The Russian Revolution in Dreams and Reality


By Ilya Budraitskis
  • Ilya Budraitskis
    Ilya Budraitskis (1981) is a historian and curator. He is a member of the editorial board of Moscow Art Magazine, former scientific assistant and curator in State's museum for contemporary Russian history. From 2013 – chief of Multimedia Library Department of the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA, Moscow). Co-editor (with Ekaterina Degot and Marta Dziewanska) and author of the book Post-post-Soviet? Art, politics and society in Russia in the turn of the decade (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Co-editor (with Arseniy Zhilyaev) and author of Pedagogical poem (Marsilio publishers, 2014).

In January 2014 the world held its breath and observed the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The spectacular opening ceremony, “Dreams of Russia,” was not simply a technical triumph but also a marvel of national history building. The depicted historical events acquired connections and a certain mutual continuity, building a chain of bright and majestic images told through a vision dreamed by a young girl.

It must have been difficult for the modern Russian state to find a better form to invent its own place in history, one cleansed of any contradictions and conflicts, than the reconstruction of a dream. It is precisely in this space, which Freud called “the dream work,” that it is possible to realize the most cherished of repressed desires. The place of authentic history is taken up by an imagined history in which dreams form a “logical connection by approximation in time and space.” 1Sigmund Freud, On Dreams (New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 2001), 16. Freud compares the energy of dreams with an artist portraying all the poets who, in reality, had never been assembled together, on the summit of Parnassus in a single group. The restless dream state in which slumbering Russian society continues to dwell remains the strongest substance with which the Putinist state connects the disparate and successfully resolves the agonizing issue of its own legitimacy.

Indeed, it was precisely according to a Parnassus-like principle that the program of historical exhibitions of recent years have been constructed and organized by the combined forces of church and state, in particular the exhibitions devoted to the Romanov and Rurik Dynasties. Hand in hand, though they belong in different epochs and often find themselves antagonistic toward one another, the knights and tsars, in unison, greet the museumgoers rushing to an appointment with their own history. It is in this harmony, created by the fantasy of the Russian state, that the pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet epochs or Nikolai II, Stalin, and Putin all rub shoulders.

This imagined unity is bound by one thing only: the displacement of revolution, a historical explosion which must be consigned to oblivion and have an anathema pronounced upon it. Countering the revolutionary threat in Russia is one of the pillars of the present reigning ideology, accompanied by a strategy of repressive work on the past.

This work acquires special significance with the approach of the centenary of the second Russian Revolution. At the end of last year, Putin, meeting with historians, spoke of the necessity of “an objective evaluation” of the events of 1917 from which lessons could be learned, by which he means to find a way to ensure there would be no repeat revolution in the future. 2On Vladimir Putin’s meeting with historians, see (in Russian): http://ria.ru/politics/20141105/1031839813.html#ixzz3frIXEQIc (accessed 19 August 2015). Shortly after, Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s odious minister of culture, who lays claim to the role of chief ideologue of the ‘historical policy’ of the current regime, outlined the main theses of these ‘lessons’: recognition of the continuity of historical development from the Russian Empire, through the USSR, to contemporary Russia; recognition of the tragedy of social schism; understanding the error of relying on the help of foreign allies; and condemnation of the ideology of revolutionary terror. The culmination of this government program, according to Medinsky, should be the inauguration of a monument to the “reconciliation in the Civil War” in the Crimea. In Medinsky’s view, “a visible and powerful symbol established there where the Civil War ended will be the best way to demonstrate that it really has ended.” 3Vladimir Medinsky’s speech at the roundtable discussion “100 years of the Great Russian Revolution: Judgment in the name of consolidation,” at the Museum of Contemporary Russian History in Moscow, May 2015.

So the main lesson which society, in accordance with this plan, should draw is not only that the revolution was terrible but also that it was superfluous. It turns out that 1917 had no constitutive meaning (even though one pays one’s dues by mourning its unnecessary sacrifices), it was not the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one because fortunately both are united in the logic of the existing state whose monument will be the reconciling ‘Parnassus’ of Crimea.

