As we approach the centennial anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, should we expect fireworks and parades in the country where this global event originated? No serious historian can claim to predict the future, but the history of Russia clearly shows that there is more than one way to commemorate a revolution.
In Soviet Russia, the Bolsheviks, as the Revolution’s ultimate beneficiaries, determined what should and what should not be commemorated. Thus, the fall of the autocracy in February 1917 did not merit much attention, while the Bolshevik seizure of power in October was hailed as a cornerstone of the Soviet regime and a first step toward a bright global communist future.
The Revolution’s first anniversaries were marked with great pomp at a time when its fate was still uncertain but the hopes that it would take the world by storm were surging. Russia’s former capital, Petrograd, was adorned with avant-garde décor and its streets filled with rallies and street-theater performances. In 1920, the storming of the Winter Palace was recreated in an on-site enactment involving 6,000 performers. In Moscow, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, “living heroes,” orchestrated rallies, unveiled monuments to fallen revolutionary heroes, and introduced new revolutionary rituals and symbols.
Red Square parades before the walls of the ancient Kremlin became the focal point of festivities—a symbolic fusion of Soviet Russia’s growing state power and revolutionary aspirations. After dark, the symbolic burning of effigies asserted that the Revolution had prevailed and would prevail over domestic and foreign enemies alike, from former generals and landlords to Western leaders like Lloyd George and Clemenceau.
Nine years later, in 1927, the Bolsheviks had far more resources and more reasons for celebration. Soviet Russia had survived and was about to embark on a major industrialization drive. The leadership, therefore, boldly invited nearly a thousand political activists from forty countries to commemorative festivities at the Founding Congress of the International Association of Friends of the Soviet Union. Some met with Stalin and other Soviet leaders, and many later recalled their journeys as an uplifting experience. Sergei Eisenstein marked the tenth anniversary of the October revolution with another propaganda masterpiece—the silent film October. Although some of the actual participants of the October events were featured in the film, its primary goal was not to factually recreate history, but to create a grand poetic myth of the death of the old world and the birth of a new one.
Perhaps the most extraordinary celebration of the Revolution’s anniversary took place in November 1941 as the Nazi forces approached Moscow. Even as preparations were made for the government’s evacuation, Stalin remained in Moscow and reviewed thousands of troops parading on Red Square. Many were then immediately dispatched to the battlefield. This was Soviet Russia’s darkest hour, yet the October Revolution parade helped convey a message of hope for the inevitable historical triumph of Communism, the Soviet people, and the Soviet state.
By the 1970s, as the memory of the Russian Revolution was beginning to fade, anniversary celebrations had become formulaic and ritualized. Clichés like “Great October” and “Guiding Star of Humanity” were ceremoniously pronounced from podiums across the country. They seldom inspired much enthusiasm, even in the party speakers themselves. After all, the Revolution’s promise of the universal brotherhood of communism seemed at odds with reality in both the USSR and abroad.
Soviet newscast of the 1977 October revolution celebration.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s brief attempt to revive the legacy of the Russian Revolution through radical reform fell flat. The 1989 celebrations were disrupted by protesters in Moscow and the increasingly restive Soviet republics.
On November 7, 1991, for the first time in many decades, there was no official parade and no government speakers on Red Square. In the 1990s, November 7 remained an official holiday, officially designated in 1996 as the Day of National Reconciliation, but only the Communist Party of Russia continued to commemorate the Revolution’s anniversaries by holding rallies and condemning what they viewed as the capitalist excesses and economic miseries of post-Soviet Russia.
As we approach the centennial, what sort of commemoration of the Revolution can we expect from the government of Vladimir Putin? In 2005, it abolished November 7 as an official holiday. Yet Putin’s views of the Russian Revolution are hard to pin down. On the one hand, he has expressed admiration for the glory of the Soviet state, the main product of the Russian Revolution. On the other hand, the Soviet state failed and ultimately disintegrated—a major consideration for Putin who despises weakness. In the past few years, Putin has increasingly expressed sympathy for the Russian Empire, which to him appears to be a more organic and sustained embodiment of the Russian national interest. Yet, in 1917 the Russian Empire failed, too. In other words, the Russian Revolution at one hundred represents an uncomfortable reminder of historical failures of two states—the Russian Empire it destroyed and the Soviet Union it produced. Furthermore, the Russian revolutionary ideal of social equality is just as inconvenient for a country with a huge gap between rich and poor. For the upcoming centennial, we can probably expect declarations about the need for national unity and perhaps another stern warning about the dangers of dangerous “external influences.” Yet major state-supported festivities are unlikely. One hundred years later, the Russian Revolution is still “too hot to handle.”
Jonathan Daly is Professor of History, University of Illinois at Chicago. Leonid Trofimov is Senior Lecturer in History, Bentley University. Their latest book with Hackett Publishing Company, The Russian Revolution and Its Global Impact, was published in September 2017.