It was more than a tinge of irony in Russia yesterday on the centenary of the Great October Revolution staged by the Bolsheviks. In the old style calendar, on October 7, 1917 the revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin toppled the Romanov dynasty to yield place for proletarian power. In the Gregorian calendar the date now comes up as November 7.
Conspicuously, the Russian State, which is the inheritor of both the positive and negative legacies of the revolution, shunned the celebration of the centenary despite its huge consequences for the 20th Century world history. Only members of the Russian Communist Party, the second largest party in Duma (the parliament) put up some low-key activities including an elite dinner! Many Russians were reportedly indifferent to the centenary as they pondered the ambiguity of that period of their national history. It was put like this in one report: “In a recent opinion poll, carried out by the Russian Academy of Sciences, almost one-third of respondents were unable to say what they thought about the revolution.” In fact, western media organisations have shown more interest in reporting the centenary than the Russian media. Meanwhile, “victims-of-communism” websites are springing up and they are sharply critical of the Bolshevik revolution.
The national attitude to the occasion is, of course, shaped by the body language of the strong man of Russian politics today, President Vladimir Putin. Putin, a product of the state secret police called the KGB, one of the institutions created in revolutionary Russia, has maintained an ambivalent position on 1917. He would rather find his heroic models in the Tsars who oppressed the people in the pre-1917 Russia and not Lenin (his namesake) or Leon Trotsky. Although Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a “geo-political catastrophe,” yet he has also maintained that “we (can neither) erase the terrifying past from our history… nor is there anything we can do to justify it; certainly not in the name of so-called higher national purpose.” Putin was referring to the millions of lives lost in the revolutionary process; the condition of victims in the Gulag, forced collectivisation, the purges and repression under the leadership of Joseph Stalin etc. The enormous human costs of the revolution and its monumental errors have been richly documented from both the Right and the Left perspectives. From the Left, the Trotskyites in particular have been brutally critical of what happened especially after Lenin. According to the Russian opposition, Putin would dare not celebrate the Bolshevik revolution because the repressive atmosphere in Russia under his rule would also call for a revolution today!
Yet, the history of the Russian revolution is not only a record of sordid acts of the Stalinist distortion of the revolutionary process, as the alleged victors of the Cold War would like the world to believe. It was not all a reign of terror; it was also about remarkable achievements and human progress. The debate on the costs would certainly continue. Within the 70 years that the Soviet Union existed, the backward agrarian society of the 19th Century became a technological, industrial and military power. Lenin introduced the New Economic policy in 1926. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union put the first man in space; that was the leap made by Yuri Gagarin.
Regardless of how the Russians relate to their national history, there are some consequences of the revolution that the rest of the world should ponder. Some of these impacts were on Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped world.
First, perhaps the history of World War II would be different without the significant role of the Soviet Union. Now, for the Cold war revisionists, it would be an inconvenient truth to state that Soviet Union under the leadership of the dictator, Joseph Stalin, suffered more human and material costs than any other nation to defeat fascism. The country called the of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) lost over 26 million people. World War II left the Soviet Union, especially its western regions in virtual ruins and desolation. About 1, 700 towns and 70,000 villages were wiped out of the map. In addition, 32, 000 factories and 65, 000 kilometres railway tracks were left in catastrophic state of ruin after the war. It made sense that the West saw an ally in the Soviet Union during in the World War II even though the Cold War began soon after the war. It took barely two decades after the Bolshevik revolution for the Soviet Union (with Russia as the main Republic) to emerge a world power in the fight against fascist aggression. Historians would remember the war as one fight to advance human freedom.
Secondly, one of the greatest issues of democracy in the 20th Century was the freedom of the people facing colonial plunder and subjugation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The right to national independence and self-government remains an important human right. When the voices of today’s global teachers of democracy and human rights were lost, the Soviet Union was stoutly in support of forces of national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles. The Soviet Union provided arms and training for those who elected to go to the bush to confront the colonial oppressors and exploiters. The country provided moral and material support for those fighting for freedom in the true sense of the term. Students from the underdeveloped world received free and quality education in the Soviet Union. Colonial subjugation of other peoples should not simply be rationalised as part of the game of international relations of the Cold War period. It is inhuman do so. The struggle for decolonisation was eminently a struggle for a fundamental human right. Ironically, the violators of that right are the ones now invading other countries to impose human rights and democracy. Sometimes they tell barefaced lies to justify the criminality. Centuries after the French revolution with the proclamation of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” France could not see the immorality and inhumanity of holding other peoples as colonial subjects across the globe. Similarly, Britain, the home of the “mother of all parliaments,” still maintained his colonial powers over a quarter of the world about a century ago. On the contrary, employing its global strategic muscle, the Soviet Union maintained an opposite position by supporting the national freedom of other peoples.
