New East Digital Archive

Red and white blues: how the Second World War replaced 1917 as modern Russia’s national myth

25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, what type of world do Russians want to build? Here, Andrei Arkhangelsky argues that 1917 was a historic mistake that Russia has never acknowledged, instead turning to military victory to shore up nationalist ideology

22 June 2017

The founding myths of many countries are tied up with bourgeois revolution. At the heart of modern France, England or America lie values enshrined by revolutions 200 to 350 years old – limitations on state power, human rights, religious and civil freedoms. In February 1917, Russia also saw a bourgeois revolution; eight months later, in October, another, socialist one took place. This in its turn ended in grandiose failure, 70 years later, in 1991. This is the essential distinction of the Russian revolution: it failed.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 put pay to global utopia, to the idea of building a just kingdom, heaven on earth. Today, the simplest and most honest response to the question of how to relate to 1917 should be this: for Russia the October revolution was an historic mistake.

This is precisely the response, however, that the current Russian regime fears most of all. Today’s ideology proclaims that Russia has never been mistaken, never veered from its millennial path, has always triumphed. As far as those in power are concerned, acknowledging a century-old mistake would mean betraying weakness and traumatising the Russian people.

This is why the authorities are carrying themselves rather strangely in this centenary year of the revolution. “Bloody upheaval or winds of change? Nightmare or the fresh breath of history? You decide!” – this is the current refrain on state radio and television. “You decide”: a line drawn from the phrasebooks of ad men, as if the choice on offer was that between one hand cream and another; as if responses to the revolution were a matter of taste. Today’s authorities turn to the instruments of democracy only when they do not want to take on responsibility themselves.

In the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, people have still not decided what kind of country they want to build

Any revolution means violence, but in 1917 violence was made into a matter of principle. How Russians relate to October today governs how they relate to state violence, and, more broadly, to ethical self-identification. Refusal to admit to violence means only one thing: in the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, people have still not decided what kind of country they want to build.

But there are other reasons for this hushing-up. The Russian authorities took the various “colour revolutions” of the 2000s, and in particular Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan movement, to be a direct threat. They would like to erase the very word “revolution” from the minds of the people. What’s more, in fighting back the memory of 1917, those in power are in fact assaulting the memory of 1991. After all, 1991 also saw a revolution: another bourgeois one, the antipode of 1917, reversing its poles. Today’s ideologists understand the collapse of the USSR as a “great geopolitical catastrophe”. But they cannot acknowledge themselves as the inheritors of the Red project, given the degree to which the country’s elites have enjoyed the economic advantages of capitalism. Their populism has led them into an ideological cul-de-sac.

In a January edition of his Russia Today TV show News of the Week, Dmitry Kiselev, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, described October as “the continuation of a worldwide search for a better, fairer way of life.” But the reality of revolutionary commemoration in Russia is far from idyllic. To this day the population of Russia is divided into those who spent time in prison, and those who put them there (in Siberia and the Urals, where the gulag was largely located, this conflict is still a live one). The rivalry between “reds” and “whites” never really ended: in Russia it is simply not polite to speak about it out loud, since unlike in post-war Germany there is no culture of talking through trauma. The trauma has been buried in the subconscious.

Putinism did try and come up with an answer, about ten years ago, when the authorities floated the concept of a “reconciliation of the reds and the whites”. This was the idea that ultimately all the sacrifices of all the revolutions were necessary “for the sake of mighty Russia”. This also failed. How exactly did the deaths of millions from hunger and denunciation serve mighty Russia? The regime understood “reconciliation” as an opportunity to combine the best from every era – but how is it possible to combine the best of two antagonistic projects, the tsarist and the Soviet? Kiselev had a suggestion: “we’ll be ready to stage a parade in November, where red and white will march side by side with Lenin and the kindly Tsar-father.” This kind of “reconciliation” is a mockery. In this instance to reconcile means to forget.

While 1917 cannot be completely wiped from the record, it can be replaced with another myth

Propaganda is capable not only of directing people’s emotions, but of manipulating their past, teaching them to exclude historical events from collective memory. With the collaboration of the media, Kremlin bureaucrats have managed to erase perestroika and the events of 1991. Today’s propaganda ignores large-scale historical events for the simple reason that they are inconvenient. And while 1917 cannot be completely wiped from the record, it can be replaced with another myth.

In Soviet ideology 1917 functioned as the Creation myth. Now the Kremlin believes that this role should be taken up by the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). Victory Day (9 May) has long been the most important secular holiday in Russia, but now commemoration of the war is being turned into a form of catechism. In endless films and TV shows about the war the Soviet soldier crosses himself before battle and hides a crucifix beneath the red star on his overcoat. Propaganda lends this marriage of cross and star an air of truthfulness. During a Great Patriotic War Memorial March on 9 May 2016, Natalia Poklonskaya, then a prosecutor and now a Duma deputy, carried an icon depicting tsar Nicholas II – who had been shot by the Bolsheviks long before the war began. We might classify contemporary Russian consciousness as multiple, freely commingling the details of different epochs in a beautiful construction with no heed to its authenticity.

Can any war, even the most just, serve as a model for life in peacetime?

In this way the war itself acts as the “reconciliation” of the tsarist and the Soviet – an idea that was first put forward by Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago. But this is a negative myth. It does not, as a philosopher might have it, create value, but simply indicates the means by which victory was won. Can any war, even the most just, serve as a model for life in peacetime? War is violence. In war people seek to destroy their enemies in order to survive until the following morning; peace, on the other hand, requires long-term planning and confidence in others.

Russia has not yet arrived at an understanding of peaceful life: it can only unite against someone, and not for something. A war that genuinely represented triumph over the greatest evil in human history is now used to sell Russians the idea of conflict as an effective solution to global problems, rather than drawing their attention to the dangers of totalitarianism.

The Putin administration also needs the war myth because it is the only universal event that ties it to contemporary Europe and America. In the war we were all allies and victory over Nazism was our common goal. Hence the use of the war as a founding myth can also be understood as a search for the kind of universal value that might consolidate Russian society from within, while legitimating it in the wider world.

“Only war is good,” the Russian poet Lev Losev once wrote. Alas. It seems that Russia has no other means of uniting with the rest of the world. One hundred years after the revolution of 1917, Russia has still not decided what its ideals are. And in search of the future it returns endlessly to the past.

Text: Andrei Arkhangelsky

The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution runs until December 2017 at the Calvert 22 Foundation