Viktor Sigolayev, The Fatal Wheel: Crossing the Same River Twice (Alfa Kniga, 2012)
No one understood how our contemporary, an officer in the reserves and a history teacher, ended up in his own past, back in the body of a seven-year-old boy, and back in the period of triumphant, developed socialism, when, as far as our hero could remember, there was a lot more joy and happiness.
That is how an adult imagines it, but it transpires all is not as perfect in the sunny land of Childhood as the memory would suggest. It transpires that here, too, meanness and greed exist. There are thieves, bandits, and scammers of all stripes, although you did not notice them earlier, when you were a child. But now you have to do something about it. Now you have to fight it, because evil knows no obstacles in time. Enemies—cruel and insidious, clever and merciless—have again emerged on the horizon. Besides, some of them seem incredibly familiar to our hero.
So, the seven-year-old hero, who has two university degrees, combat officer experience, and a memory singed by the hard post-perestroika years, launches his own tiny war, allying himself with none other than the USSR State Security Committee [KGB]. He unexpectedly finds new friends there, the kind of friends for whom you can risk your life.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Putin’s Russia can’t celebrate its revolutionary past. It has to smother it
November 3, 2017
November always brings a welcome holiday for Russians. The day off work is about some great historical event, but most use it to catch up with their families. On 7 November 2017, it will be exactly 100 years since Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, the one that people used to mark with anthems, weaponry and fireworks.
But this year’s official holiday commemorates not the revolution, but an uprising of 1612 against the Poles. National Unity Day was a tsarist invention that Vladimir Putin’s government relaunched in 2005. Marked on 4 November, its timing has been perfect. After three days on their sofas, will anyone really notice that there are no red flags?
The silence is like a dream in which the dreamer is being suffocated. Centenaries are special: everyone can count to 100. But so far Lenin and his comrades have not rated as much as a commemorative stamp. The man himself is still displayed – in a new suit – in the mausoleum on Red Square, but no one wants to talk about exactly what he did. The current Russian government makes ample use of history – no child is likely to forget the great patriotic war against fascism – but Lenin can’t be made to fit.
It is awkward enough, Moscow’s mandarins must think, that the Russian revolution was a people’s uprising against despotic rule, a fight against injustice and the gross excesses of the rich. With terrorism such a real threat, the Kremlin would be unwise to appear to condone violent revolt. Yet it can’t vilify a man whose corpse still lies in state, whose statue is a landmark in hundreds of towns. And what is it to make of Soviet power? If it condemns the Russian revolution, where does that leave Stalin and the people’s triumph?
So far the answer seems to be to keep things bland. Lenin, after all, is boringly familiar. If he will only stay that way, if young people decline to think, then even this annoying anniversary will pass. There are rumours that Russia’s new left may take to the streets this year to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, but most Russians under 50 regard the Soviet story as a dowdy relic, an embarrassment. The state wants it to stay that way, the province of those staunch old trouts who still sell apples outside metro stops. Its very language, “Soviet”, is an antique. It must be held back in the past, exiled along with dissidents, stretch nylon and bad teeth.
The Russian revolution was a moment when the veil of human culture tore. It was a season of euphoric hope, a terrifying experiment in utopia. It tested to destruction the 19th-century fantasy of progress. It was the work of tens of thousands of zealous enthusiasts.
Yet now their great-great-grandchildren are bored. This situation suits their government. A cloud of tedium hangs over any formal gathering that ventures to discuss the thing. Most choose the safest, dullest line. There is to be a round-table meeting held at [the] Smolny, for instance, the building from which Lenin launched the revolution, working around the clock. Scheduled for late November 2017, the theme will not be revolution but the centenary of Finnish independence.
I tried asking in the museums. The Russian state has preserved every relic of the revolutionary year, including Lenin’s pillow and his brother-in-law’s chess set. You can still run a finger around Stalin’s bath, the one that Lenin must have used before fleeing from Kerensky’s police. But nothing special has been planned, no big event, no cameras. The museum of Pravda, the Bolshevik party’s newspaper, is clearly short of funds. In Soviet times, schoolchildren visited in their thousands – it was part of their curriculum – but now the place relies on tourists.
To attract the schoolchildren back, the staff have been forced to adapt. “We call this the museum of tolerance,” my guide explained. “See? Everything in this room has come from somewhere in Europe. The typewriter there is German, the table is French.”
But mere avoidance doesn’t always work. A centenary of this importance is bound to be marked by someone; there has to be an official response. Ten months ago, the independent journalist Mikhail Zygar launched a website to track the events of 1917 as they unfolded, day by day. Belatedly, but with a considerably larger budget, the state-sponsored Russia Today responded with a handsome Twitter feed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs and featuring imaginary tweets from some of the key figures of 1917. Both are useful resources, though neither has engaged with what the revolution means. That question haunts Red Square like Lenin’s ghost.
The Kremlin is saving itself for another anniversary next year. In July 1918 the Romanov family was shot. The solemn lessons of that crime are something everyone will understand. A strong state is what people need, the message goes, and Russia’s is a special one. Unlike the regimes of the west, it is not only patriotic but orthodox. That is why Nicholas II is now a saint and why his killing by the Bolsheviks was a martyrdom. Through him, right-thinking Russian people can remember every other martyr of the revolution that is now, thank heavens, safely past.
Victims unite a nation, everyone can grieve. In honour of the sacred dead (the millions, unspecified), a new cathedral has appeared in Moscow: vast, imposing, unavoidable. Help with the funds came from Putin’s close friend and confessor Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov.
In Russia now it is an idealised form of nationalism, not the people’s rule or social justice, that is feted and taught in schools. Russia is the new Byzantium, no longer proud to fly the red flag for the world.
There is one more anniversary that will not pass unmarked. The Cheka, Lenin’s feared secret police force, was founded on 18 December 1917. Its successors have included Stalin’s NKVD and the KGB of spy thrillers, but it will be the current lot, the FSB, who celebrate next month with the commemorative medals and champagne. As a lieutenant colonel in the service and its former boss, Putin could well be a star guest.
The fact that many of the revolution’s martyrs died at secret police hands is a mere detail. Lenin had no problem ordering the Cheka to carry out the wholesale execution of priests and the so-called bourgeoisie. By 1918 there were bodies piled up in the streets. But such truths are easily ignored. Shevkunov’s new cathedral to the revolution’s martyrs is itself a stone’s throw from the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square.
That just leaves Lenin and his ghost. In life a restless politician, dangerous and quick, he lies on Red Square like a stuffed fox: moth-eaten and obviously dead. As the heart of Moscow has been reinvented as an orthodox and ultra-Russian space, his mausoleum appears more and more anomalous. But though there is no wish to celebrate the man, a preserved corpse remains a tricky object to throw out. As a former Soviet citizen remarked to me: “We have certainly learned one thing from our history, haven’t we? You must be careful who you pickle.”
Catherine Merridale is a historian. Her latest book, Lenin on the Train, is published by Penguin.