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Lenin’s revenge
Vladimir Putin will find it hard to reconcile Russia’s
revolutionary past with his tsarist ambitions

Arkady Ostrovsky
The centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution will be
extremely awkward for Russia’s president, Vladimir
Putin. On the one hand, the Kremlin has restored so
many Soviet symbols and institutions that it can
hardly ignore the foundation myth of Soviet rule. On
the other, Mr Putin intensely dislikes revolutions,
particularly ones that overthrow authoritarian,
imperial regimes. Moreover, worldwide commentary
on the orchestrator of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich
Lenin, not least in a spate of new biographies, will
invite re㋞�ections on his modern-day namesake. In
2017, expect to see Mr Putin perform intellectual­revenge?fsrc=scn/tw/wi/bl/ed/ 1/6
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somersaults to square Lenin’s anti-imperialist drive

with his own ambitions to restore imperial order.

Lenin's legacy has had its ups and downs since the
late Soviet era. In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev and
his supporters, many of whom were the children of
old Bolsheviks purged by Stalin, carried out their
liberal reforms under the slogans of returning to
Leninist principles. (Their Lenin had little to do with
the man who unleashed civil war and terror on his
country.) Mr Gorbachev, in common with other Soviet
leaders, derived his legitimacy from the founder of
the Bolshevik state. Like gods, they would walk
through Lenin’s mausoleum (the Underworld) and
climb on top of it (an Olympus). From there they
would observe military parades and marches by
mortals carrying their portraits (icons).

By contrast, Boris Yeltsin presided over the

disintegration of the Soviet Union and rejected the
communist regime as a matter of principle and
politics. Even when his popularity plunged, public
rejection of the communist era ensured his re-

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But Mr Putin makes little distinction between

imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. “What was
the Soviet Union?” Mr Putin asked in 2011. “It is
essentially the same Russia, only called di닙�erently.”
Following his dream of rebuilding state power and
retaining control over the Ukraine and Belarus—the
main constituent parts of the Soviet Union—Mr Putin
has ignored Lenin and rehabilitated Stalin. For him,
the di닙�erence between them was their attitude
towards the Russian state and its imperial

In Mr Putin’s version of history, whereas Lenin led a

struggle against imperial Russia and rejected its
Orthodox faith, Stalin returned to the idea of empire,
fanned Russian nationalism and ㋞�irted with the
church. Stalin consolidated the country’s resources
and restored 
patriotic feeling, which led to Soviet
victory in the second world war, used as the main
legitimising event of the current state. (Stalin’s
savaging of Russia’s peasantry, clergy and
intelligentsia is left out of this narrative.)

Yet, unwilling to stir discontent and lose votes among

older communists, Mr Putin left the Bolshevik
revolution in peace and Lenin in his mausoleum. To
deal with the contradiction between the historical
worship of Lenin and Mr Putin’s disavowal of any
revolution, nowadays the Kremlin drapes the
mausoleum in Red Army banners during military
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But the centenary of the revolution is too big an event

to cover up. In early 2016 a teacher from southern
Russia’s Astrakhan region asked Mr Putin how best to
interpret the Bolshevik revolution for his students:
“Your position is very important to us.”

Mr Putin’s reply: he was once not just a Communist

Party member but also an o㏈�cer of the KGB: “the
shield and sword of the party”. Unlike many, he said,
he never destroyed his party membership card: “I
liked and still like the communist and socialist idea.”
His main disagreement with Lenin concerned Lenin’s
organisation of Russia as a union of ethnic republics
with the right to self-determination. By giving them
the right to exit the Soviet Union, Mr Putin said,
Lenin “planted an atomic bomb” under Russia’s

Mr Putin sees himself as a restorer of Russia’s historic

lands, a new tsar. In a recent Kremlin ceremony
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran politician with a ㄚ�ne
grasp of which way the wind is blowing, recited
imperial Russia’s anthem, “God Save the Tsar”, to Mr

But Mr Putin’s regime, which has turned Russia into a

centralised state from the federation of the 1990s, is
no more capable of resolving the country’s growing
economic and political contradictions than were the
tsars. Russia today is as ripe for reform as it was
under Nicholas II in 1917. Mr Putin hopes that by
marrying the Soviet and imperial past he can preserve
the nucleus of the Russian empire and avoid the fate­revenge?fsrc=scn/tw/wi/bl/ed/ 4/6
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of the monarchy. Yet as the economy stagnates and

Mr Putin’s megalomania worsens, the ghosts of the
Bolshevik revolution are getting restless. Lenin might
allow himself a smile.

byArkady Ostrovsky

 he Economist
Russia editor, T

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