BACKGROUND: Post-Soviet Russia has had no officially approved narrative on the 1917 revolution. Moscow’s main approach has been to stay neutral on the subject, although the Kremlin has often implicitly taken a negative view of it, resulting in an ambiguous position on the part of the regime. In effect, little public historical discussion has been devoted to the events in 1917. Yet the new series of films on the 1917 revolution broadcast on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution epitomizes a shift in this regard.
One of the Kremlin’s main media figureheads Dmitry Kiselyov, who is the head of Russia’s government-owned international news agency Rossiya Sevodnya, directed a film titled “The Great Russian Revolution”. In the film, Kiselyov, who was dubbed Russia’s chief propagandist by the Economist and chief spin doctor by BBC, termed the 1917 events the first color revolution. In the Kremlin’s discourse, revolutions and particularly colorful ones are inferior, negative and hostile to Russian interests and are perceived as synonymous with a foreign plot. They are often associated with the arrival of pro-western governments in power in Georgia and Ukraine. Another film, “The Genuine History of the Russian Revolution”, describes Lenin as a fierce proponent of the policy of terror and alludes to the revolution itself as a Germany-funded coup.
A source of inspiration for this narrative is President Putin’s comments blaming Lenin and the Bolsheviks for dismembering the Russian Empire into the small republics constituting the Soviet Union: “They [Lenin and the Bolsheviks] planted a nuclear bomb under the building called Russia, later to blow it up”, he said. These comments made on January 16, 2016, were so controversial that the president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov sought to downplay Putin’s remarks on the same day. A few days later, however, the president made even harsher remarks against Lenin.
IMPLICATIONS: Culture was widely used as a political tool throughout the Soviet era, with television and films at the forefront. Modern Russia inherited this practice from the Soviet Union. As Putin ascended to power in Russia, he made sure that major TV broadcasters were under the Kremlin’s full control. For the majority of the Russian population, a few central TV channels still remain the primary source of information despite hundreds of available alternatives.
Through government-controlled TV, the Kremlin has shaped a new kind of cultural borders of Russia, aside from the official borders. These cultural borders are known as Russkiy Mir (Russian World) or historical Russia. This became particularly evident amidst the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The KrimNash (Crimea is Ours) campaign was based on the narrative that Crimea was a historical part of the Russian territory and culture, for which Russia fought bloody wars and made sacrifices, and that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev granted it to Ukraine. In fact, Russian TV is guarding the borders of historical Russia and sacralizes the cause to protect those historical borders. The new films on the 1917 revolution are just a case in point. A general subtext of the films is the shaping of a narrative to justify Russia’s redrawing of the borders of the post-soviet nations.
The Russian Church acts as a political tool and a high moral and spiritual authority for that purpose. The Church canonized Tsar Nicholas II in 2000 and views the 1917 revolution as a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy. The films delicately echo this message by placing an eye-catching emphasis on the ethnicity of prominent revolutionary figures of Jewish origin such as Lev Trotsky and Alexander Parvus, and depicts Alexander Kerensky, another key figure during the 1917 events, as a leader of the Russian political masonry.
“The Genuine History of the Russian Revolution”, in particular, uses the late tsar Nicholas II to sacralize the borders and territories of historic Russia – the Russian Empire. The films portray him as a weak leader but a devout Christian with a strong belief in God, who prays for the protection of the empire. According to the narration, the Tsar viewed protecting Russia – its territories and borders, which are the cultural and historic borders of Russia in today’s Russian discourse, as his holy responsibility before God.
Nicholas II therefore personifies the sacralization of the protection of historical and cultural Russian borders. By depicting Nicolas II as a weak leader, the films basically seek to justify a strong president – Putin and his annexation of Crimea, a part of historic Russia, in the run-up to the 2018 presidential campaign.
President Putin has explicitly blamed Khrushchev for transferring Crimea to Ukraine, and reiterated this message at his year-end press conference on December 14. Earlier, he has similarly accused Lenin of transferring Donbas and other regions to Ukraine. Putin has defended Stalin over Lenin, saying that Stalin wanted to establish the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the basis of autonomy for the subjects of the future state, but that Lenin favored the establishment of the USSR on the basis of full equality of the constituent republics with the right to exit the Soviet Union.
Putin also lashed out at Lenin for what he termed an absolutely arbitrary and unjustified definition of the borders of the republics. “The transfer of the Donbas region to Ukraine is just a case in point,” Putin said. He also referred to the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation, consisting of present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as the southern part of Russia. And Russian TV followed suit.
The films blame the Bolsheviks specifically for the rise of the independence movement in Ukraine and for separatism in the South Caucasus. The films present the rise of separatism and demands for autonomy and independence in the regions of the Russian Empire as a result of the 1917 revolution but ignore the importance of the same factors in driving the events of 1917. There is no mention of the Russian Empire’s Central Asian regions in the films, as opposed to repeated references to separatism and demands for autonomy and independence in the Baltic, Eastern Europe and South Caucasus regions. Yet this should not necessarily be seen as reassuring for Central Asian countries. It simply means that Moscow’s current focus is on Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.
CONCLUSIONS: Through television and films, Moscow demonizes Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and sacralizes the protection of the Russian Empire’s borders – the so-called cultural or historic borders of present-day Russia or the Russian World. The films are broadcast as the Russian national euphoria associated with the annexation of Crimea is fading and ordinary citizens are becoming less enthusiastic about the conflicts in which Russia is involved. The films aim to shape a narrative serving to prepare the Russian population and rally domestic support for a continuation and even amplification of assertive policies in Russia’s near abroad. Therefore, the post-Soviet countries may be facing a new wave of turbulent times in their relations with Russia in the coming years, particularly following the 2018 Russian presidential election.
This is of particular concern to the GUAM countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Russia actively seeks to influence their sovereign choices regarding if and how to develop relations with Russia-led integration structures – the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Defense Treaty Organization – and the rival European Union and NATO.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Rahim Rahimov is a political analyst focusing on Russia and the post-soviet space with an interest in conflicts, foreign policies and economic and political integration projects. He holds an MA in International Relations from Hult International Business School in London, UK and a BA from Baku State University, Azerbaijan. Twitter: @r_rahimov
Image source: By en.kremlin.ru accessed on 1.2. 2018