Moscow (AFP) – It was the year that ended centuries of royal rule, brought two revolutions, ushered in Soviet domination and changed the course of Russian history irrevocably.
A century later, the country seems unsure how to treat the tumultuous events of 1917 that saw it hurtle from the abdication of the last tsar Nicholas II to a Communist dictatorship in a matter of months.
During seven decades of Soviet rule the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was celebrated with pomp by the Kremlin and the tsarist regime was demonised.
But after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 there was a u-turn that saw the royal family canonised and public opinion increasingly view the upheavals not as a triumph but as a tragedy that sparked generations of bloodshed and suffering in Russia.
Some 500 conferences, round tables, exhibitions and art festivals are planned to mark the centenary — but so far, at least, there are no signs that there will be any major fanfare.
“Russian society needs an objective, honest and profound analysis of these events,” Putin said in a speech last year.
“The lessons of history are needed primarily for reconciliation, to strengthen society,” he said, adding that it is “impermissible to let the splits, malice, resentment and bitterness of the past into our life today.”
A former Soviet-era intelligence officer, Putin has turned himself into what many see as a kind of modern tsar and surrounded himself with a new super-wealthy elite.
His mantra has been restoring stability, strength and unity to the country after the upheaval that followed the end of the Soviet Union, and returning Russia to the conservative values of the past.
Following mass anti-Kremlin rallies in 2011-12 and the ouster of the Russian-backed leader of Ukraine by protesters in 2014, authorities have been increasingly wary of any popular revolt that could impact their grip on power. Read the rest of this entry »
Kevin D. Williamson writes: Applause was a serious business in the Soviet Union, as it is in Cuba, as it is in Venezuela, as it is in all unfree societies and at our own State of the Union address, which is modeled on the ex cathedra speeches of unfree societies. The less free you are, the more you are obliged to applaud. Joseph Stalin’s pronouncements were greeted with perfervid applause, which would continue, rapturously — no one dared stop — until Stalin himself would order its cessation.
“The desire to rule is complexly mixed up with the desire to be ruled, just as the most masterful among us bow the lowest and grovel the most enthusiastically when presented with a strongman-savior.”
But what to do when Stalin was not there? The mere mention of his name, even in his absence, would trigger fanatical applause, and nobody wanted to be the first to stop. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn related one famous story:
The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter.
Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them.
That same night the factory director was arrested.
Stalin is long gone, and the Soviet Union, too, having been deposited, as Ronald Reagan predicted, onto the “ash heap of history.” But the craven instinct on display in the scene Solzhenitsyn described remains.
The desire to rule is complexly mixed up with the desire to be ruled, just as the most masterful among us bow the lowest and grovel the most enthusiastically when presented with a strongman-savior. There is something atavistic in us that is older than the human part — the inner chimp — that makes those who listen to its voice keenly aware of their places in the social hierarchy. Even a predator instinctively recognizes a predator higher up the food chain.
“The language there is interesting: She did not write that Price ‘did not applaud,’ ‘refrained from applauding’, or even ‘failed to applaud,” but that he refused to applaud, a formulation that converts passivity into a positive act, one from which we are to derive something of significance about his fitness for the role of secretary of health and human services.”
Which is not to say that National Public Radio’s Marilyn Geewax is a Stalinist, but rather that they were what she is, representatives of the same species.
Geewax, who is a senior business editor for NPR, is very interested in applause. This week, she expressed some concern that Representative Tom Price has been nominated to serve as the next secretary of health and human services. Read the rest of this entry »
Chinese President Xi Jinping made statements last month demanding a “new trend toward socialist family values” in China.
Xi made the comments at a conference “to honor model families” in December, according to Xinhua, defining “socialist family values” as “love for the nation, family and one another, devotion to progress and kindness, and mutual growth and sharing.” His New Year’s Eve address appeared to promote more of the same, demanding the Chinese people “work harder” to aid the Communist Party’s progress both nationally and globally.
“As long as our 1.3 billion-plus people are pulled together for a common cause, as long as the Party stands together with the people and we roll up our sleeves to work harder, we will surely succeed in a Long March of our generation,” Xi reportedly said in his address.
He made clear that the values he seeks to see Chinese families promote are indivisible from Communist Party edicts, reminding listeners that “law is virtue put down in words, and virtue is law borne in people’s hearts.”
Xi reportedly urged “fostering a belief in law, the rule of law and rules, and guiding people to voluntarily assume their statutory duties, as well as responsibilities for society and family.”
The Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlet The People’s Daily reported that Chinese citizens online “responded enthusiastically to President Xi Jinping’s New Year’s address, equally impressed by the content and inspirational phrasing of the speech.”
The Chinese media outlets’ emphasis on family values are contrasted with Western-style popular culture on the pages of the Global Times, another English-language propaganda outlet. While China’s president has repeatedly dwelled on “socialist family values” in recent speeches, the Times has decried reality show participants and celebrity divorcees as indicative of a trend of immaturity among young Chinese people. Read the rest of this entry »
25 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, plenty of repressive regimes live on. Today, the free world no longer cares.
Garry Kasparov writes: A quarter-century ago, on Dec. 25, 1991, as the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned after a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive, I was so optimistic for the future. That year and the years leading up to that moment were a period when anything felt possible. The ideals of freedom and democracy seemed within the reach of the people of the Soviet Union.
“It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet.”
I remember the December evening in 1988 when I was having dinner with friends and my mother in Paris. My family and I still lived in Baku, capital of the then-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, where I was raised, but I had become accustomed to unusual freedoms since becoming the world chess champion in 1985. I was no longer accompanied by KGB minders everywhere I went, although my whereabouts were always tracked. Foreign travel still required special approval, which served to remind every Soviet citizen that this privilege could be withdrawn at any time.
“The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.”
My status protected me from many of the privations of life in the Soviet Union, but it did not tint my vision rose. Instead, my visits to Western Europe confirmed my suspicions that it was in the U.S.S.R. where life was distorted, as in a funhouse mirror.
We were discussing politics, of course, and I was being optimistic as usual. I was sure that the Soviet Union would be forced to liberalize socially and economically to survive.
“The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.”
Mr. Forman played the elder voice of reason to my youthful exuberance. I was only 25, while he had lived through what he saw as a comparable moment in history. He cautioned that he had seen similar signs of a thaw after reformer Alexander Dubčekhad become president in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Eight months after Dubček’s election, his reforms ended abruptly as the U.S.S.R. sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia and occupied the country. Many prominent Czechs, like Messrs. Forman and Kavalek, fled abroad.
“Gorbachev’s perestroika is another fake,” Mr. Forman warned us about the Soviet leader’s loosening of state controls, “and it will end up getting more hopeful people killed.” I insisted that Mr. Gorbachev would not be able to control the forces he was unleashing. Mr. Forman pressed me for specifics: “But how will it end, Garry?”
I replied—specifics not being my strong suit—that “one day, Miloš, you will wake up, open your window, and they’ll be gone.”
“Ronald Reagan’s warning that ‘freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction’ was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.”
It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.
The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones. Read the rest of this entry »