The Sunday Magazine

The Russian Revolution — Part 2: Ten Days That Still Shake the World

Michael Enright talks to Masha Gessen about what the centenary of the Russian Revolution means in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, and we examine how the legacy of the revolution influences debates about socialism and communism today.
(Ruby Buiza/CBC)

This is Part 2 of The Sunday Edition's two-part series on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Click here for Part 1: From Idealism to Terror. 

In 1917, the Russian Revolution altered the course of history. It inspired international revolutionary parties, set the stage for geopolitical conflicts like the Cold War, and proved that radical change was possible.

For most of the 20th century, the legacy of the revolution lived on in the state created by Lenin, and ruled by Stalin's iron fist.

The Soviet Union spread its influence across Europe and Asia. Countries such as Albania, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Afghanistan fell under Soviet rule.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. (Wikimedia Commons)
As the 20th century drew to a close, the Soviet Union was evolving away from totalitarianism. Mikhail Gorbachev promoted a series of reforms — known as glasnost and perestroika — to increase openness and restructure the Soviet economy.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania were swept away. Beliefs, borders and the shape of the future were being reinvented before our eyes.

Then on Christmas Day in 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR. The Soviet Union was over.

Some Russians were optimistic about the possibilities of a new era. Others were mournful, as they watched the project to which they had devoted their lives disappear.

The Soviet order rises again

Journalists were flooding into Russia and Eastern Europe to document the first shaky steps of the transition from Communism to democracy. One of them was a young Russian-American named Masha Gessen.

But those who believed democracy would flourish in Russia were soon disappointed.

You can't just tell a country, OK, you lived through seventy years of totalitarianism — unimaginable terror, unimaginable loss of life — and now it's all over. Go have a normal, freedom-loving democracy. Apparently that doesn't work.- Masha Gessen
Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen's new book chronicles Russia's return to totalitarianism under President Vladimir Putin. (Apple of My Eye Productions Inc.)
In her book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen traces the re-emergence of the Soviet order through the eyes of four young people who have spent their adult lives under the rule of Russian president Vladimir Putin. 
Stalin has been rising in the polls steadily since basically the collapse of the Soviet Union — and he has been advancing steadily in the Putin era, which has found varied justifications for Stalinist terror.- Masha Gessen

Michael Enright spoke with Masha Gessen about Putin's rise to power, and the increasing nostalgia for the past in modern-day Russia.

You can find a partial transcript of their conversation here

Memories of the Soviet Union

For many people who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and now live in Canada, the legacy of the Russian Revolution is still fresh.

David Gutnick spoke with residents of Toronto and Montreal about their experiences with communism. 

You can find stories from Jewish Canadians who grew up in the former Soviet Union in Towards Freedom, available below. 

How the Russian Revolution still influences politics today

The Soviet Union became a test case for the ideas that propelled it into being. Some saw it as a society free of the ravages of predatory capitalism. For others, the regime's atrocities proved socialism and communism could only lead to impoverishment and terror.

One hundred years later, the animosities bred by the revolution continue to influence political debates.

Michael Enright spoke with Kristen Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth Century Communism, and Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who studies authoritarianism, democracy and post-communist states, about the experience of people living under various systems of socialism and communism around the world.

As Lenin envisioned it, communism was fundamentally antithetical to democracy.- Lucan Way

They discuss how the legacy of the revolution influences contemporary debates, and whether a more democratic form of socialism or communism than the Soviet model is possible. 

There was a deep impulse towards democracy very early on in socialist thinking. It just got superseded by the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Bolsheviks.- Kristen Ghodsee

You can find a partial transcript of that conversation here

Could it have been otherwise?

If you spend any time reading about the legacy of the Russian Revolution, you will keep running into the same question: Could it have been otherwise? 

Were the terror, the scarcity, and the madness that seized Russia inevitable, from the moment Lenin stepped off the train at Finland Station? 

Or was there another path history could have taken … a more democratic one, that would have lived up to the hopes of the ordinary people who took to the streets in Petrograd in 1917, dreaming of a better world?

In 2017, a year in which many people are desperate for change, it is a question that burns with importance. 

The writer and left-wing activist China Miéville argues in his new book about the revolution that "its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars."

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography — and to run the risk of mistakes. It is not for nostalgia's sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.- China Miéville, October 

Click 'listen' above to hear Part 2 of our special series on the Russian Revolution. Part 1 is available here