The 100th anniversary of the October Revolution brings difficult memories for modern-day Russia
The diorama showing how Ulyanovsk looked when Vladimir Lenin was born here in 1870 is noticeably full of Orthodox churches.
Their gleaming onion domes are positioned overlooking the Volga River in the model Ulyanovsk, which was renamed for its most famous son. He was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, and then changed his name to Lenin before spearheading the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the creation of the atheist Soviet Union superpower 100 years ago.
Yulia Skoromolova, head of Ulyanovsk’s state-run tourism board, looks down at this miniature idyll. For a moment, her eyes soften. “Lenin was educated and he came from a good family, from a good city.” Like other exhibits in the sprawling Lenin memorial complex which she oversees, the diorama has been carefully put together. But then she sighs: “Why did he lead this revolution?”
The self-described Lenin devotee is not the only one conflicted by 1917. The whole country seems at a loss over how to mark the events, from the October revolution through to the bloody end of the Russian monarchy the following year, with the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by firing squad.
In Soviet times, the anniversary of the revolution — which falls on November 7 in the post-tsarist calendar — was marked with military parades through Moscow’s Red Square. But the Kremlin is not organizing any official events for the centenary. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to speak — it would be remiss if he didn’t — but if previous mentions are anything to go by, the revolution will not get any special treatment. A week before, he referred to the centenary with unease, saying “we must never again push society to the dangerous precipice of division”.
On the one hand, the Soviet Union forged Putin and gave Moscow enormous global influence. The Russian leader has famously described its collapse as the “geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But on the other hand, he fears dissent, especially revolution, and his administration has worked hard to put down any youth-oriented opposition.
The modern-day Kremlin is also concerned about keeping the Russian Orthodox Church on side, which takes a dim view of the revolution and the murder of the last tsar. Nicholas II — who has been canonized as a saint — has many adherents who are preparing to mark the centenary of the royal family’s deaths next year. And it has been notable how cautious the government has been in its reaction to protests over a new film about the last tsar.
Illustration by Sofo Kirtadze