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09 November 2017

An Interview with the Director of the Chancellery of the House of Romanoff in Rossiiskaia gazeta on the Consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917

Head of the House of Romanoff on board the cruiser Aurora, November 8, 2017 Head of the House of Romanoff on board the cruiser Aurora, November 8, 2017

Excerpts from this interview were included in the article by A. Savin, “This Short 20th Century: Positive and Negative Consequences of the Great Russian Revolution” (Etot korotkii XX vek: polozhitel’nye i otritsatel’nye itogi Velikoi rossiiskoi revoliutskii) in Rossiiskaia gazeta, 9 November 2017 (special issue № 7421[255]). The unabridged text of the interview follows:

—As for the positive side of the October Revolution: what do you think state socialism achieved in Russia?

—All revolutions are catastrophes. Even recognizing the inexorableness and inevitability of a given revolution, we must understand that a revolution is a manifestation of the illness of a nation, an illness born of the unhealed wounds of the previous period left festering in the minds and consciousness of the people. All revolutions, to one or another degree, are accompanied by the most terrible kind of mass conflict possible: fratricidal civil wars. And the entire history of the Revolution of 1917, and especially of the stage of it that began in October, is one of the most striking examples of a fateful schism in society and of the subsequent bloody and violent installation of a totalitarian ideology that comes as a result of that schism.

To speak of the “positive consequences of the October Revolution” is like speaking about, say, the “positive consequences of the invasion of Batu Khan,” or the “positive consequences of the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century.” Of course, in the revolution, as in the enslavement of the country to foreigners, or in uprisings and conspiracies which led to the destruction of the foundations of the state, there can be nothing “positive.”

But if we frame the question to ask instead if there were any positive outcomes of the era that had its origin in the October Revolution, then here the answer would be somewhat different.

An illness cannot itself be good for any living thing, but having gone through it, a person can acquire new strength—in a physical sense, acquire new immunities, and in a spiritual and cultural sense, reconsider constructively one’s own purpose in life. This is what happens to an entire nation that has gone through the illness of revolution.

Thinking of things this way can help us understand better what happened in our country during the 20th century.

The conquest of the Russian lands by Batu Khan was accompanied by the mass deaths of people, the ruination of cities and villages, the destruction of entire sectors of the economy of that time, the loss of the nation’s independence, and the destruction of the larger part of the national heritage. And it would be, I repeat, strange to discuss any “positive results” of this conquest. But the regime that was established on the territory of Rus for almost two and a half centuries after Batu Khan’s invasion had not only a negative side, but also a positive side. There were not only violence and conflict between the victors and the vanquished, but there were also cooperation and an exchange of experience. The spirit of our people was hardened and refined in the national struggle for liberation. And the Mongols—subjectively for their own interests, but objectively also in the interest of the development of Rus—tamped down the internecine strife among the Rus princes, and in the final analysis, contributed to the formation of the centralized Russian state, developed the national infrastructure, introduced statistical methods of accounting, and so on.

The Bolsheviks, who found themselves the rulers of the country after the Revolution and who were deeply hostile to traditional values, sometimes behaved in ways far worse than any foreign invaders. But in destroying the old world—what was in their opinion the "world of violence“—in seeing Russia as merely a springboard to a “world revolution,” they, assuming a certain logic in the historical process, firstly could not reject entirely the use of the materials of the “old world,” and, secondly, could only create that which was at base evil and profane.

In one of her interviews, the Head of the House of Romanoff, Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, compared the Bolsheviks to pirates who seized control of a ship after the crew had mutinied against its captain. “Exploiting the vacuum of power,” the Grand Duchess explained, “the pirates grab the ship, kill the captain and a large part of the crew and passengers, pillage the ship’s holds, and throw overboard the icons from the ship’s chapel. But you find yourself still having to sail the ship, to defend it from other pirates, ride out and recover from natural disasters, and so on. And so the pirates are forced to interact with the remaining crew members and passengers. And as a result, the pirates are themselves exposed to their influence. A certain degree of solidarity develops between the villainous pirates and their victims during storms that batter the ship or when attacked by enemies. But later the pirates again show their true nature. But all this is intertwined in the complexities of human relations, in the mechanisms of government, and in confronting the important issues in life. And to the extent that the pirates are familiar with the ship’s business and because there aren’t any other experts available—mainly because they’ve all been exterminated—one could say that the ship has not sunk thanks to the pirates.” (Grand Duchess Maria of Russia: “The Manipulation of the Past Has a Cost,” an interview in the on-line newspaper, October 19, 2017).

