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Russia Marks The 99th Anniversary Of The 1917 Revolution

08/11/2016 12:17

October 25 marked the 99th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Well, actually, that's not strictly true. The shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendar that the Bolsheviks made in February 1918 means that the October Revolution's real anniversary falls in November. The 'Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution', the highlight of the Soviet calendar, was in fact celebrated each year on today's date, November 7, not October 25. But what did the engineers of the 'ten days that shook the world' care for piffling absurdities like that?

For Russophiles there'll be a lot to take in next year. The Royal Academy of Arts is hosting a star-studded exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, while the British Library will be mining its extensive East European collections to curate a series of centenary-inspired events. Star historians - Steve Smith, Laura Engelstein, and Mark Steinberg - will publish scholarly retakes on the momentous events of 1917. Not to mention the slew of stocktaking conferences, workshops, and lectures, including our own 'Revolution' series at the Centre for Russian Soviet Central and East European Studies in St Andrews.

The real question on everyone's lips, though, is how the centenary will be celebrated in Russia. Revolution, since the Maidan Revolution in Kiev two years ago, has become something of a dirty word. Following the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2012 the government has worked hard to pimp its image as an Olympics-wielding, Crimea-grabbing, hard man of the international scene. But with presidential elections just two years away, and talk of another Putin Medvedev-style 'castling' scenario on the cards, this hulking anniversary must surely be causing unease.

So what can we expect to happen in Russia in November 2017? Well, what definitely won't be happening is the orgy of revolutionary zeal exhibited in the 'mass spectacles' of 1918-21. These huge open-air performances were - according to their planners - spontaneous recreations of 'revolutionary dramas'. They involved students, soldiers, ballerinas and circus performers, recruited by avant-garde artists to stage the revolution for a mass audience. In post-Pussy Riot Russia, where politically inspired spontaneity is frowned upon in the extreme, the chances of a flash mob recreating the events of 1917 are slim to trifling. Still, it'll be worth keeping an eye on Palace Square next November in case of some real revolutionary happenings.

There's likewise little chance of the puffed up military parades that characterised celebrations of November 7 during the Cold War. Up until 1991 Soviet leaders would appear on top of Lenin's mausoleum nodding gravely at the columns of tanks, cavalry, and riflemen as they paraded across Red Square. That's not to say Putin's Russia is averse to such pomp: the technicolour patriotism of the Victory Day Parades is proof enough that Soviet traditions - often with a post-modern twist - are alive and well in Russia today. But honouring political revolution with a parade of tanks and missiles? A little unwise in the current climate, perhaps.

Official memory of 1917 may well be contained to a few low-profile exhibitions and wreath-laying activities. Whether regional memory of the events will coincide with the official line is another matter, however. One could well imagine the people of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), commemorating the gruesome murders of the last Romanovs in the town with a candlelight vigil, for example. Or, for that matter, the opening of a monument to Nicholas II in provincial Pskov, where the tsar signed the declaration of his abdication in 1917. Not to mention what may happen in the 'crucible of revolution' itself - St Petersburg. Will the battleship Aurora, which sounded the revolution's opening salvo, really not fire its guns? Will Finland Station, the backdrop to Lenin's rousing and iconic speech, really not draw a crowd? Only time (and social media) will tell.

There is one more scenario. This is that guerrilla commemorations headed by the Russian Communist Party will be held against the government's wishes. Over the past two electoral cycles the KPRF has increased its share of the vote from 12% to 20%. And, by all accounts, the party's new members aren't grizzled apparatchiks, but a new generation of well-educated activists, for many of whom 'real socialism' is beyond living memory. A recent stunt by the Revolutionary Communist Youth Union, in which an effigy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn was hung from the gates of the Moscow Gulag Museum, demonstrated the group's taste for political spectacle. The 1917 centenary will prove a tempting occasion for more such revolutionary antics.

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