To understand “Putinism” and to describe Russia today, one must define the historical context of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, whose centenary is marked at the end of this month.

The story of February to October 1917 is the story of how Russia destroyed its chance to become democratic. It tells how a brief hope that a more liberal society might have emerged from Tsarist Russia, one that could have resisted communism and created a different world, was missed. Millions of lives destroyed by Lenin and, later, Stalinist regimes, might have been saved. It was by no means inevitable that the Russian Revolution of 1917 would end up in the Bolshevik dictatorship.

During the first half of September 1917, the possibility was emerging that all the major socialist parties in Russia, of which there were seven, might come together to form a government based exclusively on the soviets (when urban workers organised themselves into councils: in Russian soviet) and the other ‘democratic’ organisations.

But at the democratic conference that month, the soviet leaders were found wanting. The skills of parliamentary decision-making proved beyond them. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, were the better organised, “the undisputed masters of factional politics”. This was a unique historical moment, a fleeting chance for the revolution to follow a different course. Russia might have become a socialist democracy rather than a communist dictatorship.

On October 10, only 12 of 21 members were present at a secret meeting of the Bolshevik central committee. Lenin and nine others, a minority of the committee, decided to launch an unarmed uprising. Two voted against. This was the Leninist coup, which led to the insurrection in Petrograd on October 25.

For 70 years, until Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, the anniversary of the Great October Revolution was the Soviet calendar’s most important holiday. A visit to Lenin’s embalmed corpse in its creepy mausoleum in Red Square was a rite of passage for every patriotic Russian and for foreign visitors.

Communism, despite its mistakes, signified altruism, modernity and internationalism. In fact, the “evil empire” (as President Ronald Reagan famously referred to it) was built on lies, fear and mass murder. Its system was an utter failure which collapsed under the weight of its own internal divisions and economic woes in 1991. Communist Party rule was toppled. The Soviet Union broke up.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, Russia looked set to become a free-market democracy. The revolution of 1991 – a short-lived democratic makeover - overturned the Soviet Union’s political, economic and social order, and put 15 countries on the map where there had previously been only one.

Today, the two main pillars of the Soviet state – propaganda and the threat of repression – have been restored. The KGB which was humiliated and broken up in the aftermath of the coup against Gorbachev, has been rebuilt as the main vehicle for political and economic power.

Putin has resorted to coercion and selective violence, both at home and abroad

Reactionary restoration at home has led to aggression abroad. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, two of the most democratic of the former Soviet republics.

It has intervened in Syria and annexed the Crimea. It has attempted to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions, backed right-wing parties in Europe and tried to meddle in the American presidential elections.

After the defeat of the 1991 coup, Russia was widely expected to become a Westernised, democratic, free-market country. When he came to power in 2000, President Putin was expected to consolidate the country. Instead, he has reinstated an archaic model of the former Soviet state. It was naïve to expect that after 74 years of Soviet rule, and several centuries of autocratic paternalism before that, Russia would emerge as a functioning Western-style democracy.

The remains of the Soviet Union, and even the pre-Soviet system, its institutions, economic structures and social practices which lay dormant during the first post-Soviet decade, have been revived and strengthened by Putin.

Putin’s rule has become increasingly personal. The FSB, the security service successor organisation to the KGB, has emerged as the main mechanism for exercising power, often at the expense of all other security services, including the police.

On coming to power, Putin was haunted by fears of disintegration and saw the 1990s as a period not of freedom and stabilisation but of chaos. In trying to preserve the nucleus of an old empire, he eliminated all alternative power centres.

Like many of his predecessors, including Stalin, Putin believes that a country of Russia’s size and ethnic complexity can be kept together only by central economic resources and political power, and that the security services are the best tool for achieving this.

Putinism today is spun from three clashing strands coloured red, white and brown. It celebrates the ‘red’ of the Soviet Union’s achievements (mass literacy, industrialisation and urbanisation), and, most especially and justifiably, the wartime sacrifice and triumph over Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

On some fronts the clocks were put back. It reveres the Tsarist empire (“white”), with the Russian Orthodox Church canonising the murdered Romanovs. The Orthodox Church has moved into the centre of public life.

But Russia runs essentially on fascist (“brown”) lines with merged political and business power, tightly controlled media, a personality cult built around Putin and an intrusive and powerful security service.

These three traditions share a common contempt for liberalism and a suspicion of the outside world that shades into xenophobia. But the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 will put the differences under strain. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not against the Tsar. It was against Russia’s best chance in the last 100 years of becoming a free, law-based and governed, prosperous capitalist democracy.

It is the same prospect that Putin is so keen to crush now. “Putinism,” writes Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre, Russia’s only independent pollster, “is a modified version of a repressive and centralised state system which imitates the Soviet style of a totalitarian regime.”

Although Putin has resorted to coercion and selective violence, both at home and abroad, he is neither willing nor able to reproduce the economic foundations of Stalin’s regime, or impose a reign of terror. His system uses more subtle methods of control and manipulation.

The Russian empire had been overdue for transformation all the way back to 1914. But the Tsar’s insistence on ruling like a 17th century absolute monarch made it impossible. In the 1930s Stalin managed to hold the empire together by extreme violence and repression.

After the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, the new regime gave federalism a chance for a decade. But since Putin has been in charge, he has been trying to bind Russia with the same anachronistic methods that had pushed his country into decline and political upheaval at earlier points in its history.

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