In this comparison (which is not an identical case but can serve as a kind of illustration), she is speaking not simply of what later became known as the “Stockholm Syndrome,” but of the manifestation of still deeper processes.

And it was not by accident that Grand Duchess Maria of Russia’s grandfather—the first Head of the House of Romanoff in exile, Emperor Kirill Vladimirovich—spoke in 1923 of his vision of the future of the Russia with the following words: “There is no need to destroy institutions that life itself has brought into existence, but we do need to reject those that destroy the human spirit” (Appeal from the Curator of the Throne of Russia, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, to the Russian People, for Repentence and Unity on the Basis of Traditional Russian Values, issued in Cannes, on April 2/15, 1924: ARID, f. 8, op. 1, d. 1).

He was speaking here precisely of that which was “brought to life” by the realities created by the October Revolution.

And as we can see from the many policy statements from Kirill Vladimirovich, from the point of view of the Imperial House, the “institutions” he had in mind here were the Soviet system of popular representation, the expansion of the rights of nationalities and ethnic minorities, the principle of social justice and the abolition of social privileges, the transfer of land to those who work it, the firm legal protection of the rights of workers (an 8-hour workday, social insurance, on-the-job safety), the industrialization and modernization of the economy generally, the nationalization of mineral resources, the creation and maintenance of a system of vocational education, and access to essential health services.

In fairness, I should hasten to point out that many of the reforms introduced by the Bolsheviks (the reduction of landed estates, industrialization, the enactment of sweeping labor reforms, electrification, the development of public transportation, the elimination of illiteracy, and many others) were already planned and well on their way to being realized even during the Empire, but through far less radical and ruthless methods.

A whole set of ideas that are inherent to state socialism were in a very serious way being discussed during the monarchy. Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich himself had just before the outbreak of the Revolution, on February 12, 1917, prepared for presentation to Emperor Nicholas II the draft text of a formal Throne Speech (GARF, f. 601, op. 1, d. 2088, ll. 2-4ob.), which contains a detailed proposal for the dramatic improvement of the social protections of the population—to accelerate the transfer of lands to the peasants; to create a system for the mobilization of labor in the event of a state emergency; to establish state control over production and distribution of goods; to nationalize mineral resources, forests, cotton and sugar production, and the trade and distribution of grain; to regulate rail communications; to move to the gold standard, with the ruble guaranteed with the “full faith and credit of the government”; to introduce a state monopoly on foreign trade; to impose caps on interests on all domestic loans; and to reduce the overall tax burden of the majority of the population. Of course, several of these proposals were dictated by wartime circumstances, but these proposals were nonetheless aimed broadly at strengthening the role of the government in the economy and weakening the grip of the great industrialists and bankers on the economy, and at reducing the egoism of private monopolies for the benefit of the majority of the people.

The fact that even members of the Imperial House supported such views rather eloquently speaks to the fact that, theoretically at least, with time state socialism could have been introduced by the monarchy, in a more organic, evolutionary way, without such mass violence and bloodletting, as happened as a result of the Revolution. Alas, history does not know the conditional mood....

Kirill Vladimirovich knew the value of the enthusiasm for renewal in the USSR, and he called for “strengthening the power” of the Red Army and Navy, which he saw as the unswerving defenders of the Fatherland. He spoke about this a great deal in his statements and addresses in the 1920s and 1930s.

And as for the many achievements of the Soviet period that we have listed here, the fact is that many were not always fully implemented, despite the claims of Communist propaganda. For example, the Soviets, or people’s councils, were themselves not fully empowered organs of popular representation, but were in fact extensions of the Party. The privileges of the former ruling classes of the Empire were vaporized with the slap of a red-hot iron, but were only taken up later by the party elite: “all are equal,” they claimed, but some were “more equal.” The transfer of land to the peasants turned into a violent and forced collectivization, which many rightly call a “second serfdom.” But even so, some good things did happen. And, at least, on the level of ideas, a striving for social justice and solidarity dominated the Soviet era. This has been noted even in our own time already by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia.

Soviet state socialism, in the final analysis, was a non-starter both in the political and in the economic spheres, and it consequently collapsed. But much of what it aspired to achieve is objectively necessary to life, whatever the governmental system or political regime. A large part of the Soviet experience still can be reclaimed. Of course, with adjustments taking into account both our nation’s ancient traditions and the new conditions of life all humanity today experiences.

—And as for the negative side of the October Revolution, what price have we paid for the successes of state socialism?

