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The Russian Revolution & its legacy for today

last modified Nov 20, 2017 11:06 AM
A summary of our most recent event marking the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

On 2 November, the Forum on Geopolitics was pleased to welcome Sir Tony Brenton and Oksana Antonenko for a panel chaired by the Master of Peterhouse and former Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the BBC, Bridget Kendall, titled “The Russian Revolution and its legacy for today” in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the Alison Richard Building. Sir Tony, who he served as the UK Ambassador to Russia from 2004-2008, noted Vladimir Putin’s general ambivalence towards the Russian Revolution despite its profound global consequences.

Sir Tony noted that popular memory often limits Lenin’s legacy is the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the Russian Revolution heralded the rise of the one party communist state in China. Importantly, Sir Tony highlighted that this aspect of the Russian Revolution’s legacy has not been lost on China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Indeed, in his October address to the Chinese Congress Xi stated: “A hundred years ago, the salvos of the October Revolution brought Marxism-Leninism to China. From that moment on, the Chinese Communist people have had in the party a backbone for their pursuit of national independence and liberation, prosperity and happiness.” Sir Tony additionally highlighted parallels between the Russian Revolution and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, noting that both were swiftly followed by a retreat to authoritarianism. Finally, Sir Tony noted that observers tend to overlook the very personal elements of the Russian Revolution. This neglect of both the personal, and Russian, elements of the Russian Revolution may additionally have consequences for contemporary Russia: in a September 2017 poll the Levada Center found that 75% of Russians found the president of the Russian Federation “completely trustworthy”, while only 35% of those polled found the Russian government completely trustworthy (40% found the Russian government “somewhat trustworthy”). A survey run by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in the same month yielded similar results.

Oksana Antonenko, a visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economic and Political Science, responded to Sir Tony’s lecture by noting that the anniversary of the Russian Revolution was an uncomfortable for contemporary Russian government. The Revolution, Antonenko noted, remains generally understood through both personal and family narratives as opposed to an overarching state narrative. Antonenko additionally cited a recent poll by VCIOM that found that while 75% of Russians are aware that political persecution tool place during the Russian Revolution, VCIOM found that education level impacted understanding of the events. Antonenko noted that Russia’s discomfort with the anniversary signalled the lack of a single dogma within the country while the Kremlin—and Putin—search for a new social contract to offer the Russian people. The fact that Putin has yet to officially announce his candidacy in the March 2018 elections further bolsters this assertion, Antonenko argued. The Kremlin leader’s conspicuous silence as to his inevitable 2018 run indicates that he still has not settled on a platform and a message for the Russian people. 

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