another three years later, the Czarist empire collapsed like a house of cards.

It began on the International Women's Day on February 23, according to the old calendar. In the capital of Petrograd - the name of Saint Petersburg had been changed at the start of the war because it sounded too German - women protested against bread shortages. Unlike Germany, which was starving because of the naval blockade, Russia had enough food, but it was poorly distributed. The long war required good organization, and in this, agrarian Russia was inferior to the modern industrialized countries.

In addition, trust in the Czar and his government had eroded. Rumors were circulating that he was actually allied with the Germans, that his German wife had been the lover of the miracle healer Rasputin and that food-supply problems had been created on purpose.

As the Czar was soon forced to realize, these forms of unrest couldn't be suppressed with troops. The military refused to obey orders and both the parliament and the generals began pushing the Czar to step down.

"Slept long and deeply," Nicholas II wrote in his diary on the morning after his abdication. It seemed as though he shared the people's relief that he was no longer in power. From that point on, he spent time with his five children, shoveled snow in the garden and read Sherlock Holmes stories.

In the streets of Petrograd, a boistrous mob celebrated: Czarist emblems were torn down, strangers hugged one another and honking cars filled with armed men drove down Nevsky Prospect. People tacked red bands onto their coats and ran through the streets, looted and chased police officers. That's no revolution, novelist Maxim Gorki claimed, it's chaos. By the end of the February Revolution, hundreds of Petrograd residents were dead. They were buried on the Field of Mars, where they lie between cubical granite stones engraved with triumphant slogans: "Your seeds are ripening to a harvest for all people on Earth."

One hundred years later, a new revolution is gathering at the graves of the old one. It's not, of course, a real revolution, but it is a group of people protesting, which is quite a lot for Russia in 2017. It is early October, a chilly time of year when darkness falls quickly on the Neva River. Young Saint Petersburg residents warm themselves at the eternal flame for the victims of the February Revolution. They are supporters of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, though the fact that they are standing at the memorial for the Revolution is largely by chance. Indeed, some don't even know what it commemorates. It just so happens that the Field of Mars is the most popular place for demonstrations in Saint Petersburg.

Navalny is currently trying to introduce himself across the country as a candidate for the presidential election in March - which is absurd given that only the Kremlin decides who gets to be on the ballot. But Navalny simply pretends that it's a possibility - and that's enough for the authorities to take him seriously.

Particuarly on this early October day and in this city. It is Putin's 65th birthday, and St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown - which is why Navalny selected this time and place. And the authorities, as it happens, are treating the protest like lèse majesté - when it comes to this kind of thing, Russia is once again like a monarchy. Because of the Saint Petersburg demonstration, they imprisoned Navalny, banned the rally, warned students to stay away and closed the Field of Mars for construction work.

Polina Kostyleva would like to have been at the demonstration. After all, the delicate-looking 40-year-old economist is its organizer, though the term organizer is a bit too innocuous in Putin's Russia, where the opposition must again work as conspiratorially as the revolutionaries did in the Czarist era, constantly wary of the police and the intelligence services. Kostyleva spent the night away from home so that the police wouldn't pick her up in the middle of the night, and she only communicates via the encrypted Telegram messaging app. That afternoon, she could be found sitting in the campaign office while helpers hectically try to keep 500 red balloons with the Navalny logo from the police. It's enough to make a person wonder: Is this a children's birthday party or a revolution?

'One Needs to Take Responsibility'

But the balloons and the red Navalny signs are important to Kostyleva. She wants political discussions instead of revolution and public fights for power instead of secret ones - that's what the balloons represent. "For me, the lesson of 1917 is that one needs to take responsibility," she says. "The Czar back then didn't want it, and the parties didn't want it either. And then the Bolsheviks saw the power lying on the floor and they simply took it." If decent people don't grab power, it will fall into the hands of the indecent. Such is the worldview of many protesters: Navalny or Putin. Decent or indecent. Us or them.

Kostyleva has hardly walked out into the street to drive to the protest before she is stopped by the police. She will spend the next six hours at a police station, which is where the balloons end up too. At least the cardboard signs make it onto the Field of Mars, with the leaderless crowd waving them in front of the cameras before moving towards Nevsky Prospect.

The mood becomes more raucous. On narrow sidewalks, even 2,000-3,000 people look like a lot - and the chants, a "happy birthday!" for Putin or "You can't arrest everyone" - echo loudly off the surrounding buildings.

The police arrest dozens of protestors and the march fizzles out, leaving a handful of people demonstrating outside the Galeria shopping mall with a few of the more passionate protesters wanting to spend the night in front of the Winter Palace. Ultimately, the march has descended into youths blowing off steam. And Kostyleva, who is at the end of her tether after thisi day, is no longer sure if the whole thing was a success or a failure.

Uniting the Three 'Floes' of Russian History

Those few months between the February Revolution and the Bolsheviks' October putsch had been Russia's only experience of democracy until Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new freedoms in the 1980s. It was a few short months of intoxicating freedom, disappointments and anarchy.

A 300-year-old dynasty was replaced by a government, which shyly called itself "provisional." Alongside there was a second center of power, the "Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies," a revolutionary self-governing organ. The army would not carry out any orders without its approval.

At first the Provisional Government was dominated by the bourgeoisie, while the Soviet was left-wing. It was as if the revolution was following two tracks: The government represented the revolution of the privileged, while the Soviet represented the revolution of the masses. Those six months of democracy lasted for exactly as long as the Soviet backed the government. As soon as the Soviet abandoned it, it was over.

Threats from the Left and the Right

It's hard to say if that first Russian democracy ever really had a chance. No one had any experience in exercising or sharing power while at the same time, a war had to be won and a multi-ethnic empire held together. Yet many trusted that the socialist prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, could tame a revolution that had spun out of control, much as Napoleon had in France.

The fact that the Provisional Government even lasted half a year was no mean achievement. It faced threats from the right and left, internally and externally. And then in mid-April, its greatest enemy arrived in Petrograd: Vladimir Lenin, the emigrant from Zurich. He was the leader of the Bolsheviks, the more radical of the two factions after the Russian Marxists split. It was a tightly controlled party of professional revolutionaries, who called for an immediate withdrawal from the "imperialist" war. This was what made Lenin's train journey across Germany possible in the first place. The German Army's general staff was more than happy to help Russian opponents of war.

Having just arrived at Petrograd's Finland Station, Lenin set to work agitating. It was as if he hadn't a moment to lose after all those years in exile.

The announcement he made the next day shocked even his closest comrades. The revolution, Lenin said, was only now beginning. It was not a question of defending the revolutionary government and building a parliamentary democracy. The war must end - right away. Land must be distributed to the peasants - right away. Government, parliament, war, none of that mattered. It was up to the German proletariat to bury German imperialism!

"I felt as though I had been hit over the head," one of those who heard him speak recalled.

Looking back, this is perhaps what was most fascinating about this man and this revolution: how a new kind of politics was born that refused to bend to supposed practical constraints. And that also refused to bend to theory, as did other Marxists. The time was not ripe for the next revolution, Lenin's left-wing opponents warned. It was God's (or Marx's) will that bourgeois democracy came prior to Socialism, please don't rush things! Lenin was a man of action. He always bent his theories to ensure that what resulted was what he wanted: the grab for power.

He failed at first. After a half-hearted attempt to seize power in July, the Bolsheviks were banned and Lenin went into hiding and then fled to Finland. It was followed by an attempted right-wing coup, which brought the Bolsheviks back into the game. And the longer the much-promised victory in the war failed to materialize, the more popular they became.

On Nov. 7, 1917, the Provisional Government's luck ran out and it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. That day came to be celebrated by the Soviet Union as the dawn of a new era. Up until the Soviet Union's demise, the anniversary was marked by marches ending up with the party leadership gathering at Lenin's Tomb.

Generations of Soviet citizens grew up on films of the historic storming of the Winter Palace: Weapons clashing, canons thundering, furious masses forcing their way into the palace, where Kerensky's Provisional Government has barricaded itself. The proletariat wins its most important battle.

'Ten Days That Shook the World'

The truth was rather less dramatic. During the night, the Bolsheviks had already occupied the telegraph office and a few crossroads. But Petrograd was used to periodic movements of tanks, barricades and strident slogans. That afternoon the trams crossing Nevsky Prospect were still full of passengers and the Winter Palace was only carelessly guarded. "We showed our American passports, saying: 'Official business!' and shouldered through," wrote the reporter John Reed, who visited the palace just hours before it was stormed.

The American writer wrote the most famous account of those days in October: "Ten Days That Shook the World." It is still an exciting read, written by a party comrade of Lenin's who still managed to maintain a reporter's critical view and curiosity.

Liveried staff still took coats at the cloakroom, while in the salons there were dirty mattresses, empty wine bottles with expensive labels and a handful of unhappy officer cadets with good manners who welcomed any distractions.

