Russia and the United States have lurched into what resembles a new Cold War on the 100th anniversary of the revolution that ultimately led to the old version.An authoritarian rules Russia, again, and its nuclear arsenal seems to pose less of a threat than its boiler rooms of computer hackers meddling in the U.S. election. The tactics and tools have changed, but the goal of fomenting instability echoes the days of the KGB. In the United States, the two major political parties reversed roles in warning of, or urging better relations with, Russia.
As the world recognizes the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a series of explosive political events that reshaped the global order, Russia celebrates its imperial past and asserts itself against the West.
In this Q&A with professor and Russia expert Roman Utkin, we explore the consequences of the Russian Revolution 100 years later:
How is a revolution in Russia a century ago relevant now?
The Russian Revolution changed the course of the 20th century. The Revolution advanced a wholly new way of thinking about the past and organizing the present: It was an attempt to create a society of universal equality and justice on a global scale. The history and memory of the Revolution remain very controversial, but the significance of the events of 1917 is uncontested. The centenary offers us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of those events from today’s perspective as a way of understanding the past and absorbing its lessons for the future.
How does the Revolution still echo today?
The leaders of the Russian Revolution, such as Lenin and Trotsky, belonged to a European coalition of radical intellectuals, and their ideas were international in scope. For communism to become a reality, the revolutions had to spread across the world. Marx and Engels predicted that the world revolution would first happen in Germany. But much to everyone’s astonishment, it actually happened in Russia. Although the Revolution did not spread across the world, it did transform world politics. Most immediately, it accelerated the process of decolonization. The map of the world would have certainty looked differently had it not been for the Revolution. Needless to say, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos and North Korea would also be very different places politically, economically and culturally. One could argue that modern European welfare states that guarantee medical care, as well as paid vacation, maternity and paternity leaves, disability care, and unemployment benefits formed in response to the Revolution and developments in the Soviet Union.
What were some of the effects of the revolution on the United States?
While the United States did not formally recognize the Soviet Union until 1933, it was acutely aware of it. The world atmosphere was permeated with the understanding that radical social change is possible. John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)—the American journalist’s firsthand account of the Revolution—was a big success, and interest in the “Soviet experience” was immense. To suffering workers and progressive thinkers, Soviet Russia seemed like a dreamland. The Great Depression made it amply clear that the interests of the economic elites and the working class did not always align. In that respect, the New Deal initiatives could be interpreted as a response to the Revolution and the Soviet Union’s treatment of the workers, at least the way the Soviets presented it to the world. The same goes for the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board and the general prominence of labor unions that gave us work-free weekends, an eight-hour workday, standards for minimum wage, overtime pay and regulation of child labor.
How is the revolution being recognized globally? In Russia?
The French built the Eiffel Tower to commemorate the centennial of their Revolution in 1889. Nothing is happening on that scale in Russia. In fact, Russian authorities are reluctant to mark the anniversary of the Revolution so as not to draw too much attention to it. While the body of Lenin is still on display in the Red Square, Russia has a very ambivalent attitude towards its revolutionary history. The Revolution equals social unrest and political upheaval. The last thing the Kremlin wants is to promote any Revolutionary messaging, not least because [Russian president] Vladimir Putin made his career on making sure his name is synonymous with stability and prosperity. In other words, the legacy of the Revolution is not seen as a usable past. Many people who experience nostalgia for greatness are much keener to reminisce about the good old times before the Revolution than the years after it. As for the rest of the world, virtually every major cultural and educational institution from Paris to Santiago is hosting Revolutionary-themed symposia, conferences, lecture series, performances and exhibitions.
What do we need to know about Russia today?
It’s important to understand the entire post-Soviet region in all its complexity if we want to maintain functional diplomatic relations in Eurasia at large. As for Russia itself, I would venture to say—at the risk of sounding too alarmist—that in our current political predicament, mutual incomprehension by the United States and Russia could potentially lead to a global conflict involving nuclear arms. Here I want to stress mutual understanding, because Russia has its fair share of misconceptions, conspiracies and paranoias about the United States. And the study of the development of Russia’s myths about and attitudes towards the United States can tell us a lot about Russians and the way they see themselves in the world. If you turn on Russian TV—most of which is controlled by the state—you will be amazed at the extent to which Russians talk about the United States. Almost every political move in Washington is interpreted in terms of its implications for Russia. Those implications are almost always negative. I was recently asked by an otherwise reasonable Russian acquaintance, “Why does America want to destroy us?” The population is bulging with resentment against the United States. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the country plunged into poverty and relative obscurity on the global stage. Putin came to power with the promise to restore Russia’s greatness. He’s been at it for nearly 20 years by now, and it doesn’t look like he intends to step down any time soon.
What are some of the barriers to that understanding?
The Cold War narratives are very persistent. The Soviet Union deserved much of the criticism it got. But while reducing Soviet Russia to an evil empire served clear ideological purposes, it was never a very sophisticated paradigm. That is, the perception of Russia relied on stereotypes that did not have much in common with reality. At any rate, in today’s context it’s worth remembering that Russia is not the Soviet Union. Likewise, Putin is not Russia. Russia is not an abstract space with bears drinking vodka in Siberia. It’s a spectacularly diverse region of the world with a complex history and global ambition. There isn’t all that much mystery in it if you actually study the country. However, last spring The New Yorker ran a big story on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The graphic that accompanied the story was amazing: the full spread of the magazine presented St. Basil’s cathedral turned upside down, hovering directly above the White House and penetrating it with a white ray of thin white light. The background was appropriately apocalyptic and colored in dark, menacing red tones. That image was directly referencing the iconic 1996 film Independence Day, in which aliens descend upon the United States and launch an offensive on major American cities. So, if we follow the logic of the New Yorker image, Russia is an extraterrestrial—not even human—race with unlimited and unknown power. Sci-fi is great entertainment, and I understand that sensationalist magazine covers sell more copies. Still, one wishes for serious investigative reporting to be fully grounded in reality.
You’ll be teaching a course titled “The Russian Internet.” How did Russian social media become so influential, and how has it affected the political landscape of Russia, Europe and the United States?
The course was planned well before all the revelations about the Russian Internet “troll farms” and their international influence. My original intent was to offer a course focused on online blogs, computer games, and social networks in Russia and the post-Soviet space as a unique cultural phenomenon with its own history, conventions and impact on society. We will begin the course by considering the Soviet Union’s own (failed) project to create a nation-wide Internet-like computer network during the Cold War and then explore the Russian-speaking online mediascape as an alternative platform for community formation and political expression. Students will learn about the ways in which Russians approach questions of public and private space, censorship and intellectual property. The only caveat is that the course is taught in Russian.
Davidson will host Russian journalist Masha Gessen as part of a symposium later this semester. Who is Gessen, and why did you invite her to deliver the keynote address?
Gessen is one of the most prominent journalists today, writing on Russian politics and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of 11 books, including a biography of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Her newest book, called The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, won the 2017 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Gessen is also a very prominent LGBT-rights activist and was among the very few openly gay public figures in Russia. In fact, she left Moscow and moved to New York in 2013 with her wife and children because of the threat of persecution for being a gay parent in Russia. In February she will deliver the keynote lecture for the symposium, called “Queer Russia: Gender, Sexuality, and Race after the Soviet Union,” that will take place Feb. 16-18 here at Davidson. As you can imagine, Gessen is a very highly sought after speaker—she visited Davidson several years ago and agreed to return to our campus without hesitation.