The October that never ends

Books that deserve the epitaph “masterpiece” come few and far between. “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924” by a British historian Orlando Figes deserves it without a doubt.

I’m not a very hit reader; I rarely read books when they first come out. “A People’s Tragedy” was published exactly twenty years ago, but it took me until now to finally get to this widely recognised classic of the history of communism and the modern history more broadly. In a typical Chrenkoff fashion, too, I got to Figes in reverse chronological order, starting with “Whisperers”, his chilling but fascinating history of private life under Stalin, and following with “Natasha’s Dance”, the panoramic history of Russian culture. “Tragedy” weighs more than these two combined.

Figes ends his book with the sentence “The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest”. This is perhaps why the Bolshevik take-over continues to fascinate. It has been such a consequential event in the history of the 20th century (my personal interest, of course, comes from having been born in a country that for decades during that century has lived in the shadow of the revolution), and even now, more than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet empire, the “October” reverberates. Nineteen-seventeen matters because of what it did to Russia; it matters still today because Russia still matters.

As Figes wrote in his conclusion, twenty years ago, at the time of the Kerensky-like exuberant rule of Boris Yeltsin, “Russia’s prospects as a democratic nation depend to a large extent on how far the Russians are able to confront their own recent history; and this must entail the recognition that, however much the people were oppressed by it, the Soviet system grow up in Russian soil. It was the weakness of Russia’s democratic culture that enabled Bolshevism to take root. This was the legacy of Russian history, of centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule, that had kept the common people powerless and passive. ‘And the people remained silent’ was a Russian proverb – and it describes much of the Russian history. To be sure, this was a people’s tragedy but it was a tragedy which they helped to make. The Russian people were trapped by the tyranny of their own history.”

If one were to revisit the problem two decades on, the vista seems rather bleak – there was no real confrontation with the past, no reckoning, and at least in part as a consequence, genuine democracy has once again failed to take root. Russia strikes me, tragically (for her, her neighbours, and the world), as a country cursed with no happy endings. There are a plenty of uplifting moments, but liberalism in Russian history is like a beautiful but doomed flower that occasionally breaks through ice of Siberian tundra.

This is why it’s 2016 and Vladimir Putin is in charge, Russia is fighting an undeclared war against Ukraine, threatening Poland and the Baltic states, bombing Syria and trying to influence elections worldwide.

Twelve years ago, in Chrenkoff’s first blogging incarnation, I have written about what I christened PTSD: Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder – the pervasive social and moral legacy of life under non-democratic, illiberal regime:

For the Westerners, the PTSD is a difficult condition to understand. We take so many things for granted – from comedians being able to joke about the President, to the assumption that the next government employee we encounter will not be expecting a bribe from us – that we are quite ill equipped to fully comprehend what life under a totalitarian system must really be like, much less what mental and spiritual legacy its victims have to labour under long after the statues of the Leader are pulled down.

We all “know” about the secret police knocking on the door at night, adulatory TV programs exalting the president-for-life, the pervasive corruption, queues and shortages, or the silly propaganda. Nothing, however, in our generally safe and comfortable existence would help us understand just how pervasively difficult, destructive and dispiriting the experience of life under a totalitarian regime is. For most of us, life in Saddam’s Iraq would have been no more real than the Middle Earth of the colonial New England. And failing to understand the condition itself, by extension we find it equally difficult to understand how the mental attitudes and habits of the past cannot be shaken off overnight but instead linger on, making the reconstruction and transition to normalcy such a difficult and painful process.

The problem for Russia’s future is that to become a “normal” country and society, it would have to transcend and overcome the legacy of not just the seventy years of communism but pretty much its entire history. This is a pretty melancholy point to make on a sunny winter Sunday afternoon, but if you’re pessimistic (or realistic) in life, at least you are never disappointed.