—Every attempt to bring about a utopia must be paid for with blood and tears. Today most people understand that it is impossible in principle to build a society guided by the principle “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs,” that is, a society that is in fact a kind of godless “earthly paradise.” But over the course of many years, the Communist regime claimed that it was possible. And millions believed them. And the Communists repeatedly had to explain to those millions why it hadn’t come about yet, why things weren’t yet perfect, why these goals had to be postponed.... As a result, instead of a paradise they got something more resembling hell. Marxist materialistic philosophy was transformed into an anti-religious pseudo-religion. The ideals of freedom were transformed into the totalitarian regime. The Marxist idea of the gradual withering away of class divisions was transformed into the theory of the “exacerbation of the class struggle.”

The most unacceptable and destructive consequences of the October Revolution were aggressive state atheism, which undermined for generations the foundations of spirituality and morality; terroristic methods of governing and mass repression, which did untold damage to the gene pool of the nation; the “disintegration of the peasant class” living in the villages; the destruction of private property, which is an extension of a person’s personality and which gives him the ability to fully realize his individual potential; and the systematic destruction of the monuments of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage.

Bolshevism is not only the style of government of the followers of V. I. Ulianov-Lenin. It is the name of a phenomenon that has a much longer history and has appeared under many guises. At its base lies militant materialism, political cynicism in a bizarre combination with ideological fanaticism, and an extreme distain for the dignity of the individual. For Bolshevism, human society is not a living organism but a machine. For the followers of the Bolshevik ideology, people are not individual cells, the illness and suffering of one affecting the wellbeing of the entire body, but cogs, each of which can be replaced without any ill effect upon the others or upon the machine itself. The nation for them is not a collection of individuals but an experimental “mass” (this word was very popular in Soviet times), upon which one might perform any number of experiments. As a phenomenon, Bolshevism can be not only “Red,” but also even “White.” We saw that in the 1990s, when we had to contend to a certain degree with "White Bolshevism“—when, after the fall of the Soviet government, reformers came to power and imposed a new kind of utopia, with liberal tones and colors, but which also completely ignored the experiences and aspirations of the “masses.”

But returning to the question you posed, about the main negative aspects of Soviet state socialism for the economy, I would like to note, besides some very severe demographic problems (in which mass repressions and irrational social experiments, such as widespread and indiscriminate collectivization, played no small role), the following: The abolition of private property led to an imbalance in the economy, to the loss of important management skills, and to the destruction of the moral foundations underlying economic relations. Therefore, the return to a diversified economy at the end of the 20th and early 21st centuries has caused much pain and confusion for us.

Members of the political Left like to point to the economic successes of countries that have preserved elements of the Communist political system (first and foremost, the People’s Republic of China). But they forget that the preservation of these regimes and all their successes were achieved because they had abandoned at some point some of the most odious elements of the Communist system: they ended their attacks on religion, abandoned the repressive model of rule and permitted diversity in their economies, not when they were crumbling and in decline, but at a moment when they were strong in both resources and political power.

The Soviet regime missed this opportunity. And under its ruins many useful aspects of state socialism died with it.

—As for the lessons of the October Revolution for the outside world, how did state socialism influence the economy and society of other countries?

—Probably, for many countries the sad consequences of the Revolution in Russia served as a lesson that it is impossible to bring the situation in a country to such a state that future economic development is no longer possible. Like in the period of Feudalism, when an astute and sensible landowner, seeing the uprising of serfs and the burning of the manor house on the neighbouring estate, drew the conclusion that he needed to take more into account the needs of his own serfs, so too in modern times, on the level of the modern nation-state, the ruling circles of many countries found it necessary to search for solutions to their social and economic ills that would help them avoid the violence and destruction brought by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Those who chose to oppose Communist totalitarianism with a different kind of totalitarianism of their own, lost in the end, and submitted their own countries and the entire world to colossal suffering. But many countries—both with liberal democratic regimes and with authoritarian regimes—managed to find a middle ground. Be that as it may, the social accomplishments of the USSR, or, in some cases, the myth of these accomplishments as expressed in its ideological slogans, served as a kind of aspirational guide for raising the social responsibility of the government and of private capital, for determining and articulating the needs and expectations of the common working man.

Russia was the first country to set out on the path of the Communist experiment. Russia took upon itself all the pain and agony that beset all pioneers, who blindly and boldly tried to create something new by trial and error. At the end of the day, we became convinced that this experiment was a failure and we rejected it, turning instead back to our own sources, to our own traditional path of development, and to the study of the experiences of those countries that had avoided the excesses of Bolshevism. But in the process of experimentation, we all nonetheless opened up for ourselves many new and useful things. One hopes that many have learned from us, as we have learned from ourselves.

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