In this way, the ‘objective evaluation’ that Putin expects from historians comes down to proving that the revolution was the result of a foreign conspiracy and the extremist ideology of a bunch of malefactors. It is already clear that the old myth that financial support from the German General Staff was the main reason for the Bolshevik success is once again gaining traction. Among historians, Boris Mironov, a professor from Saint Petersburg University, stands out. In his sweeping work The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia 1700–1917, aided by a massive quantity of anthropometric data, he attempts to prove that the weight, height, and quantity of calories consumed by the majority of the population in pre-revolutionary Russia was inexorably rising. 4Boris Mironov, The Standard of Living and Revolutions in Russia 1700–1917 (London: Routledge, 2012). According to Mironov, even World War I did not prevent the Russian peasantry from enjoying their abundant diet. Poverty and the exploitation of the peasantry in the Russian Empire is a myth implying that the revolution was nothing other than the result of the active role of ‘Russian radicals’. Mironov constitutes a particularly impressive example of how a vulgar materialist analysis can be successfully combined with an equally vulgar conspiracy theory. The revolution took place only because the conspirers were not rendered harmless in time. So the ‘lesson’ of the revolution is intended, first of all, for the police. Again returning to Freud, one can compare it to the ‘censorship’ function of the dream, a function that includes a repressive crackdown on any unsanctioned interventions in its field.

Before us is a new model, striking in its coherence and base nature, of the ‘normalization’ of the revolution with which Russia will greet its centenary. Outside the limits of this model there is nothing but a tinkling of tacit approval. The liberal opposition, for all its hatred of the existing regime, is remarkably ready to accept this version of events: One must liberate oneself from the revolution. Such liberation from the revolutionary legacy is seen by the Russian liberal as a necessary part of the program of ‘de-Sovietization’ (close in spirit to the current Ukrainian reality), which proposes the dismantling of ‘Soviet’ institutions and monuments symbolizing revolutionary violence against citizens.

The functionaries of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), who almost vanished from the public sphere, are also ready to accept the ‘lessons’ of the revolution proposed by Putin and Minister Medinsky. If liberals choose to disavow the revolution along with displaying a willingness to demolish statues then the communists choose to preserve the monuments while renouncing revolution. Buried alive in the monuments and symbols of the Brezhnev era, now entirely devoid of political meaning, the memory of the revolution morphs into an organic, seamless part of the conservative, anti-revolutionary, ruling-class project in Russia. This emerging consensus of consigning anything reminiscent of the revolution to oblivion is connected with the displacement of politics in contemporary Russia.

In Echoes of the Marseillaise, Eric Hobsbawm presents a substantial picture of the transformation of interpretations of the French Revolution in the subsequent two centuries. The great revolution of the eighteenth century remained an incomplete project, but its significance and meaning was constantly subject to redefinition while remaining at the center of political discussion and of utmost significance at each new historical turning point. According to Hobsbawm, “in the year of its bi-centenary the French Revolution was no jolly old holiday at which millions of tourists gathered […] for it represented a set of events so powerful and universal in their influence that they had transformed the world in many ways and roused […] forces which continue this work of transformation.” 5Eric Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution (Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 103.

These “roused forces” that revealed new elements of the revolutionary legacy, became manifest in the uprisings of the nineteenth century and the Paris Commune, in the struggles of the Communists in the 1920s, the Resistance during World War II, and the students protests in May 1968. The recognition of the French Revolution during each of these periods was in constant flux but nevertheless remained a territory within which one could continually reevaluate the main protagonists and parties. Yet there was an unchanging appreciation that this was a large-scale event after which nothing could remain as it was before. The revolution remained on its path as memory, preventing society from falling into slumber, time and again marking points of discord and thus creating obstacles to the installation of any post-political consensus. Toward the end of the 1980s, when French intellectuals registered the crisis of mass movements, traditional political parties, and the devaluation of political meaning, “the fidelity to the event” (in the words of Alain Badiou) of universal revolutions—both the French and the Russian—remained a constant horizon of hope that history would continue on its path and that the sacrifices had not been in vain.

Today in Russia the sense of ideological deadlock and a deep political crisis is felt more acutely, dramatically, and with greater pessimism than in France on the eve of the bicentenary of its revolution. The desire to bury the revolution by erecting a preposterous monument of ‘reconciliation’ on its tomb is a desire sealed by fear. An attempt is being made to persuade us that violence and terror are the only results when society reawakens and that this fact is the main ‘lesson’ to be learned from the revolution, and we are all obliged to learn it. Yet what happened in 1917 is already impossible to expunge, not only from the past but also from the future. Revolutionary events, anathematized or hidden under lock and key, probably have not yet had the moment when they can be revealed and grasped.


Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi