Vladimir Putin stayed away from events marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution on Tuesday, an event that changed the world but has awkward associations for the former KGB operative who was trained to keep a lid on dissent, not celebrate it.
In the Soviet era, missile launchers rumbled across Red Square on Nov 7, Soviet leaders watched from atop the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin — father of the Bolshevik Revolution — and the anniversary of the uprising was a public holiday.
Red Square did host a military parade on Tuesday, but it was mainly a stylised historical re-enactment of a Soviet 1941 Second World War event and gave only a brief nod to the famous uprising. It was not shown live on state TV, and featured merely a brief segment on the 1917 revolution with Red Army soldiers.
The centenary, Putin’s spokesman said, was a routine working day for the president who had several Kremlin meetings.
Accused by the opposition of having metamorphosed into a cross between a Soviet-style autocrat and a Tsar and eyeing possible re-election next year, the 65-year-old Russian leader has spent years preaching stability while denouncing uprisings in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
Riot police have cracked down on a string of anti-government protests this year, carrying out mass detentions, and opposition leader and fierce Putin critic Alexei Navalny has been jailed three times for breaking public protest rules.
Putin, in his quest to weld a proud national identity, has cherry-picked parts of Russia’s Soviet past, like its World War Two victory and its success in space. But while he does not stress Communism’s role in those feats, he has sometimes struck an ambivalent tone, once calling the 1991 Soviet collapse the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.
In rare comments on the subject ahead of the centenary, Putin made clear he thought it would have been better if the 1917 Revolution had never happened, and that he believed there was nothing to celebrate.
“… We see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are intertwined,” Putin told a gathering of academics last month.
“Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?”
Putin chose his words carefully. The centenary may leave him with mixed feelings, but it remains a hallowed anniversary for the Russian Communist party and for many older Russians.
Although it is the second largest party in the lower house of parliament after the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, the Russian Communist Party wields little real influence today and votes with the Kremlin on most major issues.
But its supporters, who held a week-long series of celebratory events to mark the revolution’s centenary and were due to rally in Moscow later on Tuesday, believe their time will come again.
“Capitalism is stumbling from one crisis to another,” veteran Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov wrote in a centenary congratulatory note to his supporters.
“We are convinced that the sun of socialism will once again rise over Russia and the whole world.”