The Ambiguous Legacy of October 1917 in Eastern Europe
by Don Longo
[This article is an edited version of a presentation given at a seminar on the centenary of Red October 1917 hosted by Adelaide’s Left Unity on 28 October 2017]
I want to talk about history wars. These have recently erupted again in Australia, with the IPA claiming that replacing the historical canon with identity politics is leading to the ruin of Australian, and indeed Western, civilisation These wars are of course an extension of politics by other means and are proxies for the continuing struggle over power and wealth, and who has them and who doesn’t.
But what I want to focus on are a different set of history wars in central and eastern Europe: the responses to the end of the USSR and the centenary of the 1917 Revolution in a few countries my wife and I recently visited: Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation. For the resurgent extreme right in these countries, 1917 and the communist legacy is an important part of their ideology.
First, some brief comments about the current political make-up of Hungary’s lower house. The main party is the Hungarian Civic Alliance (commonly known as Fidesz) with 53% of the seats. This party oversaw the transition from communism and was initially modelled on the liberal parties of western Europe, but since the 2000s it has since moved to a social conservative, far-right populist position whose PM Victor Orbán wants to ‘build an illiberal new state on national foundations’ with a new constitution overflowing with references to the nation, Christianity, the Holy Crown and traditional marriage. To make matters worse, Fidesz is in coalition with the Movement for a Better Hungary (commonly known as Jobbik) with 12% of the seats. Jobbik is an overtly ultra-nationalist party with extreme right and indeed neo-fascist and racist positions. On the left there are the reformist wing of the previous communist party with a strong privatisation agenda (14%), and the Greens (4%). Broadly speaking, post-communist Hungary is dominated by a capitalist free market with a social-nationalist and xenophobic ideological superstructure.
In this context a purge of the communist past and of its symbols was inevitable, and is being carried out with determined efficiency. This purge has been two kinds, one relating to the politics of space and the other to the ideology of representation.
Most street names from the communist era have been changed to reflect medieval and Christian heroes, or liberal ideologues of the 19th century. The statues of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, as well as those of workers, farmers and labour movement activists have been destroyed. The Museum of the Working Class Movement has been closed down. This year (2017), the main target has been the Marxist philosopher George Lukács, the author of History and Class Consciousness (1923). Jobbik has been agitating for his statue (in Szent István Park, in an area where many Jews survived World War II in ‘protected houses’) to be removed since 2014 on the grounds that it is a ‘distracting’ remnant of communism; but an equally strong reason was that Lukács was Jewish. With the support of Fidesz, the removal was effected on 28 March 2017 when trucks rolled in at dawn to take the statue away to an unknown destination. A similar fate has befallen Lukács’ modest 5th floor apartment on the bank of the Danube that housed his manuscripts and archives. Driven by the Academy of Sciences with collusion from Fidesz and Jobbik, the books have been moved to a library that hasn’t been built yet and the manuscripts have been housed ‘somewhere’ in the Academy. When I visited Budapest, the apartment had a banner on the outside indicating it was for rent or sale.
Eliminating symbols is only the start. In 1993, it was decided to retain 42 communist-era statues and to place them in a Memento Park, 12 km from Budapest. The Park’s intent is to show the ‘truth’ of the ‘soviet era’, that is, to be a memento to ‘tyranny’. Its design is indeed a marvel of post 1989 anti-communism: a space with a bright but rickety façade at one end and a brick wall at the other, while inside one walks in endless loops around the old statues. As a metaphor for communism its position is abundantly clear.
Equally unequivocal is Budapest’s Terror House, a museum to the ‘dictatorships’ of the right and the left opened in 2002 on Andrássy Boulevard with support from the Fidesz party. Its premises and address are significant: the building was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis between 1937-44, then of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross in 1944-45, and finally of the AVO/AVH, the communist security organisation. These parties had placed their organisations on the very up-market boulevard as an act of defiance against aristocratic and bourgeois elites whose villas lined the street. For the current regime, the Museum broadcasts a resounding political message: the identity of the right and the left, the sameness of the ‘two murderous regimes’ which reduced the people to ‘subjects’; in short, that race war is equivalent to class war. The museum’s rooms enunciate the standard litany against communist regimes: the expropriation of honest and hard-working Kulaks, the surveillance system, the failure of planned economies, etc. Most of all, the museum shows Hungary as a subject nation: Soviet influence is presented as ‘colonisation’ and the Hungarian communists as ‘collaborators’ during an ‘occupation’.
CZECH REPUBLIC (Prague)
The Czech Republic’s lower house is currently dominated by the social democrats (26%) and a populist party whose leader is the second richest man in the country (24%). Unlike Hungary, however, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has a significant presence with 17% of the seats. The country has substantial problems with its civil administration and the economy, and the regime constructs convoluted explanations about why the fantasy of a liberal paradise remains elusive: it’s not the free market that is to blame, of course, but rather the ‘legacy of communism’, the persistence of a supposed ‘communist mentality’, and even the existence of an authoritarian ‘sub-culture’.
