Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution – BBC 2


There were, of course, two revolutions in Russia (“the Russian Empire” would be the correct term, but “Russia” is the one generally used) in 1917 – the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The one referred to in the title of this programme was the October Revolution, the “ten days that shook the world”.  It was one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and yet very little’s being said about its forthcoming centenary.  As far as I know, there are no official commemorations planned in Russia itself.  Contrast that with the song and dance that was made for the bicentenary of the Storming of the Bastille in 1989.  We even had a “French day” at school: we got croissants at break and were supposed to speak French all day!  But the French Revolution, despite the Terror, the guillotinings, the wars, is associated with people yelling “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and the replacement of the ancien regime with something far more egalitarian.  The Russian Revolution, thanks to the events of October 1917 (October by the Julian calendar, November by the Gregorian calendar), just replaced one repressive regime with another.  Civil war, famine, Five Year Plans and the damage they did in Ukraine, the Cheka/the KGB, the horrors of Stalinism …

Nevertheless, Lenin has traditionally been presented in Russia as a hero, as Chairman Mao is in China. The mausoleum in Red Square’s still there.  And the focus of this programme was largely on the three figures of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.  Ulyanov, Bronstein and Dzhugashvili – it’s quite interesting how none of them were known by their real names, names which the programme didn’t even mention!  Various historians were interviewed.  And the focus was all on the period between the February and October Revolutions, so the pre-February regime barely even got mentioned, which was rather bizarre.  How can you have the Russian Revolution without the Romanovs?!

The big snag with the Russian Revolution is that you can’t really sympathise with either the Romanovs or the Bolsheviks. The Romanovs have been romanticised over the years.  And, hey, they’ve even been canonised.  On a personal level, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them, especially in relation to Alexei’s haemophilia.  And, come on, they didn’t deserve to be massacred in such a horrific way.  Even if you think Nicholas did, what about the rest of the family?  But, on a political level, Nicholas II was an utter disaster as a Tsar, and Alexandra made things worse.  They had the perfect opportunity, with the Romanov tercentenary in 1913, to win some kind of emotional support, at least with those outside the intelligentsia, but they even pretty much screwed that up.  And the mess that Nicholas made of things during the Great War was the final straw.

It’s interesting to look at how they were viewed outside Russia, as well. George V, as we now know, didn’t want them coming to Britain because he knew how unpopular they were here.  Same thing in France.  Many people in the US opposed America entering the war on the side of the Triple Entente because they didn’t want to be allied with Russia.  Bloody Sunday (1905).  Pogroms.  Autocracy and repression.  You can’t sympathise with that.  And you can’t sympathise with the Bolsheviks either.  So what would you commemorate?

Could it have been different? The programme subscribed to the often-held idea that it would have been impossible to introduce a democratic system to Russia in 1917.  Too big.  Too complex.  No experience of democracy.  No culture of democracy.  Maybe if something had been done gradually?  Catherine the Great introduced some reforms – then got scared off by the Pugachev uprising.  Alexander II introduced major reforms – then got scared off by the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And then got assassinated, which scared his son Alexander III off good and proper.  1905?  Well, some reforms were made.  It was a start.  But surely the biggest chance was the February Revolution.  Kerensky, as the programme pointed out, was the real poster boy of 1917.  It’s very difficult to do anything in the middle of that sort of chaos, with war, and shortages, and in such a huge and complex country – but you have to think that he should have done better.  He didn’t manage the war much better than Nicholas had done, and he failed to get the support of those on the right wing as well as the left.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, of course, were all off the scene at the time of the February Revolution. Incidentally, I could have screamed when the narrator referred to Stalin as Lenin’s lieutenant, pronounced “loo-tenant”.  Ugh!!  It’s “LEF-tenant”.  Lef lef lef!  American pronunciation on the BBC.  I don’t know what the world’s coming too!  Anyway.  So we had this rather sitcom-type image of Lenin in Switzerland, Trotsky in America and Stalin in Siberia, all – a bit like Hugh Grant at the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he realises that he’s running horrendously late for his best friend’s wedding and rushes around trying to get ready, saying “fuck” every thirty seconds – panicking because the revolution’d started without them.  There was also a lot of waffle about how Trotsky and Stalin were both very glamorous and good-looking.  Er, can’t see it myself, but each to their own!  And I don’t know why they went on about Stalin so much anyway, TBH.  He really wasn’t that important in 1917.  His time came later.

I was just about to say that Lenin travelled from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station, but that’s the Pet Shop Boys, not the Russian Revolution. Oh dear.  He travelled from Zurich to the Finland Station.  The official picture is that he was greeted as the hero of the people, like Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990, but, as the programme said, most people didn’t actually have a clue who he was.  But, as Simon Sebag-Montefiore in particular made clear, the October Revolution was largely about Lenin.  Trotsky was the better speaker, and probably better-known, but Lenin was the one who took control of things, and Lenin was the one who believed that a communist revolution in Russia was actually possible.  It was never supposed to happen like that.  Marxist revolutions were supposed to happen in … well, Manchester and London, probably, going off what Marx and Engels said.  Urban, industrial areas.  And yet Lenin made it happen in Russia.

So, as the different historians were asked, was it a popular uprising or was it a coup d’etat. As one of them pointed out, you can’t really have a genuine mass uprising, because you couldn’t possibly organise it without the authorities finding out.  And it was really only about Petrograd, to start off with.  There’s the famous Eisenstein film which shows the dramatic storming of the Winter Palace – except that, in reality, it really wasn’t very dramatic at all.  Someone’d left the door open, so all they had to do was walk in!  Signalled by the shot fired from the Aurora – I remember being quite excited when I saw the Aurora in St Petersburg, just because that shot is so famous.   And a very good point was made that a lot of people were so sick of the problems being caused by the Great War that they were past caring who was in power.

It was done in quite an interesting way, with different people putting forward different points of view, but the focus was only on the period between the two revolutions, and you can’t really understand what went on without knowing about what was happening before the February Revolution, back to the 19th century or at least back to 1905, and about the civil war that followed.  And then they jumped right forward to the present day, with Simon Sebag-Montefiore saying that he thinks that, out of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Vladimir Putin most admires Stalin.  And that Lenin, the traditional hero of the Revolution, has been shoved out of the picture, but that maybe his time’s coming again.

I’m not convinced. I think Putin’s more of an “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” man – the absolutism of Nicholas I, not of Stalin. I don’t think the events of 1917 are his kind of thing at all.  But Nicholas I managed to fall out with both the West and Turkey, and we really don’t need that to happen again.  We should all be working together, but that’s not the way things are going at the moment.  As the centenary of the October Revolution approaches, maybe everyone should look on the knock-on effects which it was to have for the rest of the twentieth century, and remember how important it is for the West and Russia to work together, not against each other.

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