Late at night, Reed and his colleagues were back on Palace Square to see the storming. The cadets had surrendered and there were no more shots fired. Reed and other curious onlookers stumbled over weapons that had been tossed aside, and walked through open doors. He wandered through the salons, witnessing the plundering and took a souvenir. It was a minister's last scribble: "The Provisional Government calls on all classes to support the Provisional Government," he had written before crossing it out again.

"It wasn't at all necessary to storm the Winter Palace," says Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum, which is housed in the former palace. "All the doors were open, you could have just walked in and arrested the ministers. But it had to all look like the French Revolution." He is speaking in his enormous, dimly lit office. Faded Goeblins hang on the walls, there are stacks of paper everywhere and the window has a view of the Neva.

Piotrovsky's view of the revolution is that of a museum man. In revolutions, things tend to get broken. That's why he is against both of the two upheavals of 1917, the democratic one in February and the Bolshevik one in October. First came Kerensky, who had the double-headed eagles knocked down and moved into the Czar's palace, which was a bad idea from a PR point of view. Piotrovosky sees the Provisional Government as generally inept. "Our sole government run by intellectuals," he says, "and a good example of why one should not allow intellectuals to hold power."

Then along came the Bolsheviks in October and decided to restage a scene from the French Revolution, since that was their greatest ideal. So, they stormed the palace as if it were the Tuileries in 1792 and then they let Sergei Eisenstein recreate the whole thing again for the cinema. However, unlike the French king, the Czar was far away by the autumn of 1917. He was in Siberian exile with his wife and children. "Another lovely day, light frost," he wrote in his diary on November 7. "Sawed wood during the day." Back in Petrograd they could only slice through his portraits with bayonets.

The Bolshevik 'Red Terror'

What happened on November 7 was a bloodless coup, not a revolution. But the battle that was avoided then was made up for in the three years that followed. In March 1918, the Bolsheviks signed an armistice treaty with the Central Powers, allowing them to dedicate themselves to tackling their foes. It was the start of the civil war between the "Reds" (Bolsheviks) and the "Whites" (their enemies), a war that was brutally fought on both sides. It ended in 1920 with the evacuation of the last of the White troops from Crimea and an orgy of violence on the peninsula. The Bolsheviks openly declared "Red Terror" as their method of dealing with their enemies.

They succeeded in holding together the multi-ethnic empire. But they failed in exporting the revolution: The global revolution that they hoped for, the uprising of the European proletariat, did not occur. That, though, had been an important part of Lenin's plan. Was it even possible to establish socialism in a single country surrounded by capitalist neighbors? Lenin's successor Josef Stalin was convinced that it was, and at the end of the 1920s he unleashed the next revolution. This consisted of eliminating independent farmers and creating new industrial cities out of thin air. The Bolsheviks were a party of the urban proletariat and had little interest in the rural population. Using collectivization and Five Year Plans, they took the land away from the farmers, land that had been handed over to them just a decade earlier.

Those who chose to ignore the millions of victims saw this new revolution as a triumph of socialism over capitalism, which at the time was embroiled in a global economic crisis. And left-wingers across the world were prepared to look the other way. Moscow became the center of power, the place of pilgrimage, their Jerusalem, their Rome. The October Revolution had created a model that could be replicated. After Stalin's victory over Hitler it spread rapidly. China and Eastern Europe became socialist, and many of those who fought against Europe's colonial powers invoked communism. The Cold War divided the planet into spheres of influence. No one could avoid defining themselves in relation to Lenin's revolution.

Who would have thought that the once-powerful Soviet Union would implode so suddenly in 1991, just as the 300-year Romanov dynasty had before it? That, too, was a kind of revolution, and Vladimir Putin took part in it. The intelligence officer who had so recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution with his Stasi colleagues began his political career in the summer of 1991 in Leningrad's municiple administration.

It was a wild time, during which Russia wanted to shake off the legacy of the October Revolution all at once. Leningrad's citizens renamed their city Saint Petersburg, a bold move that is hard to imagine today. Russia's new flag was the white, blue and red tricolor of the Czarist era. The Communist Party was banned.

'Damaging Fairy Tale'

The most prominent opponents of communism were Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and Anatoly Sobchak, Leningrad's new mayor. Putin became his aide and in the same Smolny building that was once home to the Petrograd Soviet, he was now tasked with attracting Western capitalists to the city.