In spite of the KSCM’s popularity, outward signs of the communist era are very hard to find and, unlike Hungary’s monuments to the ‘tragedy’ of 1956, there are no obvious public reminders of the Soviet tanks of 1968. Everything has been removed, even the memory. And indeed, the museums in the Jewish ghetto systematically omit the names of Jewish communists active in the anti-Nazi resistance or the post-war regime.
This absence applies to state-sponsored institutions and ideological statements. Admittedly, there is a Memorial to the Victims of Communism established in 2002 in Prague’s Malá Strana, where seven crumbling bronze figures descending a hill symbolise the disintegration of humanity under communism; but this is hardly taken seriously, and is even the butt of jokes by Prague’s artists.
There is also a Museum of Communism in Prague that resembles Budapest’s ‘Terror House’, but it is problematic to draw any meaningful conclusions from it. It was opened in 2001 by an American, Glenn Spicker (founder of a bagel chain in the Republic after 1992), and was initially housed above a McDonald’s. The museum is essentially one large room with exhibits and storyboards. Three words in large black print at the entrance sum up its ideological position: ‘Communism: Dream, Reality, Nightmare’. The message, as in Budapest, is unambiguous: the mock classroom shows the workings of ‘indoctrination’; the bogus workshop of the 1960s is full of primitive equipment and tools; the planned economy is equated with shortages; the security organisation was all about terror. Havel’s post-89 liberal democracy is presented as a ‘normalisation’, a setting of things right. It is a crude, overtly pro-American, sensationalist pop anti-communism with a Manichean approach that leaves little to reflection and nuance, and where the visitor can buy babushkas with fangs and reprints of Jiri Klobouk’s 1975 Anti Communist Manifesto about the ‘Big Red Lie’. It is essentially a restatement of Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’.
After Russia’s 2011 elections the Duma is dominated by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party (53% of the seats). The Communists (20%), the social democrats (14%) and the liberal democrats (an authoritarian far-right imperialist party, 12%) represent significant minorities. There has also been a rise in pan-slavism (known as the ‘Fourth Political Theory’, essentially an east-looking national bolshevism), but this has not translated into any parliamentary seats – or not yet. I won’t say much about Putin’s post-Soviet Russia since it is fairly familiar. But I frankly admit to a respect for Putin and his agenda: the restoration of the state after its assets were pillaged by the wealthy oligarchs after 1992; his commitment to multilateralism through treaties with BRICs nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and his handling of the USA’s revitalised cold war are all praiseworthy. And I freely admit that I found it refreshing to wander through Russian streets still largely free of the blemishes of liberal capitalism such as imbecile and intrusive marketing, ugly graffiti and American false bonhomie. Perhaps this won’t last.
Levada Institute polls
It worth reflecting on some polls run by Russia’s independent Levada Institute during the 2000s which show some resurgence of revolutionary romanticism and nostalgia for the USSR. Two polls run in 2016 are particularly interesting. One about the USSR in November indicates that 56% of Russians don’t feel the collapse of the USSR benefitted Russia, and indeed 58% say they would like to see the Soviet Union rebuilt. When the numbers are broken down, however, most of the respondents who favoured rebuilding the Soviet system didn’t actually see that a credible option: 44% said it was currently unrealistic and only 14% said it was still possible. The other poll, run in March, was about Stalin. An almost equal number of Russians saw Stalin as an ‘inhuman tyrant’ as ‘a wise leader who took the USSR to greatness and prosperity.’ (I noted that Stalin’s grave by the Kremlin wall had fresh red carnations each day.) Generally speaking, the polls tend to focus on the positive legacy of the USSR: the stability, the greater equality and civic responsibility, the social welfare, its considerable achievements in science and industry, its defeat of Nazism, the pride arising from its position as a major world power. The same polls decry the current inequalities, the rule of money and the increase in ‘mutual distrust and cruelty’.
But of course, longing for does not mean striving toward, and with a Communist Party that has only 20% of Duma seats any striving will have limited success. The polls’ significance is that Russians don’t appear to believe that liberal institutions are the wonders Western politicians and their mass media make them out to be.
October 1917 and the ambiguities of ‘reconciliation’
There was no official pronouncement about the centenary of 1917 until very late in 1916. In December, Putin announced that there would be no state-sanctioned or popular commemoration in the streets (though admittedly there have been no formal interdictions). Instead, he wanted the focus to be on academic reflection, a ‘profound analysis, honest and objective, of 1917’, with a committee to oversee the debates. Not surprisingly, the committee has very little impact. The Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow University, some foreign academics, the major museums (St. Petersburg’s Museum of Political History and Moscow’s Museum of Contemporary History) are running some exhibitions and seminars, but these hardly qualify as public commemorations. The Hermitage is running a major exhibition on the storming of the Winter Palace (sponsored by none other than the VTB Bank!) and is showing Margy Kinmonth’s Revolution – New Art For A New World on the avant-garde culture of the 1920s. But these too have little focus on Bolshevik politics.
