November is heavy on historical dates. As world leaders gathered in Paris last week to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, Russians were remembering the 101st anniversary of the Bolshevik coup d’état that some still refer to as the “great October socialist revolution.”
Two rival commemorations were held in Moscow on Nov. 7. While the Communists rallied on Revolution Square, steps away from the Kremlin, brandishing red flags and the portraits of Lenin and Stalin, activists of the liberal Yabloko party brought flowers and a makeshift commemorative sign to the former Alexander Military Academy that served as the headquarters of the anti-Bolshevik resistance during the fighting in October and November 1917. “Our goal is to overcome the absence of memory and honor those who fought against dictatorship,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, one of Yabloko’s leaders. “A nation cannot forget its past and its heroes. If it does, it will cease to exist as a nation.”
Two thousand miles east, in Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk, the past has also been playing out in political battles. Local Communists are pushing the municipal government to install a bust of Stalin on one of the city’s main streets. The mayor — a Communist himself — is sympathetic. “The very idea of a monument to Stalin is an insult to the memory of the victims of organized terror,” said Alexander Rudnitsky, the head of the Novosibirsk branch of Memorial, an organization that works to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression. Thousands of Novosibirsk residents have signed a petition opposing the initiative. The authorities retreated, for now: The city’s Arts Council last week decided against installing the Stalin bust, noting the likelihood of what it called “acts of vandalism.” Supporters of the dictator are vowing to press on.
It is impossible to imagine similar arguments over commemorations for Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland or Walter Ulbricht in Germany. But unlike its neighbors, Russia only half-completed its de-Communization in the 1990s. While the Soviet Communist Party was banned by President Boris Yeltsin and found by Russia’s Constitutional Court to have been responsible for “repression directed at millions,” full state condemnation of the former regime never came. Most Soviet archives were never opened. And Communist apparatchiks or KGB operatives were never restricted from government positions. Under Vladimir Putin, the tacit public rehabilitation of the Soviet regime — and the open glorification of its security services — has accelerated. One of his first acts in office was reinstating the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem.
The memory of Soviet repression is an uncomfortable subject for a regime that prides itself on its KGB origins. The Russian government has officially branded Memorial a “foreign agent” — itself an insult to the memory of the victims of Communist terror, so many of whom were sent to their deaths on this very charge. Last month, the Moscow government attempted to ban the traditional vigil for the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror held every year near the memorial stone brought from the Solovki concentration camp and placed near the KGB headquarters. Realizing that people will come anyway, City Hall finally issued the permit. Thousands took part in the vigil, waiting in line for hours to read out names and light candles; the lines extended into the underpasses and nearby metro stations. Similar vigils were held in more than 30 cities across Russia.
This month’s historical dates are not yet over. Nov. 16 marks the 98th anniversary of the evacuation of General Pyotr Wrangel’s army from Crimea, the last major defeat of the White forces that all but secured Communist victory in the civil war. For most of 1920, a small White Russian state on the Crimean Peninsula held its ground against the Bolsheviks. The government of South Russia, headed by Prime Minister Alexander Krivoshein and with the prominent liberal statesman and philosopher Pyotr Struve as foreign minister, took steps to implement agrarian, administrative and labor reforms. In August, France officially recognized it as the legitimate government of Russia.
For a while it seemed that an alternative Russia might emerge — a small but determined foothold against the Soviets. (Many years later, this scenario was fictionalized in Vasily Aksyonov’s utopian novel “The Island of Crimea.”) It was not to be. That summer Britain withdrew its support from Wrangel, opening trade negotiations with the Bolsheviks and ordering its military mission and the Royal Navy out of Crimea. Having concluded a ceasefire with Poland, the Red Army moved south to eliminate the last opposition stronghold.
Between Nov. 13 and 16, Gen. Wrangel’s army conducted an ordered evacuation from Crimea; 126 ships sailed across the Black Sea to Constantinople carrying nearly 150,000 military personnel and civilians and leaving the Bolsheviks to claim the whole of Russia. “Three dozen countries in the world have fallen to Communism, and almost none of them managed to maintain a patch of independent territory where the broken national development could continue,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author and dissident, said on his visit to Taiwan, a rare exception. “In Russia, Wrangel’s Crimea could have held on, but did not receive any outside support and, abandoned by its unfaithful European allies, was crushed by the Communists.”
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