Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS

Information from the Kremlin is that President Vladimir Putin has not been at all enthusiastic about celebrating the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He would have preferred a "more evolutionary transformation".

A Kremlin celebration could be seen as "validating insurrection", the last thing Putin wants to see happening to his prolonged rule. Speaking at Moscow’s Valdai Club he said: "Revolution is always the lack of accountability, one the one part of those who want to freeze in place an outdated order … and those who resort to civil conflict and destructive resistance in order to accelerate change…. Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and ruthlessly fracturing millions of human lives?"

So, celebrating the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution promises to be a low-keyed affair in post-Soviet Russia. Earlier in his rule, Putin lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union after the August 1991 putsch "as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century".

This was, of course, not really a full blooded revolution. It was a relatively peaceful, albeit botched, palace coup by revanchists wanting to restore Bolshevik orthodoxy in reaction to President Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika.

At the time, the Soviet Union was at the brink, ready to implode. Although the coup failed hopelessly in its aim to restore Soviet orthodoxy, it was the last straw, signalling the end the once mighty Soviet Union. Pathetic as the coup attempt was, the changes it set in motion were fundamental and far-reaching, abruptly ending the 70 year authoritarian rule of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party and introducing a free-market democracy.

In Putin’s calculation, this was a major geopolitical catastrophe, the biggest of the 20th century, a view based by nostalgia rather than objective realty. The 1991 Soviet collapse was indeed not a catastrophe but an act of liberation after centuries of brutal Tsarist and Bolshevik repression.

The biggest Russian catastrophe of the 20th century was indeed the Bolshevik revolution of November 7 1917 (new calendar), a prime example of being wasteful and destructive, belatedly decried by Putin at Valdai.

As stated by Richard Sakwa, in The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-91, "The coup [of August 1991] was the final act of a cannibalistic regime. The Soviet system had destroyed the old Russian middle class and the cultural intelligentsia; it had destroyed the self-sufficient peasantry and liquidated the ‘kulaks’ as a class, and largely as individuals as well. The system had squandered the vast natural resources of the country and the wealth accumulated from the past and in its final act the regime devoured itself. The Soviet regime had been born in a revolution and it died in one."

The irony of Bolshevik Revolution was that it simply replaced one repressive system by another. It was morally justified in terms of Marx’s revolutionary ideology, what it resorted to was really phony Marxism: ignoring Marxist basic dialectics, such as the "withering away of the state", creating an equal classless society, and the temporality of the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Marxism, as applied in the Soviet Union was essentially no more than a moral pretext for monopolising power. It failed its own founding ideals based on the Marxism.

However, most of the problems the revolution aimed to erase, particularly poverty, exploitation and inequality, are still with us. There were, of course, social and geopolitical gains. Along with the brutalities and repression the Soviet Union brought notable military-industrialisation, mass education, and full employment end gender equality for the country. It also played a decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. However, all this must be weighed up against the incalculable cost and sacrifice inflicted on the Russian people and the country.

A more authoritative source of the rise of Bolshevist resistance than Maxim Gorky is doubtful. He was part of the inner circle, of the revolutionary elite, with close ties to Lenin and Stalin. His profound criticism against the destruction of the revolution in the name of Marxism must therefore be particularly relevant. Early in 1918 he wrote scathingly about the futility and aberrations of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, never published until very recently.

Orlando Figes writes in, A People’s Tragedy: "A revolution is only a revolution when it rises as a natural and powerful expression of the people’s creative force. If, however, the revolution is simply a release of the instincts of the people accumulated through slavery and oppression, then it is not a revolution but just a riot (bunt) of malice and hatred. It will be incapable of changing our lives but can only lead to bitterness and evil.

"Can we really say that one year after the Russian Revolution, the people have been liberated from the violence and the oppression of the police state, have become better, kinder, more intelligent and more honest people? No, no one could say that. We are still living as we lived under the monarchy, with the same customs, the same prejudices, the same stupidity and the same filth. The greed and the malice which were inculcated in us by the old regime are still within us.

"People are still robbing and cheating one another, as they have always robbed and cheated one another. The new bureaucrats take bribes just like the old ones did, and they treat the people with even more rudeness and contempt ... The Russian people, having won its freedom is in its present state incapable of using it for their own good, only for its own harm and the harm of others, and is in danger of losing everything that it has been fighting for centuries. It is destroying all the great achievements of their ancestors; gradually the national wealth, the wealth of the land, of industry, of transport, of communications, and of the towns is being destroyed in dirt."

The aberrations Gorky wrote of were institutionalised, transformed and fine-tuned into orthodoxy and general political practice in the 74 years of Bolshevik repression in the Soviet Union.

The survival and legitimacy of the Bolshevik regime owes much from the support of gullible Western fellow-travellers, idealists and hard-left political parties. Although there were some exceptions (notably UK Labour Party Leaders like Lord Clement Attlee and Lord Harold Wilson who strongly rejected Soviet Bolshevism), it developed into a barren zero-sum debate between communists and anti-communists.

In the US, for example, senator Joe McCarthy unleashed a vicious witch-hunt against communism. In SA, anticommunism became the mantra of the National Party’s "total onslaught" propaganda.

So, where does all this leave us?

If Chinese leader Zhou en-Lai thought it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution nearly two centuries later, final judgment on Bolshevist Revolution, its causes and effects, could be premature. For now, the assaults on what happened remain severe, except for Putin’s assessment that the Soviet demise was a catastrophe.

It is doubtful of course that communism as it manifested in the 20th century, would be repeated. What seems inevitable, however, is that somehow or another the struggle will continue and even proliferate while present inequality and domination by the super-rich elite and a handful of great powers persist. Hopefully, the world will learn something from the botched Bolshevik experiment.

Olivier is a former South African ambassador to Russia and presently with the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.

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