And there is the rub: the official line is one of ‘reconciliation’ not revolution. The position taken by Russia’s Minister of Culture and Education, Vladimir Mendinsky reflects this ambivalence. The Revolution for him was a ‘tragedy’ where both factions had some ‘truth’ on their side and thus can all validated, since both Whites and Reds showed ‘heroism’ and fought for a stronger Russia each in its own way, imperial for one, soviet for the other. Through an historical alchemy, he links October 1917 to the current government by appealing to nationalism, and in so doing he avoids taking the Revolution on its own terms and leeches out the meaning it had for the revolutionaries (and indeed, the counter-revolutionaries) themselves. In this vision, there was no class struggle, no expropriation of the expropriators, no socialism, no establishment of a militant communist international. October 1917 was about state-building, the fixing what had been broken the previous February, a precursor of the current Russian state. In sum, the Revolution is neither fully embraced nor fully disowned. At heart, Putin and his regime wants stability at all costs.
Contradictions and ambiguities
However, unsettling contradictions are everywhere in Russia. For example, the Romanovs were recently canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and re-buried at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. In addition, a lavish new Church has been built over their place of execution at Ekaterinburg. Yet at Ekaterinburg itself, the large statue of Yakov Sverdov (the Soviet official who ordered the Romanov’s execution) is still there. And in the park directly opposite the Church, facing it, stands a grand monument to the Komsomol.
It doesn’t end there. The Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square is just across the GUM shopping mall, whose luxury goods attract wealthy Russians and tourists. There is a great statue of Gorky at Belarusskaya, in north-west Moscow, looks over a new steel and glass business district. The battleship Aurora in St. Petersburg has been painstakingly restored and gets large numbers of visitors, most of them Russian including many children. But there is ambivalence in its exhibits, which focus as much on its place in the Russian Navy as the harbinger of October (including a 3D model of the storming of the Winter Palace intended for children). The train and statues at the Finland Station look forlorn, but the statue of Lenin on the adjacent square always has an offering of fresh flowers. The street in front of the Smolny Institute (site of the Bolsheviks’ first government) still has its 1917 name – Boulevard of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat – but it runs past a newly restored Orthodox Church that is visited by busloads of tourists. In St. Petersburg, the Museum of Political History runs the ‘reconciliation’ line, but the general tenor is supportive of the Revolution, and Lenin’s and Krupskaya’s offices are lovingly – and I mean adoringly – preserved and displayed. Far from being removed, old Soviet symbols have been restored to their former glory in recent years, such as Vera Mukhina’s magnificent 1937 constructivist statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, which now has pride of place at Moscow’s All Russia Exhibition Centre.
These contradictions are reflected in Putin’s own person. He kneels devoutly in Church but won’t tear up his Party card. He has recently admitted sympathy for ‘communist and socialist ideas’ and the ‘planned economy’ but he won’t confront the major banks and oligarchs that control Russia’s finance and trade. In a recent poll, a majority of Russians wanted Lenin’s embalmed body buried but Putin refused to allow it since Lenin was the ‘founder’ of the republican state. He sees himself as inheritor of the Czars but is often nostalgic for the grand days of the Soviets who toppled Czardom. He admits past Soviet mistakes but celebrates Stalin’s leadership in building the Soviet state and in the Great Patriotic War against Nazism.
The geo-political endgame predicted by Francis Fukuyama in his End of History and the Last Man (1992) has not come to pass. I’m sure none of us today ever thought that American parliamentary liberal democracy would be the last say in world affairs. But it’s clear that the old Cold War concepts of ‘dictatorship’ and ‘totalitarianism’ still have political currency in the post ‘89 regimes of Eastern Europe. In these same countries, particularly Hungary and Ukraine, the rise of neo-fascist parties makes the building of a communist movement for the 21st century is vitally important.
The rise of neo-fascism makes the low key response of international progressives to October 1917 dispiriting. Even the luminaries of the left are distancing themselves from it. Tarik Ali, for example, discourages any ‘emulation’ of Red October, and Slavoj Žižek believes that October represents a defunct paradigm and Lenin’s only lesson is to teach us to fail, and fail again.
I think this is defeatist drivel. So I’ll end by saying about Red October what Chou En-Lai said about the Great French Revolution: we don’t really know what its outcomes are: ‘it’s too early to tell’ he said, and added, ‘it’s not over yet!’