"The past isn't dead," goes American novelist William Faulkner's famous aphorism. "It isn't even past." As Russia looks back on the fateful events of a century ago, when a pair of revolutions overthrew a tsar and installed Bolsheviks, liberal politician and Yabloko party candidate for the 2018 presidential election Grigory Yavlinsky sees both warnings and opportunity in the turmoil of 1917.
In a contribution for RFE/RL's Russian Service titled Back To February, Yavlinsky argues that, between the abdication of Russian Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917 and the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, Russia took a "detour" into a 100-year "dead end."
Russia's historical path, Yavlinsky says, was disrupted by the October coup and the January 1918 dispersal of the Constituent Assembly that had been elected to determine the form of the country's future government.
"Since that time, Russia has not had a legitimate government," Yavlinsky writes.
The February Revolution came about, Yavlinsky argues, because the monarchy had rejected political modernization and because whole swaths of a dynamically changing society -- former serfs, the emerging bourgeoisie, the growing working class -- had no opportunities to influence political processes.
"The main reasons for the fall of the autocracy are well known -- the slow pace of reforms, the inability of the authorities to cope with change, the transformation of autocratic power into an obstacle to the modernization of the country and the government. Autocracy rejected political modernization and was hopelessly left behind by historical developments.... And with that, it lost its legitimacy. Does this sound familiar?"
The Road Not Taken
Despite these crises and the pressure World War I, however, the country's leaders in the summer of 1917 found a potential way out. Nicholas II abdicated in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich. Michael, however, refused to take the throne without the consent of an elected Constituent Assembly.
Like most of the political elite at that time, Michael anticipated that the assembly would write a new constitution that would create either a constitutional monarchy or a republican form of government. Most importantly, Yavlinsky argues, the Constitutional Assembly would ensure the perpetuation of the government's legitimacy.
"The Constituent Assembly is the main signpost on the historical highway the country should have taken in February 1917," Yavlinsky writes.
Instead, however, the Bolsheviks seized power and disbanded the assembly, establishing an illegitimate government and pushing Russia on a "bloody, tragic, and ultimately futile path."
"What were the consequences? The fragmentation of the country. Civil war. Political repressions. The deaths and expulsions of millions of people, including the political, scientific, business, and creative elites of our country. The country's losses were staggering. In the first 35 years of Bolshevik rule (1917-53), they amounted to more than 50 million dead, including the 26.6 million who died in the 1941-45 war with Germany and its allies."
'Lies And Violence'
Yavlinsky goes on to argue that the current government of President Vladimir Putin is the direct heir of this illegitimate regime, or, to use Yavlinsky's phrase, it has an "organic, genetic connection to the Soviet-Bolshevik system" based on "lies and violence, the key Bolshevik instruments of maintaining control over the country."
"The authoritarian-corporatist regime that has solidified over the last quarter-century relies on Bolshevism as the foundation on which today's policies are built. Bolshevism is the root of today's endless government lies, its contempt for private initiative and the right of private property, its cynicism, and its indifference to human well-being."
Russin opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky (file photo)
This is why the government is urging Russians to maintain -- in Putin's words -- "national calm and reconciliation" in marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 events and the 80th anniversary of Josef Stalin's 1937 purges.
Moreover, Yavlinsky adds, reconciliation "without the exposure of evil is tantamount to the justification of evil and a clear indication of a conscious readiness to resort to evil at any moment."
The current authoritarian government does its utmost to make sure no one in the public realizes that there are other choices for Russia besides either authoritarianism or revolutionary chaos, Yavlinsky argues.
He says an honest appraisal of 1917 would make that clear -- which is why the government is avoiding that at all costs.
"They want the public to be unable to realize that authoritarianism is a dead end and that the country needs a modern, vital state and modernized social relations. They want the public to be unable to see that the real, historical Russia is not some mythical Rus of the time of Prince Vladimir or Ivan the Terrible, but rather a European state that all its history has been longing for and desperately in need of democratic legitimacy."
The longer Russia goes without an honest assessment of the origins and legacies of the Soviet system, the harder it will be to actually make one, Yavlinsky says. Continued authoritarianism means further degradation of the system and the ruling elites, as well as increasing tensions produced by the gulf between the state and the people. This situation, he warns, is fraught with the possibility of a repeat of 1917, "the seizure of the state by...fanatics and terrorists, followed by uncountable misfortunes and human tragedies."