There is a TV interview with Putin in his office from that period, during which he is asked where his Lenin statue has disappeared to. "The more mature I become as a man," Putin answers, "the clearer it was to me that Marxist-Leninism was a lovely but damaging fairy tale."

Yet almost as soon as he became president in 2000, he reintroduced the old Soviet national anthem that Yeltsin had discarded. Putin hadn't changed his opinion of the Soviet Union: He didn't see the anthem as an ideological symbol but as a symbol of the Russian state. He also supported allowing the remains of the White Army general, Anton Denikin, and the monarchist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, to be repatriated to Moscow.

Putin is what Russians call a "gosudarstvennik," an adherent of the strong state. Whether that state is red or white is of secondary importance. When it comes to dealing with the legacy of the October Revolution, Putin has opted for the best of both worlds.

That would explain why, in December 2016, he warned against "strife" and "bitterness" during the coming centenary year. He also delegated the organization of the centenary to the Russian Historical Society. The message was clear: We at the Kremlin are keeping out of it.

It didn't amount to much in the end. The overthrow of the Romanovs was not officially commemorated in February, and the culture minister's plans to top off the year with the opening of a "Memorial to Reconciliation" in Crimea never really got off the ground. There is, though, a model of the memorial, in the typical triumphant realist style of the Putin era: classical columns, with the victorious mother representing the homeland standing above, while Red and White Army soldiers reconcile below. However, protests broke out in Sevastopol, the Crimean city where the memorial was supposed to be erected. "Why should we deny the victory of the Red Army?" the communists wanted to know. "How can there be reconciliation when Lenin's Terror is still not atoned for?" countered the monarchists.

A Centenary Marked by Conflicts

Instead of celebrations, the centenary year has largely been marked by bitter arguments. One of the most bizarre has been over the film "Matilda," in which German actor Lars Eidinger plays Nicholas II as a sympathetic but weak character, who falls in love with the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya as a young crown prince.

Before the film had even been released it was condemned as ungodly and sinful. The Duma deputy Natalia Poklonskaya called for the film to be banned because it was deemed an attack on the former Czar, a canonized saint of the Orthodox church. In September, a religious fanatic crashed a delivery truck filled with gas canisters into a cinema to try to stop its distribution. TV channels have refused to run ads for the film.

"Hysteria," is how the Hermitage director Piotrovsky describes the "Matilda" controversy. He says he doesn't understand all the fuss about the centenary year, even though he himself is on the organization committee. He would have preferred that his museum did nothing to mark the anniversary but his English colleagues said to him: "Are you mad? The entire world is doing something." So he is planning exhibitions about the Winter Palace in 1917 and about the military hospital that was housed in the palace during the war.

The official motto for the centenary is "reconciliation," something Putin has also emphasized. Piotrovsky finds the term counter-productive, preordained to cause conflict. "What is reconciliation supposed to mean? It makes everyone think they are the winners."

But the emphasis on reconciliation shows how divided Russian society is. The nationalist-communist writer, Alexander Prokhanov, has described former Soviet society as having broken up into three "ice floes." There are the liberals who triumphed in 1991, the Reds, who lost in 1991, and the White monarchists, who lost back in 1917. Since the end of the Soviet Union these three ice floes have floated around each other. In Prokhanov's view, President Putin, who shares some sympathies with all three groups, is trying to prevent them crashing into one another.

The liberals are the only ones who have not forgotten that doomed summer of freedom in 1917. The liberal journalist Mikhail Zygar has used snippets of quotes - from diaries, newspaper reports, letters and memoirs - to reconstruct 1917 on the internet. Every day, quotes from contemporaries of the revolution are published online, as if they were posting their impressions on Facebook.

Then there are the monarchists, who oppose both the Reds and the liberals in equal measure. They include the church leadership. "In my view, Lenin was someone who served the devil," says Metropolitan Hilarion, the spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Tikhon, the bishop and bestselling author who is, it is said, Putin's confessor, is in the process of opening history parks in many big cities designed to tell the sacred history of the Romanov dynasty. He explains the overthrow of the monarchy as the result of a conspiracy between the West and Russia's eternally immature intellectual class. In this way, the Russian Revolution can be explained away as a Western plot, one that is also to blame for the Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine.

The third ice floe, the leftists, is probably the largest. According to opinion polls, most Russians think that Lenin played a largely positive role in history. But the left-wing has no convincing voice. The Communist Party, the unofficial administrator of Lenin's legacy, has been reduced to a harmless club of old men.

That, at least, has been the painful experience of Sergei Udaltsov, the young leader of the radical left. He first voted in the 1996 presidential election. Then the man he voted for, the communist Gennady Zyuganov, betrayed his own voters by making a deal with the Kremlin that paved the way for Boris Yeltsin's victory. Ever since, the Communist Party has been in a waking coma and no longer poses any danger to the Kremlin.

Soviet Nostalgia

Deeply disillusioned, Udaltsov formed his own left-wing organizations with revolutionary names. His "Left Front" took part in the protests of 2011 and 2012, but after he was released from jail in August, he saw that his right-wing rival, Navalny, had monopolized the street protests. The left is weak, even following the years of economic crisis, and Udaltsov is now attempting to unite it. He plans to organize a large march with the Communist Party to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution.

The problem for the left is that Putin has taken away its most important symbols of the past. He has given the impression that he wants to revive Lenin's Soviet Union. "He has been very clever at playing upon society's left-wing mood and Soviet nostalgia," says Udaltsov. "Many see him as a Soviet Chekist who is standing up to the terrible pro-Western liberals. It works."

And then there's the war in Ukraine, which puts everything in a different light. Ever since the Crimean annexation, Russia suddenly looks as if it has slipped back into the old ways of the Soviet Union. Moscow has decided to risk a fundamental conflict with the West. Isolated and hit with sanctions, it nevertheless continues to up the ante. For the first time since the Afghanistan War of the 1980s, Moscow is waging war beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, in Syria. It is building bases in the Arctic Circle and investing millions in Venezuela - and is trying to act as a counterweight not only to Washington, but to liberal democracy as a whole. Putin has turned into the role model that authoritarian rulers like to copy. Just like the Soviet Union before it, Moscow feels history is on its side.

It's just the ideology that is different. Today patriarchal values are touted along with a vague "Russian civilization" in which there is no place for homosexuals or blasphemers, or for the exaggerated tolerance of the West. The Kremlin is suddenly sanctimonious. After the annexation, Putin claimed that for Russians, Crimea was "as holy as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is for the Jews and Muslims," because Prince Vladimir the Great, who Christianized Russia, was baptized there. In truth, Russians associate Crimea with beaches and childhood memories. They don't need a Temple Mount.

Putin does not mourn the Soviet Union in which he grew up. He mourns an imperial greatness that is timeless. "His empire," writes journalist Mikhail Zygar, "is an imagined, virtual empire, encompassing the traits of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox Christianity, sovereignty, populism, Josef Stalin, the victory in World War II, Yuri Gagarin's journey into outer space and the palaces of Catherine the Great."

He has no interest in either the social achievements or the political crimes of the Soviet Union. He's only interested in the state as an abstract value, without the people who it serves. The empire that Putin mourns can only exist in one's imagination, and only when one suppresses the actual memories of that epochal break of 1917.

But Putin is by no means the only one who mourns the empire. And there are many who share his dream of uniting the two halves of Russian history that broke apart in 1917. One of them is Nikolai Avraamov. The friendly man with sad eyes is a third-generation naval officer who is the director of the Aurora, perhaps the Soviet Union's most famous ship. The warship with a red star on its bow is a symbol of the October Revolution and is anchored on the Neva, across from the Winter Palace. On November 7, a blank fired from the Aurora signaled the start of the assault on the palace. Today it is a museum.

A Fissure Runs through Russian Society

The year 1917 marked a sharp break in Avraamov's family history. His grandfather, a noble Czarist naval officer, decided to fight with the Bolsheviks. During Soviet times, Avraamov assumed this had been the right thing to do. On the other hand, revolution is mutiny, something no naval officer can approve of. It's a contradiction that is difficult to resolve.

His grandfather was loyal to the new navy, even after being imprisoned by Stalin. Then Avraamov's own father became a rear admiral and, at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Avraamov himself was serving as a naval officer in Baltiysk, a military port near Kaliningrad. He is happy that he missed most of the ugly new revolution. The communists want to celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution on his ship, but he has no interest in celebrating himself. "Perhaps I'm even a bit monarchist," he says, hesitantly.

For now, there remains a fissure that runs through his own history and that of his country. But perhaps it will naturally disappear. Recently, Avraamov had some sixth graders on board the ship. The fatherland is not the same thing as the state, he told the children. He's not sure if they understood. Young people lack sufficient patriotism, he thinks, and the know little about the past.

The schoolchildren couldn't tell him who Lenin was. When he asked them if they knew the name of Russia's last Czar they replied: "Putin."

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