One does not have to be a defender of the Russian Revolution to find the silence in Russia at the centenary of its 1917 revolution deeply troubling. History was made four times in the twentieth century: first in 1914, then in 1917, then in 1932, and finally in 1989. In 1914, Europeans went to war and killed one another in large numbers. In 1917 (and, by extension, 1918) Europeans punished themselves and future generations to spite their lack of courage. In 1932 the bill came due and they murdered one another in even larger numbers. Finally, in 1989, the embraced mass amnesia in what Francis Fukuyama has rightly termed the “end of history.”
Of course, by “end of history” Mr Fukuyama meant the end of fundamental contradiction in history, which he traced to the unfulfilled desire for freedom by the oppressed. With the victory of capitalism on the one hand and democracy on the other, this unfulfilled longing was cast into the dustbin of history.
We mean something else. In 1989, human beings forgot what they knew in 1945, which was that the years 1914, 1917, and 1932 made history because human beings had not taken the time to learn history’s lessons. History, it has been said, is a cruel teacher. It does not grade on a curve. No one gets an easy pass. Forgetting history does not make it disappear.
So, what might Russians learn from 1917? Five lessons come to mind:
- When oligarchic elites are permitted to govern a political community, they will incur the wrath of those harmed by their open disregard for their welfare;
- When those harmed rebel against oligarchic elites, they will not do so in the interests of freedom or justice;
- It is likely that those who seize power on the other side of revolutions — 1917 or 1989 — will perpetuate the conditions that led to those revolutions in the first place;
- The only antidote to oligarchic rule is to distribute the conditions the make for freedom — health, education, wealth, leisure, and security — as broadly as possible;
- Forgetting 1-4 will have catastrophic effects.
Russians are not alone in their collective amnesia. God help us all.