Europe

Want to mark a revolution? Kremlin says you can count it out

  • FILE - In this Feb. 1917 file photo, people crowd the street in front of the ruins of the Nikitsky Gate to the Imperial Palace in Petrograd (St. Petersburg and Leningrad), Russia, shortly after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In this Feb. 1917 file photo, people crowd the street in front of the ruins of the Nikitsky Gate to the Imperial Palace in Petrograd (St. Petersburg and Leningrad), Russia, shortly after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE  - In this 1917 file photo, a scene of the Russian Revolution. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo, File)

    FILE - In this 1917 file photo, a scene of the Russian Revolution. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - An undated file photo of Czar Nicholas II of Russia in a military uniform. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo/File)

    FILE - An undated file photo of Czar Nicholas II of Russia in a military uniform. The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin. (AP Photo/File)  (The Associated Press)

For Alexis Rodzianko, it's a date that sometimes makes him the target of hostility from Russians who revile what his great-grandfather did to the czar.

For political and religious leaders, it's an event to be ignored or even condemned.

And for a younger generation that never knew the Soviet Union, it's an increasingly irrelevant part of the past that gets only a routine mention in history classes.

The tumult that Russia endured in 1917 sent shockwaves around the world as its last czar, Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and power was later seized by Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks. A century later, the anniversary is being marked with little official commemoration from the Kremlin.

"It doesn't fit for the authorities. They are passing it from hand-to-hand like a hot potato," said Lev Lurie, a historian in St. Petersburg.

The Bolshevik takeover was celebrated annually in the Soviet Union with marches, parades and a national holiday, but attitudes have changed since the fall of Communism.

While some grassroots initiatives are exploring the legacy of 1917, the anniversary is an awkward one for the Kremlin, which prefers a historical narrative emphasizing the country's triumphs. The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II has replaced the revolution as the biggest event on the calendar.

Prominent British historian Simon Seabag Montefiore said that alongside the two world wars, the revolution was one of the seminal events of the 20th century.

"In every way it was politically, culturally, artistically and geo-strategically world-shattering," he said, with many people drawing a direct line from the revolution to the violent excesses of Stalinism in which millions of people perished.

"It was a catastrophe for the Russian people," Montefiore said.

The first big upheaval of 1917 was the February Revolution, the popular uprising that drove Nicholas II from power (although it now falls in March since the old czarist calendar was abandoned).

Alexis Rodzianko's great-grandfather, Mikhail Rodzianko, was a lawmaker in St. Petersburg — then called Petrograd — and played a key role in helping facilitate Nicholas' abdication on March 15, 1917, earning the anger of monarchists and nationalists that endures to this day.

"There are people who consider our family to be beyond the pale," said Alexis Rodzianko, whose relatives fled Russia in 1920. He has returned to head the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow.

He said he still gets hostile remarks online, adding: "People are still living it."

After the abdication, there was a period of dual power when the Russian Empire was ruled by a provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet, a revolutionary body made up of elected soldiers and workers. This chaotic arrangement fell apart on Oct. 25, 1917, (Nov. 7 under the modern calendar) when Lenin's Bolshevik Party seized the levers of government in a move many characterize as a violent coup.

A minor political force during most of 1917, the Bolsheviks succeeded in carving out a Communist state that would last until 1991.

One of the few comprehensive attempts to mark the centenary of the revolution is 1917.ru, an online project by liberal journalist Mikhail Zygar that uses social media to tell the story of the period in real time through diaries, memoirs and letters.

Celebrating the popular overthrow of the Russian monarchy is uncomfortable for an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin, Zygar said.

"Only retrospectively it looks like a tragedy, the end of the Russian Empire. But if we look inside that year, we see that people perceived it as a year of hope, of creativity," he said. "1917 was the year when history was made by Russian society."

President Vladimir Putin, who has accused Lenin of "planting a bomb" under the Russian state, has made only a handful of public statements on the issue. In December, he warned of attempts to politicize the centennial.

"We can't allow splits, animosity, insults and the bitterness of the past to be dragged into our lives today," he said.

The disintegration of the Russian Empire in 1917 jars with the Kremlin's current ideology, according to historian Montefiore, because Putin has always contrasted the stability and economic growth of his rule with the turbulence Russia experienced in the 1990s.

"All they are interested in is the power of the state," Montefiore said of the current Kremlin leadership. "There isn't actually any good story in 1917 for the promotion of the Russian state."

The Russian Orthodox Church, which was violently repressed and stripped of its power in Soviet times, has a clearer, more strident position about the events of 1917.

"The revolution was a great crime," Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally, said in a sermon in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral last month. "How many innocent victims were there? How much sorrow was there?"

State-financed initiatives to mark the centenary are being coordinated through a committee established by Putin, but its first meeting was only held in January.

Its chairman, Anatoly Torkunov, head of Moscow State Institute of International Relations, declined comment. A list of planned events and projects for the year on its website has just 101 entries for both Russia and abroad.

Russian youths currently study the revolution twice in high school but its importance in the curriculum has diminished.

"Over the last 30 years, the stress has moved to studying World War II and Russia's participation in it," said Denis Lyubushkin, a history teacher in Moscow.

Olga Gref, another history teacher, said the revolution was becoming increasingly irrelevant for young people who did not grow up in the Soviet Union or witness the street protests that accompanied its fall in 1991.

"The younger generation does not measure their lives by the events (of 1917). It is my generation, and the older generation, that measure it in this way," Gref said.

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Ekaterina Chernyaeva in St. Petersburg contributed.