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The Russian Revolution's 100 year Anniversary, Populism and the Rise of Authoritarian Personalities
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-11-20 10:12:48
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At first blush, a revolutionary state and an authoritarian state appear as similar political phenomena: they both claim to question the establishment and authority in general, they claim to free and represent the people, they arrive on the stage of history  employing  devious and often violent political means, they implement their ideology and policies forcefully, even vengefully, their leaders are usually charismatic cultish men adored by their supporters, albeit, more often than not, they turn out to be unapologetic political thugs or dictators disguised as heroes and saviors of the country in crisis. But a second more reflective look may dispel the confusion.

What do the likes of Erdogan, Orban, Putin, Duda, Salman, El-Sissi, Trump have in common? They all wish to project the image of a strong all controlling sovereign state prepared to withstand any aggression and go it alone if needs be; that is to say, their common feature is the image of authoritarianism. Some of those “saviors” may even claim the mantle of a bona fide revolution, but quite often they are rooted in an ultra-nationalist ideology or even a racial conspiracy theory. It could be that of white supremacy, or an ethnic advocacy of irredentism and separation, be it from a country or a union of countries 


 Authoritarian Personalities for whom power justifies the means

A great example of the above described confusion is the present-day Russia of Vladmir Putin which this year is commemorating, if not exactly celebrating, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There is an obvious conundrum at work here: how does one project the image of a strong state while celebrating a philosophical-political ideology basically repudiated  in 1989 with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the iron curtain?

Let’s not forget that Putin was actively working for the Communist ideology, and in fact forged a career in its service, as a KBG agent. He has previously lauded the Russian Revolution as the country’s greatest victory; the first successful communist revolution headed by Lenin (who remains embalmed, on show so to speak, in a giant mausoleum in Red Square) on November 7, 1917 in St. Petersburg, the first to promise racial, gender and economic equality and justice. He also called the disintegration of the Soviet Union a “geo-political catastrophe.”

Putin’s own grandfather used to cook for Lenin, but Putin remains strangely silent nowadays. He considers the historical event of the revolution ambiguous, at best. Why is that? It may be that far from representing a symbol of unity, the revolution of 1917, when stripped of all its powerful symbolical power, was at bottom the overthrow of a sitting government, provoking a civil war which lasted a couple of years and to which even the US participated by secretly invading the country after World War I in order to aid the anti-Soviets (see the novel Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak).


Moreover, Bolshevik actions in 1917 can easily be compared to those of Euromaidan protestors in 2014 Ukraine, who ousted a pro-Russian president in a move the Kremlin condemned as “an anti-constitutional takeover and armed seizure of power.” In effect, that applies to the Soviets of 1917, as much as one wishes to elaborate the confusing origins of the Soviet story.

Putin, who grasps the contradictions and the confusion, would much rather promote the idea of Russian greatness. Let’s make Russia great again! Does that sound familiar in the US? Indeed it is. In both cases history is used selectively, not to inform so much, but to inspire. While it is true that before 1989 the Soviets celebrated Revolution Day with great fanfare, in fact what was celebrated was more a myth than history. A myth that never happened. The only places that Lenin’s followers occupied on November 7, 2017 were two buildings in the capital city of the Russian Empire: the Winter Palace and the Central Telegraph Office. There they proclaimed a government in the name of the people.

How did the Bolsheviks manage to pass from controlling two miserly buildings to taking over an empire spanning one-sixth of the globe, is a story in itself. It took two years of civil war for the fog to lift and the results to become clear. In effect what had happened in St. Petersburg was not so much a revolutionary moment but a coup, plain and simple, conducted by a mob of political extremists well aware that they did not have the support of most Russian citizens. Most of those citizens, some 80%, were impoverished peasants who had never read Marx, nor did they care.  

Of course, Soviet ideology dictated that the event of November 7, 1917, be recast as the social struggle of the poor rebelling against their rich oppressors. A more authentic story is told by Pasternak in his Dr. Zhivago which depicts that what was being fought over was not so much political power but the very heritage, cultural identity and political humanism of the country. (See my article on Dr. Zhivago in Ovi of 19 August 2007; click on the following link: http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/1978)

Russia today has forgotten the myth of the struggle of the poor against the rich and accepted the reality that ultimately it is now a capitalist country where the oligarchs (some 111 people) control some 20% of the country’s wealth; a new country indeed which for the last 17 years of its short 28 year short life-span has been controlled by the same man who continues to declare himself a president, duly elected, and about to declare his candidacy for a fourth presidential term. He keeps a tight lid on any potential opposition and tolerates none. The political system under his control fancies itself as democratic, but the last thing the Kremlin wants to commemorate and encourage is a violent overthrow of an oppressive, undemocratic regime. The Bolshevik Soviet Revolution is too reminiscent of that. There is a void.

So, the strategy is to fill such a void by projecting the image of national state power. Russia has suffered enough humiliation. Let’s make her great again. This was already evident when, after five years in power, Putin canceled the November 7 holiday and replaced it with the November 4 “National Unity Day.”

The achievements, in other words, are all in the future, not in the past. From the past one may be allowed to cherry pick what one finds convenient to promote national greatness. For Putin the Soviet era was neither about repression, nor was it about destroying national traditions and order. Not unlike Stalin, he thinks of the Soviet era as a giant modernization project punctuated by the defeat of Nazi Germany, the launching of the first satellite into space, and giant leaps in education and industry. To be sure, even the aristocratic era that the Bolsheviks all but destroyed isn’t depicted as all that bad, neither is the Russian Orthodox Church that Putin deems a revered ally in the promotion of everything Russian. Recent Russian movies attest to that.

The violence and repression that was needed and implemented to transform an imperial empire into a Union of Soviet Republics is hardly ever mentioned in those movies, not to speak of the struggle of a Dr. Zhivago to preserve the flourishing of his poetical vision and  humanity amidst a devastating political milieu militating against it. Not to mention the violence and repression being implemented as we speak by the so called “New Russia.” To wit, in April 2017, Moscow officials angrily rejected a finding by the European Court of Human Rights that Russia had been guilty of “serious failings” in its handling of a shootout at an elementary school in Beslan, in which 330 people were killed. The government simply cannot do any wrong and denies any accusation.

This strategy of denial extends into the cultural sphere. Coverage of the revolution in state-sponsored media outlets similarly tends to downplay its unsavory aspects. Rather than focus on class conflict and coup, programs highlight the admirable qualities of the various  Russian leaders involved: Leon Trotsky, Lenin,  and even the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. They aim to make citizens feel proud of their past, however problematic that past might prove to be. The message is clear enough: no past mistakes, abuses and tragedies of history should ever drag the country down. The concept of truth assumes pragmatic and relativistic characteristics. The end always justifies the means. Even an historical account, which ought to be objective and impartial, can be manipulated and subsumed within the overarching narrative of Putin’s “Russianness” or Russian glory.

To conclude our original thesis: revolutionary and authoritarian personalities do indeed have a common Machiavellian political philosophy where the opportunistic attainment of power justifies any bad means, but they are not necessarily revolutionary personalities dedicated to the vision of an idealistic political ideology, even less that of social justice. To confuse the two is to confuse democracy and concern for the common good with an opportunistic kind of populism and dictatorship. That confusion exists today in Russia, the US, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the Philippines. Those countries, as currently constituted, like to proclaim themselves democratic and concerned with the common good, but what they actually practice is an authoritarian form of populism.


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's NEW BOOK
"The Caligula Presidency: A Satirical Debunking Critique"
is online now and you can download it for FREE HERE!



Check also Dr Emanuel Paparella's other EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them all for FREE HERE!

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