As with all anniversaries, it brings with it a range of tributes, and not necessarily complimentary ones. One of these is Armando Iannucci’s new movie The Death of Stalin, an extremely witty, gag-packed satire on the death of one of the most notorious mass murderers of the 20th century. It could be seen as an attempt to bring to the screen the Russian version of Karl Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.” But as farcical and entertaining as the movie is, it is also a striking reminder of a revolution that promised to bring some of the noblest of ideas to fruition, yet ended in one of the most oppressive and brutal regimes in history.
Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 might have been the beginning of the end of the Russian Revolution, but it managed to hobble along for another 30-something years. Iannucci has caricatured some of that era’s most vicious characters and made them appear almost human. But this was the darkest side of humanity, which in its thirst for power and in the name of ideology built a system that served the vested interests and privileges of a relatively small elite. By the time Stalin died there was little left of socialism in the Soviet Union; there was mainly a memory of the millions who were purged, and the many more millions who suffered in the Gulag forced-labor camps in the Great Terror. And there were the questions that remain unanswered; did the Russian Revolution fail because its ideology was impossible to implement from the outset? Was Russia not ready for such an avant-garde ideology? Or was it just led by the wrong people? To be sure it was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who rightly argued that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” Lenin’s theory of seizing power was successful, but totally failed in forming a state built on socialist principles.
The Russian revolutionaries suffered the fate of many who, soon after taking power, channel their energies into ensuring control of the country and eliminating their enemies, real or imaginary, instead of constructing their ideological dream. It was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and third president of the US, who declared that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” In other words, such a spectacular, though violent, phenomenon can be a necessary act of rectifying, rebalancing and introducing a new order. Necessary or not, the October Revolution certainly ushered in a new order domestically, and eventually also internationally.
The Russian Revolution cannot be understood in isolation from the upheavals of its times. It was not only the oppressive and corrupt regime of the tsars that led to the revolution, but also the country’s involvement in a world war, which for Lenin and his comrades represented a conflict between capitalist-imperialist countries that Russia should stay away from. One of the ironies of the Russian Revolution was that in its resistance to imperialist expansion it ended building its own empire, depriving millions of people, within the Soviet Union and outside it, of the right to self-determination.
From a distance of 100 years it might be easy to forget that the Russian Revolution took place in times of a genuine battle of ideologies, something that is absent from the current international political arena. Liberalism, communism, fascism and their variants were locked in conflict. In the aftermath of the Second World War this inevitably led to a bipolar world in which capitalism was pitted against communism in the shadow of the threat of nuclear war. At the end of the day the Soviet Union’s version of socialism did not deliver the earthly paradise it promised. Instead it failed economically, and politically it produced a totalitarian regime that the country has yet to recover from.
Lenin and Stalin deposed an autocratic ruler, but their version of socialism failed politically and economically — and Russia is again ruled by a modern-day tsar.
Nevertheless, the rivalry between the two ideological systems forced the capitalist world — the West — to reform and make concessions to the working classes in their countries. The welfare society as it has evolved in the West has been the result not only of domestic developments, but also an attempt to fend off Soviet influence. The mixed social democrat-welfare societies introduced a softer and more human type of capitalism, although this is currently under constant attack.
There won’t be much celebrating in Moscow to commemorate the Russian Revolution’s centenary; this is not the kind of past that many feel nostalgic about. They currently have the more pressing issue of dealing with a pretend democracy led by Vladimir Putin that is looking increasingly like a reincarnation of tsarism. Russia 100 years on is expanding its territory, playing a central role in international affairs and interfering in other countries’ affairs, but it is far from resolving some of social frictions that led to the October 1917 Revolution.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg