Jeremy Kins­man “Ten Days That Shook the World”: 100 Years Later

Policy - - In This Issue - Jeremy Kins­man

As events in Wash­ing­ton, on­line and else­where in­form the in­creas­ingly in­escapable con­clu­sion that Western democ­racy has been un­der at­tack, Vladimir Putin seems se­cure in the cer­tainty that democ­racy in Rus­sia, at least, has had its day. Vet­eran diplo­mat and for­mer Canadian am­bas­sador to Rus­sia Jeremy Kins­man traces the thread of Rus­sia’s global in­flu­ence from the 1917 Rev­o­lu­tion through the end of the Soviet Union to to­day, as Putin de­ploys the mythol­ogy of Rus­sian great­ness to ra­tio­nal­ize his grip on power.

Rus­sia’s 1917 Rev­o­lu­tion over­turned a 300-year old dy­nasty and a whole cul­ture. It didn’t over­throw the world or­der, as so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies wanted. But with Europe’s mas­sively de­struc­tive, essen­tially point­less, and ul­ti­mately un­re­solved Great War—with­out which the Rev­o­lu­tion would not have hap­pened—it helped shape the 20th Cen­tury.

Were the rev­o­lu­tion, pro­longed tu­mult, and its cruel af­ter­math due to some­thing in­her­ently “of” Rus­sia that per­sists? What are their ef­fects to­day on Rus­sian psy­chol­ogy? Did the un­speak­able crimes and stress over two or three gen­er­a­tions and decades of forced con­formism hob­ble the ca­pac­ity of Rus­sians to adapt later to op­por­tu­ni­ties for change, like a col­lec­tive PTSD? Vladimir Putin is now reach­ing back in Rus­sian his­tory to val­i­date the idea of Rus­sian “great­ness.” Is this a salve for de­pleted national iden­tity, or a pop­ulist de­vice to le­git­imize his as­ser­tion of un­bri­dled power?

Win­ston Churchill fa­mously de­scribed Rus­sia as a “rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery, in­side an enigma.” Rus­sians have been car­i­ca­tured as back­ward, his­tor­i­cally sub­mis­sive to ab­so­lutist Tsars and a dark Church, un­touched by the Re­for­ma­tion. But Rus­sia’s his­tory is as ob­jec­tively un­der­stand­able as any­one else’s. A vast flat land with few nat­u­ral borders strad­dling Asia and Europe, Rus­sia drew hor­ren­dous in­va­sions, from the Mon­gols in 1237 to Napoleon 1812 to Hitler in 1941, ex­plain­ing both the per­pet­ual quest of a strate­gic buf­fer zone and a mixed national iden­tity. For Slavophiles, Rus­sian essence is non-Euro­pean, while mod­ern­iz­ing Europhiles pur­sued Peter the Great’s west­ern­iza­tion, mak­ing Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic prize or­na­ments of Western cul­ture.

Rus­sia’s po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion could have pro­duced lib­eral democ­racy. Re­form- ers strug­gled for a more lib­eral regime through­out the 19th cen­tury, only to see ten­ta­tive gains cur­tailed by ab­so­lutist and re­pres­sive tsarist regimes.

In 1905, mass protests and “Bloody Sun­day” wrested at last a for­ward­look­ing man­i­festo and an elected Par­lia­ment, the Duma, from the de­tached and un­pre­pared Ni­cholas II, who had be­come Em­peror at 26. But Ni­cholas back­tracked, pre­fer­ring to pur­sue great power am­bi­tions. As Ot­toman and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pires weak­ened, Ger­many flexed its grow­ing mus­cles. Com­pet­i­tive mili-

taris­tic na­tion­alisms sleep­walked to­ward un­lim­ited mod­ern war­fare.

The Great War dev­as­tated both Rus­sia’s army of a mil­lion con­scripts and the home front. In rapidly in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing cities, se­vere food short­ages rad­i­cal­ized work­ers, ru­ral mi­grants and de­sert­ers. When Ni­cholas, now shak­ily com­mand­ing at the front, re­jected Duma pleas for po­lit­i­cal re­form and dis­patched shock troops whose thou­sand vic­tims were buried be­fore 900,000 mourn­ers, the Duma formed a pro­vi­sional al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment. Aban­doned by all, Ni­cholas ab­di­cated amid eu­pho­ria. This was the op­por­tu­nity for par­lia­men­tary democ­racy.

Mikhail Gor­bachev’s as­cent to power in 1985 seemed at first mirac­u­lous. He aimed to pal­li­ate the legacy of cru­elty by open­ing up the ex­is­ten­tial eco­nomic and civic re­forms of per­e­stroika and glas­nost. But a so­ci­ety trau­ma­tized by decades of ter­ror with no habit of self­em­pow­er­ment could hardly re-boot it­self.

As usual, get­ting rid of a despot was eas­ier than forg­ing a con­sen­sus to govern the day after. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers formed a ri­val power cen­tre, the Pet­ro­grad “Soviet,” to chal­lenge the in-fight­ing lib­eral gov­ern­ment.

That the rev­o­lu­tion was hi­jacked by the most hard-line of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, the Bol­she­viks, was due to luck, feck­less lib­eral op­po­nents, rigid and brit­tle state in­sti­tu­tions, ruth­less de­ter­mi­na­tion by a few peo­ple who knew what they wanted, an an­gry and ex­hausted pop­u­la­tion ready to be­lieve who­ever promised a new way of liv­ing, and clan­des­tine support from Rus­sia’s en­emy, Ger­many.

Ger­many feared de­feat as the U.S. en­tered the war with fresh troops that could break the stale­mate on the Western Front un­less Rus­sia ceased hos­til­i­ties in the east.

The most rad­i­cal of Rus­sian anti-war rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, Lenin, was penned up in Zurich by Bri­tish con­trols after 17 years away. In prob­a­bly his­tory’s great­est clan­des­tine op­er­a­tion, Ger­man in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers dar­ingly of­fered to smug­gle Lenin home. Funded by the Kaiser, he crossed the border in a “sealed” train with 29 other ex­iled Rus­sian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in April, 1917.

De­spite his elo­quence, Lenin was ini­tially mar­ginal. But his cam­paign of class ha­tred and un­am­bigu­ous goals— usurp the regime, in­stall a work­ers’ so­cial­ist repub­lic, and exit the now-un- pop­u­lar war against Al­lied pres­sure to stay in—struck a chord un­til in July, 1917, his col­lu­sion with Ger­many came to light. Trot­sky was ar­rested but Lenin es­caped to Fin­land dressed as a woman. Had he been caught and con­victed for trea­son, the 20th cen­tury would have gone dif­fer­ently.

Pre­sum­ing the Bol­she­viks’ eclipse meant he could man­age the Pet­ro­grad Soviet, Pre­mier Alexan­der Keren­sky freed Trot­sky. But chaos, hunger, ex­haus­tion, and grow­ing ap­a­thy over out­comes cre­ated a vac­uum that en­abled the well-or­ga­nized Bol­she­viks to take over the Pet­ro­grad Soviet. Lenin snuck back into Rus­sia on Oc­to­ber 10 and called for armed in­sur­rec­tion. Bol­she­viks seized vi­tal posts. When naval mu­ti­neers on the “Aurora” fired on Keren­sky’s strug­gling cabi­net in the Win­ter Palace, the state col­lapsed.

On Oc­to­ber 26, Lenin de­clared: “The Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment has been de­posed. Author­ity has been passed into the hands of the Pet­ro­grad Soviet.”

Its first de­cree con­fis­cated pri­vate land for re­dis­tri­bu­tion to peas­ants. Po­lit­i­cal meet­ings were out­lawed. Two weeks later, elec­tion re­sults for a Con­stituent As­sem­bly showed Bol­she­vik support at only 24 per cent. The regime post­poned the As­sem­bly—for about 70 years.

The speed­ily con­cluded sep­a­rate peace Treaty of Brest-Li­tovsk with Ger­many died with Ger­many’s mil­i­tary de­feat a year later. But it meant that Rus­sia, which had lost two mil­lion peo­ple in the war, played no role in the peace or in­deed in post­war Europe, re­vers­ing cen­turies of Euro­pean am­bi­tions.

In the newly-named Union of Soviet So­cial­ist Re­publics (in­clud­ing Ukraine) civil war, in­ef­fec­tu­ally sup­ported by the Al­lies, raged for three years. By 1921, eco­nomic out­put had dropped to one-sixth of 1914’s. Three mil­lion peo­ple em­i­grated.

Western gov­ern­ments viewed the regime with an­i­mos­ity while its utopian am­bi­tion stirred at­trac­tion on the left that would deepen as the Great De­pres­sion laid bare cap­i­tal­ism’s fail­ings, in­clud­ing for emerg­ing anti-colo­nial­ists.

Im­mo­bi­lized by a brain tu­mour in 1924, Lenin tried in vain to block Stalin suc­ceed­ing him. Stalin ruled by ter­ror for 29 years, us­ing the ap­pa­ra­tus of a bru­tal se­cu­rity state to re­press dis­sent and squelch artis­tic ex­pres­sion. He forced col­lec­tiviza­tion of agri­cul­ture that killed more than ten mil­lion in a man-made famine and liq­ui­dated a mil­lion cit­i­zens in mass purges.

“Can you de­scribe this?” a ragged women hud­dling in Len­ingrad’s cold dawn out­side a prison hop­ing for word on the fates of loved ones asked leg­endary dis­si­dent poet Anna Akhma­tova. Akhma­tova did, in for­bid­den po­ems read un­der risk of be­ing termed an “en­emy of the peo­ple”: over 2,000 per­sons a day were ex­e­cuted in 193839. Ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion was over­turned, ev­ery urge sub­or­di­nated to sur­vival.

In 1941, real Ger­man en­e­mies re­placed imag­i­nary in­ter­nal ones. “The Great Patriotic War” came as “a re­lease, and a restora­tion of com­mu­nity”, wrote Boris Paster­nak. But the stag­ger­ing costs of vic­tory over Hitler fueled am­bi­tion.

Amer­ica’s atomic bomb­ing of Ja­pan shocked Stalin, pre­sent­ing a new mil­i­tary bal­ance. “The Amer­i­cans and Bri­tish are hop­ing that we won’t be able to de­velop the bomb our­selves for some

time,” Stalin told a group of sci­en­tists on the day the sec­ond bomb was dropped, on Na­gasaki. “They want us to ac­cept their plan for Europe and else­where in the world. Well, that’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

Wash­ing­ton pur­sued “con­tain­ment” of the USSR, now a Cold War ad­ver­sary apt to see ev­ery­where the ma­lign “hand of Wash­ing­ton.”

To­day, roses on Stalin’s grave in the Krem­lin Wall Ne­crop­o­lis memo­ri­al­ize him as Rus­sia’s pro­tec­tor from Hitler, and then from the West, even though suc­ces­sor Nikita Khrushchev ex­posed his vast crimes and in­tro­duced a lim­ited po­lit­i­cal thaw that ex­tended into the 18-year Brezh­nev regime. National pride in the USSR bloomed over Sput­nik, su­per­power sta­tus and global clout, uni­ver­sal lit­er­acy, and im­proved wel­fare.

But a dys­func­tional econ­omy sac­ri­ficed con­sumers, a stag­nat­ing state cul­ture de­formed fac­tual truth and evaded ac­count­abil­ity, and cre­ated what Solzhen­it­syn fa­mously chris­tened a gu­lag archipelago. A los­ing war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 added to de­struc­tive cen­trifu­gal forces.

Mikhail Gor­bachev’s as­cent to power in 1985 seemed at first mirac­u­lous. He aimed to pal­li­ate the legacy of cru­elty by open­ing up the ex­is­ten­tial eco­nomic and civic re­forms of per­e­stroika and glas­nost. But a so­ci­ety trau­ma­tized by decades of ter­ror with no habit of self-em­pow­er­ment could hardly re-boot it­self.

Eco­nom­i­cally, un­do­ing old rigidi­ties was eas­ier than pro­vid­ing ef­fec­tive and fair sub­sti­tutes. Well-meant but shal­low western ad­vice just to open mar­kets to free com­pe­ti­tion ig­nored the scale of the un­prece­dented makeover in­volved. Shock ther­apy gen­er­ated much more shock than ther­apy. Ini­tial pub­lic eu­pho­ria over new free­doms and the dis­man­tling of state se­cu­rity gave way to de­spair over the de­struc­tion of ev­ery­day life as the econ­omy crashed.

Gor­bachev ended the Cold War, chang­ing our world as well as theirs. Aban­don­ing cor­rupt east­ern Euro­pean com­mu­nist regimes, he ac­cepted Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion, not a given for a his­tor­i­cally-minded Rus­sian, with­draw­ing 1.3 mil­lion sol­diers and per­son­nel.

Rus­sia’s belief that the West had back­tracked on un­der­tak­ings not to ex­pand NATO east­ward grates still. Hel­mut Kohl com­pen­sated the USSR for the costs of mil­i­tary with­drawal and down­siz­ing but the U.S. Con­gress, ever short-sighted, de­nied its ap­pro­pri­a­tions.

Gor­bachev faced a back­lash for too much change and dis­rup­tion with too few work­able so­lu­tions. Weak­ened by an in­ept but piv­otal coup at­tempt against him from hard-line se­cu­rity chiefs, he was chal­lenged for power by his pop­ulist ri­val, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin be­came the first elected pres­i­dent of the Rus­sian Repub­lic and, in a deal with party bosses in Ukraine and Be­larus, dis­man­tled the Soviet Union it­self in De­cem­ber, 1991. When Gor­bachev heard what they’d done, he said “They’ve be­gun carv­ing this coun­try like a pie.”

