Unlike the grand celebrations of the Soviet past, the Kremlin skirted Tuesday's centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution — an anniversary that drew only a routine demonstration by Communist devotees.
The government’s attitude reflects both a wide split in public perception of the revolution and the Kremlin’s uneasiness about the events in 1917 that heralded more than seven decades of the Communist Party rule.
President Vladimir Putin has bemoaned the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” but he also has deplored the revolution that destroyed the Russian empire and triggered a devastating civil war that killed millions.
“Let us ask ourselves: Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution?” Putin said in a speech last month.
“Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at a cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?”
Putin made no mention of the revolution while attending official meetings on Tuesday, a regular working day, unlike in Soviet times when it was marked as the nation’s main holiday.
Putin’s ambivalence is rooted in his desire to claim the heritage of both the czarist and the Soviet empires. While he can’t denounce an event that is still revered by many of his supporters, the Russian leader disdains any uprisings and tends to see them as work of foreign spy agencies.
While the Kremlin has avoided any celebrations of the centennial, Russian state television marked the event with a slew of documentaries about the revolution and lavish biopics about revolutionary leaders.
All those productions made a particular emphasis of the alleged role by Germany in triggering the revolution by funding the Bolsheviks — the line that echoes the Kremlin's allegations of the U.S. meddling in Russian affairs today.
Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, noted that Putin appears to see a parallel between his tight controls over the Russian political scene and the czarist government’s efforts to rein in the revolutionary movement.
“He sees his punitive measure as the continuation of the inconsequent and luckless struggle of law enforcement agencies of the Russian empire against the looming collapse of the state, and hopes to do better,” Baunov wrote in a commentary.
Putin has accused the U.S. of encouraging massive demonstrations against him in Moscow in 2011-2012, and he also has blamed Washington for masterminding a series of uprisings in Middle East, North Africa and ex-Soviet republics.
“The government has a fantastic, paranoid fear of revolution, and the memory of what happened 100 years ago still hurts,” liberal politician Leonid Gozman said in his blog.
The Kremlin’s reluctance to commemorate the still-polarizing event reflects deep divisions over the revolution in Russian society. A recent nationwide poll showed public opinion on whether the revolution was positive or negative for Russia was split almost evenly.
Even as the Kremlin ignored the centennial, thousands of Communist Party members and supporters marched along Moscow’s downtown Tverskaya Street carrying portraits of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.
During Soviet times, Nov. 7 was a major state holiday, with huge military parades and demonstrations on Red Square. Russia stopped celebrating it after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The Communists have continued to honor the date, and the authorities allowed them to march close to the Kremlin to mark the anniversary, but kept them off Red Square.
Such marches reflect the Communists’ role as part of the token opposition in parliament that obediently toes the Kremlin line and limits itself to pro forma criticism of the government without challenging Putin’s rule.
Many Russians still see Nov. 7 as a major holiday and feel nostalgic about the Soviet past.
“I feel like congratulating myself with the 100 years of my motherland,” said Lyudmila Krasitskaya. “I think that this was the time when we dreamed and the dreams came true. And we all are absolutely grateful to our Soviet motherland for a happy life that it gave to us.”
Another Moscow resident, Nina Galkina, said she’s missing the holiday on Nov. 7. “We lived this life, we took part in manifestations, we had a feeling of a holiday,” she said.
In a bid to switch attention from the revolution anniversary, the authorities in recent years marked the date with a re-enactment of the Nov. 7, 1941, Red Square parade that saw Red Army soldiers march directly to the front line during the Battle of Moscow in World War II.
The re-enactment featured troops in period uniforms, vintage tanks and other military gear.
While Putin spoke critically about the revolution and Lenin, he has ignored demands to remove the Soviet founder’s embalmed body from its Red Square tomb for burial. Such calls have become more frequent recently, with Ramzan Kadyrov, Moscow-backed strongman leader of the province of Chechnya, joining those who called for Lenin’s burial.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov criticized Kadyrov for raising the issue, and Kadyrov angrily dismissed Zyuganov’s statement as a “sign of senility.”