On this day in 1917 – at least if you follow the Julian calendar – the first incident took place in Petrograd (which had been, and is now, St Petersburg, and which for 70 or so years afterwards was Leningrad) that was to result in the Soviet Revolution. Just to make it as confusing as possible, it is either referred to as the October Revolution, or Red October, or else the November Revolution (because according to the Gregorian calendar it took place in November). But of course, whatever you call it and whichever calendar you use, it unleashed events which profoundly altered history. The system of Soviet Communism that followed it, and which at least for a while governed much of Eastern Europe, had a huge impact not just on those countries, but on western concepts such as the welfare state. But it also produced enormous hardships, including starvation and totalitarian dictatorship, and eventually it collapsed economically, some time around 1989, also around this time of year (if you take the fall of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment of collapse).
And so, in the early years of the new millennium, how should we now assess the Soviet revolution and the political system that followed it? I still find that very hard to say. One particular communist leader, Zhou Enlai of China, is famously said to have remarked when asked about the impact of the French Revolution that it was ‘too early to tell’. And in some respects that is true of 1917. It is difficult to see it objectively in the light of the many victims of Stalin’s brutal rule and in the light of the oppression that was inflicted on Eastern Europe. And yet, communism in government in the East led to significant social reforms in the West that have defined modern concepts of democracy. The East-West debates that defined political discourse during my youth sharpened ideological perspectives that allowed governments to pursue a much more distinct vision than is sometimes the case today.
I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union just before its demise, and on the one hand mostly found it to be bureaucratic and drab; but I also on occasion found it to be unexpectedly cultured and philosophical, in a way that we were not in the West.
I am sure I would have hated to live in the Soviet Union, and I wholly deplore the oppression and brutality that characterised some of its political actions. But I cannot quite bring myself to regret that the October Revolution happened. Not quite.