The re­mark­ably peace­ful break-up left more than 20 mil­lion eth­nic Rus­sians out­side Rus­sia, and a legacy of loose threads, notably long-stand­ing iden­tity is­sues, es­pe­cially over Ukraine/Crimea.

Dur­ing Yeltsin’s nine chaotic years, the Rus­sian econ­omy severely con­tracted, though in­sid­ers made for­tunes. Na­tion­al­ists pushed back against dis­cred­ited demo­cratic re­form­ers.

Trau­matic Chechen ter­ror­ist at­tacks re­in­forced des­per­a­tion for ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship. Vladimir Putin’s record of loy­ally get­ting things done el­e­vated him as a younger, stronger, sober, suc­ces­sor to Yeltsin on Jan­uary 1, 2000. It was in the finest Rus­sian tra­di­tion of the heist: like Lenin, Stalin, and even Gor­bachev, he had more in mind for the job than it ap­peared when he took it on.

Aim­ing to end “the decade of hu­mil­i­a­tion,” Putin (and the ris­ing price of oil) de­liv­ered a mod­ern­iz­ing econ­omy and dra­matic gains in in­comes (140 per cent from 2000-09), a strength­ened state, bet­ter ser­vices, and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity.

But there would be no cel­e­bra­tion of the 1917 Rev­o­lu­tion. No com­mu­nist, Putin ab­hors rev­o­lu­tions, hav­ing been shocked by East Ger­man ri­ots in 1989 in his KGB post in Dres­den.

After ask­ing for a pe­riod of “qui­eten­ing down,” his au­thor­i­tar­ian instincts emerged. He nar­rowed demo­cratic space, shut down NGOs as “tools of the West” and re-es­tab­lished the pri­macy of se­cu­rity agen­cies. He scorned

lib­eral val­ues, ini­ti­at­ing laws against “gay pro­pa­ganda.

His re­sponse to peace­ful protests by mid­dle-class and pro­fes­sional Rus­sians fed- up with cor­rup­tion and en­forced “po­lit­i­cal in­fancy” was that “Rus­sians don’t need up­heavals. They need a great Rus­sia.”

Putin’s con­cept of a “great Rus­sia” is main­stream belief in its in­sis­tence on re­spect for Rus­sian in­ter­ests. Noth­ing he does is more pop­u­lar in Rus­sia than stand­ing up to Amer­ica.

Putin had ini­tially wel­comed newly-deep­ened links with the U.S. un­til he con­cluded the Amer­i­cans took Rus­sian views for granted. He re­coiled from the U.S.-led in­va­sion of Iraq, and re­sented the push to ex­pand NATO to re­publics of the ex-USSR. He blamed anti-Rus­sian “colour rev­o­lu­tions” on western-in­flu­enced ac­tivists. But he also feared their anti-cor­rup­tion mo­tif could in­fect oli­garchic Moscow, where ac­tivists like Alexei Navalny has agi­tated against his party of “crooks and thieves,” in­creas­ingly ef­fec­tively. The call for “fair­ness” is an old Rus­sian one, and Navalny pack­ages it with his own brand of na­tion­al­ism, avoid­ing the op­pro­brium still hang­ing over pro-democ­racy ac­tivists.

The covert and other support for the armed in­sur­gency in Rus­sian- speak­ing East­ern Ukraine and the blunt land grab of Crimea were im­pro­vised re­sponses by Putin.

The ef­fort to chan­nel Russo-cen­tric “great­ness” is both an iden­tity-boost- er and a po­lit­i­cal de­vice to le­git­imize Putin’s power. Like all au­thor­i­tar­i­ans, he con­flates the national in­ter­est with him­self.

Gor­bachev had laid bare the sys­tem’s dis­mally flawed ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion, but failed to pro­vide al­ter­na­tive rea­sons to be­lieve in the state. Putin re-as­serted a strong state to an­chor national iden­tity, but linked it to roots in pre-Bol­she­vik Rus­sia to fill the void left by the evac­u­a­tion of com­mu­nism, air­brush­ing the trau­matic decades that fol­lowed.

His na­tivist theme aims to, as Putin said in a speech in Nov­gorod in 2013, chan­nel “the Rus­sian peo­ple, lan­guage, cul­ture, and the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church…in­tel­lec­tual, spir­i­tual, and moral strength, grounded in its his­tory, val­ues, and tra­di­tions.”

If he mim­ics Lenin’s re­jec­tion of a western ori­en­ta­tion for Rus­sia, his rea­son­ing—Europe’s aban­don­ment of “Chris­tian val­ues, that con­sti­tute the ba­sis of western civ­i­liza­tion”—re­jects Lenin’s ha­tred of the Ortho­dox Church and “its icons.”

Do th­ese his­toric al­lu­sions mean that Rus­sia seeks its old em­pire? Is “greater” Rus­sia a threat? Putin’s am­bi­tions are not ter­ri­to­rial, though he wants that cus­tom­ary buf­fer. He is a pop­ulist na­tion­al­ist throw­ing the red meat of patriotic Rus­sian in­ter­est to his sup­port­ers. No won­der he and Trump are a fit. Putin and Trump (“Amer­ica first, al­ways Amer­ica first”) both vaunt mil­i­ta­rized and eco­nomic na­tion­alisms of a kind that led to the 20th cen­tury’s wars.

His in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. 1916 elec­tion was pay-back for US “provo­ca­tion” of “the coup” in Kiev and 2011 “Rus­sia with­out Putin” protests in Moscow and aimed at Hil­lary Clin­ton. Like the tsars and Soviet lead­ers, Putin in­hab­its a bub­ble that pro­duces the sort of hubris that, in this in­stance, caused him to over-reach, us­ing an old play­book of “ac­tive mea­sures,” and “kom­pro­mat” we thought had been shelved a quar­ter-cen­tury ago.

His­tory sur­vives in col­lec­tive mem­ory, cir­cling back as a re­mem­bered cause or as a curse, of­ten mis­rep­re­sented and even ma­nip­u­lated, re­call­ing the Soviet joke that it’s not the fu­ture “that’s un­pre­dictable, but the past.”

Dis­si­dent Czech play­wright-turned-pres­i­dent Va­clav Havel told me in 1995 that Rus­sia would need 25 to 50 years to achieve democ­racy. I thought, at that heady time, he was be­ing cyn­i­cal. He may have been op­ti­mistic. Putin cer­tainly does not cor­re­late great­ness with un­der-per­form­ing democ­ra­cies. But Rus­sian re­form­ers and their suc­ces­sors will have their say.

What­ever hap­pens, the cel­e­bra­tion of Rus­sian na­tion­al­ist “great­ness” is em­braced by Rus­sians who a short time ago were on the ropes, after their lib­er­a­tion from a grotesque his­tory of ter­ror. The gift now of al­ter­na­tive state belief is an in­tox­i­cat­ing, if il­lu­sory, an­ti­do­tal ther­apy for rel­a­tively pas­sive cit­i­zens.

That the nar­ra­tive is ma­nip­u­lated doesn’t weaken the re­al­ity that Rus­sia’s im­pact since 1917 has been “great,” if ad­ver­sar­ial and dis­rup­tive. It con­tin­ues. Putin is the prod­uct of Rus­sian his­tory. He is chal­leng­ing, de­lib­er­ately. But he is not the worst ver­sion of a right-wing na­tion­al­ist that could have come to power after Gor­bachev’s prob­a­bly in­evitable crash.

Canadian in­flu­ence in and on Rus­sia, at times sig­nif­i­cant, has with­ered in the wake of Rus­sian ac­tion vis-svis Ukraine and the ex­i­gen­cies of our pol­i­tics. We can sus­tain a diplo­matic dis­course that has two tracks: we al­ways have. In­stead, we have bought po­lit­i­cally into the emo­tional Amer­i­can em­brace of a new Cold War, that has as much anti-Rus­sian an­i­mus as U.S. at­ti­tudes after 1917.

The ef­fort to chan­nel Russo-cen­tric ‘great­ness’ is both an iden­tity-booster and a po­lit­i­cal de­vice to le­git­imize Putin’s power. Like all au­thor­i­tar­i­ans, he con­flates the national in­ter­est with him­self.

It is in our own in­ter­est for Rus­sia to be ob­jec­tively en­gaged—es­pe­cially by the coun­try with which it shares most of the north­ern hemi­sphere and is in­creas­ingly and rightly viewed as the “other North Amer­ica.”

Con­tribut­ing writer Jeremy Kins­man is a for­mer Canadian am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, the UK and EU. He is af­fil­i­ated with Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. kins­

Wikipedia photo

Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, 1919.

Li­brary photo Ron­ald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial

For­mer Pres­i­dent Rea­gan and Soviet Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Mikhail Gor­bachev in front of a slab of the Ber­lin Wall at the Ron­ald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary.

Wikipedia photo

Boris Yeltsin’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in 1991.

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