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Russia: At 90, Bolshevik Revolution Shows Its Age

A Russian woman holding a portrait of Lenin during the traditional communist demonstration in downtown Moscow today (epa) November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the best part of the 20th century, Russians celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 by watching grandiose annual parades crossing through Moscow's Red Square.

Ninety years after Vladimir Lenin led Bolsheviks to the Winter Palace in Petrograd, Russians this year were once again able to tune their televisions to a Red Square parade. This time, however, the underlying ideology was entirely different.

Today's event commemorated not the Bolshevik Revolution itself, but a World War II parade marking the Bolshevik Revolution. The procession was called by Josef Stalin in 1941 as an act of defiance against Nazi German troops, who had advanced to just a few kilometers from the Kremlin.

Speaking at a lavish Kremlin ceremony following today's parade, President Vladimir Putin gave an emotional speech about the Soviet Union's contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, and ceremoniously bestowed the title of "cities of military glory" on five Russian cities -- Vladikavkaz, Yelna in Smolensk Oblast, Yelets in Lipetsk Oblast, Malgobek in Ingushetia, and Rzhev in Tver Oblast.

Historical Revisionism

The event, staged this year for the first time, left many Russians scratching their heads over what exactly was being commemorated, and why.

Vladimir Buldakov, a leading historian of the Bolshevik Revolution, says the new parade fits into the government's efforts to associate itself with the iron-fisted rule and strong statehood of the Stalin years. "Stalin embodies superpower, imperial might. Lenin, on the contrary, symbolizes destruction," he says.

Stalin's popularity has soared in recent years, largely under Putin's influence. Putin has consistently tapped into Stalin-era symbols, restoring, among other things, the Soviet national anthem adopted under Stalin and abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By contrast, public esteem for early revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Leon Trotsky is declining sharply.

Buldakov says the decision to abolish the November 7 holiday two years ago signals the Kremlin is intent on eradicating what it perceives as a glorification of mutiny and regime change. The holiday was replaced with People's Unity Day on November 4, which celebrates yet another military victory -- the expulsion of Polish troops from Moscow in 1612.

Amid today's World War II extravaganza, Communists were some of the few to remember the Bolshevik Revolution. But with Red Square dominated by the parade, Moscow's Communists had to content themselves with quietly laying flowers on Lenin's tomb.

Breaking The Spell

Over the decades, the November 7 holiday lost much of its ideological substance. While the intense period of artistic expression (see slideshow: The Art of the October Revolution) that followed the revolution left a lasting cultural legacy, politically 1917 had lost much of its impact. As early as 1967, the revolution's 50th anniversary, the festivities were already failing to conceal a creeping feeling of disenchantment.

"When we were children, we would go to the Red Square demonstration and rejoice at seeing Stalin in his mausoleum. These things genuinely made people happy," says historian and sociologist Leonid Sedov. "But in the 1960s, people's attitude to the revolution, to the Bolsheviks, had changed. It was already clear that the revolution's ideals had not materialized."

In 1977, Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, raised the anniversary's profile by linking it to the new Soviet Constitution adopted one month before. But interest in the 1917 events was wearing thin. Most Bolshevik revolutionaries had already passed away, and the economic stagnation and repressive climate that came to characterize Brezhnev's rule further eroded faith in the triumph of the Bolshevik cause.

A decade later, with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika well under way and the Soviet Union in its death throes, the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution seemed little more than self-delusion. The Soviet Union saw four more Red Square parades in honor of the revolution before collapsing in 1991. The newly formed Russian Federation scaled down the festivities and renamed the holiday Accord and Reconciliation Day.

The current shift of focus away from the 1917 events casts doubt on the prospect of high-profile commemorations for the Bolshevik Revolution's approaching 100th anniversary.

Buldakov, for one, says this is regrettable. "It is impossible to erase a catastrophic event of that scale from people's memories," he says. "It should be reflected upon. If we don't understand the revolution, we can understand neither the previous nor the subsequent history of Russia."

(Related: A Future Vision Of Russia Based On The Past)

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