Thirdly, the alternative posed by the socialist experiment in the USSR and other countries of the defunct eastern bloc was a strategic counterpoise to the laissez -faire capitalism that the extreme right could have preferred in the west. The rise of social democracy in the West and the advancement of the welfare state in capitalist countries were partly and indirectly driven by the fear of the socialist revolution. The stage was set by the emergence of the USSR for an ideological contest on what path human progress should take in the last century.
Another irony is that Russia is shy of celebrating the revolution at a time the liberal order is even being assailed from the extreme Right. Trumpism has emerged as a bastardisation of liberal democracy. The triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago has since been moderated due the unpredictable turns of events. Yes, the socialist experiment collapsed; but global capitalism has been facing its own crisis with worsening inequality with many more left behind by globalisation in poverty.
Doubtless, the tree of the Bolshevik revolution bore fruits that have survived the withering of its leaves. Some of the fruits have tasted sour and, indeed, tragic. But the historical nourishment provided by the good fruits has survived the revolution as enduring legacies.
Instead of making 2017 a year of frank national conversations and coming to terms with historical legacies, Putin has elected to evade the pointed question posed by the mixed legacy of Bolshevism.
A long of view of history is required to do justice to the balance of evidence on the positive and negative consequences of the fruits borne by the revolutionary tree planted in Russia on November 7, 1917.
For socialism, it is certainly not yet the end of history!
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Legacy of Changing Mindset; Empowering a Generation
It is seven years since our Foundation was created, time to reflect on the speed in which we have institutionalised internally; begun to change narratives globally; and championed entrepreneurship in Africa.
Time also to remain humble, knowing the scale of the challenges our continent faces; the numbers we could help if resources were limitless; and knowing the resilience and endurance that our entrepreneurs show in their own journeys.
As a young entrepreneur, I saw the potential of private sector investment to transform livelihoods. As we expanded the United Bank for Africa to nineteen countries across our continent, I saw our positive impact, measured not just in the bottom line, but also in expanding access to finance, creating stable employment, breaking down trade barriers.
I committed myself to empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs. Since 2010, the Tony Elumelu Foundation has been dedicated to resolving Africa’s most pressing social issues – empowering entrepreneurs and enhancing the competitiveness of the private sector.
When we launched, we wanted to change the narrative on African development. We wanted to reframe the agenda, so that economic development would no longer be centred on foreign aid. We would show that Africa’s transformation could and should be driven by Africans.
Let us reflect on how our Foundation has grown and how our ambitions have risen to the challenges, are moving towards achieving scale and continent-wide impact.
Our early years explored the impact of supporting businesses at different stages of development, to identify where we could have the most impact. We forged meaningful partnerships and ran successful programmes.
Our focus now is the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme – our US$100M commitment to empowering 10,000 entrepreneurs across all 54 African countries over a 10-year period, through the provision of seed capital, training, mentoring, and networking opportunities. Our goal is to create over a million jobs and US$10billion of entrepreneurially driven wealth.
Just last month, the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum was the largest gathering of African entrepreneurs ever; unprecedented in size and scope. We hosted entrepreneurs from 54 African countries in Lagos, Nigeria and united ecosystem players, including investors, entrepreneurs, business leaders and policy makers. We signed strategic partnerships with UNDP and AFD to promote development activities that support entrepreneurship and to cover risk sharing to commercial banks in Africa for loans to entrepreneurs.
Our work is rooted in our core philosophy of Africapitalism, which states that the private sector’s role is crucial for Africa’s development – and that the private sector needs to create both social and economic wealth.
In just seven years, we have had direct impact on thousands of people, empowering individuals to create jobs, influencing policy and becoming the leading driver of entrepreneurship across Africa.
I am grateful to all of our colleagues, stakeholders and advocates who have been part of this journey for their immeasurable dedication to driving our mission. In addition, my heartfelt thanks go to my fellow Trustees – my wife, Dr Awele Elumelu and Alexander Trotter, and all members of our Advisory Board for their guidance and endorsement of our activities over the years.
We could not have come this far without you all.
• Elumelu, CON, is the Founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation