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Putin’s Russia: Revolution, What Revolution?

Imagine France canceling Bastille Day. Or America demoting the Fourth of July and celebrating British monarchs instead. That sounds fantastical, even in our “post-truth” West. Yet in Russia, this is how Vladimir Putin is trying to refashion the country’s history. The leader who once lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” deems the October Revolution itself, the USSR’s foundational event, no cause for celebration. Today, November 7, the official birthday of the USSR, is no longer part of Russia’s holiday canon.

National holidays tell a story of a nation. Every Soviet person born before 1985—more than half of Russia’s population of 144 million people—knew that on November 7 (in the old, Julian calendar, October 25) an armed insurrection led by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party overthrew the “bourgeois” Provisional Government and transferred power to the Soviets in the name of the people. On that date, we were told, the “bloody tyranny” of the tsars had fallen, and the clock of world history had been reset to zero. We, the Soviet people, were the beneficiaries of mankind’s century-long quest for freedom, justice, and communion.

This major event required major celebration. For some three generations, the “October Holidays” were one of the three pillars around which the country’s collective life revolved, followed by the New Year and May Day holidays. November 7, “The Red Day of the Calendar,” meant two days off work or school, a mass demonstration of labor collectives, streets closed to traffic, military bands, red balloons tied to everything from rocket carriers to strollers, carnations, giant portraits of party leaders on wheels. There were floats shaped as the revolutionary cruiser Aurora, which had fired upon the Winter Palace to signal the start of the insurrection, and as the steam train that brought Lenin to Petrograd in April 1917.

A mass demonstration of solidarity was an essential part of the ritual. Women carried flowers. Men struggled under the weight of heavy banners proclaiming, “Long Live Proletarian Revolution!” and “The Communist Party is the Brain, Honor, and Consciousness of Our Epoch.” Somewhere, a megaphone blasted, “Greetings to the laborers of the First of May District!” “Long live our Soviet youth, the loyal followers of the Lenin’s cause!” Endless hurrahs rolled through the crowd, intensifying as you approached the raised platforms holding city officials, and organizers urged, “Louder, louder.” Your mother held your hand, and a lucky boy ahead waived at the onlookers from his father’s shoulders. Two hours later, you’d be dressed in your best clothes at the festive table that was piled with food typically unavailable the rest of the year, listening to adult jokes while champagne bottles were uncorked with pops as loud as Aurora’s salvos. “To the Holiday!”

Then came perestroika and glasnost. Things started to shift. The people’s triumph over the bourgeoisie and capitalism, it turned out, had come at a steep price. Every newspaper article about the gulag, every documentary about a demolished church, every novel by a previously banned writer, chipped away at our collective understanding of Soviet history and of ourselves. Idol after idol in our proletarian pantheon came crashing down. Lenin, the man “more alive than all the living,” held out longer, but in the end, he fell, too. Nothing built on a lie, they say, ends well.  ...

Read entire article at NY Review of Books