Russian Revolution is a centenary to mourn, not cheer

History can play some curious tricks on perspective, argues Sholto Byrnes

The State Hermitage Museum is seen illuminated in red for the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in Saint Petersburg on October 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Olga MALTSEVA
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This Saturday, Britain's Trade Union Congress is hosting a Russian Revolution Centenary to mark the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. "A range of bodies have come together," say the organisers, "to commemorate this historic event which continues to be an inspiration to millions of people today." They wish to celebrate the Revolution, they say, "as a positive development for both our country and for humanity".

Even though I'm well used to the free pass that leftists have long given to Soviet Communism – when not actually being outright apologists for it – the above description still makes my stomach churn. Russia had already undergone a revolution in 1917 that could be described as a "positive development" for that country in February. It caused the tsar to abdicate and, had it not been superseded, could conceivably have led to the establishment of democracy and a future more akin to that of free Western European states.

The October Revolution carried out by a small minority of violent Bolshevik extremists, on the other hand, led directly to the deaths of up to 20 million people through execution, war, starvation and disease – deaths mostly deliberately caused or desired by Lenin and Stalin.

It led to a 40-year-long totalitarian nightmare for the countries of Eastern Europe; to a Cold War that brought the world to the brink of destruction, through nuclear conflict that was only narrowly averted several times; and to the exportation of a lunatic ideology that impoverished and enslaved peoples from Pol Pot's Cambodia to the Kim dynasty's North Korea.

A “positive development for humanity” indeed. Hardly anyone would consider celebrating Hitler’s becoming German chancellor in 1933, since revulsion against Nazism and its crimes have isolated sympathy and support on the far-right fringe. Yet voicing a positive view of Soviet Communism is far from unacceptable in academia, the arts and in literary and intellectual salons in Europe, at least.


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So much so that the late historian Eric Hobsbawm – so unrepentant of Stalin’s atrocities that he said the deaths of 15 to 20 million would have been worth the establishment of a Communist utopia – could die laden with honours, including being made a companion of honour, one of the highest awards that can be bestowed by a British monarch.

This failure to judge, and judge harshly, may partly be explained by the fact that the Soviet Union was on “our” side during the Second World War. (Even though that was only after Stalin’s pact with Hitler had fallen apart; and a new biography reveals that the two dictators discussed a further plan for Russia to formally join the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan.)

The Soviets were valuable allies, and the sacrifice that the Red Army made to win the war is undeniable. But the victorious nations and their historians have been far too eager to blame countries such as France, or the partisans in Eastern Europe, whose leaders feared the imposition of Communism more than submission to the Nazis. The choice, for those who faced that dilemma, was horrendous. Only a whitewashing of Soviet history could make it seem “obvious” that the morally correct path was to view the Nazis as the greater evil. Both were abominations.

Another explanation for the excess of charity may be the sense that, given they were nominally fighting for the liberation of the masses, the Soviets’ hearts were in some sense “in the right place”. In fact it is questionable whether the main leaders had any hearts at all. They believed in revolutionary terror, and their obliviousness to the consequent human carnage they unleashed is summed up by Stalin’s famous words: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

Just because Soviet Communism was viewed as being left wing, as were they, was no reason for past Socialist leaders to evade condemning it. Britain's post-war Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, called it "the illegitimate child of Karl Marx and Catherine the Great", and he and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, were key in establishing Nato to protect Western Europe from Soviet expansionism.


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They knew that far from there being some point of elision between socialism and Soviet Communism, there was a stark division of principle – no less than the belief in the right to live in a free society or not. So conservative commentators who seek to attack a revival of support for socialism today by tarring it with the brush of Soviet Communism are wide of the mark, just as it would be wrong to say that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has much more than a historical link with old-style communism.

Equally, for any to harbour some kind of nostalgia for the October Revolution, still less to describe it as “an inspiration to millions of people”, is not just wrong-headed. It is a refusal to recognise evil when its nature has long been plain, the ruined lives and murdered millions documented beyond any doubt.

Some have imagined that because Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, once described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, he would be leading the celebrations for October 1917. But on the contrary, he is steering clear of anything of the sort, and has described its consequences as the “ruin of statehood and the ruthless destruction of millions of human lives”.

When even Mr Putin sees nothing to celebrate, it should be obvious that this is a centenary to mourn, not cheer. What a pity that the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee at the TUC appear to think the opposite. Apologists for the Soviet Union used to be called “useful idiots”. In this case, I think we might usefully just call them “idiots”.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia