By Priyale Chandra
2017 marks 100 years of the Russian Revolution. The events of February and October 1917 were much more impactful than anyone had ever imagined. The revolution changed a country, altered the course of a war and brought in a new political system based on hitherto unimplemented economic ideas. In the years that followed, Russia has become a completely different entity. But in many respects, the country looks surprisingly similar to the one that stood on the threshold of revolution a century ago.
A sick economy
A failed economy is the central reason for most revolutions. Increasing inequalities between the elites and masses, rising prices of basic goods and services, a high rate of inflation – all of these are basic ingredients for the recipe of revolution. In 1917, Russia’s participation in World War I had turned its already struggling economy into a virtually dead one. It was a protest against Russia’s continued participation in the war that ultimately developed into the February Revolution.
Right now, the Russian economy is still a struggling one. Economic growth is slow. The drop in oil prices had already dented the economy while Western sanctions against Russia haven’t helped either. A poll reveals that the biggest fear of Russian citizens is rising prices and war. These are some very broad parallels, right?
In 1914, the country had jumped into World War I, ignoring the wishes of the majority of its people. It continued to fight in the war till the October Revolution in 1917. Russia’s involvement in the war was what tipped its economy from bad to worse. Moreover, the country was completely unprepared for conflict. Russia sustained the most losses in the war. Desertion was common in the army. The combination of military losses and economic misgivings transformed into protests, and ultimately, revolution.
Today, Russia is involved in war again. Nothing direct like the Great War, just ‘helping’ its ally Syria or the region of Eastern Ukraine resolve its internal problems. Unlike the previous century, this conflict is limited and doesn’t require more than a fraction of Russia’s military power. Russia’s present involvement in international conflicts is more reminiscent of Cold War tactics. More importantly, unlike before, the Russian military can actually claim to be victorious. In fact, it was Russian assistance that helped Bashar al-Assad’s forces recapture Aleppo.
Russia is now one of the key negotiators of the Syrian peace process. It has even made up (for now) with Turkey, a complete turnaround from their relations two years ago. Add to this the annexation of Crimea and you can see that while Russia is still involved in the war, it’s track record is a lot better.
Banking on a shared past
Another factor that remains common between the Russia of 1917 and that of 2017 is the country’s attempt to increase its influence in Eastern Europe. One of the reasons World War I turned into a global war was the enthusiasm of European countries to come to the rescue of their allies. Austria and Russia were both eager to extend their influence in the Balkans. Russia styled itself as the protector of the region, banking on the common Slavic culture, taking great interest in the deteriorating relations between Serbia and Austria. Like Germany gave ‘carte blanche’ to its ally Austria, Russia promised complete support to Serbia. These promises and the attempt to fulfil them was what did the world in.
Russia is still extending its influence in the region of Eastern Europe. From attempted assassinations to indirect pressure on countries that are yet to join the EU, no idea is left untried. It is still harking back to the shared Slavic past as a soft influence, or reason for annexation. The main reason behind these attempts, both then and now, is the attempt of Russia to become the big political superpower the world revolves around.
The idea of a better, shared past also tries to rationalise the dominating nature of Russia over its neighbours. But mostly, it’s an endeavour to regain relevance in the world. Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and the shame that followed prompted Russia’s involvement in World War I to regain its stature. As for today, Putin already regards the breakup of the USSR as the ‘biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.’ Need any more be said?
The cancer of corruption
Corrupt regimes are also a commonality between the two periods. The corruption and decadence in Tsarist Russia need no introduction. They are immortalised by Nikolai Gogol in his writings. Right now, ‘Putinist’ Russia is still massively corrupt. It stands 131st on the Corruption Index.
Under Putin’s rule, the state and private economies are being rendered indistinguishable to the surprising and immense benefit of him and his associates. According to a US think-tank, Russia is second in terms of black money outflows. A corrupt system and oligarchic principles of governance have permeated every inch of the state with immense amounts of money being syphoned off from the country every year.
A repressive regime
Another thing unites the Russia of 1917 and 2017: a really scary secret service. Responsible for weeding out anti-revolutionaries and critics of the regime, the Okhrana of Tsarist Russia was formidable even before it was headed by Stolypin. The FSB has inherited quite a lot from its predecessor. Allegations continue to be laid on the organisation for being involved in eliminating every critic of Putin. The climate of fear and repression encouraged by the secret service also remains.
The final common factor is the autocratic regime in place. Russia still has what most would call an ‘autocratic system.’ But, this time the oppression is approved by many. The Romanovs were oppressive and unpopular. Putin manages to evade the latter label and regularly gets high approval ratings. Many Russians consider him to be a reviver of their lost status, conservative values and economy post the breakup of USSR. Despite the dismal human rights record of his country and allegations of harassment of dissenters, the Russian President has many admirers, both domestic and foreign.
If we look at things closely, it seems that a century later not much has changed in Russia. A repressive system fostered by a terrifying secret service, over-involvement in international relations, corruption and economic mismanagement, attempts to be ‘The Big One’ in the international arena; all these characteristics remain. What has changed is the leadership.
Putin as a leader is actually popular and manages to make a large section of the population ignore the problems plaguing the country. Putin’s popularity and his propagandist vision of progress towards a better future, similar to a so-called perfect past, is what stands between Russia and another revolution today. The day that, or Putin himself disappears (it’s hard to say which will come first) Russia will be extremely vulnerable to another revolution. Till then, rebellion and resentment will fester, but not erupt.
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