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reflections

Nov 7, 2017 | 17:10 GMT

7 mins read

Russia Celebrates an Uncomfortable Centennial

An old sign in downtown Samara references the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the centennial of which Russia's government is uneasily observing.
(MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Forecast Update

According to Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing mounting opposition ahead of next year's presidential election and so is working to bolster his position by financing certain sectors and regions and by working to divide the opposition through political maneuverings and the control of information. Despite his dissenters, Putin will almost certainly win the election, but in the meantime historical events will be an unwelcome reminder that no leader can stave off opposition indefinitely and all empires must fall.

The centennial anniversary of the launch of the Russian Revolution on Nov. 7 will serve as a haunting reminder for Russia's current leaders that their power is finite. The event comes a year after Russia observed the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a similarly unsettling marker for the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is facing opposition from within its own ranks and on the ground.

Building a Revolution

The Russian Revolution — also known as the Bolshevik Revolution or October Revolution — arose out of a multitude of cracks in the Russian Empire, similar to those fissures that appeared before the Soviet Union collapsed and those emerging today. The revolutionary spirit was born decades before the fight began but escalated to violence by the end of the 19th century. There was a massive demographic change underway at the time — similar to that underway today — as many young people suddenly had access to education when serfdom was abolished in 1861. These new students and their teachers were attracted to the anti-monarchist efforts. Meanwhile, industrialization created a rapidly expanding urban class, causing Russia's primary cities to double in size between 1890 and 1910. The new urban population was in need of work, food and shelter, but got only contempt from Russian nobles.

It didn't help that the empire was experiencing serious economic troubles following the sharp contraction of European economies in 1899. Many of Russia's nobility had investments abroad, and in the years following the contraction more than a third of Russian noblemen were forced to sell or give up their land and homes. Emancipated peasants, who had never managed people or business, took over much of the agricultural industry, leading to inefficiencies.

It was within this context — reflected in the work of acclaimed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov — that revolutionary fervor built. One of Chekhov's most notable works, The Cherry Orchard, follows Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, the owner of a picturesque manor overlooking the estate's orchard who is at risk of losing it all. Through this story, Chekhov captures the Russian aristocracy's wistful attempts to cling to status while foolishly ignoring the younger generation's warnings. Chekhov was clearly inspired by Bolshevik calls for reforms to the autocratic Tsarist system, and though the monarchy attempted to censor the play, when it debuted in 1904 in Moscow, its intent was not lost on its disaffected urban audience.

It could be argued that the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was doomed from the beginning. For his coronation day in 1896, the monarchy planned a huge festival that included booths in a town square adjacent to Moscow's Khodynka Field to hand out sausage, bread, gingerbread and beer. But when turnout unexpectedly reached half a million people, things went awry. Supplies quickly ran out, the crowd panicked and some 1,300 people were trampled to death; an equal number of others were injured. Nicholas hence came to be known as Nicholas the Bloody, a nickname he actually earned in 1905 when his government violently cracked down on several protests by workers, students, minorities and those upset by Russia's humiliating military defeat to Japan. The crackdowns and the ensuing violence are estimated to have killed more than 15,000 people.

U.S. Consul in Batum W.H. Stuart said of the situation, "The whole country is simply permeated with sedition and reeking with revolution, racial hatred and warfare, murder, incendiarism, brigandage, robbery and crime of every kind…. As far as can be seen we are on the high road to complete anarchy and social chaos." The monarchy attempted to stave off the rebellion with concessions, such as liberalizing the press and creating a State Duma to represent the people and their concerns. But the end of the empire was accelerated by two more critical crises: World War I and massive food shortages. Despite 3 million lives lost in war by 1917 and the mass desertion of soldiers, the Tsar insisted on staying in the war. Deserting soldiers began to join protesters in St. Petersburg. Rallies further surged when the grain harvest collapsed because of mismanagement of lands and a shortage of workers due to the war. When government soldiers refused to open fire on protesters, it displayed a weakness in the system and made way for massive revolt.

The Drawbacks of Success

Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, leaving in his wake a power vacuum that led to a chaotic attempt to create a dual-governing system between the bourgeois-led Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, made up of lower- and middle-class workers and soldiers. Out of the chaos, an unlikely leader emerged, a rag-tag group of Bolsheviks under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin kept his message simple: "Peace, Land and Bread!" In essence, basic rights for all: It was a message that spoke to a wide swath of the population. Though the revolution devolved into a five-year civil war before the Bolsheviks solidified control, it was clear that the sun had clearly set on Russia's monarchical empire and was rising on a new Soviet empire that would rule for the next approximately 70 years, before it too collapsed.

Putin's government has struggled in recent years to commemorate historical events while reconciling them with the pressure on the Russian Federation. The Kremlin has been choosy about its history, playing up convenient points in time while downplaying moments that could justify or inspire challenges to its rule. The current Russian empire and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, were created through revolution, war and chaos — which is an uncomfortable truth for Russia's leaders. Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, came to power amid massive turmoil: He called on tanks to secure the government during a 1991 coup attempt and then managed the 1993 constitutional crisis, the single most deadly protest event since the Russian Revolution. But Putin has argued that his rise to power was different. In his first inaugural speech in 2000, he described it as "the first time in the history of our state that power was handed over... legally and peacefully."

Taking a note from Lenin, Putin vowed to ensure the security and stability of Russia and its people. Now, after 17 years of mostly delivering on that promise, Putin is faced with the same societal and political divisions that brought down the Russian monarchy and later the Soviet Union. A generation of kids born after the fall of the Soviet Union are coming of age and are more politically active and socially connected than are their parents. At the same time, the ethnic makeup of Russia is changing: Slavic Russian populations are declining and Muslim populations are increasing. Furthermore, the economy is hurting, political infighting is weakening the Kremlin, Russia's regions are turning against Moscow, the country is locked in a tense standoff with the West, and it faces challenges to its territorial integrity from all sides.

For an astute student of history such as Putin, it's clear that Russia today resembles Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution. Thus, Putin seems to be bracing for what is to come, entrenching loyalists within his government and boosting the security forces. Meanwhile, the world wonders if Putin will be able to pass on power as seamlessly as he took it. Even if he succeeds, such a leadership transition wouldn't necessarily unite a divided and disaffected Russia, and an eventual bloody end to the Russian Federation — just like that came to the Russian monarchy and the Soviet Union — cannot be ruled out.

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