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Russian revolution 100 years on: 'Psychological and historical trauma' still present

Mikhail Zygar
Mikhail Zygar Courtesy Mikhail Zygar

This week on 7 November (according to the Gregorian calendar*) it is 100 years since Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks revolted against the parliamentary government, that eight months previously had overthrown the Tzarist regieme.


Using Marxism/Leninism as guiding principles, the Bolsheviks created councils consisting of workers and peasants, called “Soviets.”

After a bloody civil war, Lenin, and his successor Stalin consolidated the power of their communist party through purges and a rule of terror that cost the lives to millions of people.

RFI's Jan van der Made talked to Michail Zygar, author of a new book The Empire Must Die, and editor in chief of the 1917 Free History interactive multimedia site, about the last decades of the Russian empire under the Tzar and those ten days in November that shook the world.

Jan van der Made: Russian president Vladimir Putin does not seem to be too fond of commemorating the 1917 revolution. There are no official celebrations, just the Communist Party, arguably the true heirs of the revolution, who are planning events. Why is that?

Mikhail Zygar: There have been no such commemorations throughout the years. The October Revolution is not an event to be celebrated. The word “celebration” is not appropriate. It could have been commemorated and there is definitely space for a broad public discussion of that anniversary.

Sometimes we hear people talking about leaving the country, about emigration, because they are afraid that some kind of purges will happen again.

Russian revolution 100 years

But we don’t have that kind of discussion. The main reason for that is the decision made by President Putin last year, during a closed meeting in the Kremlin, according to sources from his inner circle, saying that “only experts,” i.e. historians, should discuss this anniversary, but not civil society.

One of the reasons for this is that for Putin, Russia as an empire is probably is probably a main value. Next year, he is going to run to be re-elected as Russian president, and the greatest achievement of this presidential term is “making Russia great again.” Making Russia an empire again.

A lot of people in this country are feeling happy and proud of that feeling of patriotism, of Russia being a great power.

In that [respect], 1917 is not convenient to be discussed and commemorated, as 1917 is the year when the Russian empire collapsed, and when the Russian empire became outdated and too corrupt and bureaucratic.

The second reason is that the idea of stability is always [a period] enjoyed by Russian authorities so they don’t want to discuss a period of instability, the period [in history] when civil society was stronger, the period when in the first half of that year democratic values prevailed. After that, the Bolsheviks prevailed, and, as Putin said, Lenin was the man who destroyed the Russian empire, and destroyed Russia. So he is no fan of Lenin.

Jan van der Made: The Communist Party does plan some activities, so there is still some interest in it?

Mikhail Zygar: That Communist Party barely exists. It is a puppet-political party, it isn’t communist at all, it has nothing to do with any leftist ideology. It is a very conservative party, loyal to President Putin. They are only pretending to be communist, and they are a rather ridiculous political force, so no one really cares about them.

Jan van der Made: The Russian revolution at the time set an example for many countries to follow this communist experiment. Some are still following it, even today, notably North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and, albeit in a different way, China. Why did the communist Soviet Union fail to stay on the path set by the revolution. Why couldn’t it survive?

Mikhail Zygar: After the ‘60s, the majority of Russians stopped believing in that communist ideology. And by the mid-80s, the democratic aspirations of the Russian people[really grew and asserted themselves]. There were protests that resulted in Perestroika in the 1980s, when a lot of Russian people really wanted democratic reforms.

So by the beginning of the 1990s, it was actually the Russian people who overthrew the communist regime and it was Russian people who ended up with totalitarianism, with communism.

And the Soviet Union actually collapsed in 1991, after huge protests by inhabitants of big cities across Russia.

Jan van der Made: The October 26 cover of The Economist depicted Vladimir Putin as “The New Tsar”, saying that he is the most powerful leader since Stalin. Do you agree that Russia  has came a full circle?

Mikhail Zygar: That’s a real exaggeration. We don’t have any reliable statistics unfortunately. The highest peak of Putin’s approval ratings reached 86 percent a couple of years ago, and those numbers are not credible, so I don’t think that would rate him better than the Russian Tsar.

It is a very black and white description of the political situation in our country. I would compare today’s Russia with the Russian empire before 1917 in some other ways, because before the revolution, there was a huge conflict between Russian civil society and the authorities, between Russia’s educated class and Russian bureaucracy. And that is the same conflict we observe now.

Jan van der Made: What did the 1917 revolution bring to the Russia of today?

Mikhail Zygar: We had two revolutions in 1917. The first one [in February] was democratic, the second one was a revolution of Bolsheviks.

The October revolution, the Bolshevik revolution was the beginning of a bloody civil war. That was a huge tragedy for the Russian people. That caused a real psychological, historical trauma that still exists, and a lot of people in Russia still after all [these years] are sometimes seriously afraid that those events will happen again.

Sometimes we hear people talking about leaving the country, about emigration, because they are afraid that some kind of purges will happen again.

It is not the reality we live in today. You cannot compare Russia of the Bolshevik revolution with today’s Russia. But the psychological trauma still affects our country.

Jan van der Made: You are running the “1917 Free History” multimedia project, aimed at showing people Russia’s history via “those who lived through this defining moment of the 20th century.” What lessons can be learned from this “defining moment” not only by Russians, but by people in other countries as well?

Mikhail Zygar: Probably one of the main missions of our project is to show that history is not defined by the ruler. It’s not defined by even the politicians. It is usually decided by everyone.

Our project looks like a documentary social network of the world one hundred years ago, and it consists of a lot of diaries and letters and memoirs of people who lived at that time, and it forms a kind of documentary Facebook.

[Through it] we can see that all of those people matter, that the stereotype that the people cannot influence their own destiny is wrong. [We see] that everyone is very important, and it is not only up to the authorities, not up to leaders, to decide the future of any nation.


*The October Revolution took place on 25 October 1917 according to the Julian calendar, which was in use by Russia at the time. Just after the revolution, the new regime switched to the Gregorian calendar, leaving a gap of 13 days, and shifting the date of the revolution to 7 November.

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