Russia’s 100th anniversary of the October revolution

Members of Russian Communist party hold Lenin's portrait as they stand in line to visit Lenin's mausoleum on the Red square in Moscow, as they celebrate the 147th anniversary of his birthday, in Moscow, Russia, 22 April 2017. [Maxim Shipenkov/EPA]

What would be Russia, and the EU today, if the 1917 October revolution had not happened, Michael Emerson ventures to imagine.

Michael Emerson is Associate Senior research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), Brussels and a former EU ambassador to Moscow.

On 26 October 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, thus marking one of the “10 days that shook the world”, according to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film.

The liberal reformist administration of Alexander Kerensky was forced out, and so began the 75 years of communism, ending on 1 January 1992 when Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar finally scrapped it.

Seventy-five years is just a normal lifespan. This prompts one to think about this episode not so much as history as the story of a contemporary lifetime, an episode that ended with the collapse, for all its extraordinary achievements and terrible aspects, of a failed revolutionary concept.

What if Germany had not decided to send Lenin back to Russia already in April 1917, to help him organise the Bolsheviks? And if the Bolsheviks had not prevailed and something like the Kerensky leadership had been sustained, what then would have been the course of Russian and European history?

Should one lazily accept Tolstoy’s view, as in War and Peace, that the flow of history may be preordained as an unstoppable river in the affairs of mankind? Or should one remain open to the idea that a very different fork in the road could have been taken?

If the latter, what might the story have been? Back in the early years of the 20th century, Europe was of course not integrated like it is now. But still, there was much trade and movement of people across all of Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow. Russia was industrialising and prospering, and its economy may have been more or less as integrated with the rest of Europe as many other European countries.

Culturally Russia had developed in the 19th century its huge contribution to the vast tapestry of European literature, painting, music and ballet. The Tolstoys and Rachmaninovs were making their magnificent contributions, just as the Italians, Flemish and others all made their contributions in earlier centuries to Europe’s common cultural heritage.

Among the anecdotes of the years just before the October Revolution is the story of Sergei Shchukin’s fabulous collection of impressionist artists: the wealthy Moscow businessman commissioning paintings from Matisse, Picasso and Gaugin, and whose collection was subsequently nationalised by the communists and is now housed in the Hermitage.

One can also reflect on the role of Prince Usupov, who soon after graduating from Oxford University, organised in 1916 the assassination of Rasputin, in a desperate effort to improve the Tsarist regime before it was too late. And the Tsarist court conversations and diplomatic correspondence were all still in French at that time.

So one can move on to the conceivable content of the counterfactual scenario in which the October Revolution failed, and Russia continued on a path of vigorous economic development, with political evolution rather than revolution, a maturing of a constitutional monarchy and other democratic political institutions.

Russia would still have been an ally against Hitler in the Second World War, but the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the Yalta accords would never have happened. Without the terrors of Stalin’s inter-war holodomor, Russians and Ukrainians would have remained united as fraternal peoples.

The occupation of the Baltic states would not have happened, nor the formation of the Warsaw Pact or NATO. Central Asia would have joined in the de-colonialisation that all the European empires experienced in the post-war period. Something like the European Economic Communities (EEC) would still have started as a core western European integration movement, but flanked by a Council of Europe of which both the UK and Russia would have been founding members.

And to conclude, let us bring the counterfactual story up to the present day.

Russia’s current posture as a strategic adversary if not enemy of the West would never have developed, nor would some features of the mindset of the current Kremlin regime: notably the deep sense of national humiliation at the collapse of the USSR and the conviction that the West was set on exploiting the country. And so the rhetorical nationalist foundations of the current Kremlin authoritarianism would not have been laid.

But is this scenario perhaps too naïve?

Pre-revolutionary Russia was already a huge menacing power in the eyes of Western Europe, and Germany in particular. Why indeed did Germany help send Lenin back to Russia? Could the inevitable tensions between the massive Russia and the rest of Europe have been restrained and ordered in the post-World War II era within a different common institutional and normative framework? No easy task. One cannot be sure.

Yet still, Russia might have simply remained the largest European state, with a deep and trusting relationship with the gradually integrating and even larger European Union. Maybe the time for that will yet come. Many things can happen in a single lifetime.

But for now, Russia casts itself into the role of the ‘other’, celebrating its ‘victories’ in Crimea, Donbass and Aleppo, which makes normal political dialogue with Europeans virtually impossible these days. Except for the minority of Europeans who turn the question around, and say that the problem is that official Europe does not ‘understand’ Russia, which makes some conversations between Europeans also impossible.