Op-Ed: Hundred years later, finding the modern Russia amid the remnants of a revolution

Op-Ed: Hundred years later, finding the modern Russia amid the remnants of a revolution

Perhaps here on Nevsky Prospect, around the corner from the Winter Palace, on a day when Vladimir Putin’s police are bashing protesters in its shadow, is not the best place to be looking for the signs – but what happened to the revolution? By YVES VANDERHAEGHEN.

The Russian Revolution ate its children. Today, the children of capital can feast on the head of Lenin, life-sized, white chocolate, at the swish Eliseev Emporium in St Petersburg. It’ll set you back 3,000 rubles (R700). If you’re on a roll, a small jar of caviar can add R7,000 to the bill.

Perhaps here on Nevsky Prospect, around the corner from the Winter Palace, on a day when Putin’s police are bashing protesters in its shadow, is not the best place to be looking for the signs, but what happened to the revolution?

It’s a question one doesn’t expect to be asking oneself in Russia, in October, on the centenary of the Bolshevik coup. Where are the posters, the parades, the banners of red?

Where in the souvenir shops, among the matryoshka dolls and fake Fabergé eggs, are the busts of Marx and Trotsky? Coffee mugs aplenty of Putin in every macho pose possible, bare-chested, riding bears, 007. Stalin, he’s still around, on mugs too, and bronze busts large and small, straight up without irony.

As for Lenin, here in former Leningrad, yes he still stands in front of the Finland Station where he arrived late for the revolution he supercharged in 1917. His statue survived the purges, the Nazi siege, glasnost, and even a bomb that blew a hole in its bum in 2009. Unlike Ukraine, which demolished its thousands of statues of Lenin, here in St Petersburg there are about 50 dotted around the city, pointing the way forward to one of history’s sidings. But if the tourist kiosks are anything to go by, he’s no one’s pin-up.

The absence of centenary bunting and revolutionary kitsch gives the impression that the heroes of the revolution have joined the ranks of “former people”, social aliens in a remade world. Below ground, in the Metro, the dream remains frozen, in friezes, statues, plaques and mosaics.

All the Metro lines commemorate the new society: its workers, engineers, revolutionaries and artists. Millions of commuters rush past these relics: on the walls at Ploshchad Vosstaniya station there are reliefs of Lenin at Finland Station, in exile, declaring the first Soviet government. At the end of the concourse, invisible to casual view, are blast doors, protection against the American nuclear threat, a reminder of a mad world unsettled by a social experiment whose scale and tenacity promised and threatened so much more. They still work, now oiled for civil disturbance, but offered no protection against a bomber who killed 10 people in April.

Somewhere between the muscular celebrations of homo sovieticus and the tsarist confections that define the tourist trail, the present is being built. What does it look like?

The phalanxes of high-density apartment blocks that started crowding the city limits under Khrushchev’s housing drive of the ‘50s are being added to relentlessly, everywhere. Everywhere except in the city centre where, behind fake Napoleonic façades, cramped apartments in tenement buildings evoking Dostoevskian dinginess and Soviet kommunalka (communal flats), are still being rented from the state.

Matching the construction of apartments are churches, some replacing the ones razed by Stalin, but many new ones, built to look as though they’ve always been there. Men and women, young and old, genuflect, cross themselves, at big churches and small chapels, signs of a wave of an Orthodox revival. A reassertion of a mythical past, or just something to take the place of the Soviet dream, one zealotry for another.

Old monarchists, too, have got in step with the turn to imperial nostalgia, joining forces with other traditionalists, for example, to try to ban a film about Tsar Nicholas’s affair with a ballerina. New statues of Tsar Nicholas are being erected, and the Romanov relics at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral draw streams of sightseers.

Could things have turned out differently, people ask of the revolution. Did it have to fail? Reading up about it, to refresh one’s memory about those events that shaped the politics of societies across the globe, there are a few things that stand out.

First, the revolution couldn’t not have happened, between a countryside heaving from oppression, a bloody war, a shambolic process of industrialisation, a feckless aristocracy and a vacuum of governance. One forgets sometimes that the October revolution started in February of 1917, and even before that in 1905, and even before that throughout the second half of the 19th century. And one remembers then that St Petersburg itself, the cradle of the revolution, is built on the bones of 100,000 serfs.

Second, the revolution was itself a chaotic hit-and-miss affair, confused in direction, contradictory in policies, fractious in the extreme, and its key dramas took place across a short, 10-kilometre strip of St Petersburg, or Petrograd as it then was.

Third, what an extraordinarily canny opportunist was Lenin, and what a bumptious little despot he was to boot.

Fourth, the tyranny to come was shaped as much by Bolshevik thuggery as by counter-revolutionary terror and countless international oars.

There was no pure, still moment of unblemished idealism, to be held in amber for the scrutiny of posterity. Its setting, too, has vanished. The countryside, which in 1917 held 88% of the population and which gave the factories their workers, the army its soldiers, and the revolution its force, is empty now. Of peasants there are none. The slogan “Land to the peasants”, even “Peace, Land, Bread”, would refer to nothing now.

Infinite promise there was, some of which created a society which in spite of everything still exerts a pull, albeit an ambivalent one. “I’m allergic. And I’m nostalgic. Allergic and nostalgic at the same time,” says one of our guides. He yearns for the days when there was no traffic, when the Metro was cheaper and toilets were free. “Capitalism,” he laments at every turn. “Capitalism.” But there’s no shortage of capitalist converts.

It’s hard to probe these sentiments more broadly among people one meets. If one speaks no Russian, that is, because Russians don’t, or won’t, speak English in spite of it being taught at school. It’s a take-no-prisoners chauvinism. It’s irritating, but it’s also admirable that, even if the charms of capitalism proved irresistible in the end, there is still a resistance to the suave imperial seductions of English. An academic at a conference, brusquely demanding the services of a translator, refuses to present in English because “this is Russia, after all”. “Russia” branded clothes and bags abound, but perhaps that’s just marketing for the 2018 World Cup. There’s talk of “food nationalism”, a preference for local produce, even if it is sometimes more expensive or less tasty, as a fightback against Western sanctions.

One sees in such gestures something of the nobility of resistance to forces of dominance and homogenisation. One also sees in them the flexing of an aggressive nationalism, fuelled by a rampant authoritarian populism, deftly deployed by Putin to consolidate his rule. Bizarrely, this authoritarian ideology has found common cause with right-wing nationalists in France, Germany and America, where the traditionally anti-communist right chants “Russia is our friend”, while back in the Motherland anti-Putin protesters chant “Down with the Tsar”. Fathoming the legacy of the revolution seems simple in comparison to this. For all its bitterness, what’s replaced it appears far from sweet. DM

Photo of St Petersburg by Mariano Mantel via Flickr.


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