Giovanni Cadioli examines the anniversary of the October Revolution and its post-Soviet legacy.
November 7 was a day of immense significance in the Soviet Union – maybe only International Workers’ Day (May 1) and Victory Day (May 9), could be compared to it. This was the day in which the USSR celebrated its founding event, the October Revolution – or the Great October Socialist Revolution, as it was once known. A giant parade was held on Red Square and the day was of course a public holiday – in 1927 even November 8 was declared a non-working day in connection with the celebrations for the anniversary of the Revolution.
All of that ended with the lowering of the red flag from the Kremlin’s cupola on Christmas Day 1991 – or did it?
No, not really. Indeed Russian soldiers dressed in 1940s Red Army uniforms and bearing Soviet flags and ensigns marched again on Red Square this year. Despite many rebrandings and distractions, November 7 continues to be celebrated, even if its meaning has changed. Why so?
First of all, one has to bear in mind a few things: as every moment of apparently historic change, the fall of the Soviet Union was not an incontrovertible separation of a “Soviet past” from a “Russian future”. Many characteristics and problems of the old Soviet system lived on – and in part continue to do so – in post-Soviet Russia. Moreover, one should always remember that Russia was a country that had no official state flag or coat of arms between 1993 and 2000, though it now has its complex symbolical system – a brilliant work of symbolical syncretism between the Soviet and Imperial Russian traditions.
As far November 7 is concerned, parades, solemn speeches from Lenin’s Mausoleum and celebrations throughout the country ceased in 1991. This did not last for long however and the day not only remained a public holiday, but was still officially named “Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution” until 1994 (November 8 however, reverted to a working day in 1992).
In 1995 a brilliant stratagem was invented to allow the Russian leadership to celebrate the date, even with a parade, without having to actually celebrate the October Revolution. Magic? No, historical blessing – indeed, the old Soviet festivity was now renamed “The day of the military parade on Red Square in Moscow to mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution”, officially defined in the list of Russian festivities as “Day of Russian Military Glory”. So since 1995 what has been celebrated on November 7 was not the October Revolution but the parade that marked its 24th anniversary in 1941, when the Nazis were closing in on Moscow and Stalin refused to leave the city and ordered the parade to be held regularly. Such an event had a positive impact on the morale of the Soviet people and on the Red Army, showing also to allies and enemies alike that the USSR was far from being a defeated country.
As if the day were not already busy enough with events, in 1996 it was decided to establish the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation”, which would give a clear post-Soviet reason for not working on November 7. However, in 2005, the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation” was abolished as a festivity and November 7 became, for the first time since 1918, a working day.
Instead, the “Day of People’s Unity”, to be celebrated on November 4, was introduced. Such festivity has been widely seen as an attempt to replace November 7, but is now better known for the far-right “Russian march” held on that day than because of its actual meaning (officially, the celebration of the Moscow popular uprising of 1612, which ended the Polish domination of Russia).
However, while the new festivity attempted to divert attention from November 7, the “Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution” was reintroduced as “memorable date” in 2005. The official explanation was that the October revolution “had to be remembered to prevent revolutions in Russia”.
Twenty-two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the October Revolution is an event that many Russians are not entirely ready to relegate to the past. As of 2008, 36% of Russians still celebrated its anniversary, while in 2013, 60% of Russians see communism as a good system and respectively 56% and 50% of them have a positive view of Brezhnev and Stalin. Brilliant as Russia’s re-imagining may be, one of its major public celebrations remains an anniversary of an anniversary.