A century after the Russian revolution, the last tsar stands tall

The Guardian, 22.10.2017
Shaun Walker
  • The events of 1917 still divide Russians – Lenin may dominate the landscape but he has a rival in Nicholas II thanks to a resurgent Orthodox church

Vladimir Lenin gazes impassively into the middle-distance from his pedestal outside the courthouse in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, a Siberian mining town that bears his name. Lenin, who called for “bloodsucking” rich men to be hanged, seems an incongruous figure to stand guard outside a court of law in capitalist Russia.

Recently, an even more surprising monument has appeared in the town’s main square. A group of enthusiasts, with the full support of the mayor, unveiled a statue of Nicholas II, amid fanfare and the blessings of an Orthodox priest: a monument to Russia’s last tsar in the central square of a town named after the man who ordered him killed.

Leninsk-Kuznetsky, 2,200 miles east of Moscow, provides a neat visual summary of the confusing conundrum that 1917 presents for modern Russia as it marks the centenary of the October revolution. Under President Vladimir Putin, other historical events have been co-opted by the Kremlin and woven into a narrative of centuries of Russian greatness. But the tumultuous year of 1917 – in which the February revolution deposed the tsar, and then the October revolution swept away the brief attempt at democratic government and installed the Bolsheviks – is harder to see in black-and-white terms.

Vyacheslav Telegin, the mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, said there was nothing strange about celebrating both the tsar and the Bolshevik leader. He categorically ruled out removing the Lenin statue or changing the name of the town back to Kolchugino, as it was called until 1922. “We can’t rewrite history, and it’s not for us to decide whether it was right or not,” he said.

Our generation still remembers who Lenin was, but what if the children now won’t? He made a contribution to Russian history. It’s difficult to say if it was positive or negative but we can’t ignore it – we have to remember it.”

In the early 1990s there were some efforts to erase the communist past: Leningrad became St Petersburg again; Sverdlovsk, named after the Bolshevik Yakov Sverdlov, became Yekaterinburg. In Moscow, the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka (which would go on to become the KGB), was toppled from his perch outside the Lubyanka building, the KGB headquarters.

But Russians lost their appetite for erasing the symbols of the Soviet past. Thousands of settlements retained their communist-era names, the Lubyanka continued to house the headquarters of the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency, and communist party officials have not been disbarred from government, as they were in many other countries.

In Russia, this issue was more complicated: after all, both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had been party officials. But admiration for Nicholas II is growing. The Orthodox church canonised the last tsar and his family in 2000. The passions stoked among a strongly religious minority have been in evidence with the scandal over Matilda, a film out next week about the tsar’s affair with a ballet dancer. Orthodox activists have promised violence against cinemas that show the film, and a number of public figures have spoken out about the inappropriateness of besmirching the tsar’s reputation.

Russians continue to be split in their evaluation of 1917. A survey this April by the independent Levada Centre found that 48% of Russians saw the October revolution as a positive event, and 31% saw it as a negative event, with 21% finding it hard to say.

As the centenary approaches on 7 November (the anniversary of the October revolution falls in November because the tsarist system used a different calendar), public discussion has largely been limited to intellectual circles, with little airtime given to debating the meaning and legacy of 1917 on state television. The revolution, while ostensibly absent from the debate, continues to cast a long shadow over modern Russia, however. “The tragedy of the early 20th century is imprinted in Russia’s cerebral cortex,” wrote journalist Mikhail Zygar in a recently released book on 1917.

Russian director Alexei Uchitel at a press screening of this film Matilda, criticised for its depiction of Tsar Nicholas II. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

The book probes parallels between modern Russia and its predecessor a century earlier, many of which were evident at Zygar’s costumed book launch party, held at a tsarist-era mansion in central Moscow last week, and featuring a performance of monologues drawn from speeches or diaries of various historical players active in 1917, often given a modern twist.

When Rasputin appeared to the Empress Alexandra, it was from the screen of an “Orthodox TV channel”, looking eerily similar to a modern-day Christian channel funded by a politically influential, ultra-religious financier who wants to restore the monarchy. And when the writer Maxim Gorky appearing on Skype from exile, and appealed to citizens not to give money to the tsarist regime because “it has no links with the people”, there was a smattering of applause among the mainly liberal Russians gathered at the event. The performance ended with Lenin cartwheeling through the drawing room of the mansion while prophesying glorious revolution. The embalmed corpse of the real Lenin still lies in the marble mausoleum on Red Square, 93 years after his death in 1924. Visitors these days are mainly curious tourists rather than committed Leninists, though the vociferous response from the ageing contingent of Russian communists to every suggestion that it might be time to lay the Bolshevik leader’s body to rest in the ground means he is unlikely to be moved soon.

Gorky Leninskiye, the country house where Lenin spent much of his time after the revolution, ruling by telephone, is now eerily deserted. Its centrepiece is a vast museum dedicated to Lenin, constructed from white marble and opened in 1987 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the revolution. In its first years, the complex received school groups and tour parties every day; now the attendants had to open the doors and turn on the lights when your correspondent arrived at 1pm, the first visitor of the day.

The museum guide, Olga Nikolayeva, described Lenin as “a man who created a state the like of which the world had never seen before”. But she also spoke in terms that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet period, admitting that “some people would see the October revolution as nothing but a coup”.

Putin has been equivocal in his statements on the revolution but has made it clear that his main issue is the violent seizure of power undertaken by the Bolsheviks. Putin has fetishised the sanctity of statehood, however distasteful the ruling regime may be: whether it be in modern-day Kiev or Damascus, or in tsarist Russia.

When we look at the lessons from a century ago, we see how ambiguous the results were, and how there were both negative and positive consequences of those events,” said Putin this week, coming back to a thought he has expounded on many times before.

We have to ask the question: was it really not possible to develop not through revolution but through evolution, without destroying statehood and mercilessly ruining the fate of millions, but through gradual, step-by-step progress?

This, ultimately, is the key message from the Kremlin as the anniversary approaches. Monarchists and the ultra-Orthodox are free to idolise Nicholas II; communists and nostalgics are free to look back on the Bolsheviks as the harbingers of a new civilisation, but state collapse and violent protests are always to be condemned.

Others say Russia would benefit from a more open discussion of the events of 1917 and their far-reaching consequences. “Russia has never come to terms with its past,” wrote Zygar in the conclusion to his book.

The historical traumas are still raw; the psychological hang-ups persist. Russian history is an illness. Our history has made us all sick.”

Back in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, Andrei Froshkayzer, who collected donations from business people and organised the creation of the Nicholas II statue, described the tsar as “a great man and a patriot”. Froshkayzer expressed ambivalence about the legacy of Lenin, however. He would prefer the town to change back to its tsarist-era name, Kolchugino, but had been told categorically that the authorities wanted to keep the current name. “Of course it would be good if we were not named after Lenin, but it’s probably better to keep things as they are,” he said.

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