Russia’s Revolutionary Century: 1917-2017

November 7, 2017

On Sunday 5th of November Open Russia held an event in partnership with the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies commemorating the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

A series of distinguished panels covered some of the foremost important topics surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, including revolutionary culture, Russian modernisation, the Bolshevik criminal code and the legacy of the 1917 Revolution in today’s world.

In the morning of Sunday 5th November Open Russia held a closed discussion with experts on the Russian revolution in order to discuss the impact and relevance of the Russian revolution on today’s Russia.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky opened the discussion by underlining how the revolution of 1917 was an example of how Russians failed to implement radical changes to government, returning to a habitual form of tyranny by dictatorship under another name.  Bearing this in mind, Khodorkovsky referred to to the current political situation in Russia, emphasising the importance of reforming Russia’s political system, rather than simply replacing its head.

“When I try to convince even my more intelligent friends that there’s a necessity not only to remove Putin, but to alter the system of government; the majority of people I speak to tend to agree with me on this.  They say they agree with the parliamentary model, but nevertheless they say that Navalny and Sobchak are not concerned with changing current the system itself.”

Historian Geoffrey Hosking remarked that Russia could once view the West as a model for parliamentary democracy, however recent years have seen a decline in transparency and democracy in the western world.  Hosking claimed that “without reforming the international financial system, we aren’t going to get anywhere.”

Sir Tony Brenton, former UK ambassador to Russia, said that “the Russian economy is stuck, growth is lower than before the 2008 financial crisis.”  Brenton admits that “the Putin regime cannot fix this problem”, pointing out that political and economic catastrophe await the current elite.  “However,” he adds, “in order to change the economic situation the regime has to change.  The people in power know this very well.”

Legal expert Ekaterina Mishina pointed out on a more pessimistic note that Russia’s record in the legal sphere leaves a weak basis for the establishment of individual rights.

“Russia is a country without a history of respect for human rights or the rule of law, the same goes for genuine parliamentarianism.”

Mishina posited the view that the Bolshevik revolution “simply exchanged one form of legal chaos for another one”, which left the door wide open for tyranny from those in power.  The weakness of the rule of law in Russia led the Bolsheviks to impose a form of class-based justice on the constitution, which meant effectively that the length of a sentence was determined not by the severity of the crime, but rather by who the offender was.  This is a powerful thought when one considers the vicious and unlawful attacks on members of Russia’s political opposition today.

Author and political commentator Sergey Medvedev drew some parallels between contemporary Russia and the Russia of 1917.  According to Medvedev, with Vladimir Putin in power Russia is standing right in front of the precipice into which the old imperial model fell.  The political and economic situation in the country is approaching a point where catastrophe is almost inevitable, claimed Medvedev.

Sir Tony Brenton, however, interjected with the point that Putin’s Russia is “set up to counter such challenges, and is very good at it.”

If Russia is indeed standing on the edge of a precipice akin to the one it faced in 1917, what kind of outcome should the world expect?  Lawyer and political commentator Vladimir Pastukhov responded to the thought of a 2017 Russian revolution with a note of pessimism.  “We know from the Russian experience that you cannot simply replace the ‘bad guys’ with the ‘good guys’”

Pastukhov followed up this thought with a reminder that all attempts to bring Russian institutions in line with their European counterparts, have failed.  In light of the evidence from history that Russia cannot simply be dragged into line with Europe, Pastukhov believes that “an act of compromise with the government in order to avoid catastrophe is what is needed.”

Simon Dixon, professor of Russian history at UCL, offered a note of reassurance when he claimed that Russia is “enjoying relative prosperity, the regime is unlikely to move forward, but it is unlikely to collapse.”  An earlier comment compared Putin’s current unsuccessful war in Syria with Tsar Nicholas’s disastrous involvement in the First World War, Dixon disagreed, pointing out that “Russia is in fact reasserting itself on the work stage.”

Underlying the discussion was another kind of question: is Russia capable of developing an European style system of democratic government?  Simon Dixon underlined that Aristotelian philosophy, Christianity and Roman law are the three pillars of European civilisation.  These are all things which Russia has adopted in one way or another.  Nevertheless, Ekaterina Mishina responded that “Russia had taken Roman law and then adapted it for its own purposes.”

“The revolution destroyed the legal profession.” Mishina claimed.  “After the revolution legal experts did not require any legal education, merely a piece of paper from the Revolutionary Council.”  This destruction of the legal profession severely undermined the development of legal institutions, the consequences of which are still felt today.

However, Sir Tony Brenton remarked that there is an emerging legal and democratic consciousness in Russia.

 “Urban educated young people are not happy with the prospect of a further 6 years of Putin… there’s something about Russia that things can change suddenly from underneath.  The current regime is well aware of this.”

The emergence of this new consciousness, according to Brenton, is facilitating the development of institutions that would lead Russia more towards Europe.  “It’s getting harder for the government to control this slide towards Europe, however, I don’t like the idea of ‘models’.  They are catastrophic.”

Geoffrey Hosking added that although Russia has a tendency to give off the appearance of stability when all is not quite right, the lesson from 1917 is that “we must not allow sudden change to develop into full-scale revolution.”  Nevertheless, today in 2017, Hosking pointed out, “the Russian oligarchy is linked with the international financial system.  This is something that we in the West have to combat.”

“The lesson from the past is that when civil society is in a political crisis, it should seek compromise with the government… Peaceful evolution is the key, and Russia should use its own resources to accomplish this.”

Not all participants agreed on the details of this evolution, however.  Sergey Medvedev suggested that “the problem is that force is the universal language of Russia.  Both in relationships between people, and the relationship between power and the people.”  Medvedev continued to show that the rise of modern technology has not necessarily liberated Russians from this relationship with power, in fact, technology may have exacerbated the problem.

So where are we heading?  Many of the guests were split on their opinions as to whether the current Russian elite is facing an inevitable political or economical catastrophe, but most agreed on the unpredictability of such a scenario.  Lawyer and Historian Louis Skyner drew the attention of the panelists to the shift in energy politics across the world, and the rise of ‘alternative’ energy sources, such as electricity, and how this might effect the structure of Russia’s governing elite.

Given that the Russian economy, and by extension a sizeable part of the Russian ruling elite, are reliant on being able to claim an absolute monopoly on oil and gas revenues, what will the impact of alternative energy sources have on such a regime?  “What happens when the chinoviki lose their sense of dependency? If the global economy changes, could it lead Russia to a pre-1917 political scenario of both economic and political instability?”

In his closing remarks, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who pointed out that the rise of alternative energy sources is “more or less regional” in the majority of Europe.  He also claimed that it will be at least 40 years until Russian oil and gas dependency is affected by these changes, in the meantime Russians will continue to consume oil and gas.

The last word went to Vladimir Pastukhov, who underlined two mutually connected risks to the current Russian political system.

“It seems to me that regardless of today’s stability, the Russian state is gripped by the threat of sudden death syndrome, which could happen without a single rational explanation.  If, in this case, civil society representatives are not prepared to take over the bureaucratic machine, then the second risk will arise.  The second risk is that the collapse of the regime could break society apart, and would require a long period of building it back up again to a civilised level.  These are two of the most important lessons to keep in mind.”