Sheila Fitzpatrick on the commemoration of 1917

A lecture by a scholar of towering importance on a topic of general interest is not to be missed, and Sheila Fitzpatrick held her audience in the palm of her hand as she discussed an amazing lack of interest by historians in commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Such Western writers as have commented on its significance give the impression that it was a failure. It has been compared to the Inca empire in that it led to nothing, or seen as a twilight, with the implication of dusk being perhaps stronger than that of dawn. Even scholars who sit firmly on the left, such as Tariq Ali (who has written impressively in favour of Brexit) and Slavoj Zizek (more of a juggler of ideas than a serious thinker, it has always seemed to me), have found little positive to say about it.

In Russia itself, 1917 seems to have become an embarrassment. Since the restoration of capitalism its historians have avoided writing about the revolution, and Vladimir Putin has been chary of it, preferring to call is an overthrow rather than a revolution. This seems to be because he sees himself in the line of Stalin rather than that of Lenin. Doubtless this is partly because Stalin can be seen as a heroic and successful figure, but according to Fitzpatrick Putin has two particular reasons to think badly of Lenin. She has come to believe that Putin is a sincere Orthodox Christian, and his visits to the Holy Mountain certainly point in this direction. Lenin’s animosity to the church ran very deep, which makes it extraordinary that there are now calls for him to be removed from his mausoleum and given a Christian burial. Putin also believes that Lenin made it too easy for constituent republics to secede from the USSR, thereby creating a time bomb that went off in 1991. Such concerns limit the appeal of 1917 to him.

The apparent contemporary disinterest in the events of 1917 led Fitzpatrick to conclude her lecture by speculating as to how the Revolution would be thought of a hundred years from now. She argued that it will have come to bulk larger , because it is now inevitably viewed through the lens of the collapse of the USSR in 1991. For decades before then, it was apparent that the significance in world affairs that Russia enjoyed flowed directly from the events of 1917, and the time will come when it will again be easier to appreciate this than it is now.


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