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Alexander Rahr: "Nobody laughed at the Soviet Union"
Photo: Alexander Rahr
Alexander Rahr, a renowned German political expert, historian and publicist, shared his opinion on the impact that the October Revolution of 1917 had on the subsequent history of Russia, the Russian people and the Russian diaspora.
Would Hitler have attacked Russia if it had not been for the USSR? Would bourgeois Russia become a highly developed state? What did the October Revolution bring and what did it take away? How did Russian emigrants live away from their homeland? Alexander Rahr answered many sensitive questions in a conversation with Elena Aizenberg.
– We’ve got the opportunity to talk today, on November 7th. For people who lived in the Soviet Union, this date brings a lot of memories and triggers certain associations, such as days off, the Red Square parade, flags, posters, flowers, festive parades with lots of noise and fun, there were portraits of the party and government leaders everywhere, there was a feast in every household...
Currently, on the day of the October Revolution, some people abuse the Soviet regime and communists, others commemorate those events wistfully. There are also those who do not recall anything; it has been long since this day was the holiday. But what about the families of the first-wave Russian émigrés, do they remember this date somehow here, in Germany?
Ц The old émigré community includes descendants of those who fought on the side of the White movement during the Civil War, and those who ended up here in the West after the Second World War as refugees or having been abducted, those who? You might say, emigrated to the West. Their view of this day and this fact of history in general as extremely negative.
I grew up in the old Russian émigré community and used to hear about it since early age. And when I began to study history, I was rather surprised and very interested in the wording that representatives of the White Guards and the old émigré community used at all meetings and in their articles. They said that the October Revolution had been the biggest disaster in Russian history and it was the date when Russian history ceased to be the history, that is, the period from the October Revolution to actually the 1990s was considered as kind of absolutely falsified, artificial and illegitimate period of Russian history
I must say that as a historian I do not agree with them, because it was the course of RussiaТs development in the 20th century, and whether we want it or not, we need to look at the facts, at reality. But I know that hundreds of people lived with this conviction, and I think there are those who still do. And there are hardly any representatives of the old émigré community alive today; there are their grandchildren, and many of them, perhaps, have no relation to today's Russia.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the issue of the October Revolution and its legacy still disunite many Russians, both those who live in the country and those who live abroad. Some people take a grave view of it; and others believe it was a part of Russian history, just as the mausoleum is. History needs to be recognized the way it was, with all its losses and gains, and it is impossible to be deleted from Russian identity consciousness.
Ц Do you have an idea of what would have been in Russia today if the revolution had not taken place back then? Would Russia be a modern, highly developed state?
Ц I think that if the October Revolution had not taken place, and only the February Revolution had (and it should have taken place, because monarchism as a social system did not exist anywhere in Europe, while there was an absolute monarchy in Russia), of course, there would have been painful reforms, and Russia would follow the path followed by the main European countries.
The parliamentary system and parties would have been established without violence and civil war. Of course, the country would not have been able to avoid the cataclysms that Germany, France, and almost whole Europe faced, but after the February Revolution Russia would have found strength within. And there would have been a strong bourgeoisie stratum, a middle class, as they say, that would built the same economic and political system as in other leading European countries. I think it would have been so.
Ц And what would happen to the working class, the peasant population? In the Soviet times they began to play such a special role in the country, got the opportunities for education and were not as underprivileged as in the Czarist-era?
Ц Russia was largely an agrarian country. About 70 percent of the population lived in villages. I think that Russia could not continue to follow its old course, and some democratic reforms brought about by the February Revolution would have led to very significant success and economic progress.
But from a historical perspective, we have to admit that illiteracy was really eradicated under the Soviet rule. Millions of people who had lived in Czarist Russia without education, without a chance to make any career got such opportunities. And this is perceived in today's Russia as a great achievement of the Soviet regime. There is not denying to that as well.
That is why I want to emphasize in our conversation that the Soviet government also did a lot of what was needed in that situation. There was a negative side that should be talked about with indignation Ц I refer to terrible violence, millions of victims sacrificed for the idea of communist bright future, collectivization that was carried out not only in Ukraine, but also in most areas of Russia and other republics, the enslavement of entire intelligentsia classes, Stalin's purges that benefited only Stalin and simply weakened the state.
History has not gone that far into the past, but today it is only a mean for both the West and Russia to identify their systems. Therefore, fierce polemics have been carried on, and the viewpoints on what happened in Russia and could have happened in Russia are very different.
But, I still want to emphasize this: let us be fair-minded, today the French Revolution of 1789 is generally recognized as the progressive one despite the cruelty and violence of that time. It changed the concept of man and the political system of the whole world.
Had it not been for the French Revolution, there would be no American Constitution, American democracy, European democracy. It is believed today, in the 21st century, that the French Revolution brought humanity more benefits than disadvantages. But no one will talk like that about the October Revolution. Most people will forget it, delete it from history, it is not that meaningful for other countries. November 7 is not much celebrated in Russia as well. It is still remembered mainly by the elder generation only.
Ц Here is the question: what would happen to the Jewish population of Russia then? Under Czarism it was deprived of so many opportunities, there was a boundary of a settled area and Jews from the townships (which most of us came from, I mean the Jewish emigration). What would happen to them, as the Soviet regime provided the Jewish population with opportunities for great development and participation in all spheres of life?
Ц I would say it was not only about Jews, but also about other minorities that lived in the Czarist Empire. They were suppressed. The socialist revolution made it possible for them to rise to the fore and pursue such careers in the Soviet Union that they could have never done before.
IТd like to emphasize that it was not only about Jews, but also about other nationalities, including those from the Islamic world. They were among those who benefited from the October Revolution. The old stratum that had ruled Russia in the Czarist-era lost, there were a lot of those who lost. But there were those who won, and this is also historical objectivity.
I will repeat myself Ц there were many reasons why the Czarist Russia could not continue to exist. And some kind of a Western-type revolution, a bourgeois revolution, as it was then contemptuously called, would have led to great prosperity and would not have plunged Russia into such a disaster as Stalinism.
There would be no Stalinism, there would be no GULAG, there would be no radical purges and terror. And these results were evident. You cannot erase them from history.
Russia doesnТt want its history to be criticized now, and doesnТt allow, say, Western politicians, historians, and public figures to blame Russia for all the sins of the 20th century, which, from my point of view, is happening. I think that this is also absolutely unfair, dishonest and incorrect.
Ц If the Soviet Union had not been formed, would Hitler have attacked Russia? What do you think about it?
Ц This is a very interesting question that can be reflected on even today. Would Russia have endured? Could it have withstood this attack from very powerful Germany, which conquered the whole Europe in a few months? Whether it could or could not, the question remains open.
The one may take heed of the following argument of Russian politicians and historians: the Soviet Union was the only country in Europe that managed to mobilize and organize the defense on huge scale, then to attack fascism and actually defeat it in Berlin.
Could it have been done by different Russia? I donТt know, and we will never get the answer. It is impossible to have 100% clarity of whether Hitler initiated a war with Russia because he wanted to eradicate the Slavic race and the Slavic Untermenschen, or because he wanted to destroy Bolshevism and become the ruler of Europe.
Probably, he had both reasons. And he used the propaganda campaign against Bolshevism in order to incite other nations against communist Russia, but at the same time he pursued the goal to create "Lebensraum" - a living space for Germans.
But I think that if it had been Russia after the February Revolution, some kind of bourgeois democracy would have been formed there by the 1930s - 1940s. Then, I guess a stronger alliance between that Russia, France and England would have emerged... And Russia would not have been in such isolation as it actually was under Bolshevism. And maybe Hitler would not have dared to attack under those circumstances, or maybe he would... There are a lot questions.
Ц Back in the time of the Soviet Union you worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. What did people think about the Union then? Was it hated or ridiculed?
Ц Nobody laughed at the Soviet Union; everyone understood that this was reality. But people had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.
99 percent of them had absolutely negative perception of life there. It seems to me that the Iron Curtain was the reason of the same situation in the East Ц people there had the same negative views of the West and especially of the Americans.
I am very sorry that after 1991 we failed in our attempts to somehow level all these positions and find a common denominator. This is not possible now. It is sad.
I remember our thoughts back then, I remember the old émigré community. In the 1980s I began to focus on politics. I attended meetings, listened to representatives of the old émigré community. They were worn out; they had already lost their vigor.
Yes, we had scout camps where they cursed Bolshevism on kind of ceremonial days. In church they anathematized the Bolshevik leaders. But I was not simply an “emigrant baby”, I studied history, I understood that the Soviet Union under Brezhnev was no longer about Stalinism, that there was an attempt to reform the system, an attempt to establish peace in Europe…Things were not that negative there.
My grandfather, who passed away at the age of 94, was one of the leaders of the White movement in Europe throughout the entire Cold War. I had an interview with him (I still have it and it is my deep regret that very few people in Russia are interested in it) and he confessed to me that despite being monarchists they had actually understood that Czarist Russia would not have that future.
They were all disunited. They lost the Russian people. And they had to admit that.
There were a lot of supporters of the Vlasov Army in the West, I also remember that. But they rather kept silent - some out of shame, some out of complete disappointment, others out of fear.
But this was also some kind of illusion: to think that it was possible to cooperate with Hitler and liberate Russia in the Second World War. From today's point of view, this seems to be some kind of nonsense, but back then there were those who believed it. This is also a part of the émigré history and it should not be vilified for that.
People simply wanted Russia to be liberated from Bolshevism, from communism. They did demonize the communist system, although it shouldnТt have been demonized anymore back then - this is my opinion today.
People in the West had wrong perception of Khrushchev. He performed very courageous de-Stalinization of the system. It was an essential move, though we thought it to be the cosmetic and uninteresting one. We did not notice such moments.
I agree, of course, with the point that the October Revolution was a kind of great experiment on humanity, just like the French Revolution, or, perhaps, like Luther's Reformation, which had changed the entire northern part of Europe.
For me personally, the most negative aspect was the destruction of Christianity, Orthodoxy, murders of priests, overthrowing of the entire church structure, downfall of church itself and faith in the society. I think it was one of the main reasons why the Russian émigré community castigated the October Revolution, after all, its members were religious, worshipped, attended church, and preserved that old Christian Russia for themselves.
I think that this is also the reason why today the October Revolution is viewed as more negative rather than positive event in the world history.
Ц You were a Sovietologist. Where did you get unbiased information from? Did you have your own agents, your own journalists? Where did you find the unbiased facts about life in the Soviet Union rather than the jingoistic information that was available on the radio and Soviet newspapers?
Ц Most people did not know what was happening in the cultural life of Russia, what the Soviet people were interested in. And only occasionally a knot of foreigners, students or participants of some exchange programs, could get there, still under the supervision of the KGB.
Of course, there were no tourists from the Soviet Union in the West. There was the Iron Curtain and it was strong. We knew nothing about each other. Therefore, I must say I knew little, but was interested.
Having started working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I got certain access to information. There was radio interception, testimonies of defectors that I could read; there were some regional Soviet, Russian newspapers unavailable for ordinary people. That is, as a historian, an analyst, I had more information, and it had to be overthought and understood.
But still... It was important to go there to understand the reality. However, these opportunities simply did not exist. Nevertheless, from my critical point of view, I still think that in today's Russia they are absolutely not interested in this fragment of life - Russian émigré community that lived away from their homeland throughout the 20th century.
There were a lot of wrong and naive things, of course, but still the émigré community had its function, and I am very sorry that no one in modern Russia took it seriously and thanked those people. ThereТve been other things to worry about...
They also had their literature and published everything from Solzhenitsyn to various dissidents. Such great people as Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, who could not be published in their homeland, got that opportunity in the West.
There was samizdat (underground press and self-published books) that explained the West what was actually happening in the Soviet Union and, through feedback, provided the Soviet population with information about what was happening in their country. The émigré community had its own mission in this area.