"The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution." That cliché was not coined by the Russian revolutionaries: it ended Karl Marx's first chapter of his 1850 pamphlet, "The class struggle in France, 1848-50: The defeat of June 1848." Yet it might as well have depicted 1917, as much as 2017. As will become evident, the Vladimir common denominator then and now may explain why Russia remains the same in some essential aspects even as orientations change.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin transformed tsarist Russia into a communist Soviet Union, just as Vladmir Putin is shifting the country's glasnost/perestroika era towards hallmark tsarist practices. Neither change has eliminated Russia's unstable, testy, inefficient, and stigmatic stains. European countries with a long history of 'bloody battles' managed to produce the Renaissance, Reformation, and eventually the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in the west, but as Sovietologist Richard Pipes notes, Russians remain so garrulous, suspicious, and secretive, their rulers must keep them at bay. Just as the Bolshevik Revolution fed rather than cleansed this character, Putin battles the same bug today in quintessentially tsarist ways.
Lenin's immediate pathway began when Vyacheslav Molotov and Alexander Shlyapnikov (the founders of Pravda), among others, led a futile attempt in February/March 1917 (the Julian calendar, effective in Europe until 1582, was still used in Russia, based on a 365.25-day calculation; the Gregorian calendar which replaced it, uses a 365.245 formula, adding a day and dubbing it a leap year). Its lessons were learned faster than from the equally futile 1905 social uprisings that stopped short of a revolution (and composed of not just unhappy workers, but also many more disgruntled farmers, minorities, and the intelligentsia, almost all protesting food prices and an ignominious defeat at Japan's hand). Lenin, exiled to Siberia in 1895, migrated to West Europe five years later, turning up in Switzerland during World War I. Exasperated Germans exploited his railings. Hoping his return to Russia would soften Russia's war engagement, they made the necessary arrangements. Lenin returned with his wife (and 30 other Russians), in April 1917, then quickly teamed up with two other exiled returnees: Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Leon Trotsky, who founded the Red Army in 1918, and Joseph Stalin, who succeeded Lenin in 1924, bent Lenin's international revolutionary with nationalistic and collectivist tones.
After effectively displacing traditional production modes (peasant farming; import substitution industrialisation), and destroying traditional structures (the monarchy, for instance), the 1917 revolution forcibly instituted such new practices as collective farms and industrial soviets (unions). Acknowledging even these radical steps did not help, even Lenin's 1924 New Economic Policy compromised with capitalism to keep the country functional. Stalin's Ukranian Holodomor (artificial famine) in 1933, which killed over 3.5 million people and relocated just under 3.5 million non-Russians to remote areas (less than half of whom died), combined with the stupendous World War II and Cold War military expenditures, simply overburdened the economy. Unable to financially match the US Strategic Defence Initiative ('Star Wars') costs in the mid-1980s, the overextended Soviet Union filed for bankruptcy and relinquished leadership.
It is no wonder why Russia today is no better than it was before the Bolshevik Revolution: predatory instincts remain untamed; accumulative rather than productive economic behaviour still dominates (evident in the number of upstart billionaires today); and, as Tsar Alexander II's 1861 serf emancipation led to his 1881 assassination, Mikhail Gorbachev's 1980s reforms (glasnost/perestroika), have also been uprooted, mostly by 17 years of Putin.
No wonder, then, that the one traditional feature that still runs the longest streak is Russia's authoritarian culture. Lenin could do little to quell this institutionalised feature (even by extinguishing the Romanoff dynasty), in fact, not only embracing it but also setting the same pattern for it to continue; and likewise for Putin's unwillingness to nurture Gorbachev's glasnost/perestroika, which even Boris Yeltsin sought to nurture.
Resorting to vicious instruments to materialise their vision, both Vladimir leaders fiddled, in dramatic terms, as democracy burned: Lenin's 1917 split with the Mensheviks (until they were banned in 1921) established the vanguard proletariat dictatorship, which only differed in style from Putin's 'prime minister-president rotation' scheme under his own authoritarian control (with Dmitry Medvedev's cooperation) since 2000. That Lenin did not focus on international spillovers of this Bolshevik Revolution did not mean he did not have an international perspective: 'imperialism', as he ferociously screamed across empty German town-halls and campuses, was not only the highest stage of capitalism, but had, before his very astonished eyes, pitted all the imperialist countries against each other, as his version of communism predicted.
Putin's tactic drums up, indeed depends on, the international context. Whetting the appetite of every foreign grudge against Russia's most formidable adversary, the United States, Putin has used fair and foul methods to elevate a weakling power contender into a crucial global arbiter. Whether in Iran, Syria, or Turkey, or through the communist party or Russian nationalists in East Europe, as in Ukraine, or with vacillating US friends like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, Putin has resuscitated an evaporating Russia in a way Lenin could not. Yet, judging by Russian history, he may have set himself, and with it, Russia, up for the greatest of falls.
At stake is that evermore insecure internal impulse, this time with a demographic ghost stalking the country. Before, the fear was the bitter winter cold and western invasion. Students of Russian history learn of how babies were kept swaddled as protection against the frigid temperatures, so much so each winter for a large part of the child's youth, that bodily movements also declined relatively, a feature so evident in Russia's/Soviet Union's rigid preferences.
Be that as it may, a string of invasions, beginning with the Poles and Swedes but climaxing with Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler much later, bred that suspicious mind, deepened a defensive mindedness, and elevated the military as the only answer to these fears.
No matter how profuse an author he was, Lenin could not penetrate beyond the spillovers of these traits, missing entirely the underlying causes. True, food-shortages inhibit intellectual exercises, but blaming them on factory-owners, for example, missed the point: he proposed a fashionable and fanciful response to real Russian problems, much like Alexander II had graciously and honestly done after 1861, and Putin may be doing more rambunctiously with his foreign machination now, even as the average Russian age climbs to worrisome levels. With his superior training in security intelligence, Putin is set to outdo his Kremlin predecessors while the Russian 'babies' of democracy and liberalism simply get flushed with the dirty bathwater.
It is not that Russians have not learned modern modalities, or not sought a progressive trajectory: Alexander II, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin did. Yet, that internal insecure instinct reaffirms why one Russian paradox, 'The revolution is dead; long live the revolution', remains ingrained.
[Beginning with this article, Scopus presents nine year-ending articles, reflecting on some of the major 2017 events or commemorations. In order, they include: the 1917 Russian Revolution; US global leadership centennial; 2017 as first post-nationalism year; global leadership's musical-chair game; the Israeli-Saudi embrace; winds of 2017 change; the Protestant Reformation quincentennial; the Balfour Declaration centennial; and Mother Nature's revenge.]
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.