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Regular version of the site

Overcoming the Revolution

Why Russia is still experiencing the effects of the 1917 October Revolution

A hundred years has passed since the October Revolution of 1917, but this event still hasn’t reached its logical conclusion. Its consequences are still crucial in defining the political system in Russia today and fostering divisions in society, believes Andrey Medushevsky, Professor at the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, political scientist, historian and author of the book A Political History of the Russian Revolution: Norms, Institutions and Forms of Social Mobilization in the 20th Century. 

Andrey N. Medushevsky,
Tenured Professor at HSE, author of books on history and political law, Candidate of Sciences (History), Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy)

— What do you associate with the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution? What thoughts do you have about this event?

— My attitude to the revolution is negative. I believe it was a social catastrophe, not only for Russia, but for the whole world. The basis of this destructive process was a certain myth about social justice, which postulated that complex problems can be solved quickly and easily at minimal social cost. Usually, this means equalitarian redistribution of property, which was presented as part of the communist myth in Russia.

At the same time, a revolution always means disrupted modernization with respect to legal forms. In all countries where large scale revolutions took place, the pace of modernization at that crucial moment was the highest in their respective histories. This was true for England, France, Mexico, China and Iran. At the start of the 20th century, Russia was also undergoing rapid social modernization, especially after the great reforms of 1860s. That’s why the reform alternative to revolution is always more effective.

— Revolutions usually happen in moderately developed countries that are starting the modernization process. This changing situation leads to a choice of strategies. One of them is to move gradually, carry out reforms, which are often painful, and create conditions for the transformation from one social system to another. The other strategy is to avoid painful reforms and achieve social justice at once. This can be seen as a sign of social impatience and, to a certain extent, a spontaneous psychological reaction to rapid social change, to which a given society might not be prepared. At such moments, a lot depends on the political elites and their ability to manage current processes. Therefore, potential revolutions don’t always happen in reality.

— Do you believe that such a powerful outburst, based on the communist myth, and the following social experiment, was inevitable in the global sense? Was it bound to happen somewhere in the world?

— Communist ideas have existed since the dawn of humanity. They partly manifested during the other big revolutions, such as the Paris Commune in 1870. So, this was not the first of such experiments. But it was the first one so huge, claiming for universality and offering an ideology, as well as an economic and political system, for the whole world. In this sense, the Russian revolution was a testing ground for a major social and, in a certain sense, research experiment. Communist ideology claimed it could change society on the basis of the so-called laws claimed to have been discovered by Karl Marx.

However, I can’t say that that experiment was necessary on such a huge scale and with so many victims. History has shown that there are always alternatives. The greatest mistake of the Russian political elite was that they didn’t understand the danger and didn’t offer effective solutions to the situation, which resulted in a spontaneous revolutionary outburst.

— What does the 1917 revolution mean for Russia today? What meaning does it have for contemporary society?

— Public opinion is a sphere where various myths prevail. Today, 1917 is splitting Russian society into various groups who adhere to a certain myth. There are traditionalists who say that the revolution was evil and no change was needed. The others, on the contrary, believe that we should go back to revolutionary ideals and continue building communism and pursuing an idea of total equality. This is a left wing project, and it is still powerful, in spite the catastrophic results in Russia. At the same time, the third project is the liberal one, which presumes that revolution is not a solution, but a problem, as it is the start of a huge process of social transformation, which is completed with the creation of a civil society and a law-governed state.

— It’s been a hundred years after the revolution. Is this long enough to reach any conclusion about it?

— We should look at revolutions not as at one-time events, as they last as long as their founding myth and formula for legitimizing power exist. However, this ends as soon as society experiences a new democratic consolidation and legal identity. For example, the French Revolution triggered certain changes that continued for 150 years. Furthermore, according to certain French researchers, the sustainable existence of the state was only a possibility after the current constitution was adopted in 1958. By then, all experiments with radical transition from one political system to the other were finished, and a centrist system had evolved, which is based on democratic institutions, but also features strong and effective executive power. This process may be fast or slow. So, the duration of this period is not important.

The Mexican Revolution started around the same time as the Russian Revolution. Today, conclusions are still being drawn, and I can say that opinions are similar in both countries. The Chinese and Iranian revolutions probably still haven’t reached their final conclusions, because their respective ideologies and social experiments have yet to reach their endpoint. Nevertheless, we can say that in Russia, after the 1993 constitutional takeover, the legitimizing formula of the revolution was reconsidered, and it finally reached its historical end. However, it’s clear that the revolutionary experiment still influences our political system.

— In your new book on the 1917 revolution, you address the issue as to whether the current political system is continuing the logic of revolutionary transformation in the 20th century, or making a break with it. What are your conclusions?

— I believe that any revolution goes through several stages. First, this means the destruction of previously existing legal forms and the creation of new ones, which are subsequently consolidated through political constitutions. Then, they may be modified within the parameters of a revolutionary myth, towards a more pragmatic interpretation. The third stage is restoration. This is a return to stability, which existed before the revolution, and an attempt to make use of its achievements, while avoiding its methods. This means going back to a legal system, criticizing any illegal changes, and moving forward. The Russian Revolution didn’t go through a restoration stage in the classical Western European understanding of this idea (e.g., Thermidorian Reaction, Bonapartism, and restoration of the monarchy). However, the current political system is reasonably implementing the functions of the missed restoration stage, or post-Revolutionary stabilization. And this explains its specific features.

The legitimizing formula of the system of power in Russia today is combination of three essential parts: an imperial, a revolutionary and a republican part. In fact, this manifests itself through the concept of an imperial presidency. On one hand, there is democratic legitimacy (i.e., national presidential elections are held). On the other hand, the revolutionary part is that the president is the guarantor of the constitution and the whole process of transition (i.e., its main ideologist who determines the direction of political development). The monarchial part means that presidential power is legally and essentially above the entire separation of powers. And this is the basis of a political regime that can be called ‘democratic caesarism’, ‘media-bonapartism’, or even ‘latent monarchy’.

The objective is to depart from the authoritarian formula and move forward. At the same time, if we speak about restoration in contemporary Russia, the question then is what should be restored? There is no consensus in this respect. Some want to go back to an imperial order (i.e., restoring cultural identity in imperial forms), others want the Soviet system back, while a third group supports a liberal concept of restoration. And this can be clearly seen in how state symbols are used. For instance, imperial symbols are used along with Soviet and post-Soviet ones. This eclecticism may be explained, since it is, probably, driven by attempts to ’overcome’ the revolution. However, the essential problem is to what extent this restoration should take place, and where it should be halted.

— Can the revolution, as a historic event, be used for political purposes?

— Today, there is competition among the various myths of the revolution. And those that are advantageous for legitimatizing political power are romanticized. In fact, we can see a reincarnation of old Soviet myths. This is happening through the re-writing the history, forcing out alternative opinions from the media, Internet, and textbooks. For example, Stalinism is being reconsidered from a positive perspective, whereby certain Soviet achievements are highlighted, while the catastrophic consequences, including the Gulag and mass repressions, are almost totally ignored. The worst thing is that the fall of the Soviet Union, the experience of the 1990s and the transition to a modern democratic system are subject to constant criticism. All of these things are explained as either demolition of the state, a conspiracy, or the influence of external powers.

However, it would be a simplification to say that this ideological trend is simply state policy. There are several factors at play promoting the revival of Soviet myths. They are Russia’s cultural and political continuity with the Soviet Union, the real continuity of institutions, as well as the attitudes of intellectual elites and the authorities.

Political continuity means that Russia has officially declared itself as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, and this promotes the restoration of Soviet ideas and imperial thinking. Speaking about the continuity of institutions, the first chapters of the Russian constitution of 1993 are based on international standards, while others establish a strict form of power. The constitutional changes of recent years, laws on federalism, administrative and judicial reforms have largely followed the same centralist patterns that existed in Soviet times.

— In terms of the 1917 revolution, the intellectual elites turned out to be incapable of looking at history as a field of research. Among other things, one reason for this is post-modernist philosophy, which allows for many different views and the prevalence of relativism. This approach is in opposition to academic knowledge, whereby confirmation of one’s argument is obligatory. Until the intellectual elites start looking at history as an academic field, manipulations of the past will continue.

The authorities naturally take advantage of the ambiguity in historical discourse for their own legitimization. And this may have negative consequences. If political elites actually believe in what they are saying, they will be incapable of carrying out modernization and implementing future-oriented reforms, which are necessary for Russian society.

— In one of your papers, you mentioned that the foundations for the fall of the Soviet Union appeared shortly after the revolution. Could you elaborate?

— Indeed, the most important reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was built into its state model right after the revolution (in 1918). For instance, in the 1924 constitution, the Soviet Union declared itself a federation consisting of various subjects. But in legal terms, a confederation was established, since the secession of subjects from the federation was allowed. However, it was, in fact, a unitary state, since federalism was a fiction in the context of the communist dictatorship. As such, this federation was defined by its internal contradictions based on national or even ethnic principles, and it was asymmetric.

The Soviet federation included other federations. For example, the Russian federation was part of the Soviet one. And this made no sense. Furthermore, the principle of equality among federal subjects didn’t work in reality. There were union republics, autonomous republics, and national autonomies. This was a ‘matryoshka-type’ structure, which aimed mostly to paralyze any attempts of the union republics to separate.

Russia inherited this ineffective federalism, which is theoretically based on ethnic borders, from the Soviet Union. Although the current constitution doesn’t allow for secession, if there is no civil nation and if federalism is asymmetrical, this might be time bomb, which may explode if the central authority weakens.

— On one hand, a complicated system that paralyzed the possibility of secession was created, but on the other hand, it was legally justified. Why did this happen?

— In order to simplify accession to the Soviet Union for other peoples, so that revolution and communism would eventually conquer the entire world. We can say that the collapse of the Soviet Union, which happened in 1991, mirrored the creation of the union itself, but only in reverse order. At first, the absolute power of the Communist Party weakened, and the one-party dictatorship was eliminated. Then, when the relevant chapter was deleted from the constitution, a discussion started as to the constitutional character of the system itself. With an effective constitution, the republics would have the right to secession. And they declared it. Moreover, their secession from the Soviet Union happened within the framework of the Soviet constitution.

— What can you add in regards to the relatively popular discussion as to whether the Soviet Union could have been preserved or not?

— I think that the collapse of the Soviet Union couldn’t have been avoided once it was in its final stage. Its existence could have been prolonged by repression and a return to a totalitarian regime. But, fortunately, things didn’t play out this way.

There was an opportunity to preserve the system of integration during the early stages of this process. Gradual transformation was necessary, by developing the market economy and pursuing the NEP (new economic policy) since the 1920s. In the post-war period, there also was theoretical opportunity to start reforms, renounce the tough one-party dictatorship, and change from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian one. In addition, the structure of Soviet federalism could have been rethought.

If political elites would see the prospects of our globalizing world and allow for more openness of information and timely reforms, the results might be quite different. At least, it could ensure more effective relations within the new system. 

Author: Marina Selina, October 18, 2017