Red flags on Red Square: celebrating the Russian Revolution

Today marks the 97rd anniversary of the Russian Revolution. But something curious is happening. Members of the communist party of course celebrated it, as is their custom:

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But on Red Square itself, another procession was taking place. Here too red flags were everywhere:

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Notice the image of Lenin on one of the flags, along with the Red Star. But these are not from ostensible communists. Instead, a re-enactment took place of the legendary procession of 7 November, 1941:

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On that day, Stalin decided not only to stay in Moscow but to hold the annual celebration of the October Revolution (old calendar). The decision was an immense one. Hitler planned to take Moscow on the following day and his forces were within kilometres of the city. A state of siege had been declared. But Stalin showed his real grit by going ahead with a massive morale-boosting event. Soldiers marched past and went straight to the nearby front:

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As for today:

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The wool in those jackets – all of the uniforms worn come from that time – was supplied by Australian sheep, although one wonders whether the sheep knew they were Australian.

And since the Red Army had a significant number of women in its ranks (due to the ‘affirmative action‘ program), women too were involved in the celebration:

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Most of those involved were descendants of Red Army soldiers, who did the hard work in defeating Hitler. A few veterans from the original procession were also there (images from RIA Novosti).

But the curious question is: what is going on? Putin and his apparatchiks have been appropriating Soviet history and achievements in a significant manner. Putin is by no stretch a communist, and yet it makes one wonder what is happening. Of course, the warmongering from Europe and the United States is misleading, accusing Putin of wanting to rebuild Stalin’s ’empire’. It says more about them than Russia. These events may be part of that strange streak of Russian exceptionalism, if not some slavic chauvinism mixed in with Great Russian nationalism. Yet, something more is going on with this re-appropriation of history and even soviet symbols.


Stalin’s implicit criticism of Lenin

During the wave of counter-revolutionary measures at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the RSDLP (Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party) was facing a crisis. Arrests, exile, repressive government measures, decline in membership, loss of organisational unity – all these led to profound threats to the viability of the party itself. Conferences were held to deal with the matter, and those in exile attempted to publish newspapers to keep a fragmented party together. In one of his sharpest early pieces, ‘The Party Crisis and Our Tasks,’ Stalin takes aim at such measures, saying they are far from adequate. Implicit here is a criticism of Lenin, especially since Stalin mentions two of the newspapers edited by Lenin, Proletary and Sotsial-Demokrat. Here is the relevant text:

And so, how can the isolated local organisations be linked up with one another, how can they be linked up in a single well-knit Party, living a common life?

One might think that the general Party conferences that are sometimes arranged would solve the problem, would unite the organisations; or that Proletary, Golos and Sotsial-Demokrat,which are published abroad, would, in the long run, rally and unite the Party. There can be no doubt that both the first and the second are of no little importance in linking up the organisations. At any rate, the conferences and the organs that are published abroad have been until now the only means of linking up the isolated organisations. But in the first place, conferences, arranged very rarely at that, can link up the organisations only for a time and, therefore, not as durably as is required in general: in the intervals between conferences the connections are broken and the old amateurish methods continue as before. Secondly, as regards the organs that are published abroad, apart from the fact that they reach Russia in extremely limited quantities, they naturally lag behind the course of Party life in Russia, are unable to note in time and comment on the questions that excite the workers and, therefore, cannot link our local organisations together by permanent ties. The facts show that since the London Congress, the Party has succeeded in organising two conferences [the third and fourth conferences of the RSDLP, held in 1907] and in printing scores of issues of the organs published abroad; and yet the work of uniting our organisations in a genuine Party, the work of overcoming the crisis, has made scarcely any headway.

Hence, conferences and organs published abroad, while extremely important for uniting the Party, are, nevertheless, inadequate for overcoming the crisis, for permanently uniting the local organisations.

Evidently, a radical measure is needed.

The only radical measure can be the publication of an all-Russian newspaper, a newspaper that will serve as the centre of Party activity and be published in Russia…

That is why we emphasise the necessity of precisely an all-Russian newspaper (and not one published abroad), and precisely a leading newspaper (and not simply a popular one).

(Collected Works, vol. 2, pp. 158-60)

Lenin was, of course, in political exile outside Russia, while Stalin remained inside. Again and again, he was arrested, escaped, arrested again and sent into Siberian exile. Despite his immense admiration for Lenin, on this matter at least, Stalin felt and could argue from experience that someone on the ground was better placed to unite a fractured party and publish a leading newspaper that would be in touch with what was happening.

Images from the Russian Revolution

One of the great things about being in a place where the memory of communism refuses to die is stumbling across some amazing books. A couple of weeks ago at the Mauerpark Flea Market in East Berlin, we stumbled on the selected works of Marx and Engels, the Collected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg and a fantastic picture book of the Russian Revolution, translated from Russian into German in the 1960s. A selection from the latter:

From a peasant farming with traditional methods to one crying ‘help

May Day Subbotnik:

Communist International (this one may well apply to Greece and the EU):

And the massive literacy programs that followed the revolution:

Lenin in Russian folktales

Deeply into the veneration of Lenin, so to speak. Much of the secondary material is pretty trite (the ‘cult’ was engineered from above etc.), but what emerges between the lines is how pervasive the spontaneous wave of popular veneration was. The government realised what was going on and thought ‘holy shit, what do we do?’ Publish them at least, and then try to channel them in useful directions. Here’s one, from Orenburg:

The tsar was informed by one of his leading generals that there was someone, ‘of unknown rank, without a passport, who goes by the name of Lenin’. This person was threatening to entice the tsar’s soldiers to his side with one word, and then grind into ashes the commanders, generals, officers, even the tsar himself, and throw them into the wind. The tsar grew afraid and decided to do anything he could to prevent Lenin saying the word. So he made contact with Lenin, offering to divide the country in half. Lenin agreed to the proposal, but with one condition: the tsar must take the ‘white’ half, that is, the generals and officers and wealthy people, while Lenin would take the ‘black’ half, the workers, peasants and soldiers. The tsar couldn’t believe his good fortune in keeping all that mattered to him, so he quickly agreed. But to his dismay, he realised soon enough that Lenin had tricked him. His officers had no soldiers to lead, the rich people had no workers, the tsar had no people to make the country run. So the white part under the tsar went to war with Lenin’s black part, in order to win the latter back. But the white was unable to survive for long. So it was that Lenin took the country away from the tsar.

More Russian Revolutionary names

As Marx said, revolutions are the locomotives of history, but they also unleash all manner of creative juices. The best stuff is found in popular enthusiasm, which sprays off in all sorts of directions until it is channeled in various  ways.

Some more great children’s names:

Roblen: born to be a Leninist

Vidlen: the great ideas of Lenin

Oiushminalda: Otto Schmidt on ice (?)

Dazdraperma: Long live the first of May!

Dalis: long live Lenin and Stalin!

Liszt: Lenin and Stalin

Marlene: Marx and Lenin

Luidzhi (Luigi): Lenin may have died, but his ideas are alive

Yazlenik: I’m with Lenin and Krupskaya

Lorierik: Lenin, October Revolution, industrialisation, electrification, radio and communism

Trikom: the three Com’s – Comsomol, Comintern, Communism

But here’s one I bet most people didn’t realise: Kim means ‘Communist Youth International’. Next time you meet a Kim …

If only I had known all this when my children were born. Hang on a minute, I’ll be a grandfather (opa) soon enough, so maybe I can influence the choice of names for my grandchildren. Either that or I simply give them affectionate alternatives (from very early days so they are entirely used to it) when they are around at our place.

Creative children’s names from the Russian Revolution

Gotta hand it to parents and the thrill of naming an addition to the species, especially so in revolutionary times. So it was after the Russian Revolution. Apart from the obligatory rush of kids called Marks, Engelina, Stalina, Ninel (Lenin backwards) and Melor (Marx, Engels, Lenin, October Revolution), the more creative include:

Barrikada, Parizhkommuna, Dinamit, Ateist, Avangarda, Tekstil, Industriya, Dinamo, Monblan (Mont Blanc), Singapur (?).

However, my favourites are: Traktorina, Elektrifikatsiya and Giotin. Hate to meet the adult version of the last guy on the wrong side of the tracks … with a name like ‘Guillotine’.