‘Mr Putin really doesn’t like popular revolutions’
Commemorating October Revolution doesn’t fit Russian emphasis on national unity, says UCD historian
For much of the much of the last century it was an event that Russians celebrated as a great popular revolution. Not anymore.
‘Mr Putin really doesn’t like popular revolutions’ Dr Judith Devlin, a historian at the UCD School of History, responds when asked how the current Russian premier might choose to mark the centenary of a defining moment in his own country’s recent history. We’re talking about the October Revolution of 1917, the origins and legacy of which Dr Devlin discussed at length in a wide-ranging interview for Century Ireland.
It was Russia’s second revolution in less than a year. Just eight months earlier, the Tsarist empire had been toppled, and the autocratic regime of Nicholas II was replaced by a Provisional Government and a limited form of constitutionalism.
The crucial backdrop to this great social and political rupture was Russian involvement in the First World War, which alongside the military setbacks and heavy losses of life at the front, brought inflation, food shortages and great social hardship at home. None of this was brought to an end by the February Revolution, which stoked up as many issues as it resolved. Bread and fuel prices continued to rise, there were renewed strikes in the factories and peasant unrest in the countryside, there was division amongst soldiers and sailors at the absence of any discernible improvement in the conduct of the Russian war effort, and, gradually, there was an ebbing of the Provisional Government’s authority.
These factors, and others, combined to explain the broad appeal of Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party’s promise of ‘Peace, Bread and Land’. This was the slogan which helped galvanise support for the Bolshevik seizure of power from a weak Provisional Government in early November 1917 (late October according to the Julian calendar that was then in use in Russia) when the Bolsheviks took control of key buildings, communications and utilities, and when crowds stormed the Winter Palace and a new government of Russia was proclaimed. An immediate armistice with Germany was sought and by December 1917 peace negotiations had begun at Brest-Litovsk.
For much of the century that followed, the events of October 1917 were packaged as the ‘summit of what the people wanted’, even if, as Dr Devlin emphasises, this was just a ‘reinterpretation’ of what actually did happen. The October Revolution continued to be commemorated as a public holiday right up to the end of the Soviet Union regime. Under Yeltsin, the commemorations became ‘chaotic’ and they were eventually replaced by a so-called ‘Unity Day’ on 4 November, which looks back beyond 1917, to events in 1612 when a popular uprising in Moscow helped expel occupying Polish forces. This reframed commemoration was instituted by Mr Putin in 2005.
As Dr Devlin explained to Century Ireland, the Soviet Union had been pioneers of propaganda and had favoured the erasing of the memory of the February Revolution in preference for its October successor. This occurred almost immediately and not without bloodshed. ‘More people were injured in the course of the commemorations of the October Revolution than in the course of the Bolshevik takeover’, Dr Devlin points out.
The commitment to commemoration involved no end of grand spectacle. Even during the Civil War that had been unleashed by the October Revolution, the Soviets staged ‘great street spectacles at night, using spotlights, showing revolutionary crowds storming the Winter palace’. These spectacles were showcased in the 1927 film by Sergei Eisentsein October, a film commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the revolution and which ends with the revolutionary crowds swarming into the Winter Palace in triumph.
For further insights and analysis on the remarkable developments in Russia during 1917 and for a consideration of their wider repercussions, we’ve broken our interview with Dr Judith Devlin into a series of useful clips which can be accessed via the Century Ireland website or the Century Ireland youtube channel.
- To find about more about the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, please click here
- To learn how the Bolsheviks came to fill the power vacuum after the February Revolution, click here
- To learn more about the Tsarist regime and the reasons for its collapse in February 1917, click here