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Today, Russia marks an awkward centennial. November 7 is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, in which a faction of Marxist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin toppled the weak provisional government put in place after Czar Nicholas II was ousted months earlier. The heady events of 1917 soon gave way to the consolidation of a vast totalitarian state, built on the bones of millions caught up in sweeping purges, which for the better part of a century challenged American hegemony across the globe under the red banner of communism.

“Within two decades of October 1917, the Revolution had devoured not only its children, but also its founders — the men and women who had been motivated by such passion for destruction,” my colleague Anne Applebaum wrote in a lengthy essay on Bolshevism. “It created not a beautiful new civilization but an angry, unhappy, and embittered society, one that squandered its resources, built ugly, inhuman cities, and broke new ground in atrocity and mass murder.”

For that reason and others, this seismic moment in history is not something Russia's rulers are keen to celebrate. In Soviet times, Nov. 7 was an annual national holiday. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin, is not publicly commemorating the centennial. Instead, the former KGB agent unveiled a monument last week to the victims of the Great Terror of 1937-38, during which hundreds of thousands of falsely accused “enemies of the people” were rounded up and executed or sent to prison camps.


Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill unveil the country's first national memorial to victims of Soviet-era repressions on Oct. 30. (Pool photo by Alexander Nemenov/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE)

“The meaning of the day is diminished,” noted Washington Post Moscow bureau chief David Filipov. “Its post-Soviet name, Day of Accord and Reconciliation, refers to something that people thought would happen in the newly democratic Russia, but never truly did. Russia never really faced the worst of its Soviet past, nor experienced a full reconciliation with it.”

Putin speaks of the communist past with profound ambiguity. “When we look at the lessons from a century ago, we see how ambiguous the results were, and how there were both negative and positive consequences of those events,” he said last month. “We have to ask the question: Was it really not possible to develop not through revolution but through evolution, without destroying statehood and mercilessly ruining the fate of millions, but through gradual, step-by-step progress?”

This shouldn't be a surprise to hear from Putin, a politician so powerful and entrenched that myriad news outlets have hailed him as Russia's new czar. His ambivalence about Nov. 7 is a reflection of his politics, which are anchored in two things that were, at least on paper, anathema to his Soviet predecessors: blood-and-soil Russian nationalism and a close embrace of the Orthodox Church. Yet Putin's repression of dissidents and squeezing of civil society in Russia would be familiar not only to his communist predecessors but to the czarist regime that preceded them, in which courts could indict you for harboring “the insane lust for change.”

“The crucial political point here is that, while the Communist-era narrative and Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev hailed the revolutionary rupture — the abrupt destruction of the ancien régime and the advent of the brave new world — Putin is deeply averse to any abrupt political shifts,” wrote veteran journalist Masha Lipman in the New Yorker. “He is a distinctly anti-revolutionary conservative, deeply apprehensive of any grassroots challenge. To Putin, all signs of independent public activism and protest are a challenge to stability — specifically, the stability of his rule.”

Lipman added: “Putin’s goals — to keep Russian society quiescent and demobilized; to make sure that Russian élites remain loyal to him — are at the root of his evasive stance on divisive issues of Soviet history and his near silence on the Bolshevik Revolution.”

So, a century after the Bolsheviks took charge, the leadership in Moscow cloaks itself in the mantra of “traditional national values.” The Kremlin is more likely to find common cause with elements of the West's far right — from evangelical conservatives to ethno-nationalists — than the traditional anti-imperial left that for decades looked east for leadership.

“Like a tsar, Mr. Putin has buttressed his power through repression and military conflict,” the Economist said in an editorial. “At home, in the name of stability, tradition and the Orthodox religion, he has suppressed political opposition and social liberals, including feminists, NGOs and gays. Abroad, his annexation of Crimea and the campaigns in Syria and Ukraine have been burnished for the evening news by a captive, triumphalist media.”

If anything, Nov. 7 marks the ending of a great Russian empire whose legacy — or, at least, whose sense of primacy — Putin is keen to resurrect. “At the beginning of the year [1917], Russia was one of the great powers with perfect chances of winning the war in a matter of months,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Kremlin-affiliated lawmaker who is the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, a senior Soviet figure, in an interview with the Associated Press. “By the end of the year, Russia wasn’t a power. It was incapable of anything.”

Nevertheless, the past finds a way to fit into the present. “Lenin's tomb once symbolized an internationalist ideology, world Communism,” Victor Sebestyen wrote in the introduction of his gripping new book on the rise of the Bolshevik leader. “It has since become an altar of resurgent nationalism.”

The Economist concludes: “A century ago the Bolshevik revolution was seen as an endorsement of Marx’s determinism. In the event, it proved that nothing is certain and that history has its own tragic irony.”

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