In April 1917, a locked train carriage from Zurich arrived at St Petersburg and a slight man named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov disembarked with a handful of his comrades. After almost 20 years in exile, this political émigré, better known as Lenin, was ready to start his tryst with destiny.
Lenin arrived soon after the February Revolution succeeded in making Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, abdicate the throne to a provisional government. But the struggle was far from over — millions of Russian peasants were fighting on the battlefields of World War I, or trying to desert them to return to the poverty and inequality of their homeland.
On November 7, 1917, the cannons of the mutinous Battleship Aurora signalled not only the start of what became known as the Bolshevik Revolution, but also the birth of an era marked by an almost religious belief in egalitarian progress, the madness of Stalin’s apocalyptic terror, Irodov’s elegant physics problems and decades of Cold War — only to end with the sound of hammers demolishing the Berlin Wall in 1989. But Lenin, unaware of the future, focused on making good his promise to the armed workers and soldiers fighting for the Bolsheviks by implementing a key point of his political programme: ending Russian participation in WWI.
Lenin’s namesake and Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin is no stranger to war either. A former KGB (Soviet military) agent, he has held on to power with the strong grip of a judo black-belt ever since he emerged as Boris Yeltsin’s successor in 1999. But while Lenin, who ended Russian participation in the Great War in 1918, led the country into an even bloodier civil war, which lasted until 1921, Putin’s unbroken popularity has rested on his ability to bring stability after the chaotic 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not that Putin has not indulged in aggression — Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria attest to his willingness to use violence to support Russia’s geopolitical agenda. Nevertheless, Lenin, a man of utopian ideas, caused imminent suffering, with his permanent revolution, to the very people he wanted to save, while Putin, a man of decisive actions, has brought peace to the home front with expansionist victories in the fringes of the post-Soviet world.
Rule by a select few
The term Bolshevik, somewhat ironically, is rooted in the Russian word for “majority”. Lenin titled his first major political essay ‘What is to be done’ and found an answer in elitism — to convert the working class to Marxism, dedicated revolutionaries should form a “vanguard” to spread Marxist political ideas among the workers.
Putin’s rule has focused on a different elite by regaining control over the oligarchs who ran amok under Yeltsin. The selected few could legitimise their existence in the economic realm and leave the arduous task of governing to another elite comprised mainly of allies with a shared past in the military and intelligence services.
Both men came from a culture of secrecy and monopolisation of power by a few, but there is a marked difference in their professed intentions. The Bolsheviks dreamt of a new world that offers “land to the peasants and bread to the workers”, secularism, an end to the class struggle — lofty and untried ideas based on, if not good, at least honest intentions. No wonder communism was a dream most intellectuals outside the Eastern bloc firmly believed in well into the ’60s — by this time even Stalin was dead, not just Soviet idealism. Those who stayed true to the ideology after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 gave it up after the Prague Spring of 1968, or claimed to have found a Third Way. Putinism has never claimed to have a commitment to global social justice or changing the world, instead it has institutionalised Russian crony-capitalism with enough benefits offered to the middle class to keep them content and relatively prosperous (if oil prices allow). Still, Putin’s brand of state-driven capitalism has attracted followers if not in spirit (who would want to follow another country’s nationalism?), then at least in form.
One of the most successful Russian children’s books ever published has the telling title Lenin and the Children. Putin, the ultimate suitable man, is more prone to demonstrate his martial and hunting skills while studiously avoiding vodka in favour of milk and fruit juice in public. Nevertheless, the desire to impress with a well-crafted image is similar — to be masters of propaganda with a global impact. It’s the tools that have changed over the last century: from posters in various shades of red and the tsarist ballet play-acting Bolshevik revolutionaries in propaganda movies to the native English-speaking presenters on Russia Today and highly-skilled hackers wreaking havoc on social media. Curiously, one remnant of old-school communist propaganda remains: Lenin personified in stone, metal and, well, his own bodily form.
The poet-laureate of the 1920s’ Soviet Union, Mayakovsky promised that “Lenin lives, Lenin lived, and Lenin will live forever!” Even allowing for artistic vision, it’s unlikely that he could foresee that Lenin’s embalmed body would indeed remain in a mausoleum at the centre of Russia’s political heart, the Red Square in Moscow. But statues of Lenin can be found as far as the Pole of Inaccessibility at the Arctic, or as close as Nehru Park in Delhi.
Control the past, control the future
If one looks closely at some statues in Russia, there is a line separating the head from the body or the body from the pedestal — Lenin’s head is a replacement for Stalin’s, or Lenin himself has been replaced by a dashing hero of pre-revolutionary times. It’s hard to preserve a romantic notion of communism as a force of liberation and justice in 2017 when we know the suffering it caused to millions all over the world since. Lenin’s personal legacy has benefited greatly from the violence unleashed by his successor. Almost everybody looks better when compared to Stalin.
The duality of communism being the best of times and the worst of times creates some sensitivities around how the Bolshevik Revolution can be remembered in today’s Russia. Ingeniously, for the centenarian anniversary this year, Putin re-enacted the military parade of November 7, 1941, from where soldiers marched directly to the front to start the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. In Russia today, WWII veterans are universally revered heroes — their sacrifice (and that of more than 20 million Soviet citizens who perished in the War) is the common ground for identity politics regardless of political affiliation.
And glory is glory, no matter whether it’s achieved under a hammer and sickle, or the Orthodox cross. Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries fought against predatory imperialism, while Putin has proudly re-established the Russian empire.
Under the banner of nostalgia, there is no contradiction in the hearts between longing for the glorious military might of the Soviet Union and the traditional values of the tsarist empire, which the Union itself demolished. And while the Bolsheviks established a regime of oppression in the name of freedom, Putin has no qualms about being an oppressor in the name of stability.
Lenin’s comrade and, later, Stalin’s victim, Trotsky — famously portrayed as the pig Snowball in George Orwell’s Animal Farm — once sent the opposition to “the ash heap of history”. Where Putin’s Russia will end up with its aggression, limitless natural resources, low fertility rate and economic sanctions is yet unclear. To speculate, let me revert to two traditional and (alas!) British sources of authority. If Putin is the new tsar, as The Economist proclaimed, where is the pedestal his statue will stand on? Will he finally replace the Lenin statues scattered around Russia with his own, and demolish the memory of the communist legacy? Churchill, as usual, has a witty answer: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
ZV Kovácsis a freelance writer based in Singapore