The Russian Revolution, a pivotal event that impacted the world for decades, reaches its centenary. But President Putin wants to overlook its commemoration.
In one of the quixotic twists of history, on 7 November 2017, a few days after this essay reaches the readers of this journal, one of the most significant events in human existence will, in all probability, be deliberately neglected in the country where it took place.
The Vladimir Putin administration in the Kremlin, at the time of writing this piece, shows no signs of officially commemorating this monumental landmark. There are a number of reasons why this is being done and we will return to them later. At this stage, it is necessary to set out the backdrop of the Russian Revolution that took place in November 1917 and whose impact affected the world for decades, even until today.
More significantly, I would like to assess the importance of the momentous development that actually took place in November, but was categorised as the October Revolution because Russia followed the Cyrillic calendar at that time. The relevance of the Russian Revolution for a resurgent and nationalist India, that is attempting to re-discover its Indic cultural and civilisation roots, is another theme that I would like to spell out in this essay.
For many scholars, much more distinguished and erudite than this writer, the Russian Revolution was the central event of the 20th century. These scholar-writers covered the entire political spectrum, from staunch opponents of communism/Marxism to those like Eric Hobsbawm, who were avowed sympathisers. For both these categories, the events in November 1917 were as profound and far reaching as the French Revolution of 1789.
Just to spell out this point, we should note the following – barely 30 to 40 years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, nearly a third of the globe’s inhabitants were living in countries that were communist or semi-communist. However, by 1991, this fall-out of the Russian Revolution had dissipated. The communist world had shattered into pieces. The number of communist countries can now be counted on one finger. Here too, there is an enigma. Can China be designated a communist state? Most scholars would say “no”.
This is the appropriate stage to look at the origins of the Russian Revolution and its causes. In 1916, nearly 75 per cent of the Russian population comprised peasants who eked out a miserable living in small farms. Despite the abolition of serfdom (that allowed landlords to own and trade peasants, as in animal livestock) in 1861, the peasants’ conditions had hardly improved. There was widespread indebtedness, poverty and subsistence-farming among them.
Many farmers were compelled to move to the cities. Half the farming families had at least one member who had left the village to find a job in the towns. As the population boomed, land became scarce. The appalling life-standard of the peasants was in sharp contrast to that of the rich landowners, who held 20 per cent of the land in large estates and were often members of the Russian upper class. The similarity with India is evident.
In the industrial sector, the situation was equally dismal. The industrial revolution came to Russia in the 1890s, well after western Europe. Consequently, the industrial sector was neither advanced nor large. The cities saw millions of people (who had moved from the rural areas) living in appalling conditions. They were badly paid and had limited rights in their jobs. The Tsarist government was afraid of the developing urban class, but was reluctant to drive away foreign investment by calling for higher and fairer wages. The country never saw any serious policies for reforming its dismal economic system.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Russia was seething with discontent. There was an abortive revolutionary uprising in 1905 that was ruthlessly crushed by the government. Although the ruling establishment made some half-hearted efforts to introduce political reforms, the ground realities hardly changed. The First World War had a horrendous impact on Russia, since the Russian troops suffered mind-boggling casualties because of the gross ineptitude of the senior Tsarist army officers.
To add to the combustible package was the presence of the German-born Empress Alexandra, who was a perpetual albatross around the neck of the Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II. Alexandra made no effort to hide her disdain for her adopted country and its people. She was thoroughly autocratic and was contemptuous about anyone in her husband’s circle who advocated any reform. Given to hysteria and abnormal suspicion, she only trusted her blood relations and a few crooked or lunatic charlatans, like Rasputin, who had somehow gained her trust.
The brief description of pre-Soviet Russia given here will be sufficient to convince the vast majority of thinking readers about the moral and ethical justification for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Indeed, most Western critics of the Russian Revolution do not attempt to condemn it on moral grounds. Tsarist Russia was an abomination that no decent human being could possibly defend with a straight face.
The criticisms of the Russian Revolution must lie elsewhere. This author, too, laments the way in which an initially noble movement was corrupted inexorably by a few of its initial parents. The prime culprit was Stalin. In the exalted company of Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities who studied the French Revolution, many of us feel that a pristine process soon became a hideous mockery of what it was meant to be. The derailment of the Russian Revolution was neither logical nor inherently structured and built-in to the movement.
Admittedly, this is not a popular stand to take for someone who is committed to the basic Indic civilisational ethos, and will lead to a lot of flak from friends and allies. Yet, I would like to reiterate here that the Russian Revolution’s basic ideals are not antithetical to those in our civilisation’s fundamental treatises on equity, justice, morality and mass welfare in a truly civilised nation-state. After nearly 70 years of deliberate neglect of our venerable Indic doctrines on governance, democracy, citizens’ rights, equity, the duties and responsibilities of the state (or the “ruler” in earlier Indic texts) and related issues, we now see the beginning of serious and concerted research in these areas.
To give just one example, some scholars have recently referred to the concept of Yogakshema, as expounded by Kautilya. This represented good governance that was not limited to the material (social, political and economic) welfare of the people, but also encompassed spiritual and moral well-being.
The Kautilyan state was supposed to ensure freedom, happiness, prosperity, and full-fledged development of human personality.
More importantly, the ideas underpinning the Russian Revolution also influenced our freedom fighters of various hues. Ranging from Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen, Leela Nag and Kalpana Dutt (Joshi) to many others who did not necessarily subscribe to the notion of an armed freedom struggle, thousands of Indians were inspired by the events of 1917 in a far-off land.
To return, now, to the post-Soviet Russia under Putin, I would venture to say that the country is half way on the road back to what Tsarist Russia was before 1917. The oligarchs who thrived in the country under Boris Yeltsin have either left or have been tamed by the Kremlin, but the country itself is barely a few notches above many Third-World nations, if one looks at social indicators. Obscene private wealth lives cheek by jowl with abysmal living standards and crumbling infrastructure. In politics, the ruling party of President Putin does not tolerate any meaningful opposition.
Under these conditions, today’s Kremlin, understandably, does not want to give its citizens too many subversive ideas by celebrating an event that promised to end the socio-economic conditions that now plague the country. Moreover, worldwide, the new paradigm of technological capitalism has proved itself to be most unequal.
The Oxford don David Priestland wrote a few months ago in the New York Times: “There will be no return to the communism of five-year plans and gulags. Yet, if there is one thing this turbulent history teaches us, it is that “last hurrahs” can be as illusory as the “end of ideology” predicted in the 1950s or Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” of 1989. Lenin no longer lives, the old communism may be dead, but the sense of injustice that animated them is very much alive.”
May I be bold enough to pose the question whether the world would also be compelled to look at the Vedic notions of ethical and good governance that have been briefly analysed in this essay earlier?