Russia baffles me. Its systems of everyday life combine regularity and inefficiency, it drowns in bloodboiling amounts of bureaucracy, and in the week running up to the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the people and the press are ticking along as normal.
“You know it’s the centenary of the Russian Revolution, right?” I asked my Russian friend in a spontaneous evening phone call. His reply was an indecisive “I don’t know, probably, yes.” I didn’t expect him to be digging out the red banners and pitch-forks, but I certainly anticipated a slightly more affirmative response. I thought it would be exciting to be in Russia for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but I have found myself wishing I was back in the UK where the efforts are much more exciting. Yet, this contrast between Britain’s intellectual “celebration” and the Russians’ lukewarm response to the anniversary has left me questioning the nature of my excitement. The hype generated by a centenary in Britain seems to be mere intellectual enthusiasm than genuine commemoration. Every few years, popular culture goes crazy over a date of significance and we let our closeted historians into the open only to bury them back again until the next noteworthy event comes along. This year it is the turn of the Russian Revolution to be dusted off and whipped up for mass consumption.
In Russia, however, that fervour is exactly why remembering such an event is dangerous. For the Western world, talk of a ‘revolution’ has become something of a light-hearted, left-wing joke. The word has come to signify the power of the people to incite positive non-violent change, but in Russia, revolution still carries the threat of instability and uncertainty. Just recently, opposition leader Alexei Navalny incited anti-government demonstrations across Russia on the birthday of Vladimir Putin, and, again, I found myself shocked at the lack of awareness among Russians themselves. When I stated the occurrence of these meetings at a dinner party, one man shut down another’s question by suggesting that these ‘silly people’ probably just want a revolution. End of discussion. Or, rather, there was no discussion to be had.
It is not that the Russians don’t like a good debate. In fact, they love one as much as the British, but democracy in Russia is still young, and pro-government propaganda is constantly dripped into the bloodstream of Russian life. Only two years ago, the Boris Yeltsin Centre was built in Yekaterinburg with the aim of celebrating Yeltsin’s role as the father of post-Soviet democracy. While it is an impressive museum, I couldn’t help thinking it was more ‘An Ode to Our Amazing Government’ than a service to public interest.
On the one hand, the 1990s saw many successful developments in areas like art and technology. On the other hand, the introduction of modern democracy was met by swathes of violence and unrest. The museum’s proposed antidote to this social instability is an unbearably unsubtle video which hypnotically proclaims the slogan “the government will always guarantee your freedom.” The message is loud and clear: freedom can only be upheld with complete submission to authority. And there lies the major difference between the UK and Russia.
Whereas Russians have always looked to a strong leader, we are used to openly criticising authority and deconstructing it. This is a tendency which is so often highlighted by the way in which Britain examines Russian history in popular culture: satire. Armando Iannucci’s newest release hits the spot with The Death of Stalin, a film that undermines the Communist leader’s rule and ridicules his behaviour. Although clearly historically unfaithful, the success of the film reveals one thing – that the British love a dictator. Why? Because dictatorships are beyond the comprehension of our Western minds. Britain has never felt the full effects of true authoritarianism, and because of this, the Soviet state feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Hence arises our obsession with Russian history. The world’s largest nation is both familiar and alien, and as a result we don’t know how to deal with it in popular culture. Instead, we just laugh, and forget the millions who suffered (and thrived) under a brutal regime.
It is not just Stalin who has become the butt of an old joke; we simply love to ridicule Russia. Perhaps we are confused by how a heroic Revolution could have gone so wrong. Unfortunately, however, the reflex when we cannot understand seems to be borderline insensitivity. The centenary of the Revolution, and the way its resulting Communist state is alluded to in everyday conversation, exposes a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the Russian psyche; it is just that Russia is too close to home and influential to be parked in the camp of the Orient. While the Russian Revolution masqueraded as a heroic fight for mass freedom, the anticipated narrative never played out like it did in France or America. For this reason, I have come to understand Russians’ lacklustre interest. Instead they are muddling through the fear of instability and respecting those who were victims of a brutal and fearful regime. The Revolution will not be ‘celebrated’ here in Russia because its effects are still being dealt with. Russians do not have the luxury of serving up their history for popular enjoyment.